808 State talk marching bands, Moogs and making music to please themselves

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808 State (Source: artist’s Facebook)

On the back of their first LP in 17 years, Getintothis’ Max Richardson chats to legendary Manchester electro outfit 808 State ahead of their UK tour.

After a gap of seventeen years since their last studio LP, legendary Manchester group 808 State have made a triumphant return with their sensational new album Transmission Suite.

Transmission Suite sees the group on fine form, with modern, contemporary sonics fused with elements of their traditional sound from earlier releases to create something truly unique.

As 808 State prepare to head out on a UK tour early this year in support of Transmission Suite, Andrew Barker and Graham Massey took the time to speak to Getintothis about their new album, their tour of the UK, and music they’re into at the moment.

With such a broad catalogue of works spanning several decades, 808 State have remained a formidable force in the Manchester and North West scenes for years, having had the privilege of remixing for a formidable cast of artists as diverse as The Stone Roses, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and David Bowie.

While 808 State have been fairly quiet in regards to releases for the past seventeen years, the same can’t be said for their live performances – which have only been getting stronger.

The recent announcement of a date at Kendal Calling alongside sets last year at Bluedot and The Warehouse Project have proved that 808 State are truly a live force to be reckoned with – and don’t appear to be planning on slowing down any time soon.

Getintothis: So you’ve just released a new album, Transmission Suite. It’s your first album in 17 years, so I guess a big question that a lot of people will ask is why now?

Graham Massey: Well, as a musician I’ve never stopped making music, but the position of making albums and projects has changed over the years. We were very funded when we were doing most of the 808 State albums, and with the old models of record companies it was very structured”.

“We went through lots of changes during those years where life became a lot more unstructured, unfunded and self-funded. You know, you quite often hold off making records simply because it’s going to take your money to make these records, and that requires sort of surviving in the world – I don’t think people actually think about how musicians survive these days.”

“To a certain extent it’s been 17 years kind of waiting for things to be put in place – like ‘can we get a deal’, that kind of thing. People like me are getting long in the tooth really – I don’t really care what other people think of my music, I care what I think about it! And I kind of belligerently don’t want to play that game of trying to please others.”

Andrew BarkerWe didn’t actually realise it was 17 years until we started putting it out to press, and somebody told us. We always carried on doing live stuff, I mean we’ve not done studio but we’ve been out every year doing gigs and festivals around the world. It just doesn’t feel like that much time at all, we had no idea.”

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Getintothis: Did the album feel different to produce than any of your others after such a long gap between releases?

Andrew Barker: “Yeah, well it was slightly easier as there’s only two members now so there’s obviously less fighting, the answer was either yes or no. It also changed a lot simply because technology’s changed, you don’t need massive big studios anymore.”

Getintothis: You basically just need a laptop these days.

Andrew Barker: Yeah, you just do a lot inside the laptop, which makes it slightly easier to work. That said, I think it’s slightly easier to work but to produce something you actually think is good is different, it’s a different attitude.”

Graham Massey: “It just sort of hit a point where I was doing music projects for Manchester International Festival, particularly a project with the artist Jeremy Deller, who’s done some amazing works of public art in the past ten years. Anyway, he got involved in this project where I was the musical director – that actually gives you a lot of confidence.”

“All of a sudden you’re put in a position of being able to get a studio, and having to pull a lot of people together and you get your confidence up.

“That had a positive effect by getting a place to work. That was the key difference really, just having that studio in the centre of Manchester which was great for people dropping in.”

“Music is very social, you know. I think there’s a dilemma with music now, music should be a social activity with people gathered together and it maybe takes a bit of social structuring to make music.” 

“That’s been going on in my house for years but it’s not ideal – but all of a sudden we had a social space where music could start forming.”

“There were other studios in this complex, which was the old Granada TV studios actually.”

Andrew Barker: [Granada] sort of moved out and we moved in. Spooky actually, to be honest.”

Getintothis: I can completely imagine, it’s not exactly your typical kind of recording studio space.

Andrew Barker: “No, far from it!”

Graham Massey: It almost became like a music village, where people were popping in, and collaborations started happening. We ended up doing some really mad projects like a Manchester parade where we put a full synthesiser rig on the back of a vehicle with a 5K PA system and a marching band.”

Getintothis: That’s not exactly something you do every day is it!

Graham Massey: “Well no, but it almost was something that you could expect to happen in that building, with all these projects and collaborations floating about.”

“Me and Andrew were able to have a regular routine of putting music together, that’s what the difference is. I sometimes think that artists aren’t the greatest people at supporting themselves – that record company structure worked for us for many years and we came to rely on it, and I think that we were almost in recovery from it for maybe about ten years.”

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Getintothis: I’m loving the new album, it’s sounding fantastic. It’s a really cool blend of the old and the new, kind of retro sounding while also being really current and fresh, with sounds like the 808 making a comeback while being mingled with more modern techniques. Was this intentional or just a natural product of the recording process?

Graham Massey: “I think it is intentional in that there was almost a return to a traditional sound, which is to do with the equipment that manufacturers are making. These pieces of equipment are far more than they used to be, people might go ‘oh it’s not as good as the old 808‘ – I’m not one of those people that agrees with that argument, I think that these new machines do the job far better than the originals in some ways.”

Andrew Barker: “When we were recording, we had to say stop because we had four hours of music, and we had to thin it down to an album. So we just stopped recording in the studio and started compiling it, the material on the album stood out the most because it’s taking it back to basics but using more modern techniques.”

“We did loads of tracks with guitars and that which are still sat there, so there’s a possibility of more stuff coming out in a different direction. There’s another like three hours of music sat there, no doubt we’ll readdress it and see what we can do with it.”

Andrew Barker: “We’re not gear snobs, nowadays people listen to music on their phones so you can’t tell the difference half the time anyway, with that kind of a speaker. You see it all the time, with the kids walking round with their phone listening to music, you just wonder what the point of building a massive studio is if you’re listening to it like that?”

Getintothis: Do you think versatility is important in musical gear for you?

Graham Massey:“Yeah, absolutely, and the way that as a musician you respond to a piece of technology – I find these new pieces of equipment far more musical than their older counterparts.”

“We were invited into the conversation of designing of some of this equipment. When Roland first started doing the Aira series there were a couple of occasions when I was doing some acid jam stuff to do with that movie 808, remember that?”

“We got in conversations with Roland, and were invited down to Roland HQ in London and got access to early versions of that equipment. We were feeding back ideas to them about what not to leave out from the old machines, and what else to add.”

Andrew Barker: “So Roland have been doing all the boutique stuff, and we’ve also been working alongside Behringer as well, we’ve got a lot of their new stuff which we’ve put on the album.”

“We’ve been helping them along with the design of the RD-8, so when Behringer put new stuff out we usually get a go on it before it sees the light of day.”

Getintothis: Do you find that specific types of gear inspire you to play a certain way? Say if you’ve got a really good drive circuit on a synth, are you more likely to make certain sounds with that synth over others?

Andrew Barker: Yeah, I mean we use Moog for bass-ey stuff. Moog’s all over the album, we did a patch for the Sub 37. Again, we were involved with the design of it, we worked closely with Moog along with other people. It’s a great synth, we use it quite a lot for bass and also for other tracks, I mean nothing comes near it when you’ve got a Moog.”

“For squelchy stuff we use the 303 or the TB03. There’s quite a lot of that on this album, which is again a nod to what we’ve done in the past. We just wanted to give it a nod as if to say ‘remember this lot?'”

Graham Massey: “I think all this new equipment connects up in a different way, and that opened a lot of old technology for us. Fifty year old technology was suddenly opened back up by the whole connectivity of this new gear, and the whole modular movement.”

Getintothis: Which is of course making a huge comeback in recent years with artists like Ian Boddy – it’s almost getting a bit of a second wind.

Graham Massey: “It is, and it almost opens up this ‘systems music’, which is where we first started. When we started with the album NewBuild in 1988 it was not based around PCs, it was a system that had its own connectivity, essentially a system of music that you could lay on the table and interact with. To a certain extent this album is about this ‘systems music’, where a lot of these tracks were simply laid out on a table with connected boxes.”

Getintothis: So less based around the DAW [digital audio workstation], and more around the actual hardware synth side of things?

Graham Massey: “In its origin, yeah. I’m not necessarily saying that we don’t use the DAW, but the starting points for these tracks were almost like an improvised, step-sequenced bedrock to the tracks. We’d kind of gotten out of the habit of that, and I think that’s the big difference between this record and the last record.”

Getintothis: So, talking about gear, with so much cheap music tech available these days, like Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operators or the Korg Volca series, do you think it’s easier for people to make electronic music than when you started?

Graham Massey: “Yeah, yeah it’s definitely a lot more accessible. It’s certainly easier to walk through that door and start to be in the world of electronic music.”

“It kind of was for us, the opening for us was the fact that one kind of technology was being phased out when MIDI came in around the mid 80s. When MIDI came in there was this phased out old analogue gear which was actually the starting point for us, where you could pick up electronic gear for like £30.

Even that was a lot of money for us when we were unemployed, but I could make people cry with what we paid for some of the technology we were using! It was crazy, you could come out with armfuls of tech for £100.

It’s kind of at that level again with the secondhand market, Gumtree and eBay and all that.”

Andrew Barker: I mean to be honest, we’ve got near enough everything you could think of. Together we’ve collected stuff, we’ve got quite a lot of old gear but also we’ve got a lot of the boutique stuff, the stuff that they’re redoing at the moment.”

“It’s great for us, because when we’re going out playing live we don’t have to take antiques on the road which don’t travel very well anymore. The best stuff is left in the studio where it’s not moved, which means it’s all okay – as soon as you start moving them around the world, that’s it, they just go to pieces.”

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Getintothis: Of course, you DJ as well as play live, have you got any particular tracks you find go down well with crowds at the moment?

Andrew Barker:I don’t really know – I try not to play the same tunes twice. I don’t have a set, I just have a big bag of tunes and choose what I’m going to play next.”

“You look at the top ten DJs, they’ve all got a prepared set which they just run through – and they have to because they’re playing that big room stuff in front of thousands of people. If you make a mistake in front of that many people, well it’s a big mistake.”

“I play a mixed bag, I play pretty hard, pretty acid-ey. I do a thing every year at Glastonbury on the Saturday night called The Old Fairground, I programme it and curate it, so get the DJs on that night, and always play myself.”

“That’s quite good, that’s pretty acid-ey, a bit of a harder edge as we don’t open until midnight when all the other stages shut and we go until six in the morning, it’s a bit tougher. We’re open air too which is great, it’s great of Glastonbury to let us do that.”

“So I’m out and about DJing here there and everywhere, and I also do that, which is a project I’ve been doing for about ten years now I think.”

Graham Massey: “Both me and Andrew have completely different tastes in what we would play. I’ve always liked the whole wonky beat thing, I’m not very mainstream in my tastes.”

“I’m 60 this year, I’m not a clubber – so I’ve got to find something stimulating in my head. I don’t like boundaries between music, over the years of being involved in electronic dance music you see these kind of things come and go all the time, to me there’s certain key tracks that stay with you.”

“So, to answer your question – no I don’t really.”

Andrew Barker: “We don’t like being pigeonholed anyway, we like to move around – it keeps our lives interesting. All the sideline stuff is just madness, it’s a way of getting rid of your demons by doing other stuff. It’s good, it’s nice to have an actual product out again.”

Getintothis: When you produce, do you find that you focus more for tracks to work on the dance floor or for listening on headphones, or is it a bit of both?

Andrew Barker: “It’s a bit of both I think to be honest, we made a few things which were pretty dance floor orientated, and there’s obviously stuff which is going to be remixed and put out as well.”

“But I think that an album to us is one of those things which you can put on and get lost with, it’s a good way of switching off from life. We look at it in that kind of way.”

“We try to make some tracks which work on the dance floor and some which are made for headphones, then we’ll throw a spanner in the works and make it go off to a different place, which is how we work quite a lot in the studio. We start with a blank canvas and move on from there. It can go anywhere, jazz, techno or anything.”

Getintothis: You can hear completely hear that in the tracks like Tokyo Tokyo, the way it moves into a dance track from a more experimental opening.

Andrew Barker: “With Tokyo Tokyo, it started with a drum pattern we’d setup, and we realised it maybe started to sound like a train or something. We just went down that line of work, and made it what you’d expect a train to sound like.”

Getintothis: It definitely shines through, especially with the sample on top.

Andrew Barker: “Oh yeah, that put the icing on the cake when we put the sample on.”

Getintothis: You’re touring the UK throughout the start of this year, any particular gigs you’re looking forward to? Any tracks you’re looking forward to giving a run out live?

Andrew Barker: “We’re starting the tour in February over in Ireland, and we’re going on from there to do quite a few UK dates.”

Graham Massey: Last time we did a tour we were celebrating 30 years, so it was a selection from the entire back catalogue. This time it’s maybe focusing more on the new album, so the percentage of the new album will be upped.”

“We’re always looking in the back catalogue for old tracks we’ve not done for ages, we’ve got such a lot to choose from that we like to drop things we’ve not dropped for a while – it’ll be a mixture.

Of course we always do the big bangers, tracks that we always try and do new spins on but we like playing those ones anyway, it gives you some fence post to build the set around you know.”

Getintothis: Like the tracks that people might recognise more than others?

Graham Massey: “We used to leave them to the far end of the set but we’ve started putting them nearer to the front, it’s got a bit of a different dynamic to it. We’re always trying to mess with the dynamics. There’s quite a lot of live elements to what we do onstage, we’ve got a live drummer, I play guitar and sax as well as the keys and stuff.”

“We always think of how to not just do a load of knob-twiddling throughout the set, we try to think of it as a show. We’ve been working a lot on visuals too, for the first time on this tour we’re hoping to incorporate that, depending on the venue of course.”

“We’re bringing Lazer Dave with us, who’s a member of the team – ‘Lazer Dave and his Amazing Lazers’. It should be a very visual event as well.”

Andrew Barker: “We carry quite a big arsenal of lasers now, it’s a bit like Star Wars when you see our gigs.”

“Where possible we’ve got visuals going on the stage, it’s quite a good show visually. Depending on the venue where we’re playing, hopefully we’re going to be able to fit a video wall in – or health and safety say that you’re allowed to have lasers. Some councils don’t like them!”

“We’ve not started working on our set yet, so it’ll be a surprise whatever it is. The last few gigs we’ve done we’ve done really well, I think the last gig we did was The Warehouse Project in Manchester. That was a night curated by Bicep, and we just tore the roof off it frankly.”

“You just know when it works, and it worked really well – it was a really young audience there, which is what we’re trying to get in front of. We’re trying to get in front of younger audiences so they can kind of see where this music came from.

We’re hitting a few festivals this year where it’s a younger audience as well, we did Bluedot Festival last year which was great, that was a mixed audience, young, old, a lot of people who’d not seen us before.”

“Halfway through, I won’t say what the crowd was chanting but it wasn’t very good – it was against the band who were on earlier.”

“It was a brilliant experience, there’s nothing better than coming offstage and knowing we couldn’t have done any better.”

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Getintothis: Do you find that you can usually predict how tracks are going to go down, or do they sometimes take you by surprise?

Andrew Barker: “Obviously we’ve been playing the new stuff recently, before Transmission Suite was even released we were playing maybe four or five songs from it in the set and it was going down really well, they were working.”

“You need a crowd in front of it to get a reaction and to see if it’s working or not, so we’ve always done that through the years. We’ve done a track, I’d get an acid version done of it and go back and tell the lads ‘oh yeah it works’ – try to use it as a bit of a barometer to test what you’re doing rather than putting something out that just doesn’t work in front of a big crowd. At least that’s what we’ve done so far, touch wood!”

Getintothis: You’re playing Liverpool in April, do you find yourselves gigging in Liverpool a lot?

Graham Massey: “I don’t think we’ve played in Liverpool for years as 808 State actually, I think the University was the last one we played. We’ve done quite a lot of our oddball jazz projects and low-key things quite frequently in Liverpool though, one of the projects that was also led out of the Transmission Suite was a tribute for 100 years of Sun Ra.”

“That was a project set down by the Kazimier in Liverpool, so they had a weekend of Sun Ra tribute bands and we rose to the challenge and did that, then kept it up for about two years. We did the Kazimier a couple of times.”

“I’ve been over and done Uptiup Records over there, who are an organisation out of Liverpool who do some brilliant events. We also came over with our band called Tool Shed, which has been running 20 years now – that’s an outlet for our jazz side, it’s really psychedelic but also jazz orientated.”

“We came over and we did Liverpool Psychedelic Festival a few years back in the Baltic Triangle. It seems over the past five years we’re constantly running over to Liverpool to do things, it’s such a lively city for music, it seems to have a bit more of a pulse than Manchester at times.”

“There’s a freedom to Liverpool, there’s maybe a bit more space to be used. Manchester’s got great spaces like Islington Mill in Salford, which was a great space for improvisation and spontaneous musical activity in Manchester, but in recent years it’s had a few issues but I believe it’s got this new funding which is great.”

“Manchester is changing in a very complicated way, there’s a lot of money being thrown at Manchester, and a lot of building going on and therefore the social dynamic of the city centre is in flux all the time, it’s a bit hard to read at the moment.”

“I don’t think that’s down to my generation, both me and Andrew have young sons who are involved in the DJ and the music scene so we get a lot of feedback from them in terms of what’s going on in the new frontiers of these cities.”

“It’s great that they’ve got their own scenes going on, but they’re really fragile – that’s one thing that you can read at our age. You see these scenes and they’re quite fragile, as university age kids move in and out of cities.”

Getintothis: You mean like the idea of what’s fashionable, and trends?

Graham Massey: Yeah, I think it’s always been like that in a way, but after so many sort of waves and seasons of it you start to see these patterns. The electronic music scene in the North of England is definitely in a very healthy place though, which really feeds us and feeds this record.”

Getintothis: What do you find yourself listening to these days?

Andrew Barker: “I’m listening to all sorts, I’m a working DJ so my tastes change every other day. There’s a lot of recommendations flying around at the moment, but there’s a great producer out called Porchcrawler. He’s getting played a lot by DJ HAAi. It was on Radio 1 last week I think, it’s pretty good stuff.”

“I listen to loads right across the board of dance music, but my guilty pleasure’s pop music if I hear a good pop tune. Dance-wise, I’m listening to loads of drum and bass, I’m a complete mixed bag of all-sorts.”

“I come from the electro background, I started out as an electro and hip-hop DJ, so all the electro stuff I still go back to. There’s not really a lot of people making it these days. All the influences come from everywhere, you know. We just throw it in the mixing pot and see if it works or not.”

Zee Davine: “I’d really like to show how far I can push things, because that’s why I do it”

Getintothis: Well it’s been absolutely fantastic talking to you today, thank you so much for taking the time. Just before we go – what’s the last album that you listened to?

Graham Massey: “Well, it’s… it’s actually The Gary Burton Quartet In Concert.”

Getintothis: That’s a bit of an interesting choice!

Graham Massey: Oh yeah, that’s at the front of the pile that I listened to yesterday! I’ve also got Legacy by RP Boo next in the pile.”

Andrew Barker: “It wasn’t an album, but somebody’s just asked me to find a tune I used to play. I think it something called Tickle Me. It’s from 1989, from Belgium.”

808 State will tour the UK and Ireland this year. Catch them playing at:

  • March 21 – Foundry, Sheffield
  • March 27 – EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney), London
  • March 28 – Tramshed, Cardiff
  • April 03 – Riverside, Newcastle Upon Tyne
  • April 04 – O2 Academy, Liverpool
  • April 11 – Barras Art & Design Centre, Glasgow
  • April 24 – Concorde 2, Brighton
  • April 25 – Trinity Arts Centre, Bristol

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