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GRAHAM MASSEY / 808 STATE

When Graham Massey dropped us an email to say he liked the site, we couldn’t let the opportunity of an interview go. Not only did he accept, but he’s given us an almost down-to-the-minute run down of his career from way before 808 State. From his days working as a sound engineer for the Broadwalk in Manchester to spending too much time at the Hacienda, the explosion of the Acid House movement, working with Björk and Bernard Summer, and how Prebuild came about, this is, dare we say, essential reading. So, get yourself a large drink, put your arse on your most comfy chair, and enjoy!

How did you come to music, and what brought you to dance music in particular?
I started listening to music more seriously when I was twelve or thirteen. My brother Pete had turned into a long hair at this point (1972/3) and was bringing home albums. This was a great time for all kinds of music and there were loads of debates amongst my friends about what was cool and what wasn’t. We all grew our hair and had debatable fashion sense. Photos will reveal yellow chords and twin sets (a tank top with matching cardigan). We liked most things with electric guitars, so that was broad… Led Zep albums were swapped for Sabbath albums, Santana records opened up paths into Jazz… Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were accepted in our rock universe too, Hendrix was essential buy. Everyone bought the cheap MFP (Music For Pleasure) ones, budget was a big factor. That’s why later when people with guitars and things gravitated together, we all knew the tunes on Camembert Electrique by Gong, as it was only 59p. Everyone also had The Faust Tapes, although that wasn’t really playable by a band… I had a Kay guitar (Woolworth special), an electric violin and a very weird amplifier that was once the PA system from McVities’ biscuit factory. It had a map of the world on a lit-up glass plate (a long wave radio) and the speaker was a huge horn like you would get at a village fete. Attached to that was a huge fuzz box with integrated tone generator that my dad had made me from practical electronics magazine.

As I said, we formed a band whilst still at school with some local long hairs doing the tunes of Anglo/French prog band Gong. Some of the guys were pretty proficient; I relied heavily on bluff and bluster and sonics, taking over a number of roles from time to time, like percussions, vocals, second guitar, second violin... Our first gigs were at a number of street parties on the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. We did our usual Gong set plus God Save The Queen (the Sex Pistols were in the charts that week) and a couple of crowd pleasers like Rock Around The Clock and Alright Now. In a matter of weeks, a few of us had formed Danny & The Dressmakers, our part-time punk band. Hair was cut and trousers got narrower. Later alongside this band and many other short-lived music projects came one I felt really good about, The Biting Tongues. We felt unique and special, like a good band should. When you’re playing alongside other groups, you need to have that team spirit and common purpose. There was a great band scene in Manchester in the late seventies into the mid eighties. Going to gigs was a popular pastime and the scene was self-supporting. We even had a thing called the Manchester Musicians Collective, which was a circuit of local venues enabling us to play regularly.

Other important venues were The Factory (from which Factory Records were born) and the Beach Club (New Order’s first gig was there), run by the other important label of the time, New Hormones. Biting Tongues made records for both these labels... Recording albums had a big impact on me. Getting to go in the magical space of the recording studio opened a world of possibilities. We always recorded fast. An album in 2 days wasn’t unusual. As we went on, we got to work with some good people at good studios (Strawberry, Pennine). I decided to take a course at a local studio to learn to be a sound engineer. Whilst doing that I got a job as a sound engineer at The Boardwalk Club, which was one of the main live venues in Manchester at that time. The Boardwalk was a good barometer of music. Anything from hip-hop to Laibach might be waiting for you when you turned up.

The Boardwalk club was around the corner from the Hacienda, and I had a free pass because I was on the label with Biting Tongues. So after work, it was always a quick walk around the corner to the Hac as it stayed open later. Before 1988, the Hacienda was indeed a large empty aircraft hanger of a space with few people in, except for Saturdays, which were busy. Colin, from Biting Tongues, was a pot collector there and he also had a day job at Virgin Records, so we were pretty in touch with the music world at the time. Mid Eighties, listening habits would involve a lot of electronic stuff around people’s flats and parties. You would hear lots of Kraftwerk alongside Grandmaster Flash, Dennis Edwards, some electro stuff, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle next to the SOS Band, later Art Of Noise, Grace Jones, all that early ZTT stuff, On U Sound, tons of Miles Davis. Later albums, like Decoy and Tutu were very electronic. So, the vocabulary of electronic music was not new, night clubbing wasn’t new, it just started sounding bigger. Socially, gay clubs were becoming more mixed-based on the fact that they were known for playing New York style club music. Manchester’s Black club music nights were becoming more mixed for the same reason. Barriers were coming down. You’ve got to remember how tribal everything was before then. Everyone stuck to their own cliques. So when the Hacienda did kick off in 1988 (due to an influx of ecstasy no doubt), it was its mix of people from different social backgrounds that seemed like a breakthrough, it was a shared experience that needed its own new kind of music as a new flag.

Looking back at the Manchester scene of the late eighties/early nineties, what are your feelings towards it now?
It was an amazing time to live through; all the new music, the sense of mingling with people all doing new exiting stuff, people having a lot of optimism and having a go. It was just in the air. There was this odd sense of civic pride that you could feed your efforts back into where you live and make things better. Modern Manchester was born at this time and music/clubbing played a central role. When I look at Manchester now, it seems like developers ran with the ball and left it hollow. It has this front of being a happening city, but it’s fake unless you attend to its cultural health. It’s not like there’s no one doing stuff. It is a fact that it’s so hard to be spontaneous. If for instance you want to do a gig, it takes about two months for a slot to come up in one of the few venues that are left. A few mid-size venues would be a step forward for Manchester. Back then we had the Boardwalk. We need that kind of venues. They’re either too small and under equipped or too big. I’ve also noticed a trend toward more suburban venues, which I think could be a good thing. Most people can’t afford a £60 night out in the city centre but will do £20 locally. There could be a circuit set up for bands to play regularly. That would be well healthy. Music is always good for a modern city’s image. Just think about Glasgow at the moment or Chicago, it’s a visible pulse and sign of life.

How did 808 State get together?
Its been told many times but essentially, we grew out of Martin owning a dance import shop, getting people who wanted to record to come to me as a engineer/musician to make records. We would also put on gigs, at the Boardwalk mostly as a sort of hip-hop circus. Out of this we started doing acid house because we had the right equipment and some of us loved it, because of a radio programme by Manchester DJ Stu Allen on Sunday nights. A lot of hip-hop people hated it, called it ‘fag music’.

Our fist jam is captured on Prebuild as Thermo Kings (that was our original name). We started recording acid stuff in the studio to release as Newbuild. We recorded in every spare bit of studio time, usually in the middle of the night. But we did Newbuild on a hired weekend. We gave a copy to John Peel and he started playing it on his show. Incidentally he was the only DJ to play our last release on the radio. He will be missed.

What was the feeling in the band when Gerald left to pursue his solo project, and are you still in touch?
At the same time as Gerald being in 808 State, he was always doing his own stuff and recording with Haniff and Colin (Chapter & The Verse). Voodoo Ray was a club hit around that time. 808 State was not an exclusive venture. I was still recording with Biting Tongues. It was more like a project; ‘let’s do this really intense acid stuff, really over the top’. It was just a record. Once the record was out, we started to do gigs as a support act to bands like A Certain Ratio and Inspiral Carpets. Then we started doing our own gigs. Often Gerald would do a set with us as 808 and a set with Colin and Haniff. Once, we did a set as both, at New Century Hall. Sometimes I’d be in his group if Martin couldn’t make it from Bolton. We didn’t really care; we just got on with it. Nothing was at stakes, it was just a laugh. By the time we started the next album, Voodoo Ray was in the charts and Gerald was away a lot more, working on Hot Lemonade. He was also annoyed with Creed Records for not paying up royalties on Newbuild. They can take a while to turn around, or maybe he had a case. I know I didn’t get mine until about a year later. Besides, we all had an interest in the homemade record company, or so we thought, so we would have been ripping ourselves off. Anyway there were a number of heated debates when we should have been recording, and communication broke down. We stayed in touch for years. He was still based in Manchester and indeed we both had studios in the same building. Then we bumped into each other at parties when he lived in London, or at some festival somewhere around the world. And of course, to put together these old album projects. There will always be a bond from back in the heady ‘88 days of just being at mad parties and staying up all night jamming out tracks.

Did you realise at the time that you were creating something special, and that your work would become important for a lot of young musicians?
Not at the time of Newbuild or the acid stuff as it was acid like American acid. Listening to it now, I can see the difference. I became aware maybe ten years later that that album was held very dear by the likes of Aphex Twin (Richard James) and Rob and Sean from Autechre and was something of a lost classic amongst the IDM crowd. We’d get reports of it selling for £80 second hand. I met Richard through a mutual friend (Leila Arab) and he asked weather Rephlex could reissue it. They did a great job of remastering it as some of the original tapes were missing or unusable, and the triple vinyl version was a luxury thing. Richard had heard it on John Peel’s show originally. I guess they didn’t have a local dance music show like we did in Manchester.

How did you come to work with ZTT?
ZTT saw 808 on a programme called Snub TV on BBC2. We were filmed doing a track called Dance Yourself To Death with MC Tunes in the basement of Eastern Block. We were being courted by various record companies at that time, including Factory (boy did we make the right decision here), RCA (Deconstruction)... By this point, we had a manager called Ron Atkinson (no relation to the Man UTD player). He’d been in various music biz activities (he had been a roady for Genesis once), and Martin knew him as the man on the vans. He had a dance import business that delivered to independent stores). Ron’s old mucker from the dirty seventies was head of publishing at ZTT and he came to visit often with Paul Morley. They eventually sorted a deal out. I wonder if a more dance based label like Decontruction would have placed as much importance on albums, I think we made a good choice.

90 was your first record to receive a lot of attention. How did you all react to its success at the time?
Well, we already had a sense of success off Quadrastate in that they were playing our records on the radio and at the Hacienda. There could not be anything more important than hearing your tune played as the last tune at the Hacienda in the heyday... Where do you go from there? Signing to ZTT, we had some money in the bank and we paid ourselves a wage. That was the biggest shock. I had a bank account for the first time at the age of twenty-nine. We bought clothes with advances, we bought equipment, lots of equipment, and we bought studio time, lots of it. We worked our butts off; studio, promo, gigs, gigs, promo, studio. We more or less had 90 in the can when we signed. We just tarted it up, then we did stuff a track at a time, Cubik came at the same time as Only Rhyme That Bites with MC Tunes. Tunes was signed separately to us, but we were immediately working on his album as well (The North At Its Heights). In Yer Face followed Cubik, which by this time had come back as an American import on Tommy Boy, so it was rush-released with Olympic. Olympic was a commission by the Manchester Olympic bid. If we got the games, that would have been the theme tune... 90 came out, we made some suspect videos (well you can’t be good at everything). Being Northerners, we never wanted to spend too much money on videos. In retrospect, if we had paid more attention there, it would have taken us more international. 808 State were pretty cutting edge for a company like Warners, who were handling us in the rest of the world. ZTT knew what they were doing and 90 went gold pretty quickly here. Tommy Boy in the States knew how to market us as well but elsewhere in Europe, we were a bit too new and different at that point.

On Ex:El, you started collaborating with vocalists. Was it a new experience for you, and how did that affect the sound of the band?
It didn’t seem like such a big deal to use vocals. Lots of club music had vocals, we knew we didn’t want the usual diva stuff, there was just too much of that about (around this time I’d worked with Blue Pearl on Naked In The Rain, which was a big euro club hit). If we had known more singers and more importantly sympathetic lyric writers, we would have done it sooner.

How did the collaboration with Björk on Ex:El come up, and what made you decide to work on Post with her?
Björk rang up whilst we were in the studio making Ex:El. She had been listening to our early stuff and wanted to do some of her own stuff with a programmer. We met up in London and she played us some brass quartets she’d done. She was very shy. I was flying off to Rome the next morning and something made me ring the office to stop her flying back to Iceland. A couple of days later, she was up in the Manchester studio singing on two of our tracks. It was very spontaneous, she picked a track, went for a long walk with a walkman, came back eating a cold can of sprouts and did the track. Then almost as an after thought, she did a quick improvisation on Qmart. Qmart already existed as an instrumental; it had some weird lovely chords. What she did was spine-tingling, and we kept the first take.

She seems to be someone who really knows what she wants and who she wants to work with. How was it to work with her?
I’d say she’s someone who works with her intuition. It felt like I’d known her all my life. It was just like bang. We know what we mean and the language is music, lots of similar paths and experiences to do with music. All that she’s become was there in her then. Hard as nails yet vulnerable, ethereal and yet very down to earth. I liked her instantly and we kept in touch. She would either come to Manchester to hang out and write tunes, or she’d put an 808 gig on herself in Reykjavik, borrowed all the equipment from all over the island, promoted it, got us on the radio, did TV. We made a video for Oops while we were there. She also joined us for some gigs in Manchester and for a few dates on our first American tour.

For a band like 808 State, working with Bernard Summer must have been quite something at the time. How did you come to work with him?
We asked him. He was always out and about in Manchester in those days, and we found out he was into us so we asked him if he would. Technique was always on in our van at that point. We sent him the track in advance. I remember he didn’t like some of the jazz chords and he replayed some keyboards on the track first to fit his vocal lines. He just seemed like one of us, we’re all no nonsense Northerners. It’s rude to get star struck. Years ago he came to my bedsit with my friend Alan Hempsall (of Crispy Ambulance). Alan filled in for Ian Curtis when he was ill on one occasion. I was a bit star struck as Bernard’s new open top Mercedes was outside my horrible bedsit, but he was cool. Alan had just bought a Maplins Sequencer off him.

Talking of New Order, how come the two remixes that were released recently on Rephlex were never published before?
Well they were just rough mixes for Jon Da Silva to play at Hot night. Rephlex really liked them when I put them all on the same CD. I’m not that keen on them. If I were going to put them out then I would have worked on the arrangement more. But some people like that home vibe. I certainly don’t consider them remixes. They are cover versions.

You have done a lot of remixes, either as part of 808 State, or as yourself. What makes you decide to remix a track, and how do you proceed to remix 'as a band'?
I wouldn’t say we’ve been very fussy about choosing what remixes we’d do. If we had the time we generally did them. Studio experience was always valuable to us and the chance to do a new track in a day or two was always appealing. If someone gave us a brief, that would put us off. It always had to be ‘do what you want’. There were some difficult ones. You’d get the parts and think ‘what the fuck can I do with that’. A good example being Owner Of A Lonely Heart by Yes. Now this was one of Trevor Horn’s big productions, and he’d always been nice to us (he gave us his MiniMoog as a gift!), so we soldiered on and it’s one of my favourites. We kept the snare drum and a fill in and glued in the intro to Close To The Edge. I don’t think the band were that impressed but it was the Chemical Brothers’ top tune at Naked Under Leather for a while, back in the days when they were the Dust Brothers. Songs are generally hard. We did Sound & Vision by Bowie, and a track like that is hard because I know it so well and am a bit reverent about it...

Mixing as a band is just the same as working together. It is all about opinions, a bit more debate, chucking ideas about... Mixing by myself was a good escape at the time, as being in a band all the time can be frustrating on some levels. Everyone has different tastes ultimately. A lot of mixes came in through mates rather than A&R men.

I think remixing teaches a lot about what makes a good track in the first place. It is very interesting to put your hands in the DNA of other people’s stuff. It’s a bit like looking through the keyhole. We’re naturally nosey. Music’s all coming from a similar place, it’s just the choices that are different, so it doesn’t matter if its REM or Rolf Harris to us, it’s all raw material to be made into something else. I wished we’d had people in the studio with us more often like we did with Rolf. It was surreal to have him sitting having breakfast in my kitchen. I know everyone think of him as this eccentric light entertainment guy but he’s a lot more heavy than that in reality and a very interesting bloke. I’m glad we worked with him. We often found ourselves working alongside pop people. We worked at FON studios in Sheffield a lot, and that was also home to the five boys production people who were producing and writing for Take That and Kylie, proper pop stuff. We all got on like a house on fire, going to the pub, etc… we were all doing the same job, just different tastes. It was the same when we worked at PWL in Manchester. We’d be in with people making Steps records and talking about gear and stuff. There was a sort of code of craftsmen thing, people would always pop in and check out what we were doing, scratch their heads and leave. FON was a good place. Moloko were in there getting their first stuff together, the Human League were next door, they had some great gear. We talked about doing some stuff together but it never happened. The Designers Republic were down the road if you needed album covers (that need reading with microscopes), Warp were upstairs, and they had the best chippy in the world not far away. I miss studios; there is a really good focus when you have to pay by the hour. Now with home studios everything takes way longer to finish.

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