You can easily argue that Altern-8 are the definitive rave icons. Their trademark outfits of face masks and boiler suits- part painter and decorater, part nutted spaceman- perfectly encapsulated the lives of the kids going mental at their live shows. It's a look that has gone on to provide a visual shorthand for a generation, a summary of everything that was silly and alien and genius that drove the 80s-90s rave explosion that rocked England to it's core. But to focus on the outfits alone ignores the fact that Altern-8's debut album, Full On... Mask Hysteria, is a timeless classic, one of the few convincing long players to emerge from the hardcore scene, easily as compelling as The Prodigy's essential debut Experience. As the years go by, Full On ...Mask Hysteria sounds stronger and stronger, a shot of intensely British punk mayhem, packed with samples shamelessly nicked from Detroit and Chicago house records, then kicked in the nuts with 'orrible breaks, Sheffield accents, teeth grinding hoover sounds, and miles of euphoric piano.
Having finally managed to co-ordinate an interview with Mark Archer, I found him to be one of the safest of the old skool ravers I've spoken to (there's no guarantee this will be the case. There's some right shits out there), and we settled down for a chat, focusing around the classic Activ-8 video, notoriously shot in the car park of Stoke-on-Trent rave mecca Shelley's Lazerdrome. Here's the video for a bit of background, kids:
So, I’ve been thinking of a route to go with this as the history of Altern-8 has been told a few times by a few people- I thought it might be interesting to look a bit more specifically at the Activ-8 video shoot in the Shelley’s car park as it’s pretty iconic. How involved where you with Shelley’s then? Where you a regular down there?
Yeah, well someone invited me down one night in 1990 and they did both Friday and Saturday nights. The Friday nights were where Sasha got his name and people like Dave Ralph – they played the more house-y, piano-y type of stuff. I must have gone really early at like 9 o’clock and there was hardly anyone there, I was thinking about leaving, as I wasn’t really enjoying it at all. Then as we were leaving someone said for me to go along on a Saturday instead as it was a completely different vibe. Amnesia House used to run the Saturdays and it was geared more towards the hardcore. It ended up becoming somewhere that, if I wasn’t doing a PA – I’d be in Shelley’s. No question about it.
So at this point you’d already started doing the Nexus 21 stuff. Is that right?
Yeah. I mean, Nexus was somewhere around ’89 as that’s when we moved to Network Records. The remixes of Still Life came out in 1990 and then the Progressive Logic EP. That was then kind of it really. We were doing PA’s as Nexus 21 when the first Altern-8 EP came out.
I wasn’t really going to go into any history, but now I’m quite interested. What inspired you to buy your first piece of kit? That’s if you were using your own kit, as it must have been pretty expensive…
I used to decorate when I first left school, but really I wanted to be a DJ so I was learning to mix and stuff. There was only one club that played the kind of music I liked and they already had a DJ, so that kind of put me off. So then I bought a Casio SK1 Sampler, and still to this day I have absolutely no idea why. It was a tiny little home keyboard thing with the ability to sample on it. After that I bumped into Dean who I used to break dance with in town. I bumped into him the shop as he was doing work experience in there and we got chatting and he ended up inviting me round his place as he had decks. So I went round, took the keyboard and he started playing beats and I played some stuff over the top and it actually ended up being our first ever demo tape. It was absolutely chronic.
Is it still around anywhere?
It is! But it’s literally someone playing a couple of dodgy samples over some beats. We did a full cassette and took it to the new Blue Chip Studios in Stafford and they gave us a contract straight away.
Haha! Were you surprised that they gave you a contract?
Well we just went there winging it, so yeah. Plus at the time I think everyone in Stafford was more into things like Simple Minds, U2 so everyone was in cover bands. We were the only ones that had walked in there and were doing dance music. The guy who ran the studio was Kev Roberts, who is a Northern Soul DJ, so he was quite in the whole dance thing. Then when we came in with the scratching and sampling and there was similar stuff in the charts at the time, so he realized that if we continued and followed trend with what was in the charts, then we’d have a hit.
It’s interesting to hear you say that you used to be a breaker back in the day- do you think it was a big influence in the rave scene? Dancing properly was a pretty big deal in the 90s-
I talk to different people who you hadn’t met back in the day, but they have almost identical musical tastes and themes from the soul and funk and all the electro, and then when house came out you moved into that, and then after that there was the whole acid house and hip-hop thing. It only seemed to be around the early ‘90s that the whole thing started to fragment. Before then everyone came from the soul and funk and breakdancing stuff.
A band that a lot of people have mentioned to me is The Specials, like Liam Howlett told me that they were a big thing for him. Were they another band that you were aware of as a kid?
Yeah. When I moved from the village I was born in to Stafford, I just liked everything that was played on the radio. My mum and dad always had Radio 2 on and I used to listen to everything. I’d obviously heard a lot of Chic and Earth Wind & Fire and stuff like that. Then when we moved to Stafford it was a case of having to like Heavy Metal or you’re going to get beaten up. It wasn’t cool to just say that you liked everything, so I had to go through this phase of liking Heavy Metal. But the year below me seemed to be into the Two Tone thing, it was nice to see that you didn’t have to all of a sudden like something, you got to listen to something because it was something that you genuinely liked.
So did you have any piano lessons or anything? Could you actually play the keyboard?
Nope. That’s one of the reasons that I worked with Chris. I was originally working with Dean and we were both from the DJ side of things. We had loads of ideas and could take a pile of tunes into the studio and say that we wanted to sample this and that. We could come up with loads of ideas but we couldn’t actually play the keyboard. So then the studio got in Chris and Andy.
So you did the Nexus 21 stuff and then you turned to the Altern-8 sound. How did you find the switch, did you find there was a difference in sound between the two?
Well Richard owed us some studio time so we went in there and crammed in a load of tracks that we’d done, I think we had to cram in something like 9 tunes in the time that they’d given us. When I went into the studio to do the Nexus 21 thing, I just wanted to do Detroit techno. By 1990, I’d been going to loads of different raves so there was far greater influence now. There was hip-house in there, acid kind of stuff and because the influences going in, those tracks were much wider and they sounded a lot different. Then we played them to Network and they wanted to keep Nexus 21 as purely a techno project so they said, ‘why don’t you come up with a different name?’ Chris used to be in a rock band called Alien-8, so we thought we’d call ourselves that, but when the record came back with the stickers on it, it said Altern-8.
So they fucked it up?
Yeah. It was too late by that point though as they didn’t do promos or anything on that release, it just went out. So we were stuck with the name.
Who put the face masks on first?
Well we were doing the Nexus 21 PA’s and we’d played at the Eclipse in Coventry. They’d booked us because Infiltr-8 was then out, and they asked if we could do an Altern-8 PA as well. Then me, stupidly, thought that if we went on the stage with exactly the same two people, same set-up, people would start to think they were being conned. I didn’t really think about the fact that everyone there would be so munted they didn’t even know there was anyone up there playing. So the only way I thought we’d be able to do it would be if we found some way of covering ourselves up – then no one would know that we were the same group. My brother was in the RAF at that time and he gave us two of the suits, and then if you’ve ever put the hood up and pulled the toggles you realise what a prune you look like, so we put masks on as well. There was no big plan really, it just happened. We weren’t trying to make an image, we were just trying to stop people thinking they were being conned.
Were you surprised when you saw other people wearing the same thing? Was it odd?
Yeah. There’s someone now on eBay selling masks in various colours with either an A or an E and it’s just part of rave culture 20 odd years on. Some people probably have no idea why they’re wearing a mask. I’ve done a gig in Vegas before and there have been people wearing masks and they have absolutely no idea where they’re wearing a mask. It’s quite amusing.
I’ve got to confess, when I was in a band in the mid-noughties I used to wear a mask with an E on it in homage to you lot. New Rave's got a lot to answer for. I never smeared Vicks on the inside though - although I heard that was something else you started...
That again, there was a real reason for it. It’s all to do with the Activ-8 video to be honest. We did a gig up in Newcastle and our eyes were watering because of the smell of Vicks and Olbas Oil. I had no idea why it purely stank of Vicks, but it was from the people that had taken Ecstasy and then rubbed Vicks on their chest so that when they breathe in they get a rush. Then when we did the Activ-8 video, on the back of the truck we had these generators which were diesel powered, and the dancer that was in the video ended up in hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning! Because we’d had the masks with little holes, we were OK, but all round the inside of the holes it was black from fumes. So from then we decided to make them a bit fresher and put Vicks inside the masks.
That’s really funny.
In the dance music scene there’s always the rave connotation of something, but then also some completely different for it.
So were you not very into the ecstasy thing then?
I’ve always been one of those people where I’ve always had criminally bad luck, if something could go wrong, it will go wrong. If I’m totally skint my washing machine will break down, it’s one of those things. I just thought that if I was having such a good time anyway, going out and dancing my tits off, if I take something then I’m likely to be one of those people that die. I just didn’t want to risk it. I got offered it loads of times, but never did it. I was really really naive about the whole drugs thing though. I didn’t know who was off their cake or who wasn’t. You know when someone pulls a face during a drop; I just thought it was that.
So I was there at raves, dancing away and pulling all the faces, just because the tunes were good.
I think people would be surprised to hear that a raves icon was never taking pills.
You tell people and they don’t believe you at all. I’ve even said that when we met Asterix & Space, which was a really freaky meeting in Shades, and they were like, ‘how can you make tunes like that, that have got those little bits in it that you only know when you’re off your nut.’ I just that I didn’t know what being off my nut was, so I had no idea.
Maybe you just had a genetic pre-disposition to being off your nut. So with the Shelley’s thing and you being a regular down there on Saturdays, was that when Carl Cox was playing down there?
There were loads of guests. They’d have people like Doc Scott, and I remember the first time that I saw him he was wearing this bright white cardigan whilst playing a full Belgium techno set.
So at what point did you think about having a rave in the car park then?
I think it was because they let us in every week. I went there with my girlfriend of the time, Asterix & Space, all my mates. Chris was never into the music at all, which was a good thing at the time as he didn’t go out and wasn’t influenced by the music.
He didn’t like the music?
Did he like what you were making as Altern-8?
I don’t really know. He never bought music.
I don’t understand how he ended up making all this stuff then.
He was one of the kinds of people where I’d go into the studio and sample a noise and then I’d play a record and say, can you do something along those lines? He’d start playing something and I’d be like ‘can you go down in the middle or up here.’ Eventually we’d break out keyboard lines. He was a really good keyboard player.
But when you were out playing, he’d be on raving away on stage wearing the outfits as well.
Yeah, but we’d turn up and set all the stuff up, come on to do the show and then head off as soon as we’d finished.
Right, okay. Wow.
And I’d go back out front.
That’s just remarkable really, of all the places to find yourself. The rave scene at that point was quite an intense arena to be in. If you weren’t into it, I can’t even imagine. So you were going to Shelley’s and they were letting you in all the time.
Yeah. You’d come out at the end of the night and into the big car park next to Shelley’s and everyone would be stood there with the doors open playing mixtapes, and everyone would be dancing around the cars. Because I hadn’t got that whole thing of being off my nut, where you’ve got to continue the party, I’d just be there wondering why everyone would be so intent on listening to whatever tape they had on some shitty car stereo. So I thought, why didn’t we do something for everyone that’s into the tunes and has bought the records, so we turned up at the car park at like half five in the afternoon and parked the truck up with the sides down and everything and the generators out back. Then we went into the club as usual. We had a video guy there that was from Stokey and knew a lot of the people, but the guy who ran the video company was a bit of a perv. When you watch the video there are actually quite a lot of shots up girls skirts. There’s one point where there’s two dancers at the bit where we’re in the park and the robot comes out. One of those girls in that bit of the video, she’s actually in another clip where she’s giving a blowjob to a bottle. You have to pause the video at exactly the right spot to be able to see it though.
Who’s idea was the robot?
Some guy called Bill. I think we met in Eclipse in Coventry, as that was another place that I used to go to a lot. We saw him in the crowd and people would be dancing away and then a robot would walk past them and you’d just see the look on their face as there were lasers being fired past them from this robot. So we asked him if he fancied coming to do a few gigs with us and he ended up touring all over the place with us and appeared in a couple of the videos. We then got another two dancers after that because the guy that got the poisoning, that was the last time he ever danced for us.
Was that because he wasn’t able too as he was too sick, or he just didn’t want to?
He was actually a mate of mine from the breakdancing days from Stafford, but he was at Uni in Sheffield. He’s the reason we met Asterix & Space as he used to send me dates of the pirate station they used to play. So he sent me this date and they played a load of adverts in the set for local hairdressers and stuff like that. Then they put on a tune called Dance Tones by Hypersonic, which just starts off with some bass, so after these adverts they played this track and I just thought that it was a brilliant intro for a tune. I sampled it off the cassette and that was from a Wednesday night when we recorded Infiltr-8. On the Saturday we did a Nexus 21 PA at Shelley’s. I was stood there with this Nexus 21 top on and this lad comes up and goes, ‘Are you with Nexus 21?’ So I said yes and then we was like, ‘I know some DJ’s that are really into your stuff, let me go and get them.’ Then he came back with them and it was Asterix & Space. It was quite strange as I’d only sampled their stuff on the Wednesday, and there they were.
So, with Shelley’s , as I understand, the old bill came and shut you down.
Well, everyone came out the club and we finished setting up all the things on the side of the truck. We did Frequency and we did Infiltr-8 and then we did a couple of old tracks off of the first EP. It was absolutely rammed and someone thought it would be good publicity if the police turned up. So someone went off to a phone box to phone the police.
So it was a set up?
Yeah. So someone phoned the police from this phone box and Neil the label boss from Network was there and they were advising us to stop. We just carried on playing and did another couple of tracks and then the police ended up saying that if we played any more we were going to be spending the night in a cell, so we called it a day at that point.
Did you have many difficulties with the police in your time in those years?
Well, the Activ-8 video on YouTube I think is recorded off MTV and it’s not the full video so there’s a bit at the beginning and end that you don’t normally see where we’re pretending to steal Chris’ car- joyriding was in the newspapers a hell of a lot at that time. So we all bundled in this car wearing Altern-8 suits, then we were spinning round this car park that was actually in the process of being built. We didn’t know, but people from the garage that ran the retail park had thought that someone was actually stealing the car and called the police. So at the end of the video we’ve got the police taking down our details and we’re there in suits and masks and everything.
Ha! Do you want to finish up by telling us what you’ve got coming up in the near future, as you’re still doing loads of stuff at the moment-
Because I was unable to use the name Altern-8 for a bit, I started using my own name. Now I can DJ again using either my own name or Altern-8. I’m DJing almost anything from ’86 to ’93 old school wise. We’re doing Altern-8 PA’s, which is myself and Josh from Balkan Vinyl. We played in Dublin last month, we did the Bangface weekender in April, that was amazing. We’ve also started writing some new material.
What does the new stuff sound like?
We’re doing anything from like Chicago house to proto jungle with the Altern-8 thing. We did some stuff that was purely aimed at the Bangface crowd, like 130bpm jungle, with the amens and the heavy bass, and it went down brilliantly mixed in amongst all the old stuff. We’re getting the old album completely re-mastered with new remixes and picking the best ones out.
Who have you got remixes from?
Well there’s remixes from Luke Vibert, MDMX, Bens Sims and Paul Mack, DJ Marky, Radioactiveman. There was a whole host of remixes of Armageddon. We’re going to get new remixes done of Infiltr-8 too.
Wow, so you’ve basically just got loads going on then.
Mark Archer, thank you.
Altern-8 are fucking great, and every one should see them once. Here's their Facebook page, and here's a list of their upcoming DJ shows/ live dates - we'd recommend catching Mark at Field Maneuvers, tickets for which are over here