Early next month 808 State are to set to perform their era-defining album 90, from start to finish, a full 26 years after its first release. Often seen as one of the first valid full length dance albums, 90 set the bar for what house music could achieve, proving those who dismissed it as throw-away kids music to be way wide of the mark. Now, in preparation for performing the album, Graham Massey talks us through 80s grim-ness, utopian thinking, a love of jazz, and the sax solo on Pacific.
First of all, I’m interested in how you’re going to approach playing 90 again - do you have the original MIDI files?
Yeah, I have a lot of data. We’ve constantly upgraded data as we’ve gone on. We also have multi-track tapes for filling samplers up and things like that. We’re using live synthesisers as well. We’ve been doing the live show for 20 odd years so we’re constantly updating that. We have more of a band situation when we play live with more musicians involved so there’s usually 5 of us on stage, one of us is actually missing at the moment so we’re a band of 4 people. That’s how we approach it.
That means that the live experience of 90 now will be substantially different to what it would have been in 1990?
Yes, I wouldn’t want to just do a verbatim version of it and we’ve constantly updated the versions. Some of the music from 90 we’ve never stopped playing; we’ve always included tracks like Cobra Bora. We’ve gone through various versions and updates and elaborations, there was quite a lot of improvisation in some of the tracks when we recorded them and that manifests itself in the way we do it still.
I think each song we’re doing off the record lends itself to a different approach. We’re constantly trying to find a way of expanding upon that material, when you’ve been doing it for 25 years you’d get stupidly bored of it if you were just doing it one way. The more tweakability and improvisation you can do, the better. Certain tracks lend to it more than others and there are a number of tracks here that I’ve still not done the work on. We’re a month away but it’s not like it’s all ready to go at this point in time, we generally are quite last minute. Things like The Fat Shadow, how the hell do we play that? We’ll figure out a way... There’s quite a variety of music on that album, it covers a lot of ground.
What were you feeling when you made it? I’ve read that you made it very quickly, is that true? Was it just a splurge of creativity?
To a certain extent it was fairly quick- there were a number of tracks that were in existence and we had a year of negotiating a record deal. We’d done a couple of albums previously on our own label which kind of established us and with the 12”s we were established as a band. Pacific had pulled us into the arena, as well as a number of other tracks like Let Yourself Go, we had a catalogue of stuff. In that year when there was this whole atmosphere of rave getting on the radio, rave becoming something within the culture that wasn’t just an underground thing, we spent an awful lot of time just setting up our organisation and recording was a difficult process back then - we didn’t have any access to places we could go to record and back then there wasn’t all this bedroom stuff where you can just disappear into your room with a load of gear, you actually had to buy studio time in order to make those records. The bedroom recording process didn’t exist for us at that point so every time we got in the studio that’s where we wrote, we didn’t write outside the studio and then go into the studio and record it in one, it was the creative environment. We were revved up because we were hearing all this fantastic music in the clubs at that point in time, we had a million ideas. There were 4 of us at that point, all with ideas and trying to cram them into every tune. When you listen to early 808 State there’s this really schizophrenic music because there are 4 people trying to cram ideas in, it’s abundant in its ideas. The most difficult thing is to make it cohesive.
There wasn’t really the same sort of framework for dance music albums at that time.
That was the other thing, most people would go out and make a 12” but nobody particularly thought in terms of making a collection of stuff to make it work like an album and 90 does. Getting close to it again and thinking how did this work as a concept to get it in the right order, it’s so plainly A side and B side old school thinking. It’s structured like vinyl, it has a story to it.
Like you’ve got that finish point of the A side and then it’s ‘right, now the person’s going to flip it and it’ll start again’.
Yes, it builds up to two peaks. I’m semi-cautious of whether that works or not as a gig since when we put a live show together we put a lot of time to thinking where the peaks are and this is outside that normal thinking. That’ll be interesting but I can already feel myself going ‘ooh maybe we should play it in reverse’ or something like that. It gets quite ambient towards the end, that’s an odd way to do a concert.
Were there any albums you were taking inspiration from at the time? Were you thinking ‘this is the kind of album I want to make’?
Oh yeah, Martin was in his 30s at that point and I was 28 and we’d grown up with albums. There are hundreds of albums that you are referencing in a way because that was the way we grew up listening to music. In a way, it was like old thinking on new music, it wasn’t that we were trying to go ‘how can we do a dance album?’, it was just completely instilled in you because of our age that when you get the chance to make an album, you have all this stuff stored up in your head. A good example is the end track, it’s almost scrap in a way but I love those little tracks you’d get on something like a Hawkwind album where the synthesiser player gets to make a 1 minute track. The reason behind those tracks is that you bought a reel of 2” tape, you’d do these chunks at a time on these tapes and you’d be left with a minute or so at the end and think ‘we’re not going to waste it’. It’s that mentality when you used to make cassettes for people, you never left a space on the end. Just because you had time, you filled it. All that is part of tape making and the recording process from an older way of thinking.
Did you find it hard to recreate the energy of a club inside the studio?
I don’t think we were thinking that way, to be honest. We were definitely responding to club music but we were also responding to the new technology as we saw it at that point. For instance, when we got hold of a sampler - something we’d had to borrow - we were now able to explore what you could do further so that was really exciting. Sometimes you weren’t thinking about clubs at all, just buzzing off synthesisers and samplers and the way you can plug them all together and the possibilities of what you could do with the technology at that point. For me, I’m speaking personally, that was a buzz. You could take all kinds of ideas, apply it to that technology and, as long as you had that heavy kick drum, anything could be club music back then. People forget how eclectic clubs at that point were, you didn’t just get the 4/4 all night long. Clubs like the Hacienda and The Thunderdome in Manchester were very much about a mixture of people’s record collections. The night would start in a certain way, you might have a load of Latin music in there or a load of old classics from the disco era, so long as it all had a consistent bottom end. It was a mixture of music and we were still thinking of a mixture of music.
Is there a particular moment you remember when sampling when you thought ‘this is amazing, this is really opening up the possibilities’?
Well we were kind of innocent to it really, for instance, getting round musical techniques like not being great at playing chords by sampling chords. There was a beauty in the simplicity of sampling chords and then moving those chords about, it was a new musical language that reflected perhaps sounds and textures that we would hear in things like the old Herbie Hancock records. The colours of the pioneering synthesis were often, for me, in the jazz-fusion idiom, they were people that were using synthesiser technology and that was music that would interest me, colour-wise. That’s something once I got hold of synthesisers, at the back of my mind I was always using those records as reference points. We weren’t trying to do cold industrial music- I don’t know what people heard in that. I’ve heard the record described as industrial at times but I don’t seeit. We would try and get away from industrial music because you’ve got to remember that before there was a lot of synthesiser music in the 80s that was very industrial you had all this Belgian music that was all hard and new beat records, a lot of the records you’d listen to from Adrian Sherwood and I loved that kind of thing and the aggression in it and all the techniques and his use of editing. There was this heritage of British, industrial electronic music and we were kind of fighting away from that in a way because all of a sudden we could make music that was warmer, Pacific is a good example of the kind of atmospheres we were trying to get towards, we liked these things that had an almost tropical vibe. Records like Open Your Eyes by Marshall Jefferson out at a rave at 4 in the morning is a transcendental record, those things really appealed at the time. We were trying to create another world, an alien other world was what we were after, we weren’t trying to do something that was simply aggressive and hard. It’s quite a soft record for us when you look at the other records, they have harder edges, it’s almost a little bit relaxed as a record, 90.
I feel like there’s a lot of utopian feeling in that period, not just in music but in attitude and everything...
That was an atmosphere in the club scene, it was really idealistic, this sense of coming out of something. Out of an austerity. An optimism and a self-empowerment thing that the club scene embodied. That’s what it’s trying to reflect as well. But I also liked a lot of utopian sounding music previously, that is a thread of things that I’ve always liked. Hearing space age music growing up in the 60s, early records that I heard... I can’t give you a really good example but Joe Meek records were around, I always liked instrumentals when I was a kid - I used to love The Shadows records.
Were you a fan of Telstar?
Yeah, I wouldn’t use Telstar as an example, it was there and I was aware of it but I had one called Ice Cream Man which was one of the first ones that I bought. My brothers used to buy 7”s and took turns and then I bought this one which was 4 hits on an EP and one of them was called Atlantis, which was a Shadows hit, and one was called Ice Cream Man and it was a Joe Meek instrumental as a cover version, so it wasn’t the original artist. Those kind of records used to fascinate me growing up, and then later on I came up through prog, so a record like Todd Rundgren’s Initiation was an other-worldly drug record. That’s in the vocabulary of what we were then bringing to rave. There was a lot of prog in what comes out on 90, a track like Cobra Bora we’re pissing about with time signatures.
Do you think the utopianism was a protest at how grim England had gotten?
Yeah, well particularly in Manchester. I look back on the 80s and it was totally grim but at the end of the 80s the club scene changed and the atmosphere changed. Things like the Berlin Wall coming down- I remember seeing that on the BBC news and somebody was playing Pacific over footage of it. Somebody who works on the telly had decided we should be soundtracking this amazing moment, it was ridiculous.
I’d love to talk about the creation of Pacific - what did it start with? Was it the beats first or the melodies?
It was the chord thing I think, that idea that we’d heard in Detroit techno records - you play a chord on one keyboard, sample it into a sampler and then process that into the warmest sound you can get. It was about trying to find an atmosphere in the sound. Chords will give you that, so say if you played that chord on a piano, you’d still get an essence of that feeling of a C major 7 which is the chord that we sampled. If you get the right blend of sounds, I think we used a Juno 106 on that which has a button with chorus on it which immediately creams it up. In fact, there’s a signature synthesiser on 90, the D50 which was a synthesiser by Roland that had just come out, and we used that. It had a warmth to it but it also had a sort of, I wouldn’t call it plastic, but more of a nylon quality to it. I was quite into that keyboard at the time. You got this immense warmth from things because it was dealing with a lot of sound sources.
What about the bassline? Where’s that coming from?
That’s a little grey synthesiser called a Roland 101, it’s a workhorse synthesiser. It was really easy to use. It had this little sequencer in it that you could then trigger from the drum machine and once you were recording the drum machine and a triggered sequencer it had a wonderful funky tightness to it. We still use the 101s all the time, I’ve never stopped using them because I’ve not found anything that really replaces it.
Now they’re pretty expensive but when we were buying them they were cheap as well, they were probably about £60 or something. Entry level. Second hand stuff. You forget that everyone was buying DX7s at that point, anything that didn’t have MIDI on it was considered redundant, not to us. The push of techno at that point made a lot of things affordable and attainable, for the first time.
Where did the saxophone come into the track? I think that’s the sort of thing that made mainstream radio understand it a little bit.
Yeah, well, I was doing another record at that point - I was in a group for many years called Biting Tongues who were on Factory Records and we always had horns in that band. The saxophone player had been in the studio the day before and had left his saxophone in the studio overnight and I kind of dabble with a lot of instruments, I played clarinet for years, and I just had a dabble with it basically. We were looking at getting a singer in, there was an open discussions where we said ‘this sounds great, it’s got a great atmosphere but it needs something’ and that something usually would be a vocal, something to focus it. It was an attempt to put a focal line into it, I never for an instant thought that it would be an acceptable thing.
And so you played the saxophone on it?
Wow, that’s a pretty big performance to have as yours!
Yeah, it’s not the most complicated thing to play that melody - the first version of Pacific is a really simple melody. By the time we re-recorded it for 90 we were involved with ZTT at that point, they always believed in this thing called the radio single and you have to format singles for radio which is not something we thought about when we did the original version on Quadrastate. By the time we got to re-record it it was probably about a year later and I’d been playing it a bit more by that point.
Basically it’s the rave version of Baker Street.
Well I live in a world where saxophones are pretty every day, for me the soprano sax links to things like John Coltrane. If you listen to that kind of spiritual jazz... One of the first scenes that Pacific State took to, or was championed by, was the acid jazz scene in London, the Gilles Peterson Sunday afternoons at Dingwalls, that was one of the first places where we got really positive feedback on that record. Those people know about the spiritual jazz thing and that voice, the soprano saxophone, was a lead voice in that kind of music, for me it has a big legacy of meaning something a little bit more than just a saxophone.
So there’s a depth given by the legacy.
Yeah, if you listen to a record like Thembi by Pharoah Sanders, the atmosphere of that record has a similar choice of chords to Pacific. It’s come from somewhere, it hasn’t just come from nowhere. You listen to records like Weather Report and a saxophone player called Wayne Shorter, to me, that’s one of the best voicings of the saxophone. Once you get to know his music and his imprint it becomes like a friends for life. Me and Gerald were really into these things, Gerald was a big fan of a record by Wayne Shorter with Milton Nascimento called Native Dancer and that was in the vocabulary as it were. When we were in the studio it was ‘make it more like that’, there are a number of reference records that go along with the music we were playing. The great thing about 808 State as well is that it was a bunch of DJs, Martin had the record shop and he would be constantly bringing in armfuls of records and we spent a lot of time in the studio simply listening to other people’s records and thinking about what certain ideas can bring to it. Brand new music that was coming out plus a whole legacy of music that we already knew.
One thing I think about that period, that first dance explosion that happened throughout the first half of the 90s, was that it was very forward looking. Now we seem to be in a stage where we’re reflecting a lot more.
Yeah, in a way, but no matter where you come in on the roundabout, you’ve always got past music. It didn’t feel like that at the time. We had all that music from the past, and some of it was fantastic, but it wasn’t a case of ‘we must sever that’. In terms of what was coming in on a weekly basis through the shop and the radio show that we had at that point, the shop supplied the radio show we had on Sunset FM which was a community station. It was a big show in Manchester, it was very influential, it had a big listenership. It wasn’t pirate but it had the same effect. People tuned in to see what had come out this week and a lot of it was import. When it first began it was almost 50% import but as time went on it became more and more UK, and international. Initially it was a dialogue with America and then it expanded out.
Have you ever been surprised about the longevity of Pacific? I speak to American artists now that quote that tune as having been a huge influence on them.
Yeah, well you never know that at the time. I’ve got a funny perspective on it, I’m often thinking ‘yeah, but we did other tunes’. It wasn’t our biggest tune, In Yer Face was a bigger hit as it were and seemed more important at the time. It felt like a more effective tool, if you know what I mean. It became something you could drop at that point, with Cubik as well, it felt like we’d cracked a code or something. Pacific did too. I remember that getting played as the last tune of the night in clubs in Manchester and it just felt like scoring a goal, it was brilliant. They’re like your kids, each one has a personality. You tend to think ‘oh why does everyone focus on that one?’ but that’s not for me to say. I still enjoy playing it, you can do things with that track in a different way every time you play it and I get a lot out of it. I never think ‘oh god, we’ve got to play that’ it’s more ‘oh great!’
And what other tracks from 90 are you particularly looking forward to performing?
Well there are some that we never perform and they’re going to be interesting, for instance 8080808 we’ve never tackled. It’s quite an aggro tune and I think we can do something. That might get changed a lot in the way we present it. Cobra Bora is one I enjoy playing, it has got a lot of nooks and crannys to it, it turns a lot of corners and it’s engaging to play for the band. Magical Dream, we’ve just come up with an idea that I don’t particularly want to reveal at this point- the girl who sang it originally was like 15 and it has kind of got this innocence to it, it’s not a diva thing so we can’t have a diva doing it, so I think we’ve come up with a solution to present that. We never used to do that live because we could never take one person out just to do one song. We did it once at a concert in Manchester, Bernard Sumner was doing his other tune so he said he’d have a go at doing that one and he did it and got all the words completely wrong, he just wooped and made stuff up over the top of it. It didn’t really work out. So we’ve not played that for a few years... Sunrise is going to be an interesting one because that’s got some possibilities for doing something really atmospheric and improvised as well. We’re probably going to do some after we do the cycle of the album, we’ll probably do a couple of bangers at the end anyway that aren’t on the album.
Catch 808 State at LEAF London on March 6th - details here