Altern 8 Interview: Reactiv-8

Marko Kutlesa sits down with rave royalty.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 27th Jun 2016

Image: Altern 8

Mark Archer is a pivotal figure in the history of British rave. Not that he ever set out with such high aspirations. A music mad teen living in a village outside Stafford, he was influenced by what local scene existed there in the 80s and began experimenting with samplers making breakbeat and early house music.

He founded early British dance duo Bizarre Inc alongside then friend Dean Meredith (Chicken Lips) before leaving the group shortly after the release of their first single on Blue Chip Recordings (the label run from the Blue Chip Studios in Stafford where they recorded).

Mark then formed Nexus 21, a Detroit techno inspired duo, with Chris Peat. They released the classic 'Still Life Keeps Moving' single, which went on to be released by KMS in the America where it was remixed by MK, Carl Craig and KMS owner Kevin Saunderson.

After releasing their debut album Nexus 21 signed with Network Records, a label run by northern soul DJ Neil Rushton which was responsible for the first UK releases of many Detroit techno artists. 

During his studio experimentations with Peat, Mark Archer created a sound that didn't fit so easily with the Detroit techno template Nexus 21 were following. It was decided that these experimental sounds should be released under a different alias, although after one was chosen, that alias was misspelled on the record produced and was returned with the artist's name as Altern 8.

Altern released their first record in 1990 and its importance cannot be overstated. The Overload EP was an 8 track 12” that took the Detroit techno template but added breakbeats and recognisable vocal and musical samples to the mix.

This nonintellectual, but charming and euphoric sound chimed with the emerging British rave scene and is one of the foundations of British breakbeat rave music (which in turn gave rise to jungle and drum n' bass).

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Altern 8 released several more singles in the early 90s and tracks such as 'Activ-8', 'E-vapor-8', 'Frequency', 'Brutal-8-E' and 'Infiltrate 202' became classics on the British rave scene.

The duo's efforts as Altern 8 far surpassed the success they'd had as Nexus 21 and they were called upon to provide PAs at raves, club nights and even on Top Of The Pops, with Chris and Mark appearing on stage in Altern 8 branded chemical warfare suits and face masks. This look was an iconic marker of the British rave era and the band's closest contemporaries at the time of the release of their only album Full On Mask Hysteria were The Prodigy. 

Altern 8 split up in 1994 but Archer continued to record under various aliases both solo and in collaboration, producing the club hit 'Bells Of New York' as Slo Moshun in 1993. In 1999 Archer appeared as Altern 8 for the first time in 6 years for a requested live PA.

In the last half decade Altern 8 have been remixed by the likes of Soulwax, Radioactive Man, DJ Marky, Posthuman, KiNK, Mark Broom, Neil Landstrumm and Ceephax Acid Crew. Some of the music has been re-released on Balkan Vinyl and, thanks to a 2013 campaign to get their 1991 'Activ-8' song back in the charts, the act are in the process of re-releasing more of their music and have a busy schedule of PAs ahead of them.

We caught up with Mark Archer to talk about his inspirations and his career in music before this summer's Altern 8 festival and rave appearances including a headline turn at Back to the Old Pool.

I read that you became interested in DJ culture through a local club and because of a lack of opportunities there, you bought a sampler. What was the club?

This was back in Stafford. When I first started going out. I had no idea at school what I wanted to do, when I left my dad wanted me to be a painter and decorator. I couldn't stand it, but it was what he did so I fell into it. 

When I started going out, in late 84/85, there was one club, called Top Of The World, which was an old kind of Ritzy type place. There was a DJ there, all I knew was his name was Nigel and he used to play across the board, a bit of indie, The Cure, The Cult, stuff like that, some chart stuff and then some dance stuff, which he would mix together.

So, you'd have an hour that was soul, funk and a bit of electro or whatever. I'd already learned to mix using one tape player and one deck, the basics. But there was no breaks in Stafford to get in anywhere. I don't think I had the bottle anyway to go up and say 'I can DJ.'

Where did you get a sampler from?

The first sampler I ever got was a little Casio SK1. There was a Dixons in Stafford, I walked past it one day and it was the featured item in the window.

I'd heard the word sampling being bandied about and read all the information on the box which said that you could sample anything into it. It didn't have any disk drive, no memory storage. It had a little condenser microphone on it so that, if you held it near to a speaker, you could sample part of a record.

There was no way of editing it, you just had to press the button at the right time. I used to sample loads of different noises from house records, like a bass sound or whatever. We'd play a drum track on a set of decks, play basslines over it, then record it. We'd then play that tape back through the mixer and add more, overdubbing it.

The quality wasn't brilliant, but that was the first tracks Dean and me were working on. That was 1988.

The soundtrack of Top Of The World sounds very eclectic. Do you remember a time when house music or electronic dance music started to come into that mix?

Yeah. The DJ there wasn't massively upfront, but it was the first place I heard a lot of the house music that was coming out. I really liked the soul, funk then electro, then there was that tune 'Set It Off' by Strafe and Harlequin Fours and there was a cover version of it by Masquerade. That was kind of an early 4/4 thing.

But when the house stuff came in, at first I thought it was a bit weird, but after hearing more of it, going round to people's houses where they'd play mix tapes, I got more into it.  'House Nation', 'Jack Your Body', tracks like that. They used to play stuff like that at Top Of The World.

There was a pub that we used to go in before called Dappers where the DJ was from out of town, he was based at the airforce base in Stafford and he used to play more underground electro and other imported early house. But it wasn't until a night called Frenzy started in Stoke On Trent in 1988 that we could go to something that was dedicated all night to that music. And you could go in jeans and an acid house t shirt. That was when everything turned on its head. 

Do you remember any noticeable difference in the sound of what you were hearing at that night compared to stuff that you'd already heard earlier in the charts like “Jack Your Body”, Marrs, Bomb the Bass?

It was far more underground. At Top Of The World it was just the bigger house tunes, stuff that charted. But at Frenzy it was underground house music from the minute you walked in.

I knew a few of them, 'Voodoo Ray', 'Show Me What You Got' by Street Level Funk, which was a London thing, Night Writers 'Let The Music Use You', Faze 2 'Reachin', that was a huge tune there. I was always into buying records and there was a few of us that were into it, like Dean (Meredith). So I was buying some, but there were so many that I was introduced to there. 

The guys who were Djing there, Colin Curtis, who was a northern soul DJ and was a bit older and a young lad called Daz Willot who had started a record shop and had access to all the records coming in. His tune selection was brilliant. The mixing was awful, but his tunes were fantastic. 

It's interesting you mention Colin because that link between the northern soul scene and the rave scene cropped up again when you started recording at Blue Chip studios, which was owned by northern soul DJ Kev Roberts.

Yeah, and again when we signed to Network because Neil Rushton was a northern soul DJ. It seemed as though people who were there in a scene before us were kinda wise to this new thing coming over from America.

It was something fresh. I don't know whether they all saw it the same. I know that Kev had a perspective that if something was in the charts and was going to make money, then that's what we're going to do. Whereas Neil Rushton was genuinely passionate about the music.

When he went to Detroit, trawling through records for northern soul tunes, someone played him some of the techno and he really got it and thought we've got to get some of this back to the UK. Obviously money was involved on some level, but Neil was way more passionate about the actual music. 

From some of the things you've said it seemed you and Dean were pretty tight for quite a few years. Why then did you leave Bizarre Inc? 

Yeah, we were. We were mates from the breakdancing days. I used to ride in from where I lived, on my moped, park my bike up and go round town looking for these guys who used to breakdance and Dean was one of them.

He always used to have the tapes, so I found out quickly that he was the DJ. He taught me a lot about scratching, stuff like that. We were good mates. We started doing the acid stuff in 1988, but we did breakbeat stuff too. But then we decided to do some Mr Fingers 'Washing Machine' style stuff, some more techno inspired stuff and we called it Bizarre Inc. We did an album and chose a track to become a 12”.

'Time To Get Funky' got to number 100 in the chats, which is nothing now, but that was our first thing where we saw something we'd done printed in a magazine, we were in the official UK top 100. For some strange reason Dean then decided he wanted to go solo, but instead of saying he wanted to go solo, is that ok, he told Kev Roberts that I'd been nicking discs from the studio. So, I unceremoniously got the sack from my job as the engineer at the studio and Dean carried on with Bizarre Inc.

So, I presume that was the end of that friendship?

Yeah, pretty much.

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Being a Detroit techno fan you must have been aware of KMS before they licensed “Still Life Keeps Moving On”. How did you feel about that happening with Carl Craig, Marc Kinchen and Kevin Saunderson remixing it?

When you are buying records and playing records like that, they were your musical heroes. You aspire to do things like that. When we first signed to Network and Neil Rushton took us out for a meal so we could discuss stuff, on the way there Neil put this tape on. It was called 'Prelude To A Rave' by Kevin Saunderson.

Kevin can't even remember doing the mix, I've mentioned it to him before. There's a section where he plays the acapella of one of the Inner City tracks and mixes 'Still Life Keeps Moving On' into it. So, I'm sat in the back of this car listening to Kevin Saunderson play one of my tunes and it totally blew my head.

Then Network said they were going to send us over to Detroit and we went, to work in the KMS Studios. I knew about the labels and all the people, they were who I wanted to emulate. Next minute we're actually stood in Detroit and they're all there, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Anthony Shakir, Chez Damier.

I was gobsmacked for an entire week, I could hardly speak. I was only 21. Carl Craig, Marc Kinchen and Kevin Saunderson remixed it and that was apparently the first remix Carl had ever done. From doing the Blue Chip stuff, where we didn't even know if people were buying the records, how many had sold, we made no money off them to being signed to Network, being in Detroit and having tunes out on KMS, it was a massive difference. 

What did you actually record in Detroit?

We did about 4 tracks out there. One of them came out on the Progressive Logic EP which had “Self Hypnosis” on one side and “Real Love” on the other, plus a track called “Together” and that was the one. But the other three tracks have never come out. We did a vocal track with Donna Black and then two instrumentals. We're just in the process now of getting them remastered and looking to put them out. 

Did you go to The Music Institute while you were out there?

The nights while we were there, there wasn't anything on. It was somewhere we wanted to go. Neil had been a few times and said how good it was.

Apparently “Real Love” had been played there and derrick May had asked “who are these fuckers who stole my record? I'm gonna break their legs” but Neil had calmed him down, said that we were cool and that he'd signed them. It's one place I would have loved to have gone but unfortunately didn't.

 Would you say that “Still Life Keeps Moving On” followed a blueprint of what Kevin Saunderson was trying to do with Inner City?

Totally. All we could hear was what was coming out of Detroit, I was collecting Detroit tunes. We had no access to the kind of technology they had to make the records, unlike people like 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald.

They knew the gear that was needed to replicate those kinds of sounds. At Blue Chip we had nothing at all, so we were sampling a lot of the sounds direct from the Detroit tracks. “Big Fun” and “Good Life” had been in the charts, we knew we were supposed to do a vocal tune. It turned out to be one of the biggest tracks from the album. 

 A lot of that Detroit techno stuff and even UK stuff like 808 State was 4/4 based. Where did the inspiration and the idea to put breakbeats into that music come from?

We had so many ideas, we always wanted to experiment. We weren't trying to push any boundaries, a lot of these things were done  by mistake. No one set out to make a tune so someone could say “This is the start of jungle”, nobody was looking to do anything deliberately out of the norm. It was just experimentation.

If we had 11 tracks on an album and 9 of them had a similar 4/4 drum pattern, we wouldn't have any more techno loops to sample, let's use one of these breaks from the Simon Harris breakbeat albums. On that “Detroit B Boy” track we tried to do a 303 line, but we didn't have a 303, so it was the closest we could get a 101 to sound like that.

It was more hip hop sounding, hence the name. We weren't trying to be clever, we just ran out of techno ideas.

What happened to the second Nexus 21 album that you completed?

We recorded pretty much everything for that album, picked a single to go out, we had two vocal tracks. They went to put that out but we'd sampled a massive chunk of an acapella for it and got totally stung for that vocal. We were going to have to give away almost all the publishing for it, despite Neil arguing that the acapella accentuated the tune, it wasn't making the whole tune.

So, it all got embroiled in that sort of thing and by the time the white labels had come back the single had been pulled. It just got to the point where we were so much with the Altern 8 thing, we were doing PA's pretty much every week, it just got shelved and by the time we got round to listening to it again it just sounded dated.

The sound had moved on from what we did with the first album. When we went into the studio to do that first LP, all I took with me was Detroit techno records. Because the rave scene had expanded so much since that first one, the second one got influenced by lots of different stuff. There were clunky, Sheffield influenced bleep sounds on there, some more Italian plinky plonky stuff, there wasn't one particular sound. It's probably best that it didn't come out.

 Do you think the sound of Nexus 21 and Altern 8 owed a debt to being part of that period where everything was all part of the same rave scene, rather than being from that later era in the 90s where everything kinda split off and it all got a lot more genre specific?

The good thing about that era was that everything could get played in one night. It didn't matter if it was Detroit techno, Chicago acid, Italian piano, loads of different kinds of stuff. The first Nexus 21 album the sound of it was quite specific, but we didn't worry about it not getting played.

Whereas now I think people do try and make things for a specific scene in order that it does get played. Because it was far more open then, you didn't feel like you had to stick to one particular sound, you knew it was that eclectic. You'd get Soul II Soul played next to a Belgian techno track and that was normal. 

That breakbeat hardcore sound that Altern 8 was for many the start of a path to jungle music. Why do you think that was a direction you never followed yourself?

I did on a small scale. I was doing DJ Nex stuff at the same time as Altern 8. I started up a side label that went through Network, there was two branches of it 'Stafford South' and 'Stafford North', which was basically just the motorway signs either side of Stafford, junction 13 and junction 14.

The first DJ Nex thing was a breakbeat hardcore tune in 92 and then in 93 I did a follow up called the Poundstretcher EP, because it had 8 tracks on it. It was good value for money. That was leaning more towards jungle, really cut up breaks and lots of sub bass. But the scene from that point went quite dark. A lot more people were able to get hold of the equipment to make tunes and the quality control of the scene went down.

There were a lot of chipmunk style vocals, things weren't necessarily in key because the people making them weren't necessarily that musical. I just wasn't enjoying that kind of music at that time. I didn't feel it was something that as Altern 8 we could follow. We'd got to a certain point in our career. We did “Brutal-8-E”, the last single taken off the album and it peaked at number 40. When you get to a point where your singles aren't doing as well as your previous ones, people lose interest in you, write you off as a one hit wonder.

Rather than flog it we thought we'd just stop it and revert back to being Nexus 21, concentrate on that and start again without the suits, away from the rave scene. But, unfortunately by that time, mine and Chris's working relationship had got to breaking point and nothing came out of the sessions at all. We stopped working together soon after.

When you started off you were peers of The Prodigy. Was their massive early success something that was intimidating to live up to? 

Everyone compares us to The Prodigy. When the rave thing was going on there were so many big groups, there were loads of tunes coming out, Shades Of Rhythm, SL2, Bizarre Inc, but everyone puts us up against The Prodigy. When we stopped they changed, their sound completely changed.

I guess Liam's not got anyone in the group to fall out with when he's making tunes. Unfortunately me and Chris stopped getting along. Who knows what would have happened had we carried on? It was a big decision to stop. It's nice when people say that the two big rave albums of that era were The Prodigy Experience and “Full On Mask Hysteria”

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The next big track for you was “Bells Of NY” by Slo Moshun. That's a very clean sounding production, refined and inspired by American house music. It's very much the antithesis of that lo-fi, amateurish breakbeat rave sound you were just talking about. Was that your reaction to the way that music had gone and wanting to move away from that?

Well, I'd started working with Danny Taurus and I'd stopped going to rave hardcore events. There was this DJ called Pete Bromley in Stoke who was playing a little night in Stafford and MC Lethal, who had made a few hardcore records, he was going and asked me to come. I thought why not? Pete was playing all this American house and garage stuff and it just suddenly hit me.

I really liked it, started buying loads of US stuff like Masters At Work, Mood II Swing and Danny, who had helped me with one of the mixes on Stafford North, was into exactly the same sound, so we started working together. I'd started up another pseudonym called Xen Mantra, which was quite cheeky, bumpy house stuff, a lot of Todd Terry type samples.

I'd done this one track that was a lot more classy and Danny had said I shouldn't put it out as Xen mantra, it was far too good, I should put it out as something else. So we worked on a b side for it and that turned out to be “Bells of NY” Again it was a bit of an accident, someone had asked me to do a hip hop beat for them, a bit of production work, so I did it and Danny said it was too good to give away. So we worked out a way to get down from a house track to that. That was made at home in a bedroom on similar kind of gear we'd done all the Altern 8 tracks on.

We mailed it out ourselves, because we were trying to make it look like an American tune, there was a lot of snobbery at that time that American stuff was far superior to anything coming out on a British label. So we came up with false names, a false record label and everything. Dave Seaman wrote back that it was terribly produced, which was nice.

Many other people commented that it was really clean. Mark Gamble who was in Rhythmatic and Krush is so into his sounds and he asked how I'd got the 909 kick sounding like that. I'm the complete opposite of Mark, “Frequency” for example is in mono, it's six samples, it's not panned left or right, there's no effects, no EQ, it's just six raw samples, that's it. And that's one of the big Altern 8 tunes, you play it now and it goes off.

 As you've mentioned “Frequency” I must ask you if you've heard that metal tribute version that's been done of it?

No. Someone's mentioned it. I remember a few years back when that whole nu rave thing happened with The Klaxons, there was a group called Trash Fashion and they did a cover of “Evapor-8”. I've heard the Soulwax version of “Frequency”, but not this metal one.

I'm not the biggest fan of metal but I really like it, it's very good.

Why did you decide to reactiv-8 the Altern 8 name?

The original line up dissolved in 1994 and in 1999 I was asked to do a PA in Nottingham, there was a bit of a revival scene starting that's been going ever since. I told the promoter we'd split up but he said, it doesn't matter who's wearing the suits as long as you play the tunes. So, we did the PA and it was most of the original stage team, but obviously Chris wasn't there and one of the original dancers couldn't make it. It was like we hadn't stopped.

It was like we'd done a PA the week before. It was exactly the same, even down to the crap production by the promoter and all the things that could go wrong, which did go wrong. Since then I've DJ'd using the name. But it's only since that campaign in 2013, where someone wanted to get “Activ-8” back in the charts, that it was fully sorted out. I obviously had to contact Neil Rushton in order to get “Activ-8” up on iTunes and talk about doing remixes and he said that if I wanted to do PAs as Altern 8, I could do, because they had thought up the name.

There'd been a lot of difficulties with Chris not wanting me to use the name, but we were originally supposed to be called Alien 8 but when the first EP came back it had the name spelled wrong. So, the label had thought up the name and said they were happy for me to use it. If I'd stopped the PAs and the DJing I thought that scene might just die and that would be a shame.

I don't know if you saw the Boiler Room thing I did the other week, but there were two techno DJs on first, then Lone played and his stuff is really influenced by the whole breakbeat hardcore scene, his new album's fantastic. It just followed really well, seeing where that kind of music had come from. There were kids in the crowd who were saying “Where can I buy this?”, thinking it was new, but the tunes are 25 years old. It's still relevant to today's scene.

I've seen in secondhand record shops that Altern 8 stuff always sells, the album's quite sought after. Would there be an opportunity for younger fans to buy it again?

We're actually remastering the original album. We're hoping to bring that out as a four piece vinyl, giving a much better sound to the tracks that were on the album that weren't loud enough to play out. After that we're hoping to put it all online. 

 Why do you think there's an enduring interest in that era of British rave?

I think the whole acid and rave thing was born out of the last great youth movement. Plus the fact the tunes have got a very euphoric nature. There's not a lot of stuff like that about now. When you've had a night of techno and musically the highlight has been when the kickdrum when out and came back in and the party goes off again, that stuff is a sharp comparison. It's got all these euphoric elements, everyone's putting their arms up in the air, it's a totally different kind of feeling. 

Altern 8 play Back to the Old Pool festival on Saturday 2nd July, get tickets from the box below. 

Like this? Check out Simon Shackleton to bring house and techno to the river Thames