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The Festival Experience with... 808 State

We caught up with Mancunian electronica innovator Graham Massey to talk about being petrified at Glastonbury, the Hacienda's role as a 'youth club' and reminiscing about Detroit with Derrick May.

Henry Lewis

Last updated: 8th Jun 2017

Image: Brett Villena, courtest of Moogfest

It's been 30 years since Graham Massey, Martin Price and Gerald Simpson formed as Hit Squad MCR, a collective of 3 separate hip-hop crews, with the idea of becoming an all conquering group. Not too long after, the trio renamed themselves after the iconic Roland TR-808 drum machine and released debut album Newbuild the following year. A release that went on to inspire the likes of Aphex Twin and an entire electronica movement. 

Simpson departed the band in 1989, as he focused on solo project A Guy Called Gerald (a name he originally started working under before joining 808 State). Following this, the remaining members brought in Darren Partington and Andrew Barker.

What followed was the release of 'Pacific State', which Gerald co wrote, and the birth of one of the greatest dance music tracks of all time, with its infectious and insistent beats, beguiling birdsong sample and that sax hook it truly is a masterpiece.

A string of acclaimed records followed in the 1990's and along the way the band worked alongside the likes of Bjork, Manic Street Preachers' James Dean Bradfield and Bernard Sumner, before releasing 2002's Outpost Transmission. They also hooked up with local rapper MC Tunes on 1990 album The North At Its Heights and throughout the years have continued to innovate with heaps of genius edits and a string of other collaborative efforts.

The group are still active by touring and playing DJ sets - this summer the band take on a duo of shows in their home city of Manchester, performing a huge live set at The Hacienda Classical after show at Albert Hall on Saturday 1st July, then later in the summer an unmissable slot at Moovin Festival which takes place between Friday 25th - Sunday 27th August

As we look ahead to these dates, we spoke to founding member Graham Massey about some of his most memorable festival experiences.

Hi Graham how are you? What have you been up to? I've seen across social media you played Moogfest, what was that like?

I’m currently writing an hour’s worth of music for the opening event at Manchester International Festival. It’s a choreographed theatre piece from Manchester based Quarantine Theatre and artist Jeremy Dellar called “What Is A City But Its People?” and features residents of Manchester and their unique blend of stories presented on a huge catwalk and giant video walls etc. This will be a free open air event in Piccadilly Gardens in the centre of the city on June 29th at 18.30 pm.

Andrew is currently organising Bez’s Acid House which is a stage he does annually at Glastonbury’s UnFairground. He’s booking the DJs and stage managing the event, as well as DJing. He gets some big names tipping in to play because the heart of the festival is in those outer fields.

We just spent a week at Moogfest which was perfect for us, talk about a niche target audience. It’s been over 15 years since we’ve played in the States. We used to do the whole tour bus thing back when we were on Tommy Boy Records, so it was reassuring that we were welcomed back in North Carolina with great enthusiasm. 

We played the opening night then also gave a 2 hour onstage interview the following day. We met some of the Moog engineers who knew our music in great depth and were raving away. We had been working with them on a secret project to launch a new Moog synth called The Subsequent 37 CV at the festival.

The idea being that some of the participating artists programmed some presets for it. So if you buy the production model you get 30x 808 State presets, plus others by Survive (who did the soundtrack to Stranger Things) and also Simian Mobile Disco.

People were surprised to learn that we knew the Simian guys from their Uni days in Manchester - James Ford was 808 State’s drummer for a number of years, I was also in Homelife (Ninja Tunes) & Toolshed (Finders Keepers). So it was great to see them and catch up.

We also ran into Derrick May on the street and reminisced about when we first went to Detroit and he looked after us 26 years ago. Suzanne Ciani did a great set on her Buchla Synth; I had had randomly met her in a pub in Marple Bridge last year we shared some curry and chips. Votel puts a lot of her back 60s & 70s catalogue out on Finders Keepers Records, which is why she was in Marple (country village outside of Manchester).

Your Twitter bio says "Electronica band that pioneered Acid House back in 1987" - what was the dance music scene like back then, and how does it differ 30 years on? Are you still as pioneering as ever?

Well I'm not sure if we said that,and I'm not sure who wrote our Wiki biog to be honest but it needs re addressing on several fronts. I guess we did pioneer acid in the UK, but acid house was definitely in existence when we started. Our first album Newbuild broke through thanks to John Peel on BBC Radio one. 

I remember he used to come up record shopping at Piccadilly Records and Eastern Bloc which of course is where Martin Price was ready to convince him of our record’s importance. Peel got a lot of mail and calls about it but it did not sell in huge numbers on that first run. By the mid 90s second hand copies were silly expensive. Richard & Grant at Reflex Records were keen to do a re-issue, they pressed the original single piece of vinyl across 3 pieces of 180 gram, and did a great re-master in 1999.

We did not hang about too long in the acid house mode, ‘Newbuild’ and a couple of 12 inches (there is a posthumous set of demo and radio /live recordings as Prebuild).

By the time we did ‘Quadrastate’ in 1989 we were looking for a new identity, mostly as a reaction to whatever new technology we had got hold of – which would have been an Atari1040, A Casio FZ 1 sampler, the D50 synth. ‘Quadrastate’ started out as a Peel Session, he was going to let us produce it in MCR, butt BBC union rules would not allow that. This was all before we signed up with ZTT. 

I think when people refer to 808 State as being pioneering it’s more to do with being one of the first dance acts to have album success, getting some mighty weird tunes on day time radio, presenting ourselves in large concert situations as an instrumental electronic act. We covered a lot of new ground in the white heat of rave, we did not have a lot of contemporaries around at that point for guidance, but we did feel part of a wider international movement in electronic music.

It was pre-internet so the bush telegraph were the record shops and clubs. We were being fed with inspirational records weekly and it was a time where we could use the brand new music technology to directly effect a shift in our culture, music was working in a new way and people were open to the new.

What three things make for a great dance music festival and why?

From a performers point of view - great sound, better logistics (there is a tendency to put on too many acts with no consideration for change over times, modern table top set ups need a proper sound check and festivals still treat it like you’re a guitar band). A kinder approach to audiences, we understand that security is important but a polite approach to venue management makes a big difference.

Which festivals abroad do you like playing at the most?  Which countries are your favourite to play in and visit?

I would say The Netherlands put on great festivals, always well organised with a great vibe, I was very impressed with Dekmantel last year.

I had some great experiences playing French festivals with Paddy Steer’s group Homelife (who were on Ninja Tunes) back in the early 2000s. Some were like Rennes, which has always been so well curated, but others were up in mountain villages in the south, a village square and we were playing next to Taraf De Haidouks, a great gypsy band, that was really special. Mars Attack in Marseille was a great one, we did that with Toolshed and Homelife.

Closer to home, you're playing at this year's Moovin festival - it's a home fixture for you two right? Does that make it more enjoyable?

I hope it will be enjoyable, weather permitting, I’ve never been to this festival but I’m aware of it growing from a one-day event in a park to a farm based weekend.

My son’s crew used to go to it, they are going up a gear this year. We know the organisers so it does feel like a family affair.

Black Grape are also there, I bet you've had some fun with Shaun and Kermit back in the day…?  

You would think so, we have played many events with Happy Mondays all over the planet but personally I’ve never really had a conversation with Shaun – the other 808 guys probably know him better. When we started out putting on Hip Hop nights in Manchester in 1987, he was in The Ruthless Rap Assassins who were by far the best crew in town.

MC Tunes lived across the street from them and learnt a lot from them. Me and Gerald made a track with the Rap Assassins called “Z Bend” on an LP by Edward Barton called ‘Edward Not Edward’ which I think is very special. Also a track by Kermit’s sister is on that LP – she had a group called Kiss AMC.

What are your earliest festival memories, did you go to a festival as a DJ or a punter first? Where did you first go?

My first festival was Reading Festival in 1975, so a pre-punk line up. I went because Hawkwind were headlining, so were YES, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra were also on. I remember John Peel comparing it. I was 15 and it was great experience with my mate from school pitched up by the River Thames. 

The first festival I played at was Deeply Vale '78, a legendary free festival in the hills around Rochdale. I played 4 times in 3 bands. It was the hippy meets punk meets reggae era, all counter cultures had to hang together for strength back then.

We used to hang about with Here & Now and do squat gigs on their circuit back then, it was good schooling and got us out of Manchester a bit.There is a TV doc about Deeply Vale that Granada TV made about 10 years back, called “Truly Madly Deeply Vale”. Also a box set of CDs and a book lovingly put together by Chris Hewitt, the original organiser. The Fall, Misty In Roots, The Durutti Column, Steve Hillage, Danny & The Dressmakers, quite a mix.

Who are the best acts you have witnessed at a festival?

We did a festival in Brazil in 1997 called The Free Jazz Festival. It was in two cities - Sau Paulo and Rio. There was a group with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Jack De Johnette and Dave Holland – that was special. Bjork headlined and she was at a point where her band was really great, the one with Trevor Morais on drums, and Plaid doing the electronics. Isaac Hayes was also on. We were pretty good, Alison Goldfrapp was singing for us on this trip.

Another memorable festival for me was Autechre’s ATP at Camber Sands in 2003. A band curated festival that worked well, there was a severe lack of rubbish bands, everything was interesting. It’s one people still talk about as a peak of the electronica scene.

Overall what is the most memorable thing you have experienced at a festival?

It’s a little known fact that 808 State were the last band on at Glastonbury '92. Playing that seems like a dream now, largely because there is no film or recording or photos. Note - we managed to find a tiny snippet of 808 State at Glastonbury 1992, it begins at 40 seconds and features them playing Olympic State (Heavy Bass Euromix).

The BBC did not cover it like they do now. I remember being petrified. It was the first year that the dance culture had an impact on the festival, I think The Shamen and the Orb also had top slots. It seemed that it was a true representation of the counter culture shift at that time.

Gerald and I played as Rebuild a couple of years back on the Temple Stage in the outer fields – it was all running late due to weather, we went on just as the sun was coming on, crammed into a DJ box with a ton of the old equipment and did a steamy acid jam for 90 minutes. I don't think people could see us or knew what was going on but we’ve got a good recording.

When you play festivals, there's a good chance you'll play in front of first time fans - what is the best way to make a good impression in front of a festival crowd? 

I love playing to people on a first time basis, they listen in a pure way, no baggage. Our mission is to pop people's heads – if we get 10 of them its a success, if you get 10,000 all the better. You’ve just got to deliver honest music, most people are open to that anywhere on the planet.

You're also involved in the Hacienda Classical aftershow at Albert Hall - as genuine Hacienda icons, just how special are nights like that for you having produced one of the most seminal records of the Hacienda era?

I’m not really in a sentimental mood at Hacienda events, it takes a lot of being in the now to deliver our show. There’s enough heritage in our set list to address some nostalgia but we are also trying out new material at the moment. There is a family vibe to the audience and organisation that puts us in a comfortable place to experiment. I think the true spirit of the Hacienda was a laboratory for experiments.

It was definitely a world cup goal scoring moment to have one of our records as last tune of the night when the Hacienda was at its craziest, but some of those early Tuesday nights with 20 people in the place were just as important. The Hacienda served as a youth club at times, it was not all hedonism, there was a lot of talking, it was a community centre. It was a brave place that nurtured new ideas; I try to remember that.

Find tickets for Hacienda Classical Aftershow at Albert Hall On Saturday 1st July.

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