Manchester’s acid house pioneers 808 State were due to play a bells-and-whistles live set in Cardiff on Sat 28 Mar… but they’re not, obviously. Nevertheless! Francesca Gardner talks to Andrew Barker and Graham Massey about Transmission Suite, their first studio album in nearly two decades.
Transmission Suite is your first album in 17 years. What made you step back inside the studio?
Andrew Barker: We didn’t even realise it was 17 years until we started speaking to journalists and they pointed it out. We were like – what, it’s been that long? However, we’ve not actually stopped as a band. Every day we’ve been out there, playing gigs all over the world. It took a bit of convincing to get back into the studio, but once we were there, we got to a point where we had to stop making music because we had four albums of material.
Graham Massey: Previously to that, we’d been producing at home. We got the studio off the back of Manchester International Festival. We were working with lots of different musicians, so needed a studio. Having set one up, we decided to continue with an 808 State project afterwards.
The new album is said to be inspired by your hometown Manchester’s past and present. Was that a deliberate decision or something that happened subconsciously?
GM: We didn’t intend to do that, but the old Granada TV Studios, where we recorded the album, had a massive influence over the project. It’s in an interesting area of Manchester with a lot of heavy history. There’s a Roman fort nearby overlooking an amphitheatre where we’ve played several gigs in the past. That’s next to the first ever railway station and the Science and Industry Museum, which is home to the world’s first computer. The studio itself was built on a Civil War burial pit, so there’s lots of ghost stories from people who’ve occupied the building – even from the security guard when we were there. Below our feet was the studio where the first television appearances from The Beatles, Sex Pistols and Joy Division were broadcast from, and ours too. All these intersections in history gave the album a kind of energy. It couldn’t really be a conscious decision.
AB: That works quite a lot with us. We always set off without a finished picture in mind and see what directions we go in. We ended up with an old Detroit techno sound on a lot of the album. However, Manchester was doing the same as Detroit at the time, so it felt right to use on certain tracks.
GM: Granada TV Studios used to have this huge aerial you could see from all over Manchester. It transmitted interesting and life-changing ideas. When you’re making music, you’re very susceptible to picking up on these things. That’s what creating and performing music is all about. You’re opening yourself up to an idea or energy, then transferring it to the rest of the world.
How would you say Manchester’s sound has changed over the time you’ve been making music? Where do you see 808 State fitting into this?
AB: We recently played at The Warehouse Project in Manchester and really fitted in with their ethos. The Warehouse Project always attracts young people, but then you had the older generation who’d come along because we were back out again. It was a good mix. Personally, I don’t see an age gap in the dance music scene. It feels ageless, with new generations coming in all the time. Everyone’s there for one reason, the music.
GM: We’ve been invited to play at gigs, like Nina Kraviz Presents and at The Warehouse Project, where the audience don’t really know who you are, but the music still works. I find that’s much more of a winning situation, when you’re testing out music on fresh ears. Does it matter what the history of the music is? No. Does it have an emotional impact straight away? Yes. Those things are important to me. We could never have predicted that a track like Pacific State would still be getting played 30 years later, but we want to make and perform new music too. There could be three generations of listeners in the crowd.
AB Our sons both make music and they have a big influence on what we’re doing. We play all our new stuff to them. They’re mates who also DJ together and supported us on our last tour.
GM: It’s a two-way street. I’m hearing new stuff coming from my son’s direction and he’s interested in my record collection and the history behind it. Innovation comes from rhythm. People say The Ludwig Question [taken from the new album] has a footwork sound, and it’s the change in rhythm that creates such a noticeable shift in style. Manchester has produced an incredible amount of diverse music. In a way, we feel like part of this legacy. We’ve been lucky to travel the world and understand that Manchester holds a special place in music. It’s not generic music, it’s very specialised and eclectic. Every band from Manchester is unmanufactured in some way. Well, apart from Take That.
There’s clearly influence from further afield in tracks such as Tokyo Tokyo. What inspired these aspects of the album?
AB: We spent a lot of time in Japan. When we were recording the album back in Manchester, that track started to sound like a piece of travel music, a train journey. The finishing touch was to add the voice of the station announcer over the top.
Electronic music production today is unrecognisable from when you first started out in the late eighties. What’s been the most exciting innovation in electronic music production and is there anything you miss?
AB: I wouldn’t say there’s anything I miss. We’ve always been on the side of new technology. Nowadays, you don’t need to go into an expensive studio – everything’s produced within a computer. We work slightly differently than we used to. Now everything is quick, accessible. You can pull any sound you want in a couple seconds rather than lugging equipment around. It makes it possible for anyone to make music. You don’t have to be in a studio, you could be in your spare room.
GM: We’re at a point now where the equipment we started out with is being reintroduced in a modern form. Roland TR-808 and 909 drum machines, 303 bassline synthesisers – they’ve all come back and are much more connectable. Computers are more powerful and reliable; technology has never been more transportable. In the early days, it was a nightmare bringing equipment out with us. Something would always go wrong and, the bigger the gigs got, the worse that felt. Now, you can take more risks, so we do.
If you had any advice for someone starting out in electronic music production today what would that be?
AB: There’s so many people making electronic music nowadays, I think it’s difficult for you to find a gap unless you have a team of promoters behind you. I wouldn’t say don’t do it, but don’t make it your full-time job to start with.
GM: We were very fortunate to ride this big wave in at the end of the eighties, beginning of the nineties. Electronic music was a brand-new page of possibility. We’ve had thirty years of it now, and it’s a lot harder to stand out and make a statement with your music. It’s quite easy to make a dance music track that sounds like something a DJ might play. So many people can do that. But to make a record that has an emotional impact on a Saturday night, in the right place, at the right time – that’s the quest.
808 State’s rescheduled tour dates are due to be announced soon. Listen to Transmission Suite here in the meantime.