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Altern8: Old School Masters

Beat Herder Festival, an annual convention of the North's silliest and wonkiest smiles, sprawls itself giddily once more across the Lancashire countryside on the weekend of 15-17 July. A right panoply of nonsense, music, secret tunnels and pure cheek, it started as a free party organised by Toil Soundsystem and has grown to become 'the jewel in the crown of the North's festival calendar'. Mark Archer, founder member of Altern8, one of the most influential underground music acts of all time and at the forefront of original hardcore (now known simply as old school), talks to Alex Fenton-Thomas ahead of his debut set at the festival. It's been over 25 years since you started Altern8 with Chris Peat. The past ten years have seen a revived interest and demand for your old school hardcore sets at festivals. What's your experience of the festival circuit? I'd never been to a festival until 2006, when I played at Glade. It was just one of those perfect sets. Absolutely the right place, right time. Because it was Sunday night, people were looking for something different - they'd had enough of techno, DnB - and for a few hours everyone wanted old school. Sometimes you play a set and you just go through the motions. Even if you have a fantastic set up and great sound, if the crowd energy isn't there then you don't remember it. This set was fantastic and it set the bar for most festival bookings after that. My wife sorts out my bookings and she's usually milling about in the crowd, so she tells me what's been going on. She overhears people, who might have just walked in because I was playing LFO, say to their mates, 'We'll leave after this song,' and then go, 'Oh, wow, this one! We'll stay for this one!' and then just stay for the whole set. It's bad, because people might have plans but I've ruined them. I'm just absolutely flattered that I'm still being booked after 25 years. What have been your favourite events since starting playing at festivals? The Bang Face Weekender is special because the crowd are one in a million. The atmosphere is fantastic, completely no holds barred. It's one of those festivals where you're in chalets at a Pontins resort, and it's just really friendly bedlam. Someone told me they saw you get married at Bang Face this year. Everyone saw me get married at Bang Face this year. I mentioned to the organiser that we were thinking of having some kind of ceremony there and he said, 'Why don't you open the festival?' So there we were, me and Nikki, Nikki in a wedding dress and both of us wearing the Altern8 face mask with an 'A' on it, and thousands of people watching us get married. We had hymns that we had changed the words to - "give me joy in my heart keep me raving" was one of them - and everyone was singing along and joining in. They baptised four people in a dunk tank so they could be witnesses. Absolute joy and madness. Do you enjoy playing cosy venues or big stages? Well, probably my most memorable set of this period was playing the Arcadia spider at Glastonbury. It's a huge robotic spider made from old reclaimed engine parts from planes that shoots fire and towers over the crowd. I had already played this stage at Boomtown Fair the year before. That was another Sunday day time set, everyone milling about and a crowd slowly growing beneath me. So I wasn't expecting anything different for Glasto, really. I was climbing up to the booth, poked my head over the little wall and could see between 30 and 40,000 people surrounding me. Going back to 1990, you made a name for yourselves as being at the vanguard of an exciting underground rave scene, playing free parties and clubs across the country, but you were also distinctive because of what you wore. Yes, the masks. It started because before Altern8, Chris and I were making music influenced purely by Detroit techno and house under the name Nexus 21. We were booked to play a Bleep tour organised by Network Records and Warp. In fact, we were the only non-Sheffielders on that tour. Then, a few months after that, we got booked on the strength of a different style of release we had just put out. Originally this was meant to be under the name Alien8, but there was a mistake at the printers, so we became Altern8. We didn't want to go to the same clubs we had just been as Nexus 21 looking exactly the same, so we needed a disguise. It just so happened my brother was in the RAF and had two spare chemical suits, so that was that. There was no message or motive behind it at first. I just tippexed 'Altern8' onto the pocket and that was our costume. What was different about the music you were making as Altern8? The stuff we were releasing as Nexus 21 was purely influenced by Detroit. There was nothing else in there, really. The stuff that became the Altern8 sound was different because the influences were more varied. There was acid, 808 State in Manchester, acid house coming over from the US, but then Belgian and Italian house and also electro and hip hop. We grabbed everything, stuffed it all together and threw it out at the world. Your most famous tracks always liven up a room and that kind of old school rave is influencing young producers today. Sheffield's Off Me Nut Records have always been partial to the old school sound. What is it like mixing it with the youth of today? I did a Boiler Room set a few weeks ago and there was a crowd of 17 year olds going mad to the old rave tunes. Some of them thought it was a completely new kind of music, they were telling me after. Some of the comments underneath say, "Show the kids how it's done, Mark," but they don't need to be shown how it's done. People think the old rave scene is dead but it still happens now. Free parties still exist. It's the vibe that carries on. It hasn't finished. What was your first experience of free parties? They completely just appeared out of nowhere. I remember clubbing before house came on the scene, and it was all people in shirts and shoes wanting to kop off and get a kebab after. Then suddenly we're in dark rooms with a smoke machine and strobe lighting dancing to the same kind of music all night, acid house. 'Where did it come from?', we're asking ourselves. Then the whole clubbing experience is suddenly outside and you're part of this mad, huge community where all anyone wants to do is dance and everyone is into the same thing. But yeah, things like that still happen now. It's not died. You've never been to Beat Herder before. Did you know it started out as a free party? They've got a church there and a tattoo parlour next door. I've got a feeling you're going to enjoy it. No, never been but I'm really looking forward to it. A church? We can get those hymns out again then. A gig is only ever as good as the crowd, so I hope it's as bonkers as you describe. You can catch Mark Archer playing an Altern8 set at Beat Herder on Saturday 16 July. Mark's autobiography, The Man Behind The Mask, about his adventures in rave, is out on 1 August. )

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