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Interview: 808 State: Electronic Originators Celebrate 30 Years

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I have a sinking feeling as Graham Massey answers the phone that he wasn't quite expecting me.

I'm certain that I've called at the designated time, so I'm worried when a rather cautious Mancunian voice speaks at the other end. On realising that I'm not a cold caller, Massey opens by saying that he had headphones on and was in the process of preparing for the eagerly anticipated 808:30 tour.

The nine-date run celebrates 808 State's first appearance on the scene with their seminal Newbuild LP, a seven-track album that was rightfully heralded as a solid foundation for British house and techno. I started by asking him about the forthcoming tour.

The tour is a 30th anniversary. What can fans expect?

There hasn't been a year when we've not played. It's not like we've had a gap and we're coming back. I just wanted to start again with the set and approach it in a different way. You end up with a set that works by playing it out in the field but eventually you polish it a little bit too much, so it almost gets to the point that you have to break it so that the group can enjoy it in a different way.

I wouldn't know what to expect at this moment, apart from the fact that we will have all of the major tunes in the set, which we don't mind as they're great to play. We also want to put some of the new stuff into the set, but we know we can't overdo that. We want to pick some tracks that have not had an airing before and deliver some hybrids of tracks, as the technology has developed a lot in recent years which allows us to improvise a bit more than we could do in the past.

Parts of the set are quite off-road. It is important that we engage with the music and project that into the crowd. I'm looking forward to it myself.

I saw you backstage at Camp Bestival and was impressed with how long you spent checking that everything was set up OK. Is this a typical Graham Massey trait?

Yeah, it's called anxiety - especially at festivals, as it can be like a sausage factory as you get rolled on and off the stage with very little time. I'm looking forward to this as it's our own tour and we're in charge of the production. We can take all of the gear that we need this time.

When we started there weren't too many journalists writing about [dance music]

House and techno seem to be going through a renaissance right now. Are you listening to much fresh music?

Yeah, it's quite cross-generational at the moment in that we're not just playing to our own generation. This music is bridging the gap. We have guys like Bicep getting in touch and wanting to remix 'In Yer Face', and I was really surprised with the reaction to that. They took the track in their own direction to fit their kind of set with that remix. I'm impressed with how large-scale these young groups are.

For many years our drummer was a guy called James Ford, who went on to be part of Simian Mobile Disco and one of the most successful young producers, working with the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Klaxons. It's kind of telling that both mine and Andrew's sons are into electronic music and both are going to be our warm-up DJs on tour. Our support artist, Lone, is someone whose sister used to play our music as a young kid and he's grown up with electronic music. It's second nature to him. He's doing astonishingly well DJing and making music on the circuit.

What do you think looking back over the last 30 years?

We were on the BBC Can You Feel It documentary. It was interesting to see this condensed history of a scene we were involved in, but one that rapidly moved on to this club world that I wasn't interested in.

When you condense the history of dance music it shows there are so many areas to it that young people can explore. The writing of the history of dance music is important to have, to give some kind of guide to help people navigate it. When we started there weren't too many journalists writing about it. The British music press almost left dance music out of the picture for a while. We are part of that history and we kicked open a few doors, but it was those who came after that who became really established.

Are you working on any other projects outside of 808 State?

I always have worked on projects outside of 808 State. We're keen to get this new stuff out into the world.

We have a studio in the old Granada TV studios in Manchester, if you can imagine an abandoned space station that is a huge TV complex that has now been turned into a hotel. For a few years we had relatively cheap rental space there but it was like everyone had left in the middle of a nuclear holocaust. It was quite odd.

It was a special space that was filled with musical ghosts such as Tony Wilson, who used to broadcast his show The Other Side of Midnight [from there]. We were guests on that show and it was the location of The Sex Pistols and Joy Division's first TV appearances. Jerry Lee Lewis and Billie Holiday even broadcast rare UK performances from there.

It felt like we had a great musical legacy under our feet, hence why we came up with the title Transmission Suite. We were able to do that thing that is very 808 State: to push the technology and come up with some wonky stuff, the sort of music you haven't heard before. It's about trying to create those ear worms and unusual, Escher-like movements, those twisted kind of shapes. If you are into 808 State you will be into our new stuff which is dictated by the new technology.

I create a lot of music outside of 808 State and in recent years it's allowed me to vent my personal ambitions. For a while I was involved in a group called The Sisters of Transistors, which was a combo organ quartet. I also did a thing called Toolshed, which was more on the improvisation side of things, and I have just released a record called Kicked From The Stars with the Turkish artist Umut Çağlar.

I also made a recording that was made up of pulsar sounds from outer space captured by the Jodrell Bank telescope. We did it as part of an evening to help introduce sixth-form students to science in Manchester. I played along with Patrick Moore. It was organised by Brian Cox and Patrick played his xylophone. Some of this output has bled into 808 and approaching an 808 State record now has gone back to a pure form of electronic music.

What are the plans for you and Andy going forward?

We would like to do more festivals and gigs in general, as it's been frustrating to perform gigs here and there and not get a proper run of live performances. After 30 years of doing it, we have been quite intermittent and we've got to the point that we would like to deliver a good chunk of live sets.

Andy Tattersall

808 State bring their 808:30 tour to the Foundry at Sheffield Students' Union on Friday 14 December, in support of upcoming album Transmission Suite. Tickets via SU box office.

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