Acid House Pioneers 808 State Back On Road – Graham Massey Interview

From their origins as one of the quintessential “Acid House bands” at the tail end of the 80s, 808 State emerged from the iconic Madchester scene, to their proto-IDM, boundary pushing 90s output, 808 State’s influence on modern dance music can not be underestimated.

At the peak of their powers, the band comprising Andrew Barker, Darren Partington and Graham Massey blew away huge crowds at the Manchester G-Mex with the biggest PA system ever assembled and went on to collaborate with the likes of Quincy Jones, David Bowie and Afrika Bambaataa.

Tomorrow, the band’s current tour comes to Cardiff Globe, in which they will air classics from a highly esteemed repertoire loaded with anthems including the seminal In Yer Face and the era-defining Pacific State, not to mention a wealth of electronic nuggets from their trail blazing career. Andy Howells recently put questions to Graham Massey of the band.

808 State are back on the road! Are you looking forward to the new tour?
I always enjoy playing live, its very cathartic. I think we’ve reached a point where the set works as an arc of music that really peaks. By the time we get 30 minutes in I’m usually pretty lost in a vortex where I’ve stopped thinking about the technology and the music’s coming through from somewhere else. Its taken years to reach that point

You are best remembered as one of the first bands to gain some recognition from the Acid House movement – did you feel you were innovators at the time?
Being an innovator wasn’t our goal, we were excited about American dance music in the late 80s, we were excited about new computers, old synthesisers and recording studios. We wanted to put records into the dance clubs where we found our escape.
In the process of discovery and the influence of our mutual record collections thing turned out a bit more fanciful at a rare time when people were open to a new kind of music, even a new kind of pop music. I was as shocked as anyone that our synth fantasy music was on day time Radio. I was talking to Luke Vibert at a gig last week, he reminded me that in remote rural areas of the UK such as Cornwall, where there was only a tiny scene for rave. John Peel’s show would be a window on this new alien landscape music coming out of the post industrial wastelands of the UK.  Our work influenced a lot of people to take that music further out. I’m not sure our strength was about floor fillers (though we had a number of them). Our Albums broke new ground and sold well to a wide audience beyond clubbers.

Who were your music heroes and what inspires you now?
Usually people with a strong singular vision of music, Stevie Wonder’s synth albums being some of the first that caught my young ears. Bowie was important in my early teens, I got into the jazzier side of rock, things like Santana and Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report lead me toward Miles Davis, who is still my defining musical hero. He never stayed in on one spot musically. similar searchers like Coltrane & Sun Ra. I’m involved in a Sun Ra tribute band in Manchester.

808 State in 1989
Picture: Pete Walsh

Its some 25 years since you first cracked the charts and you will have gained a new generation of fans in that time as well as the ones who remember you from first time around, how does that make you feel?
Well I couldn’t have predicted still doing 808 State 27 years on. I’m surprised how I’m not bored with those tunes yet but music should be timeless don’t you think? Its great to address young ears hopefully a lot of our music stands up, and doing it live enables us to mold and update the sound.

What are your memories from playing Wales the first time around?
I believe one of our first ever gigs as 808 State was in Wrexham FC social club in 1988, organised by some friends of the group K Klass. We were booked as a bunch of hip hop bands “Hitsquad MCR” that included MC Tunes and A Guy Called Gerald, we did some acid house at the end of the show. Probably some of the first UK acid house going at that point in time. The club served good pies if I remember correctly. We also did Cardiff Ice Rink in 1992 on a Xmas tour with Madness, ’twas Madness!

He haven’t played in Wales so much over the years, but we did play Port Merrion at Festival Number 6 a few weeks back. We were the last group at the Festival and had the power pulled on us in the midst of doing Pacific State. We had lost track of time and strict licensing laws applied! We carried on with some quiet free form jazz all red in the face and confused.

How has the music scene changed for you personally over the years?
I’ve been involved in music since 1977, so witnessed Punk, Post Punk and the rise of club culture. All these changes were brought on by individuals with a do it yourself attitude.

What do you think has been 808 State’s personal highlight?
There s been many but breaking into the mainstream culture with little compromise seemed like a triumph for a wider ideal than just us, contributing to all I love about music. Playing gigs that had an incredible exchange of energy with an audience. I think audiences used to be a lot more passive in the early 80s then with the dance culture they were as active as the performers, the boundaries broke down a lot, what a great point to be playing and harnessing that energy.

What can people expect from the new shows?
If they’ve never caught an 808 show before people are surprised that it includes a rhythm section (Bass Player & Drummer) but we’ve had this set up for decades now, it provides a muscular drive to our studio based music. Old classics are transformed into something quite different, there’s also a fair amount of improvisation in the music which I guess isn’t usual in Techno.

Do you have any new projects you are working on?
We all are working in a wider context of music, be it DJing or the aforementioned Sun Ra tribute big band, I love improvising and I’ll always find an outlet that enables me to play with other musicians, but also I’ll try out ideas in solo sets in more underground situations. Lots of pointers for these projects on

  • 808 State play Cardiff Globe on November 6.
  • A version of this Q&A by Andy Howells appeared in The South Wales Argus on October 30, 2015

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