Interview with Graham Massey: 808 State and the Development of Record-making

Portrait of Graham Massey during our interview before his live performance with 808 State in Den Bosch, the Netherlands

Here is part 1 of my interview with Graham Massey of 808 State that I did in June 2015. I first saw legendary band 808 State at the London Electronics Arts Festival (LEAF) that March where they played their defining album Ninety (1989) in its entirety. Little did I know then that I would be spending a weekend with band member Graham Massey in Sweden that spring for Music Tech Fest.

Interview with Graham Massey of 808 State – Part 1

808 State, who take their name after the Roland TR-808 drum machine, are regarded as pioneers of acid house. They have been touring with Ninety for the last year and last June I happened to be in the Netherlands when they played a show at former cigar factory W2 in Den Bosch. Before they were about to play an exciting live show, Graham kindly agreed to do an interview with me. The interview consists of two parts. You can find the link to the second part at the bottom.

Group photo of Zarina fake singing, her husband Scanner pretending to play guitar and Graham Massey sitting behind the drum kit
Pretending to be in a super group with Graham Massey and Scanner in Berlin

How record-making today is different from the 1980s

How do you feel about playing an album that you made so many years ago? Has the process been difficult?
Yes, it’s been different from how we would normally do a concert. We tend to build a shape, the peaks, but when we play this album it doesn’t work that way.

When we made this album in 1989 we thought very much in terms of albums. Back then you didn’t put your best tunes first, you led into a slow slope that peaked at the end of side A and then you’d start again at side B. So playing the album live in that order feels very unusual, but it’s interesting.

When people make albums now – and this is a discussion I have with a lot of people – in the internet-age you really have to put your best stuff first because no-one has the attention span that goes past three or four tunes.

Now with music services like iTunes and Spotify, you can’t lead people on a journey as easily. People aren’t prepared to dedicate 40 minutes to listen to music anymore. The attention span is really immediate so you have to put all your good stuff upfront in the shop window. It’s different because we never thought that way.

We made albums of house music, which was an unusual thing to do as well because that was the era of just 12’’ singles and just music for the dance floor, but I think 808 State was quite unusual in that they still thought in albums.

We were brought up on kind of progrock, perhaps not the best way to describe it, but that way of making an album like Pink Floyd would make an album. It would be kind of telling a story, with interludes. It was like a canvas to paint on and you did it in a certain way. There was definitely that kind of thinking in what we were doing.

Graham Massey live at Music Tech Fest in Umea, Sweden
Graham Massey playing at Music Tech Fest in Umeå, Sweden in 2015

Graham about touring their album Ninety again

Do you notice a difference in audience reception between when you originally played the album and the audience now?
It’s hard for me to judge. I can’t really tell how people receive it. It was different when we did it at that LEAF concert in London as people understood the concept, also because in more recent years people like Kraftwerk have done that format of presenting an album.

To be honest, we’ve fought against it for quite a few years. People have been suggesting it for a long time, but it wasn’t till that opportunity at LEAF that we got to play that concert with a really nice PA system and were looked after really well. We trusted the people who ran the festival. And now we’ve done all that work, it seems silly to do it just once.

808 State live at LEAF Festival in London
808 State at LEAF festival London

Tales about the early acid house rave days

Do you have any stories about early acid house rave days?
In those days music was coming from all over the world. One of the guys in the band had a record store in Manchester. It was a dance music specialist so he’d get music from America, from Belgium, everywhere.

The other two guys in the band had a radio show on a local radio station in Manchester so they would play all the import music that was coming into the shop. People recorded it on a cassette. Then we got influenced by all the music that came in and we’d go make records. The whole system was like a loop.

At that point we had a few really good clubs in Manchester, so we could make music, take them to these clubs, try them out, see what worked, see what didn’t work, go back, change it. It felt like a laboratory.

Biting Tongues vinyl sleeves of Feverhouse and Don't Heal albums
Biting Tongues records from my husband‘s vinyl collection: Don’t Heal (1981) and Feverhouse – The Soundtrack (1985).

Touring in the 1980s

Everything in that period was new and fresh and communicating with the world. It wasn’t as colloquial as music was before. When I grew up in Manchester, the Manchester music scene was a very small community of musicians talking amongst themselves and rarely playing outside the city.

You were considered lucky if you got a gig in London for instance. In fact, one of the few places where we could get concerts as a Manchester band. I’m talking about the early/mid 80s with a band called Biting Tongues that I was in on Factory Records, was Holland. We used to come to Holland because there were a number of promotors here that were connected to Factory Records.

So we would come here and play in Nijmegen. I remember it was a big squat club there. It started off as a big squat and became an established club. And then there was another one in Groningen called Vera, which is still there. Yesterday we played in the Milky Way [Melkweg in Amsterdam] and the dressing rooms were exactly as they were in 1984 or whenever we played there.

For me Holland was like an open-minded liberal place that felt very different to play than in England. For instance we could go do radio sessions in Hilversum or they would come out to the Milky Way and recorded there. We couldn’t get that kind of attention in the UK at the time, not easily. So when we came here it was like ‘see, it works!’.

Those Dutch people have good taste! 🙂
No, it’s just that the Dutch people are kind of open to music. We’d be here and bump into a lot of the interesting American music that we were into of people like James Blood Ulmer and Decoding Society. These were bands in the 80s that were doing very interesting things, they were all like subsidiaries of the jazz musician Ornette Coleman, who just passed away [in June 2015].

We were really influenced by these spin-off bands of Ornette Coleman and we were trying to do something similar in our music. Suddenly we would be on a festival with these guys in Holland. This was the big wide world to us at the time! It was very exciting as a young 20-year old musician to be somewhere where people could meet.

The world has changed a lot. It felt so much smaller back then. Not because we were young, the networks were just different. The internet didn’t exist so everything became ‘blowing up’; you know when you heard about a record and your imagination connected to it and blew it up to wherever it was in your imagination.

But now there is so much information. The facts are somewhere so you don’t really use your imagination in a way. You just look it up, but back in that time you would make it up in your imagination.

808 State live at LEAF Festival in London
808 State live at LEAF festival London

The influence of Ornette Coleman

About Ornette Coleman, you have any memories or anecdotes?
I’ve never seen him play, but it was the secondary influence of the musicians that played with him that really connected to me. They had this kind of musical harmelodics, which is that you can play off key; you can play any key off another key.

For us this meant there was a freedom in the music that we could sort of play in any direction. It was all about the energy and then the way you construct melodies were like bolting melodies onto each other, so all melodies were convoluted and long. There are some melodies like that, or Ornette Coleman-influenced, on the first 808 State album, deliberately so because that was the kind of way we were constructing melodies.

The same time we were doing 808 State, we were doing Biting Tongues so a lot of these influences came into the two things and that’s why they are quite odd. I think you can play that first album Newbuild next to a record by the band called Prime Time, which was Ornette Coleman’s 80s band, there’s a very similar kind of tension and poly-tonality to the two things.

I hope you enjoyed part 1 of my interview with Graham. You can read part 2 here.

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