Interview with Graham Massey Part 2: About the Resurgence of Synths and Working with Björk

Close-up of Graham Massey playing with 808 State just after the interview

This is part two of the interview I did with Graham Massey prior to the energetic 808 State concert at W2 in Den Bosch (the Netherlands). At the end of part one of the interview, Graham spoke about Ornette Coleman and his contemporaries who were big influences on 808 State in the 1980s. Here we continue speaking about that exciting period.

Interview with Graham Massey of 808 State – Part 2

808 State live in W2 in Den Bosch, the Netherlands

Graham Massey about the exciting music scene of the 1980s and how it influenced him

Sounds like it [the 1980s] was a very exciting time.
Yeah it really was because there were lots of things happening with technology in the 80s. People getting hold of new technology, going off and see what they could do with it. For instance, some of the most interesting electronic music to me wasn’t to do with pop music. It was to do with jazz music a lot.

The American band Weather Report were quite experimental, but they were a band that developed. Every album they did was different. They were excellent musicians who were willing to experiment and go into a different direction. They were very aware of texture and colour in music.

Their keyboardist, Joe Zawinul, played with Miles Davis. He was a jazz guy who took to synthesizers very early on. He was kind of like Herbie Hancock, but had come from jazz. But he was very different from Herbie Hancock in that as a synthesizer player, he explored colour and texture much more than someone who just messes around with the synthesizer and gets the first thing that comes out of the synthesizers.

He was one of my favourite musicians and he was doing interesting things with Midi technology, which is when you join keyboards together and they all talk to each other, and drum machines.

The emergence of electronic bands in the 1980s

So in the mid-80s this kind of technology was happening and you could start a one-man band with that, have drums and keyboards. He did a very interesting record called Dialects that I absolutely loved in the 80s. I think that was a big influence on how I was thinking with synthesizers in the mid till late 80s. So when it came towards making house music, half of my head was going that way. I liked the colour of his records and the landscapes.

Then you also had a lot of pop music in the 80s that used synthesizers. There were these electronic bands around, using the technology and inventing the language. Kraftwerk being the first one, then New Order coming after that. There was this language of electronics around. But there were also these other guys doing some interesting stuff that was part of the language that we took up.

808 State live in W2 in Den Bosch, the Netherlands

The resurgence of synthesizers and modular gear

Relating to technology, what do you think of the resurgence of synths, of the Eurorack modular gear and all the new Roland stuff that’s out now?
I think it’s really good people are wanting different things from synthesizers. That whole world has opened up recently, in particular with the Euroracks as you say. And even a company like Roland now have brought out a modular system that interfaces with Eurorack equipment, so they’re joining the conversation. Plus all the younger people who have started working for these companies are getting in it now as well. So that whole world has changed.

Although there are a lot of people working with modular synthesizers, that doesn’t necessarily result into interesting music. I look at a lot of synthesizer sites because I’m interested in that area, but notice so little music comes out from there that is emotionally engaging for me. I see them as tools, but ultimately you have to think ‘music’ and not just ‘synthesizers’ because that’s just like guitarists noodling to me.

It becomes an unbalanced thing, because after all they are tools to add to a bigger music to me. Probably the impact of all this technology will result in more collaborative setups with synthesizers.

I also started playing with analogue synthesizers a few years ago, which you can read about in the article below!

Confessions of a Eurorack Virgin

Who doesn’t miss those days when you could still play with flashy toys that had all sorts of buttons you could push and turn, producing animal sounds and wild flickering lights without people staring at you? I’m returning to those childhood days this weekend as by the time you read this I’ll be happily twiddling some…

The secret of the 808 drum machine revealed

808 State live in W2 in Den Bosch, the Netherlands

We got involved in making this 808 movie documentary recently and it’s a film about the 808 drum machine. One big revelation in that film to me was that they used faulty transistors in the production because they were cheap. For every transistor that was made back then, 3 out of 10 were defective. But actually the hi-hat sounds and certain sounds in the 808 needed these defective transistors.

That’s why they never made them again, because they ran out of the faulty transistors. It would make perfect sense to manufacture them again because they’re selling for £3000 second-hand. For years and years we had been asking that question. Now it’s finally answered in this film.

“There’s so much music now. You have to work your own story through music and form attachments to artists and pieces of music because you are just overwhelmed by choice now.”

Graham about writing film scores

You worked on a film score some years ago. Are you interested in writing for film again?
I’ve done a number of films for my sister-in-law Lucy Beech. And there’s another artist called Chris Paul Daniels from Manchester who works in a similar area and I’ve been working with him on a couple of projects.

It’s very collaborative in that I’m throwing stuff at him and he’s coming back with other ideas. It’s really easy to Ping-Pong ideas around right now. Some of the filmmakers got the same language as the musicians now and can come back with ideas. I’m really enjoying that at the moment.

I always thought that doing film music would be a form of artistic expression where you could be indulgent. It’s absolute the opposite in a way in that you are serving something else so you have to take it really back, minimally, and it’s amazing how little you can get away with.

It’s about total minimalism a lot of the time. It’s very good discipline for me because I’m much more likely to be very layered and very complicated. It’s the complete opposite of what I would normally do, so it’s good exercise.

808 State live in W2 in Den Bosch, the Netherlands

How Graham Massey ended up producing Björk

Final question. You must’ve heard it many times already so I hope you don’t mind me asking. You co-wrote and co-produced a couple of tracks with Björk. How did that come about?
Well she got in touch with us. She’d heard some of our earlier records and wanted somebody to work with primarily for beats and she thought we did interesting beats. She played on two tracks on our album XL before Debut. She wasn’t that phenomenon that she is now, at that point yet.

The stuff that I worked on was originally for Debut, but ended up on Post. It ended up on Wikipedia somewhere that I produced some of the stuff on Debut and it was just some Wikipedia mistake that will just follow you around all the time. It must really irritate her completely!

808 State live in W2 in Den Bosch, the Netherlands

We had a lot in common because she’s come through the punk thing, she’s born with that anarchy, very anti-establishment thing. She was in this band Kukl and they used to play with bands like Crass, the proper anarchy anti-establishment noise bands. She’s come from a real extreme end in music and I also have experience of doing that kind of anarchic noise punk thing.

We had a band called Danny and the Dressmakers, that was just noise, stupid nonsense. Then we got into something more experimental in the 80s. This kind of post-punk thing where all these different ideas were played out, but in a much more kind of pop way, more organised kind of way, more of a production way. People were experimenting in production a lot more at the time, which then led towards electronic music.

So, in a similar way we followed similar paths and we had a lot in common and felt very comfortable in the references as we both liked a lot of jazz. When I say that, you know jazz is such a big area, but I mean some of the more interesting stuff in jazz. We liked very similar artists, people like Rahsaan Roland Kirk. That’s the kind of music that we played a lot. It felt very empathic, is the word.

You can find part 1 of my interview with Graham Massey here: 
Interview with Graham Massey: 808 State and the Development of Record-making

All photos in this post, including the feature image, are courtesy of Sandra Leijtens Photography.

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