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Title: 808 State does not play no rock ‘n’ roll
Author: Lisa M. Moore

808 State does not play no rock ‘n’ roll

The word on the dancefloor is 808 State. Band techno-whizzes Graham Massey and Martin Price and DJs Darren Partington and Andy Barker are collectively redefining dance music, taking it out of familiar grooves and layering it with electronic nuances that hold your attention long after the laser lights have dimmed. The group’s second album for Tommy Boy/ZTT, ex:el, effortlessly makes the transition from club turntable to home stereo; every track combines intoxicating pulsations and technology to create a devastating, intriguing disc.

A product of the Manchester ravel acid-house scene, 808 State formed in 1988. “We’re basically just an amalgamation of different people,” Massey explains. ‘We didn’t get together to be the bass player and the drummer and the guitarist; we’re a production unit. [Being able to] play isn’t as important now as being able to manipulate the information and sounds. The reason we chose our name is because of the association with technology [i.e. the Roland 808 Drum Machine], and the rejection of rock bands. If people can’t grasp that, we’re doomed.”

Ex:el was cut at Trevor Horn’s studio, home of the ZTT label and other acts (Malcolm McLaren, Art of Noise), but it was 808’s debut album, Utd. State 90, that first demonstrated the group’s ability to capture a club ambience on disc. Utd.’s singles, “Pacific” and “Cubik” (also included on the ex:el CD), both hit Top 10 on Billboard’s dance chart, rare for instrumental cuts. The group eschews the standard dance-song formula of big beats and soulful vocals; it also uses a technique it calls “silhouetting,” where a track is built around a sample which is then removed, leaving only a musical ghost image.

“A self-criticism of our music is that it’s often too complicated for club music; there are too many layers,” Massey states. “When we remix songs for club use we often strip them down, but for an album it’s very important to have many layers so you can find something else in it each time you listen to it. Actually, we like to make good car music. That’s one of the considerations when we’re making an album - it’s got to sound good in the car, and that’s often where we test it. When we’ve done the record, we go out for a drive to see if it works there. We think that’s just as important as whether it sounds good in the club.”

808 considers itself an instrumental band, but it isn’t locked into that concept; three cuts on ex:el use real singers, not just sampled voices. New Order’s Bernard Sumner transforms the sumptuous “Spanish Heart” into the closest thing to a ballad that 808 will likely produce, and the Sugarcubes’ Björk Gudmundsdottir chirps on “QMart” and “Ooops.”

The album also provides plenty of what Massey calls “hard instrumental dance music” with the insistent kick of “In Yer Face,” the continually intersecting rhythms of “Techno Bell” and the airy synthesizer hook of “Olympic,” composed for Manchester’s bid for the 1992 Olympic Games.

“One of the reasons we work in dance music is because it’s one of the few areas that’s making progress,” Massey emphasizes. “I know there’s a lot of boring music within dance music, but where the exciting tracks are in dance music, that’s where the sort of edge of music is for us at the moment. We can go anywhere with it, and that’s what keeps us interested.”

Lisa M. Moore