Thirty years ago they were at the birth of one of the last great youth cultures.
Now, much to their bemusement techno pioneers 808 State find themselves played on none-more-mainstream shows like The Great Pottery Throw Down.
The elder statesmen of rave are celebrating 30 years since helping define the movement, and spawning such anthems as Pacific State, with its unforgettable sax riff, The Only Rhyme That Bites, In Yer Face and more.
They were also among the first electronica acts to embrace the album as an artform.
Speaking with The Guide shortly after their anniversary tour’s announcement co-founder Graham Massey was contemplating the fate of their peers.
‘I think there’s quite a few still out there. I think of the Orb, who’ve kept going, and Orbital who are on tour at the same time - maybe we should have conferred about that, thinking about it. I think they’re playing Manchester the day before us – it’ll be like a 40-something techno-weekend away for some people! The old rivalries still remain…’
Were there rivalries back in the day, then?
‘No, not really. That time, that music was as much about a social movement as anything, and it’s very much still like that. It wasn’t about a career as such, there was a change in the air and the music reflected that.
‘We were as surprised as anyone that this quite odd music was getting popular, and it was quite an odd period for pop music – you’d turn on Top of The Pops and you’d have these bands like Future Sound of London, and nobody knew how to present this music, particularly on this old format.
‘You’d often have things like The Orb playing chess, or just doing terrible miming with bits of equipment, that we did! It was square peg-round hole, but the culture of the rave movement was bigger than the media at that point.
‘We were ahead of the curve and not behind it and not kowtowing to that thing called the media. We were out in the field and it was an exciting period of music – so much good music was coming out every week.
‘It was the perfect plan, I say “perfect plan” but it was a perfect accident really. We felt like surfers riding this big wave. We formed at record shops – that’s why we were all there in the first place, because we were all music obsessed and [his hometown] Manchester has a reputation for that.’
In the late ‘80s Graham and his friends were picking up on the hottest new tracks, not only from the house pioneers in America, but also in Europe.
‘Yes, we were looking to some of the American house music, it definitely was an inspiration – but there was other electronic music as well - it wasn’t just coming from America, it was Belgium, Italy, Poland, it was beginning to bubble up everywhere.
‘There was something in the air that became this global things.
‘In one sense, it was a true global culture, the dance music scene - people were talking across huge distances in the language of electronic music – it wasn’t contained by spoken language, there wasn’t much of a barrier there. It just made sense at that point in technology and that period of the world changing, we were coming out of the Cold War era, we’d just lived through the Thatcher years - everyone just wanted to party because it had been grim, y’know?’
Back in those early days, though, Graham recalls their own European record label didn’t know what to do with them.
‘We were with ZTT in the UK, which went through Warner Brothers, who were very corporate. If we went to see the Warner Brothers guy in Europe, he had a Dire Straits tour jacket on, they were a little bit like: “What is this strange music?”
‘But in America we were with a very hip label called Tommy Boy who did a lot of electronic music already, and they were great for us. We were in a perfect position there, and we concentrated on going there and playing in the very formative rave scene.
‘Although a lot of the music came from America – Chicago and Detroit – when we went there we found that a lot of those people were overlooked in their own backyard, initially at least. They didn’t get the attention that they got in the UK and Europe.
‘In the US it was just in these little enclaves. There were some radio stations that were trying to push it, and there was a rave scene in Texas, which was surprising because it’s a very conservative area. Anywhere there was something to kick against, it took off and took root.’
And it was that spirit of rebellion that helped the music take off here too.
‘It was a very rebellious kind of music, and people kind of forget that now it’s ubiquitous. There’s no sense of rebellion in a Saturday night any more but it did come from that sense of rebellion and this idea of a UK that shut at 10.30 at night – everything just shut down in the ’80s, and people didn’t want that.’
And back then urban nightlife was very different to what it is now.
‘You get a sense of the UK through travelling around and playing in all these different areas – each city kind of has to make its own culture, it’s down to individuals and having a vision of their nightlife. It’s not something you buy off the peg, you had to take up the torch and lead the way to a different kind of enjoyment.
‘Liverpool, is another prime example that generates its own nightlife culture, and Sheffield, these things turn into big business eventually, but it was all down to individuals initially down to someone having a vision, and a space where you could try new ideas.
‘I think that’s often forgotten in modern large cities – people just go for the fast buck now. They don’t set something up just to see what happens, to create a space for culture to grow in, the Hacienda being a prime example that always gets quoted in Manchester, but there were many others too.
Now there’s a sort of template for it. One likes to think there’s an underground scene in most British cities, and I think there probably is.
‘We’ve all got kids in their late teens/early-20s and you get a sense that there’s stuff out there I don’t understand any more, in places I wouldn’t bother going to, and that’s all good!’
That said, Graham has fought to make sure 808 State don’t become a nostalgia act, and have picked up a new generation of fans along the way.
‘I think our audience is pretty mixed. We have deliberately chosen to include this young producer called Lone with us on this tour. People used to talk to us about him and say he sounded like us. And having met him now, he was definitely brought up on our era of music as a child – it’s in his DNA .But they do it in a different way – they’re much more technically adept than we ever were.
‘We’ve been playing more curated gigs as well, for instance some famous DJ like Nina Kraviz will put on event and she’ll choose some young acts with older acts, so it’s deliberately mixed up. We’ve been doing some of those, so we’ve been making connections with the younger audience.
‘If your music works, it should cut across all age groups, I’d hate it to be all about nostalgia.
‘I think our music has aged quite well – obviously I’m not the person to ask – but it’s interesting that this music still gets played.
‘You have those things on social media so you can see where you’re getting played, and it’s on Radio2 at breakfast time. I mean, who would have thought that?’ he chuckles.
‘It gets played on Radio3, 6Music, right across the board it has a presence. It crosses cultural lines and international lines, and weirdly, even on things like the Great Pottery Throw Down. Occasionally you’ll see something like that on your royalty check, or Homes Under The Hammer. It’s almost become a British national folk music.
‘And melody will never go out of fashion.’
There is also a new album on the horizon, their first since 2002’s Outpost Transmission, some of which will be debuted on this tour.
‘We’ve sat on a lot of new material and we’re itching to play that out, which we’re excited about.
‘But we’re keeping the powder dry to a certain extent for when we present that as a new show.
‘It’ll be about 25 per cent new material and the rest is the hits, which I don’t mind playing – I never get bored playing those, and then there’s a lot of the album material and different versions of that, to keep us interested.’
Despite the lengthy gap between albums, Graham and his bandmate, Andrew Barker aren’t idle.
‘Andrew’s out DJing a lot and I’ve had many projects over the years.
‘I would get very itchy if 808 State was my only musical outlet, I’m doing all kinds of things along the way, and I always have. I was going 10 years before 808 State. Music to me is just part of my life and I will be doing it no matter what.
‘I’m very much active in lots of areas of music, whether it be education, broadcasting and playing with lots of musicians in different kinds of music.’
The Pyramids Centre, Southsea
Saturday, November 30