We were shocked by the news last week that 808 State member Andrew Barker had passed away. Announced on the group’s twitter account, there was an outpouring of love and remembrance for the longtime member of the legendary group.
5 Mag originally published this interview with Andrew Barker and Graham Massey as our Issue 177 cover story. At nearly 5,000 words this is likely one of the most thorough, comprehensive histories of 808 State published in a magazine, at least recently. It’s never been published online before now, and covers the history of the group up until the recording of their album Transmission Suite, released more than three decades after the classic “Pacific State” and 17 years after the group’s last proper album.
Its with a heavy heart to inform you of the passing of Andrew Barker . "His family and friends asks that people respect their privacy at this time but remember him for the joy he brought through his personality and music. You’ll be sadly missed” pic.twitter.com/cPR8W3byJl
— 808 State (@state808) November 7, 2021
Brimming with soaring strings, languid sax, skittering rhythms and an eyes-to-the-sky melody, 808 State’s instantly recognizable “Pacific State” is one of the most revered tracks of the dance-music pantheon. Originally released in 1988, the track’s sumptuous feel — Detroit techno meets mellow jazz, as filtered through its creators’ Haçienda-era Manchester sensibilities — made it one of the defining tunes of Britain’s acid-house-fueled Second Summer of Love, and helped to launch the group into the U.K. pop charts.
Over three decades later, and years since the group’s last proper album, 2002’s Outpost Transmission, 808 State is back with a new LP, Transmission Suite.
Not that 808 State, still based in Manchester, has ever really gone away — they’ve been playing live on a consistent basis all along, with an appearance at their hometown’s massive Feel My Bicep affair in November among the group’s upcoming gigs. Live performance is a skill they’ve been honing since 808 State’s earliest days. Originally formed as a hip-hop collective, Hit Squad Manchester, the group was founded by Eastern Bloc record-shop honcho Martin Price, Graham Massey (a member of Factory Record’s postpunk outfit Biting Tongues) and Massey’s fellow synth whiz Gerald Simpson, soon to be better known as A Guy Called Gerald. But acid house was taking over, and as 808 State, the trio released the bleep-laden Newbuild in 1988 on Price’s Creed label.
The album made them hometown heroes, but it was the following year’s Quadrastate mini LP that sealed the deal. That’s the record that boasted the original version of “Pacific State,” a song that reached the No. 10 slot on the U.K. singles charts. Despite that success, Simpson left the group for a solo career, and was replaced by Darren Partington and Andrew Barker, who had been deejaying together under the Spinmasters moniker. Now signed to Trevor Horn’s ZTT (and in the States, Tommy Boy), “Pacific State” — now dubbed “Pacific” and graced with stellar remixes from Justin Strauss and the team of Frankie Bones and Tommy Musto — the tune became a worldwide dance-floor hit. Price left in ’91, but more clubland faves followed — “Cubik,” “In Yer Face” and “Lift” among them — along with a string of well-received long-players like the ex:el, featuring vocal contributions from Björk and New Order’s Bernard Summer.
Though 808 State has been quiet on the production front for eons, they’ve remained mainstays of the electronic-music universe: Aside from their live performances, early fan Aphex Twin re-released Newbuild on his Rephlex label, along with a collection of unreleased material called Prebuild — and the languid intro of “Pacific,” of course, still elicits cheers to this day. But don’t expect a repeat of that track on Transmission Suite. Now whittled down to the duo of Massey and Barker (Partington left in 2015 due to a stint in prison after a drug bust), 808 State’s latest is arguably their most intense work yet. It’s a collection of rhythmically and sonically adventurous tracks that are somehow both spectral and rich, imbued with a heaviness that’s leavened by the occasional hint of glowing brightness.
But more than anything, Transmission Suite is the sound of a couple of guys still having fun messing around with their machines, eager to see what wondrous diversions they can squeeze out of them. 5 Mag caught up with Massey (the raconteur of the duo) and Barker (equally cheery but far more laconic) in their Manchester headquarters for chat about 808 State’s pioneering past and vibrant present.
Graham, you’re one of the founders of 808 State. What was the genesis of the project?
Massey: It started with Martin, who owned the Eastern Bloc record shop here in Manchester. We used to call him “Fagin” — he was slightly older and taller than all the kids who would come into the shop. I was doing an engineering course at a studio one block away, and we’d be doing demos, and that’s how I originally met Andrew and Darren — along with Gerald, who was in a group with MC Tunes at the time. We were like, alright, let’s do this project, and we raided somebody’s savings to do this record. After that, we’d go around doing gigs as a hip-hop collective.
Was there much of a local hip-hop scene in Manchester at that point?
Massey: No, but there was this other hip-hop group around called the Ruthless Rap Assassins, who had done quite well.
Barker: Ruthless Rap Assassins were the first hip-hop group from the area to get signed, so everyone else was like “Respect!” But really, it felt a bit pointless to emulate such an American art form like that.
Massey: Especially with the accents. But the other thing that bound us as a group was electro, which for us was a bit of a hip-hop derivative — stuff like Mantronix, electronic music that had a real musical side.
Barker: Asheem, Jonzun Crew.…
Acid house was what really resonated with the alternative scene over here. It was wonky, it was alien, it was atonal, and that all married well with the upbringing we’d had in music.
Massey: That was a bit of a scene over here, largely because of the Street Sounds compilations that were coming out. Andrew was doing the breakdancing thing, with the lino in the streets. But at the same time, we into electronic music like [the Adrian Sherwood-founded label] On-U Sound stuff.
Barker: And the idea of sound systems became really important around that time, ’86 or so.
Massey: There are a lot of Jamaican folks in Manchester, and sound systems had always been a part of Manchester culture. They’d move around, with each one having a distinct personality. So when we started, we used something of a sound system model. We’d set up at a club, and Gerald would bring his extra speakers so we’d be quadraphonic. We’d play hip-hop, but at the end of the jams we’d play acid house, which we were beginning to get into.
How did you first discover house?
Massey: We had started to recognize house through this one radio show in Manchester. They’d play an hour of electro, an hour of hip-hop and an hour of house music, which at that point was all coming from America, mostly Chicago. Acid house was what really resonated with the alternative scene over here. It was wonky, it was alien, it was atonal, and that all married well with the upbringing we’d had in music, which was always a bit to the left side. At the same time, the technology to make the music was becoming just about affordable. And then, of course, the drugs kicked in. So there were a lot of things converging, around 1988.
And that’s around when you started working as 808 State?
Massey: Yeah, and [BBC Radio 1 DJ] John Peel played our stuff really quickly. He was playing our first album, Newbuild, right away. He wasn’t peddling it as, “Who are these guys trying to make house music?” It was more like, “Listen to these guys who have this new record.” That gave us a lot of exposure.
Were you surprised that the 808 Sound found that kind of acceptance early on?
Barker: It was quite shocking, really. But we thought it would last maybe a year, then it’ll all disappear. Now it’s 30 years on and we’re still doing the same thing.
Massey: We didn’t even think about longevity back then. We thought that the music we were making was pretty disposable, actually. We weren’t thinking that this was some amazing new art form — we just were heads down, doing it.
You were performing live pretty early on as well, right?
Massey: We were, and that was very improvised, very out of the air, without much preparation. You have to remember that the machines didn’t have memory like they do now, so you couldn’t construct this great set ahead of time. You’d just start, and then by the end, you’d be in this kind of trancey blur and stumble out into the daylight.
Why did Gerald end up leaving?
Massey: It’s just that he was doing this side project of his own. He’s always been one to do his own thing, from when he was 14 or 15 years old. Being in a group was a bit of an experiment for him. Even when we did Newbuild, he was doing another album in another studio which ended up being his Hot Lemonade record. That and Newbuild came out around literally the same month, I think. He was doing his album with a group of producers called Chapter & the Verse, who were also involved in the recording of “Voodoo Ray.”
There was a lot of stuff happening, at the time and we were involved with a lot of what was going on. Often, when we’d be doing something as 808 State, we’d end up on the same bill as A Guy Called Gerald — and we’d just put our hats on backwards and change our t-shirts, and then and play on his bit. Everything kind of bled into each other. We really weren’t thinking of it as a career at that point.
Barker: But then “Voodoo Ray” became such a huge hit.
Massey: A bit before Newbuild did, I think.
Was Gerald involved in the production of “Pacific State”? Or had he left 808 State by then?
Massey: That track was originally planned as part of a Peel session, which we didn’t end up doing. So we had this half-finished track. Gerald was away doing his “Voodoo Ray” stuff when we finished the track, and he was actually a bit upset that we had finished it without him. Andrew, you were playing that track a lot in your DJ sets, right?
Barker: I had been playing it from cassette, and it quickly became this “last tune of the night” thing in Manchester. People began to expect it. Back then, the clubs had to close right at two o’clock, and I’d have to plan it so I had enough time to play it. You had to leave them on a high.
Massey: The song originally emerged on the Quadrastate release, Gerald is credited on that version as a writer, as he was. But then, as we were getting signed — and as Gerald was being signed by CBS — all kinds of outside things came into play, of course. [Note: Later versions of “Pacific” credited to 808 State as the writer.] That whole saga ended up getting settled out of court, and there was this thing between Gerald and us knocking about over the years. But Aphex Twin kind of got us back together and talked us through that when he released some of our early stuff on Rephlex. Those releases definitely brought a lot of people back towards that original version of 808 State. Which is good, because that whole period went by so quickly for us. We would just slam a record out and get it in the record shop.
I’m guessing that approach changed a bit after you were with ZTT.
Massey: It was almost like a different band, a band with a different approach. The music wasn’t nearly as raw as it had been before. It’s hard to believe all this happened basically over the course of one year. Things were moving that fast. Plus, the clubs were changing, the equipment was changing… it was like a whirlwind.
Barker, you and your Spinmasters partner Darren Partington officially joined 808 State in the midst of that whirlwind. What was that like?
Barker: It was a natural thing, really, since we knew each other pretty well. We’d just all be in the record shop every Saturday, listening to new music together.
What were the first tracks that you and Darren were involved in as part of 808 State?
Barker: I think the first one was “Ancodia.” Actually, no, it was “Fire Cracker,” on Quadrastate.
Massey: Some of the tracks from that time began as Spinmasters’ tracks. I think that we used the drum track from a Spinmasters track for “Ancodia,” for instance. “Cubik” was another one with a Spinmasters drumbeat. We’d recycle things quite a lot.
“Pacific” ended up being a huge club hit here in the States, largely through those Justin Strauss mixes that came out on Tommy Boy.
Massey: Yes, Justin’s mixes did quite well for us. Tommy Boy’s A&R man, Tom Richardson, gave us a crash course in New York clubbing when we first went over there. The scene seemed to be very segregated there back then — he’d take us to see the Italians, then he’d take us to see the Latinos, and then he’d take us to the gay clubs, and we see how the mixes would have to be just so for each of them. It was quite interesting — we hadn’t thought too much about that before then.
“Cubik” and “Lift” also got a lot of play in American clubs at the time.
Massey: We actually thought “Cubik” was a little bit too wonky when we’d done it, with that atonal guitar and everything. Shows what we knew.
Were you surprised by the success that 808 State was having in the States?
Massey: We were, because nobody really knew how to market us over there. We were almost marketed as an industrial or alternative group!
You guys toured over here fairly early, right?
Massey: That was a lot of fun. At this one gig we did in Long Beach, California in 1991. Björk had worked with us on the ex:el album, and she was in LA recording with the Sugarcubes, so she came and sang with us. That was quite special. It felt like things were really happening. Another time, we went to Detroit, and all of our Detroit heroes were there.
Was that nerve-wracking for you guys?
Barker: Well, we were all young and dumb back then.
Massey: And we were on a roll, so we were actually far from humble anyway [laughs].
Around the same era, other British electronic bands like the Orb, the KLF and Orbital were also doing quite well. Did you feel as though you were in competition with them?
Massey: Not really. But it’s interesting, because when we first got together, there were two guys trying to manage us. One was named Ron Atkinson, who definitely sounded like a manager because he had the same name as Manchester United’s manager at the time. He was involved with importing American dance music into the country, so he was really clued up — he’s the one who had hooked us up with ZTT. But the other guy, Adam Morris, actually ended up managing the Orb. Adam used to take us down to London quite often. One time, he took us down to [Orb founder] Alex Paterson’s place, back when he was living with [Orb cofounder and future super-producer] Youth. I still have a demo cassette of “Little Fluffy Clouds” from that day. I ended up doing a song with Youth, “Naked in the Rain,” which became a big Euro hit over here.
That Blue Pearl song?
Massey: Yeah, that’s right. Another time, Adam took us to the KLF house — they had a New York police car in the front room. I never did know how they got it in there. They were just making records, those really important records, up in one of their bedrooms. They actually sampled one of our tunes on the Chill Out album. There were a lot of connections within the rave scene, and there was a lot of openness between the bands.
Barker: There was a feeling that we were all part of a new frontier, more than anything else.
That must have was an amazing time for you.
Massey: It was for everybody, really. The north-south divide thing that we’d had, with all these cities that were all stand-offish with each other, was going away thanks to raving. People from all over were gathering in fields. There was a unity in the country — at least it felt that way!
Wasn’t 808 State was one of the first bands to have an internet presence?
Massey: That began around ’94. We had met this guy who said, “The internet is the future. You are the band to represent it.” We started spouting ideas about the democratization of music, and how one day we’d be distributing out music on the internet. The problem was that back then, modems would take about four days to download one tune.
Still, that was pretty prescient of you.
Massey: I know! And what a mistake that was.
Barker: Yeah, we actually used to sell a few records before the internet came along [laughs].
It’s been 17 years since your last proper album, Outpost Transmission. What brought you back to the fray?
Massey: It was mainly because we finally had a space to do it in. It’s that simple. We had lost the studio where we made Outpost Transmission because we put out that record with a company that immediately went bust, after they had talked us into moving from ZTT. “Everything is going to be wonderful, the world is going to be fabulous” and all that. It played out quite badly, and we basically just had to figure out ways to survive. We always were doing gigs, but we didn’t have a home after that. And for us, moving the studio into the place where you live wasn’t conducive to the kind of social space we like to work in. But then in 2017, we did this project for the Manchester International Festival, and through that we were able to get a budget for a studio.
Barker: The studio where we made Transmission Suite is in an abandoned TV station in the center of Manchester. It used to be the Granada TV studio, and they had moved to a new site and just left the studio empty.
Massey: We actually moved in with Mr. Scruff, subletting a room that used they used to broadcast from. It’s got 18 TV screens on the wall, so it looks like Mission Control. There were curved desks and all that. It was an awesome man-shed to move into. We just moved our synthesizers in, hooked everything up, and it was great. It was an awful room to mix in, though.
Massey: It was the size of a football pitch, surrounded by glass. You couldn’t pick a worse acoustic space. But just up the corridor, there was another studio which was acoustically almost perfect. The whole process, from start to finish, took maybe two years. The finished record is a different mood for us. It’s a very physical record.
What do you attribute that mood to?
Massey: Some of it is due to the technology and how it’s moved on. You can just do so much with it now. But even more, it’s due to the music that we’ve been listening to in the interim.
What kind of music is that?
Massey: I guess it would be what people call bass music. But with the number of genres we’ve gone through in the 30 years we’ve been doing this, I’ve learned not to try and categorize things.
How has listening to that music impacted your sound?
Massey: This album is quite bottom-ended, so the music in the high frequencies has to behave in a different way. It’s all about how you shape it; it’s a real sculptural kind of record. I think it has a real identity of its own. We did a lot of music for this record that’s not actually on the record, and the way we ended up compiling the record means that it has a pretty specific sound.
Vibe-wise, there a hint of menace to a lot of Transmission Suite, but there are these little moments of rapture that keeps the music from becoming too dark. Is that an effect that you strive for, or does it just a natural result of how you make music?
Massey: I think those moments of optimism are kind of an 808 State trope. Growing up in the ’60s, this idea of a bright future was always kind of knocking about, this kind of Gerry Anderson space-age world. [Note: Gerry Anderson was the man behind “super-marionation” shows like Thunderbirds and Fireball XL5.] Then music like Kraftwerk’s came along — melodic, gleaming projections into the future. It was in all the Detroit techno, too, this kind of optimistic futurism.
Barker: We all thought the future was going to be amazing.
Massey: And we’ve always gravitated that kind of sound. Besides, when you’re working with looped-based music, you don’t really want to be listening to 40 hours of dark loops. We do like a bit of darkness, though — we’ve always played with the tension between heaviness and lightness.
Rave helped to break down a lot of barriers — class barriers, social barriers, gender barriers and more — and helped to promote ideas of tolerance. But those ideas are under threat nowadays.
It’s certainly nice to see that you haven’t mellowed out at all on this album. If anything, the new record is more intense than a lot of your older stuff.
Massey: Yes, it is quite intense, and that’s where the technology helps out. We’re we’ve always tried to build thick sounds, and it’s just so much easier with today’s synthesizers. And with all the plug-ins you’ve got now, there’s less reason to be scared of processing as there once used to be. It’s easier to go to extremes with sound. You can be much more in command.
Are you using mostly modern gear and new technology on nowadays?
Massey: The new record’s quite strong on the new technology. We have quite a collection of vintage synths, but we used them quite sparingly so that they would really stand out. And when we play live, it’s a lot of new stuff, smaller things… stuff that you can get into hand luggage on Easy Jet flight [laughs].
Barker: I think we’ve set the reset button with this album, rather than just build on what we’ve done in the past. For instance, we had the opportunity to work with various people to do tracks with, people who might have given the tracks some extra attention — but we were like, no, we’ve already done that. There are no obvious lead singles, no pop tunes at all.
Massey: I think we realized that it’s okay to be niche these days. It’s actually a strength to not do too many things and try to appeal to everybody. We have done albums in the past where we tried to fit in the full panoply of what you can do with electronic music, and with this one, we were trying to do something that was a bit more contained. But we actually have no idea how it’s going to go down, to be honest!
You’re self-releasing this record. Does it feel like a return to your DIY roots?
Massey: I’ve been DIY since the ’70s, since the original punk scene, really — and I’ve never been far from the idea that everything has to have 100 percent truth to it. Even with ZTT, they allowed us to do what we wanted to do. Trevor Horn was certainly very interested in what we did, and he did come into the studio with us a few times, but our methods were so far apart from his that he didn’t really get what we were doing.
You weren’t working with million-dollar budgets and full orchestras.
Massey: That’s right. And we managed to get all this weird music into the pop charts in England, possibly the weirdest pop records of all time, back when the pop charts still mattered. But it was obviously a very different time than it was when we started. We didn’t have to fund everything ourselves.
Barker: ZTT was behind us all the time. But now, we’re back to doing it all ourselves again. So if there are any mistakes, you can blame us.
Do you still enjoy playing live?
Massey: More than ever! There’s this great loop between us and the audience in a live setting. And the sound systems we play on are amazing compared to what we used to get. There’s a real physicality that wasn’t there before. If I want to vibrate people’s left kidney, it’s like, “Oh, that’s that knob over there.”
What do you guys listen too when you’re not busy being 808 State?
Massey: I’ve always been a complete jazz-head. I actually do a monthly radio show called the Jazz Cruise Lifeboat Assembly, which is a lot of outsider jazz. I’m pretty obsessive about it. I’m also very interested in improvisation. We do drag a bit of that into 808 State, but it’s really probably best if I get all that off my chest in other ways!
Barker: I listen to all kinds of stuff—but I have to admit to loving pop music. And I’m still deejaying quite a bit, so that takes up a lot of time.
Do you still go out to hear other DJs?
Massey: It’s a great time to go out in Manchester, with DJs who know their history, and who know how to pull things from the past and pull things from last week and align them in a way that makes sense. Manchester has always been full of people from working-class backgrounds who have this total passion for music, and they wanted to be good at it.
Barker: Manchester kids have always had the best record collections.
Is having such beloved songs as “Pacific” in your back catalog more of a blessing or a curse? Is there pressure to recreate that magic again, either from yourselves or from your audience?
Barker: Well, everybody compares what you’re doing to your past hits, don’t they? It’s just a natural reaction. But when we put that one out, there were never any plans for it. It was just put it out, and so many people went for it. It’s something you’ll never get away from it, and that’s okay.
Massey: It’s definitely good to have tunes like that in your satchel when you are playing live. Even though we’re largely playing to a new generation now, and they don’t necessarily have a nostalgic connection with those tunes, but they’ll still work even if you’ve never heard them before.
Barker: Those songs are still unbreakable, aren’t they?
Massey: They were the soundtrack to a kind social movement. Rave helped to break down a lot of barriers — class barriers, social barriers, gender barriers and more — and helped to promote ideas of tolerance, and those ideas are ingrained in places like Manchester.
But those ideas are under threat nowadays, so it definitely doesn’t hurt to look back at that time.