A Pioneer of UK Dance: A chat with Graham Massey from 808 State
Updated: Oct 28
Hailing from Manchester, 808 State have been instrumental in shaping the landscape of the UK's Dance scene. We spoke to Graham Massey from the group about their musical influences, the evolution of Manchester's dance scene, and returning to the stage following Covid-19.
Tell me a bit about yourself
I'm Graham Massey, I've been in a group called 808 State since 1988. So that's a hell of a long time. And we're still making new music. We're probably best known for having a lot of weird hits in the early 90s and the acid house scene in Manchester City which was all pretty crazy back then. But we've managed to sort of stay flying since then. And yet here we are 30 odd years later. Still doing gigs
Before 808 State you were involved in the band Biting Tongues and Hit Squad Manchester which would later evolve into 808 State. How did those experiences shape you as an artist?
When I first got involved in music it was the time of punk and what that allowed was this new idea of a non-musician. We had just come through a period where you know musician scale you know through prog-rock where it was all about skill and then punk kind of allowed everyone to have a go It was it. That was fortunate for me because I was no musician at the time, but I was just really obsessed with sound and tape recording. I played a lot of different instruments in Biting Tongues, electric violin, trumpet, but mostly guitar. We also use a lot of tapes and audio in Biting Tongues, just as pure noise and so later on when we come to the rave thing and samplers come out, I felt very equipped to engage in electronic music because we've been surrounded by dance music or electronic music in all its forms that started in the 70s.
With your most recent album Transmission Suite acting as a love letter to Manchester's music scene, past and present, how has the scene evolved over the years?
They're just small mutations of the same idea sometimes I think. It's interesting how a lot of music that is 30 years old can sit alongside music that's just be made in clubs have today, you know, it's not unusual to hear a 20 or 30-year-old record being played next to it's not like the Sonics have moved on so much that the two things don't blend, you know, so it's become a slower pace of musical development in some ways that the big difference between the music of you know, the 70s to the 90s was it was a huge difference in fidelity and sound systems. So that felt like a big change whereas now there are so many genres now and you know, it's a matter of what you call social music, isn't it?
When you go out clubbing, there are all forms of electronic music, which are polarizing to a wider and bigger audience now, whereas I can remember times in our city when there'd be little niches of quiet experimental, exploratory electronic music. It's wider but its kind of polarizing into a mass entertainment that's about the DJ format what how one thing fits into another they're not like in individual pieces I think when you look at 808 states music they are kind of individual pieces of music, you know, that aren't particularly DJ tools they're kind of like we're very much an album band for that genre. Which was unusual back then and is even more kind of less able to fit in now you know?
808 State is often cited by many as the forefathers and pioneers of the UK dance scene. What is your thoughts on that?
There was maybe a couple of years when it definitely felt like that because there weren't that many bands on doing that kind of thing at that time. When we first started we were actually crossing over with what would be the sort of soul scene in the northwest of England. You know, we were doing soul weekenders. We lived amongst a tradition of like r&b and kind of like northern soul and all that kind of thing, staying up all night and, you know, the obsession with the dance floor.
How have your solo ventures and side projects gone on to influence you as a musician?
Manchester is quite a musical town. And working with electronic music is very studio-based. It's kind of slow improvisation. It's like, you know, you can sit down and slow down the process and get behind each thought, and it just operates at a different speed. Whereas there's something really thrilling about getting in a room with people and just making stuff up on the spot, which is where I started. as a young musician, that was the thrill, you know, so I'm always kind of searching for that thrill of instant human chemistry in a band.
The side projects are often just sort of for fun, you know, they're just sort of like, you have to refresh yourself in various ways over the years. It was 17 years that we didn't make a record, but in fact, we did make quite a lot of records, but they just weren't 808 records. And on the other side of that is all the remix in as well that we do, and producing other people's records. So never stopped making records. Yes, but some of them have a set of rules that are quite different. You know, for instance, the Sisters of transistors record that was a project that was drummed because I collect old transistor organs because they're cheap. And then we just got together like an organ quartet. So it's just all 60s fizzy organs, and I wanted to learn the drums. So I became the drummer in that band, I couldn't drum at that point when I learned it for that band, you know, so it's about learning, and growing, you know, is important to keep you fresh.
Covid-19 has had a massive impact on the world and has led to an absence of live music. What is it like to get back on stage after all this time?
Well, if you ask the people that live with you they say to me, it's neurotic, quite neurotic to be, you know, to spend the past couple of years being really careful and guarded, and then all of a sudden to be in the crowds. You have to switch a lot of things up in your head, you know, to be dealing with it. it's gonna take some getting used to but it's amazing how you click back into it you know you have a job to do and there's only so many things you think you during joining a gig you know it's kind of get you know it's like a daisy chain of events that have to be completed and your mind is so occupied with the job that you can't think about all those things.
With Transmission Suite released in 2019 to critical acclaim and you are currently on tour, what's next for 808 State?
I think we need to get on to some new music. I mean, the music that came out on that album, you know, as I say, took about three years. So to me, that was, you know, new music is welling up now, and we need to get onto that, but a lot of the gigs that were postponed over last year, hopefully, are in place for this summer. So what we are looking forward to is doing festivals, hopefully, you know, getting those in the Summer, you know, to be out and about play live really because it's that's what would be missing. Really, it's a feedback loop. You know, if you go out live, you come back with ideas, if you stay in the house, you'll not get as many ideas. So yeah, it's about that, that that interaction with people that where music is born, you know. So yeah, it's about starting up the feedback loop.