In the world of 808 State, hip hop gave way to baggy, rave gave way to freestyle, and their namesake 808 drum machines now serve as dusty benches for their TR909s. Nine years on and with their new album Don Solaris again reflecting the state of dance and subtle indie crossover in 1996, may we see yet another celebration of the State similar to the progressive hits of Pacific and the UK gold albums Ninety, EX-EL (featuring Bjork and New Order’s Bernard Sumner) and 1992’s Gorgeous? Or is nine years in dance just pushing it a little.
The three core members of 808 State, having expanded the dance boundaries since their 1987 Manchester beginnings, are now obviously grandfathers of the scene, but they have several immortal fountains – Graham Massey is one of the world’s most sought-after producers (witness his work with Bjork) and freelance DJ duo Darren Partington and Andrew Baker continue to provide the latest cutting edge dance on Manchester’s Kiss 102 FM.
“That’s how we got it all together, we formed the band as DJs,” says Darren Partington, sneekers-up in his home in Manchester. “We weren’t musicians at the start, we came from the hip hop scene of the early 80s and bullied our way into the band because we knew what we wanted.”
By ’88 the core of 808 State were beginning to finding the crossover ground, opening for The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses in an era of bright beats amongst grim remnants. “We were coming out of a really bad indie slump, all that dark and musty age of The Smiths and Echo And The Bunnymen, and then to Manchester came this acid house thing from America which was fresh and new.
“Then the whole Manchester and baggy scene, well, what everyone perceives as being the Mondays and the Roses wasn’t really about them. It was about Detroit techno and Chicago house, all the indie bands were there at the raves, they were all influenced by the electronic scene. But in the end, the only way that we could break into getting gigs was to support the indie bands, which we duly did. There just weren’t any established dance bands in this country who could afford a press agent.”
Needless to say, the Manchester scene went ballistic, its undoubted appeal being the crossover and combining of the two disparate tribes of indie and dance – what one group saw as dance, another saw as indie: a perfect spread really.
“Yeah, we are still seen as alternative in America, which is great for us. I mean, we’ve been touring there since 1989 and played some of the very first raves in the US, but in the shops we’re not placed under dance or rave or techno, we’re alternative! It’s great, because you only have to listen to our last 7 or 8 albums to realise that we arn’t just a dance band.”
Darren Partington’s musical career seems quite complete: finding the latest dance material for his radio show must fill his own head with ideas while indie icons are bashing down the door to do vocalist spots with 808 State. On Don Solaris the guests and moods range from the strange monotone of Doughty from Soul Coughing (drum and bass), the heightened fervour of Louise Rhodes from Lamb (jungle), the smooth despondency of James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers (sweeping keyboards) and one of Tricky’s crew from Maxinquaye, Ragga (tribal and jungle).
“A lot of it just happens, it just falls into our laps. You see, we’ve got no lyric writer in 808 State, I adore the talent to write good, powerful lyrics.
“Our first single from Don Solaris, Bond, with Doughty on vocals, was like a kick up the backside to a lot of people because it was so direct, very Soul Coughing. They are one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen in my life. It was my whole reason for existing for a while to get hold of Doughty, to send him a tape, because the man can write amazing lyrics.”
In conversation with Partington he seems continually intent in blurring the distinctions between dance and indie. To take the point further, 808 State’s appearance at Brazil’s Free Jazz Festival was another highlight – sharing the bill with the jazz crowd of Herbie Hancock and Isaac Hayes prompted his reply “I think progressive dance is the jazz of the 90s anyway!” You can get shot for a less inflammatory remark.
“Well I don’t like the purist angle. We’ve seen a lot of change and fluctuation. I mean, we’ve done our techno album, our acid house album, our rave album, now it’s time to move on. With the influx of your Portisheads, your Trickys, it’s blowing the door wide open.
“It’s an exiting time in music in this country with jungle and trip hop being around, you can feel it. You go out on the town in Manchester and there’s this enormous buzz about this new freestyle stuff coming through, a real mixed bag, which is exiting for me as a writer. It is anything goes at the moment, just how I’ve always wanted it.”