“We’re trying to make a future for other people to immerse themselves in,” says Graham Massey. “It feels a bit like an imaginary landscape. That’s always been a big part of 808 State, when you go back through the music: these kind of landscapes of futurism.”
808 State are about to return with Transmission Suite, a record that remains true to the forward-thinking ethos of this singular band, but also takes them somewhere new. More stripped-back and conscious of space than the music that first made their name in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it is also suffused with a sense of history: specifically, that of their home city of Manchester, and the ghosts that swirl around it. Its tracks reflect the fact that electronic music also has a rich backstory, but 808 State being 808 State, they also point ahead. Put simply, Transmission Suite – which is their seventh album - evokes the past, present and future, which is not something you can say about many records.
Its achievement is all the greater when you consider that their last album, Outpost Transmission, came out in 2002. 808 State music has appeared since then, and the band have continued to play live, but it wasn’t until last year that Massey and Andrew Barker finally decided to reconvene with a view to working on a big new tranche of material.
Barker recalls: “It was like, ‘Let’s go in the studio. If we don’t like it, we’ll park it, and nobody’ll know any different.’ Because we’ve made such big tunes, there was a bit of ‘Can we still do it?’ But we went in, as an experiment, and it worked.” Initial sessions happened in 2017, in the wake of Graham’s work on the music for What Is the City But The People?, an event put on as part of the Manchester International Festival, in which 100 Mancunians walked on a runway suspended above the centre of the city. After that was completed, he and Andrew got in the habit of days and nights spent working together, which eventually produced a significant body of work.
Everything happened in the former home of the North West broadcasting giant Granada, which contains the small studio where The Beatles recorded a TV session in 1963 and 808 State first performed for Granada cameras in 1989, as well as huge spaces now used for everything from the filming of Peaky Blinders to one-off gigs by Skepta and Autechre. Graham and Andrew worked in the so-called Transmission Suite, which was once the nerve centre of the whole place – and, by extension, what poured forth from TV sets across a huge swathe of England. “It feels like mission control Houston,” says Graham. “The furniture is in a huge arc, with a wall of about eighty TV monitors. And the room is encased in glass, so it’s a room within a room. If you pull the floor up, there’s wiring from the 1980s, on top of wiring from the 1970s, on top of wiring from the 1960s, on top of wiring from the 1950s. It’s like Industrial Geology. And the whole room is wired to a building the size of a village.”
“It’s an amazing place,” offers Andrew. “It’s like going into something like [sci-fi TV classic] Blake’s 7. When Granada moved out, they just left all the equipment there. There were half-empty cups of coffee still on the table. And they’d left all the vision mixers on the desk. We basically went in and put our stuff on top of theirs. It was a really big room. And it was quite eerie being in there. There were a few moments where we were like, ‘What was that noise?’ There has been word the place was haunted.”
“Weirdly, when we moved in, some of the machinery hadn’t been switched off,” says Graham. “It was blinking, the whole time. Before us, an internet company had been in there, so there was a massive server in a cage behind some glass, still blinking away. And there was all this kind of defunct technology, like a teleprinter, teletext stuff, boxes of floppy discs.”
This strange, ghostly setting exerted an inevitable effect on the music they created. “If we’d been in a high-tech studio, we would have come out with something completely different,” says Andrew. “But we were in this weird moody place, with an S.A.D. light on all day: fake sunshine.” You can hear echoes of the band’s eerie environs in such tracks as Bushy Bushy, Huronic and Westland: glitchy, haunted pieces that convey a sense of the city at night, when urban bustle gives way to quiet and emptiness, and you never know quite what might happen.
This synthesis of music with its immediate environment has always been at the heart of what 808 State do: think back to their first album Newbuild, or their breakthrough hit Pacific State, and you hear the same sense of sound and rhythm somehow conveying all the latent strangeness of built-up places. “I think the music has always responded to the city, in general,” says Graham. This runs wider than just modern buildings, into Manchester’s entire industrial history. “I’ve always had this vision of industry representing a collection of dreamers dreaming about the future,” he says. “Think about Henry Ford and people like that: without them, you wouldn’t have a metropolis vision - a vision of a future city.”
Which brings us to parallels between the histories of Manchester and Detroit, and the electronic music the two cities have in common. “That resonance with Detroit when we heard that music was almost like the birth of 808 State,” says Graham. “When I first heard Detroit techno, it really resonated with music I love, having grown up with Radiophonic music, and stuff like that: there was a very evident futurism.”
Graham reckons that the abiding influence of “classic techno” is at the core of Transmission Suite, and such tracks as the crystalline, nocturnal Carbonade bear that out. But the mood of these songs also fits the modern Mancunian cityscape, and the sense of a post-industrial place being pushed at speed into the future. “We’re at this moment now, when Manchester is starting to feel like Singapore or something,” says Graham. “There are so many cranes. People come back and it’s like, ‘Wow- it’s all doubled’. Everything’s going vertical, and certain parts of history are being buried. It’s an interesting moment.
21st century Manchester is also reflected in the stylistic variety of the tracks on the album, and their echoes of the city’s enduring musical eclecticism. Graham talk about such club nights as Eyes Down and Swing Ting, and the often mind-boggling variety of what gets played there. “It’s often quite broken, abstract, urban music,” he says. “They might play weird shit: like [Bauhaus’s] Bela Lugosi’s Dead being played next to a Dubstep tune, played next to a proper Jamaican reggae electronic B-side from the 80s next to drum and bass. It’s interesting how timelines can be ridden. You can jump through time-zones, and access everything. It’s not about what you bought in the record shop on a Friday night, which is how it used to be.”
808 State music is partly built on the creative tension between Graham’s background in post-punk music, improvisation and what he calls his “muso tendencies”, and Andrew’s roots on the dancefloor, reflected in the fact that he is still a working DJ. That clash was there at the start of the band’s life, and it remains in place, melding together the two essential facets of the band’s music, and powering them on. Last year saw their 30th anniversary tour, when cross-generational audiences gave Graham, Andrew and their live band a rapturous reception – proof that electronic music’s three-decade history is now part of its power.
“Probably the hardest crowd is usually in London,” says Andrew. “And on the anniversary tour, we came offstage and went, ‘What a reaction. This tour is going to be amazing.’ That was the feeling. The place just went off – and from then on, every gig was exactly the same, every night: ‘This is working.’”
“With some of our records from the past, we get people writing in about having funerals to that music, people getting married to it… it’s become the fabric of people’s lives,” says Graham. “Those kids that used to turn up at our gigs aged 13 or 14: how old are they now? They’re in their forties! I’m very interested in the ability of music to talk cross-generationally.”
“The whole electronic, dance music thing just keeps going, doesn’t it?” he marvels. Transmission Suite is a perfect example of what he means: a record made by band with a rich history, who are still consumed by the idea of what comes next, and the endless possibilities of the future.