808 State: Accidents Will Happen
9th February 1991
Poised to enter the charts for the umpteenth time in their brief career with 'In Your Face', 808 STATE also continue their policy of imaginative collaborations with The Sugarcubes' BJORK and New Order's BERNARD SUMNER, both of whom have contributed to 808's forthcoming album, 'Ex.EL'. PAUL LESTER talked to them all to find out what's so special about these four unlikely lads from Manchester, and discovered their three-way mutual appreciation society. Pics: ANDREW CATLIN
OOPS! BJORK'S BEEN INVOLVED IN an accident! - "I can't tell when accidents are going to happen, the same as I don't know when mountains will explode," explained the little Sugarcube on the phone from her home in Reykjavik, not far from where one of Iceland's most famous volcanos was, at that moment, erupting in front of crowds of dazzled spectators. Just before this peculiar freak of nature occurred, though, an event of even more seismically quirky proportions threatened to tip the planet off its axis.
Bjork recorded two tracks with 808 State.
"I decided to be brave and ring them up," she recently told one source. "I just introduced myself as an Icelandic girl who wanted to sing on their records."
808's very own vinyl junkie, the intensely quotable Martin Price, clearly remembers how the accident happened.
'We hadn't a clue it was going to be Bjork when she first got in touch with our manager," he says. 'We thought it was just a fan from Iceland with a cassette of her local band that she wanted to play to us. Then she turned up and we realised it was her."
Are 808 fans of The Sugarcubes?
"I'm not really a fan, cos I always thought they were tinged with some distasteful aspects," says the State's technical and melodic expert, Graham Massey. Martin: "I loved 'Birthday' when it came out, it was so different, totally unique."
"No disrespect to him, though," adds delightfully opinionated avant-scratch supremo, Darren Partington, referring to The Sugarcubes' resident unfunny man, Einar, "but he can't sing to save his life! He's terrible! But pluck Bjork out and ...
EXACTLY. Pluck all sorts of marvellously gifted and eccentrically talented seers and psychos from their natural and/or stifling environments, drop them in the supernaturally weird dreamscape of an 808 State song and – tadaa! – immediate magic! Instant artistic rebirth!
Remember it was 808 themselves who, the last time MM met them, admitted they were capable of reproducing virtually any pop genre at will, be it hip hop, Acid, jazz, heavy metal, reggae, funk or House. Less an idle boast and more a plain statement-of-fact from a troupe of studio aces with a wide open trial-and-error approach to recording procedures, this comment, once you get over its sheer audacity, actually points towards a highly promising notion – 808 State joining forces with all your favourite stars.
Last year's rumoured collaboration with Morrissey doesn't seem so far-fetched in the light of the Bjork episode. Now the possibilities are endless. Theoretically, 808 could work wonders with anyone. Who next? Diamanda Galas? Dieter Meier? Billy Mackenzie?
Darren: "We'd like to do something with Wibbly-Wobbly." Huh?
"Oh, you know, what's he called? Rolf Harris."
Andrew Barker, 808's other DJ, elucidates, as I pick my jaw up off the floor.
"We got an offer in just before Christmas to do 'Neighbours'. There was this scene with Harold and Madge, where Harold was doing a speech and Madge was blabbering over the top of Rolf Harris' 'Sun Arise'. And we got this fax sent to our office asking whether we wanted to do the music to a new version of it for the programme. Now they've come back to us about the offer, asking if we want to do a track with him." So you're avid Rolf buffs, yeah?
Darren: "He's the original human beatbox! Doug E Fresh, get to bed!"
ON a more tantalising note, and leaving aside terminally adolescent, four-eyed Oz cartoonists, 808 State have also recorded a song for their forthcoming, consistently fascinating LP, "Ex.El", with Electronic's local genius-next-door, Bernard Sumner. "Spanish Heart" is the missing 10th track from that masterpiece of sublimated desire and sublime Eurodisco, "Technique", a flawless piece of digital romanticism.
According to Darren, the intention wasn't for "Spanish Heart" to sound like a New Order outtake.
"We didn't purposely want the press to say, 'Oh, there goes another New Order track.' We consciously tried not to make it that. But as soon as his voice was on it . . . Take his vocals off and it isn't a New Order track."
Martin agrees that any resemblance is simply due to Bernard's stunningly recognisable singing, which is ironic when you consider how, for years, he's been regarded as a "weak", characterless vocalist.
"Everybody knows that Bernard's not the best singer in the world. But he's unique, he's got his own style. And he's 90 times better than when he started."
IT seemed appropriate at this point to try and contact Sumner himself on how the 808 team-up came about. This was easier said than done.
"Sorry I'm late," Bernard apologised down the phone in that familiar boyish whisper, several million hours after he was supposed to call. "I've been in a business meeting, and I fell asleep on the settee."
What was it like working with 808?
"It was good fun. I really admire them. Apart from (A Guy Called) Gerald, 808 are the only new Manchester group I like, far better than all that rehashed Sixties jangly music everyone else is doing. I'm not putting the other Manchester groups down, really, it's just that 808 are more my field. They're right up my street, a real corker of a group," he said, switching into sardonic mode.
Did they adapt "Spanish Heart" ("it's got a Latin lover vibe") to suit you, or was it finished when you got to 808's studio?
"I helped with the arrangements and worked on it a bit, but it's mainly their song. I just did the vocals and the words. Actually, I always find it difficult singing on top of someone else's song."
So are you going to be doing any more collaborations in future?
"No, I'm going to be doing less! The same goes for remixes. You can spread yourself too thin on the ground and become a musical tennis ball. I basically wanted to do this cos I really like 808 State, they're a good dance force in Manchester, and it's about time someone had a go."
"YOU have to make your dreams come true,' said Bjork, a girl who talks in squeaks and hiccups, about her involvement with 808, and the two tracks she recorded with them – the compelling, shivery "Oops!" and the stompy brass oddity, "Qmart". 'Was I nervous about ringing them up? Of course. But I really wanted to do it. 808 are one of the very few bands with direction today, that aren't just following everyone else."
Apparently, along with Public Enemy, NWA and The World Saxophone Quintet, 808 State are Bjork's favourite group. Was it easy working with them?
"Yes, but the main difference between working with them and The Sugarcubes was I just called and asked if they wanted to work with me, went to Manchester, improvised and did the lyric in about an hour, and that was it. When I arrived they'd almost finished the tracks. So next time I want to do the music, too - everyone does the music in The Sugarcubes. But it was very exciting."
808 were equally thrilled by the situation.
"When she was in the vocal booth we were like kids with a box of sweeties!" recalls Darren. 'We were looking at each other and it was like, 'What the fuck's she doing? It's wicked!' It was a cracker."
What's Bjork like?
Martin: "She looks like you wanna rub noses with her straight away, know what I mean? She's got this Icelandic – obviously – ethnic-ish look. She's dead good-looking." Darren: "It was pissing down outside our studio in Cheadle, and she just put on her coat and went right out in the rain with her headphones on! She wanted to go for a walk and listen to the tracks we'd done for her, so she could get the lyrics sorted out. So she walked round the block, and came back an hour later with a bag of fruit."
"SPANISH Heart" and "Oops!" might be 808 State's next singles, after their current jagged slice of techno-savagery, "In Your Face", has ruptured a hole in the Top 20. An utterly bewitching mix of space bleeps, dub thuds and vocal and melody lines that resolutely refuse to spend more than three seconds in each others' company, "Oops!" also features a splendidly erratic Bjork, and just happens to be the finest thing she's put her lips to since "Deus". Just another accident? Most certainly not.
What remains less definite is the songs' lyrical content. "Spanish Heart" would appear to be Sumner's sequel to "Mr Disco", the so-sumptuous-it's-edible cut from "Technique" that sees a sad and lonely Bernard wandering from place to place and club to club in some far-off holiday resort, in search of his long lost lover. Am I right, Bernard? "Not really, no. It's just a song influenced by that whole Balearic scene. It's dead moody, that's all."
How about "Oops!", Bjork?
"It's a secret! It's too personal to say. Why's it called 'Oops!'? It's the first word of the song."
Thanks for the help, guys.
Mercifully, 808 State are at hand to offer valuable insights into the workings of these two maverick spirits.
Martin: "He just ad libbed it. What Bernard did is pretty much what we do - he sketched over the top of the music. He'd do a few lines, link it was all right, add bits here and there, and that was it. It's a really good way of working."
Darren's more specific about "Oops!"
"Bjork called it 'Grab The Rays' at first, and it's all about insecurity if you listen to it. She was telling me about it cos I was trying to get into her lyrics. She said she was experimenting."
"I know what it's about," Martin continues, conspiratorially. "It's out her attitude towards men, about being owned. She understands men and writes about them in her own way, but I don't think blokes can recognise what she's going on about most of the time. It's great, though, cos you can read your own personal things into it."
AFTER 45 lively minutes in 808 State's company, you start to drastically re-think all those ideas you might once have had about them being faceless, personality-less ciphers for the new android noise, just a bunch of cynical tacticians manipulating their hi-tech gadgets with mechanical precision. But, it has to be said, they are perhaps more passionately committed to making beautiful music come true than almost anyone else around.
There's a big sort of romantic streak in what we do that you don't get in a lot of other music," says Graham, warming to the subject. Do you mean more melodic, more POP?
Martin: "Yeah, but bigger. We're just... bigger! Bigger thoughts go into it. I don't know how it happens, it's just a sort of magic that we have. It all slots together and, even though there's something unnatural about it, it's actually really moving."
So you're not cold and calculating dance scientists?
Darren: "No. We're far more slapdash than that."
And you're no less emotionally involving than, say, a guitar band whose blood, sweat and tears drip all over their bass and drums?
Martin: "Not at all. We're just as emotional as someone sitting down and playing a G Minor diminished chord on their guitar. It's like that Bjork track isn't coldness-meets-emotion, it's double emotion for me. It makes the hairs prick up on the back of your neck, and it does that every time I play it. I love it. And when we do 'Oops!' or 'Spanish Heart' live, there'll be so much more atmosphere than something that's supposed, as we are, to be totally robotic."
"I've been up since 7.30 this morning mixing tracks for the Electronic LP. We've got about 1 7 ready so far, some of which have been shelved. It's going really well. Mind you, we've only finished mixing four tracks, and the album's gotta be done in four weeks' time cos I'm going on holiday. Where am I going? I'd better not say, for security reasons."
"Before Christmas I did an Icelandic jazz LP with some old Icelandic jazz legends. It was so much fun. It was a big hit here, you know? I've also been busy with a big band of about 15 people, all playing different instruments. Siggi, the Sugarcubes drummer, is our crooner, like Bing Crosby. I play the clarinet. Bragi, our bassist, and Einar have books of Icelandic poetry out, too. The volcano? Oh, it erupts so often that nobody's stupid enough to build their house near it. You can see it light up the sky. It's like a huge city behind the mountains. Would I like to be on 'Top Of The Pops' with 808 State? That'd be a joke. I'll bring the volcano. In my luggage. You know, they're already selling lava rocks to stupid tourists. It's so boring.
And goodbye 808 State.
"New Order were great for the way they stood there and played the synth with two fingers and had the keys marked with a felt pen. They were the blueprint for being in a band where you didn't have to be above everybody. It was about being cosmopolitan yet sort of local at the same time. There was never any hype, they had cred.
"What I loved was Hooky nailing it to the floor with his jackboots. I was into jazz funk all-dayers at the time, just after punk, so I couldn't go near any scruffy person who spits at yer girlfriend - I got into loads of fights cos of that. But they were menacing and experimental, and the way they fitted together is pretty similar to the way 808 State do. It was a unit, they were all really different, but they worked well together. Barney was the more gentle, shy, retiring sort of guy, and Peter Hook was like, 'Fuck off, and if you lean on me monitor I'll boot you in the back of the head!' Am I the Hooky of 808 State? No, I'm more the Barney. Darren? He's the Gillian ..."
In Your Face" is out now on ZTT Records. "Ex.El" is released on March 4. 808 State play G-MEX on March 16.