Sisters Of Transistors - The sound of the space age
Clash Clash
25 November 2009

Manchester has always carried itself with a soulful swagger - shaggy hair, baggy attitude, cigarette limp from lip.


That’s something that Graham Massey of 808 State - and now Sisters Of Transistors - puts down to the post-war absorption of black American music, via US air force bases like Burton Wood. Chicago blues, northern soul and out into rave, Manchester lapped it up, creating music Graham argues has “got the DNA of all those things in it.”

As well as soul (and, of course football… and haircuts) Manchester also does electronics extremely well. The first ever recording of digital music was made in Manchester by the Ferranti Mark I computer. Recorded for Children’s Hour in 1951, the Ferranti used its “Hoot” instruction to play ‘In The Mood’.

It’s not a million light-years from ‘In The Mood’ to 808 State’s ‘In Yer Face’, a product of this fusion of soul and electronics. 808 State continue to play live, with Graham taking on the role of curator of the back catalogue. As well as looking after the music itself, the band were also synth junkies, fastidiously logging every keyboard they used in making that music. “It’s like stamp collecting,” says Graham, over a pint in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. “You can’t make a record with one - you need to have twenty-five. It’s that object fetish. I like laying them all out - it sends all the normal people in the house up the wall.”

Graham became especially interested in vintage transistor organs and the project Sisters Of Transistors evolved from that starting point - not so much 808… more Welfare State: “I got into keyboards because of 808 and the synths but these are the obscure kind of keyboards - the outer rim for keyboard collectors. To sustain music making over this amount of time - and I’ll be fifty next year - you have to re-invent the wheel somehow. And to a certain extent this project set off with a set of rules: just combo organs - the transistor ones you‘ll find in The Doors or ’60s psych stuff.”

Sisters Of Transistors are a quartet of female organ players, with Graham underpinning the whole thing on live drums: “Yep, all girls,” he smiles, “which is different for me after being in ‘lad’s world’ for how many years. I just needed a different approach - an experiment. Of course when I’m unloading the van it seems like a bad experiment but… ”

Describing themselves as “the UK’s Premier Combo Organ Quartet and Ladies Social Club”, with gossip limited to twenty minutes per session and an outrageous rider demanding “cakes of truly the highest of standards”, the four ladies are Sister Wigby Elka Wippeny, Sister Naomi Doric Pencrest, Sister Henrietta Vox Humana and Sister Ragna Tiescodottir. And at this juncture we need to add to our list of soul, football, electronics and haircuts the fact that Manchester does something else very well - humour. Remember it wasn’t Giorgio Moroder who opened the seminal nightclub The Haçienda in 1982. It was Bernard Manning.

The Sisters’ debut album ‘At The Ferranti Institute’ should now be out. Well, it will be if Graham finishes the album sleeves, which he’s putting together himself on his kitchen table.

So, all things considered, this project is starting to sound like… Christ, it’s hard to even summon up the words… a… concept album? “It’s totally a concept album,” Graham offers, willingly. “It’s proggy and unashamedly proggy. Over the last few years and all throughout 808… I’ve never hidden my love of prog. You’ll find that whole back catalogue totally peppered with prog. And that’s what made us quite odd.”

So - four organs and live drums. What does that sound like? On tracks like ‘Volkswagen’ and ‘Pendulum’ it feels like you’ve dropped some really good acid, hooked up with PT Barnum and gone raving with the circus strongman and all the bearded ladies. Other tracks like ‘The Don’ do have a more recognizable urbane, electronic feel, whilst vocals on ‘Dies Erae’ verge on Gregorian chanting. There’s a sort of English folk whimsy in the vocals on tracks like ‘Solardisco’ and it does feel very… English - utterly preposterous but somehow charming.

“It’s about breaking down that cliché,” says Graham of his avowed intent to resurrect the reputation of the organ. “It’s always been the music of religion - it’s a ritualistic sound. To me, it’s the sound of the space age. It’s probably growing up in the ’60s with all that Gerry Anderson stuff on the telly - things like Captain Scarlet.”

People can get very fetishistic about analogue - about valves and transistors - and this is music with proper nobs on. And that infuses the album - not an overt attempt to be anti-digital, but a desire to try something different. In the electronic field people inevitably work from the same digital palette and things can start to sound samey. But boy is that not the case here: “With this it’s the sound of real electricity going through real circuits,” grins Graham.

Sisters Of Transistors have already played gigs everywhere from arty settings to the club Fabric and the aim is to rustle up some festival action for next summer. And if they manage to do that you need to see this, if only to bear witness to the exact point where Kraftwerk meets The Women’s Institute.

Words by Simon A. Morrison

‘At The Ferranti Institute’ is out on This Is Music.