“To some extent it’s slightly nostalgic but it’s not really about tunes we’ve written before. About 70% of it’s pure improvisation. It’s all about setting the system up using drum machines and monosynths with little sequencers in them, then jumping off the cliff holding hands….”
808 State’s Graham Massey and A Guy Called Gerald have reunited to perform all-analogue live acid house jams with a distinctly retro approach. When the men responsible for ‘Pacific State’ and ‘Voodoo Ray’ get together, we get excited. We chatted to the pair in advance of their performance in London this weekend to find out why the classic Manchester acid sound relied so heavily on Roland hardware and to hear Gerald’s typically forthright views on live dance music.
Attack: Can you start by explaining a bit of the background behind the Rebuild Live Acid Jam concept?
Graham Massey: You have to go back to the beginning of 808 State, which was formed in 1988 by me, Gerald and a guy called Martin Price. We were doing acid house in ’88, which was quite rare in the UK at that point. John Peel used to play our first album, Newbuild, quite a lot and we started getting exposure from things like that and doing early raves and warehouse parties.
Basically Aphex Twin’s label Rephlex really liked that first album and they reissued it as a triple vinyl package in about 1999. It was a bit of a lost album before they put it out again – original pressings were going for about 70 quid because I think we only pressed a thousand copies when we put it out.
Then we found a load more tapes from that period and did a thing called Prebuild on Rephlex, which was a collection of acid tracks from around ’88, the early experiments – some of which were just tapes out of Gerald’s bedroom. We did a gig to launch that album but we haven’t done anything since. We just saw it as a one-off event, but since then we’ve had a lot of requests to do it again and WANG have organised another event this weekend.
To some extent it’s slightly nostalgic but it’s not really about tunes we’ve written before. About 70% of it’s pure improvisation. It’s all about setting the system up using drum machines and monosynths with little sequencers in them, then jumping off the cliff holding hands.
Gerald Simpson: It’s kind of like going back in time a bit but it’s gonna be enjoyable, I reckon. It’s exactly the same kind of machinery as we were using back then, really. Basically going back 25 years.
What equipment are you using?
Graham: It’s a lot of the old Roland gear like we used back then – the 808, the 909, the 303 and the 101 that we made records with. But, approaching it again now, I’m questioning whether to use a computer or not.
Gerald: I’m totally using analogue. 303, 101, 202, 727, 909… Analogue’s kind of what the kids enjoy these days anyway. Everyone’s got a computer, so they want to see someone using the old stuff. For me it’s actually easier to use the old gear. I can do it with my eyes closed nowadays but I’ve been practising a bit with it just to make sure I’m not being overconfident.
Graham: Red Bull Music Academy have loaned us a studio for three days this week so we’ll bash it out and decide what to do. It’s very last minute so it could go in different directions.
That’s exciting in itself.
Graham: Yeah. I mean, we’re trying to avoid doing really cliched stuff with it, but you find when you’ve got all this equipment wired together that certain tempos suit the frequencies, if you know what I mean. It’s not about having it really hard and fast. It’s about multi-layering and making almost a tapestry of things. It does dictate it’s own terms to some extent, but we like to mess with that as well. A lot of the time we’re surprising each other. It’s like, ‘Where’s he going?’ and you have to respond to things.
Just seeing where it takes you…
Graham: Definitely. In one sense it’s sometimes a bit scary, because the audience comes with expectations, but it’s true to the way that we first used to do acid house. You didn’t have a set list, it was very organic. It was about a process rather than a tune.
Gerald: The first time we did it we got a few little new grooves together beforehand, but this time I’m thinking I might try and revisit some of the old stuff from the Newbuild album, so I’ve been programming some of that on the 303, recreating a few bits and pieces.
That can be easier said than done with the 303. How good are you with programming it?
Gerald: I’ve been doing it 25 years so I know how to program a tune into it. I used to write all my music with the SH-101, the 808 and the 303, so it’s not so hard to do. All you have to do is read the manual really…
Haha. Fair point. So how come it’s all Roland gear?
Gerald: When I started out I was just using all Roland stuff because there wasn’t anything else available. People were throwing it all away so it was really cheap. At one point all I had in my studio was Roland gear.
Were you trying to copy the sounds you were hearing from Chicago and Detroit?
Gerald: No, it was just that they were easy to get hold of. I didn’t realise that it was the same gear they were using in Chicago until I heard a 303 on a record in about late ’86, early ’87, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit. I’ve got one of them!’
Graham: It wasn’t just about trying to emulate American music. I found the hip hop thing at the time to be very much about that. It wasn’t particularly bringing anything British to the table.
Yeah, it probably took a lot longer for British hip hop to develop its own identity. That’s an interesting point because the Manchester acid, techno, warehouse scene – whatever you want to call it – soon developed a distinct sound of its own.
Graham: It had a sort of UK slant to it. You can still hear that there’s a thread of UK subculture music that’s very much influenced by reggae and dub. When we were growing up in Manchester that’s what you’d always hear at parties. There was a different cultural mix in Manchester to, say, the Balearic thing that was coming out of London at the time. It reflected that sound system culture.