Graham Massey and 808 State have been back on tour in the UK since late September 2021, playing music from their recent album Transmission Suite along with many of the crowd’s old favourites. Louder Than War’s Audrey Golden spoke with Graham about the recent gigs, the band’s new record, graphic design, and some of the questions she has long wanted to ask about Biting Tongues and that incredible Feverhouse soundtrack.
LTW: Now that 808 State has played a number of gigs and you’ve got more lined up, I want to start by asking about playing live again in these strange and surreal times.
GM: I was really apprehensive before going out. I was expecting fewer people than we’d ordinarily get, but I’m seeing a shift now. We’re getting a much younger crowd and that has really buzzed me up because it’s a matter of getting an atmosphere. It’s a two-way thing, a gig: if you don’t have the atmosphere to bounce off, the whole thing kind of grinds to a halt.
But it’s been great actually. Bristol on Saturday night [2 October 2021] was particularly good. It’s very therapeutic to play like we do, very loud and energetic.
LTW: So I get the sense you think there’s a new generation coming to 808 State, discovering the music for the first time?
GM: Yeah, I think we’re one of the bands that can be transgenerational because this music still fits in with setlists today. And we’ve had records in recent years, which introduced us to a new audience, putting a track out every week for many months. We’ve put a bit of effort into addressing the history of the band, and the entire ZTT back catalogue has been remastered. I think that’s having an effect, introducing things in small bites consistently.
LTW: Yeah, I wanted to ask about those back catalogue releases. Did that come about after you’d done Transmission Suite, or had it been in the works for a while?
GM: It’s largely because ZTT sold itself to Universal Music, and we sold our soul to the devil in the late ’80s. So we don’t really see much from that back catalogue now, but on the other hand, I felt it was important to quality check it. So, I’ve been working on the project with a guy called Ian Peel. The people who used to work at ZTT are long gone, and the people doing it now weren’t even born when we made that music! So there’s a bit of a gap to close, a bit of goalkeeping involved in these reissues. A lot of masters got lost in the fray, but luckily I have a really good archive. We kept copies of everything at the time, and it’s a good job we did because so much stuff is missing.
LTW: Will any of that be released on physical media? Or is it largely digital?
GM: Given the current circumstances in the UK with vinyl, and now Brexit, the press plants are backed up for about two years at least. Hopefully we can do something like a Record Store Day box set or something. That would be sweet.
LTW: Yeah that would be really cool.
GM: It’s mostly the singles that we’ve done. We do have one thing coming out: HMV celebrated a hundred years and picked our album 90 to be one of the hundred releases to represent 1989.
LTW: Oh, fantastic!
GM: Yeah, so that’s coming out on limited vinyl quite soon I think.
LTW: Speaking of recent 808 State releases, I want to ask about Transmission Suite, and the Initial Granada Report and Subsequent Granada Report. Did these come out of a pre-pandemic burst of creativity?
GM: We had a studio for the first time in a while! We used to have a studio in the centre of Manchester, and that was the centre of our activity. That ended in 2003, I think. We had an album out [Outpost Transmission] on Circus Records, and they went bust. Consequently, we sort of did as well. There are many of these ups and downs in a thirty-year-old band like us. There’s high times and low times, and that was a sinking sort of low time when we’d put everything into a project and it kind of sandbagged. And to a certain extent, that’s what happened with Transmission Suite, as well. We put three years into making this record, and then the pandemic came. So it’s almost like we have to make a new album now in order to have that “new album” currency.
But at that time, I got a studio because I was working on a project for Manchester International Festival with an artist called Jeremy Deller for the project “What Is the City But the People.” It was a huge show in the centre of Manchester, and I had the job of musical director. I had this studio in order to pull that together, and it was in the old Granada TV studios in the room called the Transmission Suite. It was the hub of the TV station with these 60 TVs and massive desks, like “Mission Control, Houston.” It was an inspiring room because we had history there. We were first on the TV when Tony Wilson invited us onto his program The Other Side of Midnight when we’d just recorded Pacific State. We literally had no track record, but he took a risk on us, and so it feels almost like a birthplace for us. It was also a well-known building in Manchester, an iconic place with lots of history behind it.
I wrote a long sleeve note [on Transmission Suite] that explains that particular spot in Manchester and its layers of history. It’s got a Roman fort on it. It’s got a plague pit on it. It’s also the site of the first railway station on earth. It’s this crazy place, you know. Plus the whole history of the music in that building. Anyone from The Beatles to Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry, they’d all been there in that building. You could feel the vibes.
LTW: Yeah, it’s such a palimpsestic place, an urban palimpsest.
GM: Wow, what a word.
LTW: I love the word palimpsest so much . . . do you know it?
GM: I don’t think I’ve heard it, no.
LTW: It was used initially to refer to a physical document that would be erased and written over again, but traces of the original writing remained so there’d be these layers of text, some ghostly. I especially like how the word can refer to urban spaces where there are layers of spatial history (some obvious and some visible only if you’re looking for the traces) that produce meaning in the present. It seems like a perfect word to describe Granada Studios.
GM: Yeah, so many layers of history there. Do you know about the ghost stories? Even the security guards who were there 24 hours a day had loads of them. You could stop and pick anyone at random, and they all had a ghost story. In fact, you can look it up in the Manchester News if you go back in their archives. There was even an exorcism by a Catholic priest.
LTW: So many ghosts! Speaking of, when I first saw the names of the Transmission Suite singles, I thought maybe they were homages to Tony Wilson before I realised they’d been recorded in Granada Studios. The music really brings together your history both with Tony Wilson and this music studio. Thinking about the past, can I go back in time now and ask you about Biting Tongues and Feverhouse?
GM: Oh, yeah, definitely.
LTW: That Feverhouse soundtrack, I don’t actually know the story behind its creation, but I’ve always assumed it was done the way Miles Davis crafted the soundtrack in Elevator to the Gallows: just watching and playing along with it, totally improvising.
GM: Sorry to burst your bubble [laughs], but we never even looked at the picture before! The guy who wrote the script was Ken Hollings, who was in Biting Tongues, and the film director was Howard Walmsey, and I acted in it.
LTW: An entire Biting Tongues affair!
GM: Yeah. So we had a budget to make the film but ran out of money. At that point, Howard used to live quite near Tony, and we’d always go to the same pub. Tony had just started up IKON, which was basically a VHS label for putting New Order videos as far I was concerned. They had a video for The Fall and then a few amateur films, so he wanted to branch out into this new medium of VHS tape that was getting sold in places like HMV shops or Rough Trade. It was all new and had potential. To have a dedicated movie was very exciting for Tony, so he wrote a check to sort of finish the film. In that agreement, we could put a soundtrack out.
Anyway, this guy Roger Salmon had a studio [Bootleg Studios] above a sweet shop in one of the suburbs of Manchester, but he also had a soft toy company and used to sew teddy bears and things like that. Feverhouse was during the time of the film E.T. so the entire studio was full of E.T. skins, not sewn up yet.
LTW: Oh, that’s so weird and incredible.
GM: Yeah, we made it in an E.T. factory, a soft toy E.T. factory. It gave a certain dead acoustic.
LTW: That’s an amazing story. It adds a totally new dimension to Feverhouse.
GM: Yeah, I still really like that record. But for most people who know Biting Tongues music, it’s definitely a bit of “coming in through the wrong door.” It’s not typical of Biting Tongues. Biting Tongues started in a sort of post-punk kind of way, you know. We were always doing gigs with the Manchester Musicians Collective, and ours was a very New York-influenced sound.
LTW: You were on New Hormones in those early days, yeah?
GM: New Hormones had really good intentions and no money. With our first album, we made side one and then had to wait a year and half because of the money – a year gap while they got some more money. And then we made side two, and they ran out of money again. We made another one called Live It, and they put that out on a cassette. Recently Finders Keepers Records, who are from Manchester, did a reissue of it on vinyl, and it’s got some lost tracks on it as well. So that’s been great to get that out because that was my favourite of the Biting Tongues records. Then eventually we got onto Factory.
When we had our foot in the door of Factory, we only had to say, ‘I think we’ve got an idea,’ and they’d let us make a record. I think you get Tony Wilson in that documentary going on about praxis, and it was sort of like, do something now, and afterwards, we’ll decide what it was that we did. That was very much my experience: he just said yes to everything, and that was great for us. And Factory gave us the Haçienda, which changed my world.
LTW: Did you get to know Bernard Sumner (and to work with him) through the Haçienda, or was it through earlier Factory stuff with Biting Tongues?
GM: I’d done some stuff in Peter Hook’s studio in the mid-eighties and met him briefly then, but Bernard started going into Eastern Bloc, the record store that Martin Price owned. Martin used to provide him with up-to-date “reading lists” — a bag of records every couple of months. Bernard was definitely looking for outside activity at that point, and it was right around when they’d started doing Electronic. So he had the itch to try other collaborations.
And the New Order mixes we did, they’re marketed as remixes, but they weren’t really remixes. We used to do Confusion and Blue Monday in our live sets because we could remember the bass line, and we threw the audience a bone by putting in a bass line they might know. I remember Jon DaSilva playing our cassette recording of Confusion – without listening to it – at the Haçienda on a Wednesday “Hot” night. That was a lot of trust there. We played it to the audience, and it was actually that cassette that we then pressed onto vinyl, so the quality is a bit, it’s got that raw thing.
LTW: Different (but maybe not so different) from Bernard Sumner and New Order, how did 808 State come to collaborate with Björk?
GM: Oh right, she actually just rang us up! She’d been listening to 808 and was beginning to think about what she was going to do next. She’d done a massive tour across America with U2. Obviously they were listening to a lot of stuff on the bus, and she was looking for collaborations. So she rang us up, and we had a chat. We were going down to London, and she was in London at the time. I asked her to come meet us at a studio where we’d be. She came and had some of the demos for Debut, like Violently Happy and The Anchor Song. But they were all done with a brass quartet and had no vocals in them, like tone poems of that music. It took a kind of leap of imagination to think where it might go.
We left it there, but then I rang her up and said, “We’re in the studio next week. Do you want us to stay in the UK and maybe try something out?” And she did, she changed her flight. Those vocals are on two tracks on ex:el. It was extraordinary because we approached Ooops [track on ex:el] first, almost trying to keep it in the confines of a traditional song. It was the most song-like track we had at the time. We asked Björk, “Do you want to try something on this?” And she just took off. It’s the first take that’s on the record, and it was a proper goosebumpy-whoa-what’s-this kind of thing. I had no idea she could do that kind of freeform, very intuitive and extraordinary work. It was a magical moment.
LTW: Björk is so incredible, and I love those tracks on ex:el with her vocals. Shifting gears a bit, I wanted to ask about design work. I was curious to know if you had any input into the Trevor Johnson design work for Trouble Hand (1985), Compressor (1987), and subsequent 808 State sleeves.
GM: Yeah, we’ve always been involved in the design, especially with Trevor doing Newbuild, the first 808 State record. The original Newbuild album colour palette was based on a Kodak film box. I was used to working with him on the Biting Tongues stuff, and we always had an initial idea that he worked on. For instance, we took the astronaut shot for Compressor, which followed from Trouble Hand. But when we got further into the 808 stuff, Trevor was getting busier as a commercial designer, so we couldn’t always get him. Another artist, I think one of his apprentices, did Quadrastate – a guy called Mike Peek.
We took the “8” [for 808 State sleeves] from the Mexico City ‘68 Olympic letters, that font, and Trevor just put it together. The design he did for ex:el was actually one of the first computer things he’d ever done using an early program. He tangled the eights, which felt very fitting for our technological approach.
LTW: That design history is so interesting. I love thinking about how typefaces and colour palettes make their way from one image to another. How about the design on Transmission Suite?
GM: It’s an artist that I’ve worked with a few times called Vasim Bhatti. He’s amazing. He’s done a lot of stuff for Manchester’s Skam Records, and he’s a very thorough artist. The project of the Transmission Suite sleeve was something we worked on for about six months. He loved the process, and we’d meet up regularly. He was really obsessed with documenting the building and the actual transmission suite. I’m really proud of that sleeve. It’s as important as the music.
LTW: Yeah, I love those graphics as well as the design work on the single sleeves. Such an interesting mix of the analogue and the contemporary coming together. Speaking of that, what’s next for 808 State?
GM: It will be about making some more music now! Often when we’re making a record, we’re not thinking about the live set, and maybe we should be. But it’s just not the way it works. It’s funny. When you’ve got all these tracks for a live concert, you need a sonic consistency to the whole thing. Some of the tracks are thirty years old, some of them are a few years old, and we’ll put them together. It has to work sort of like a DJ set, to tell a story. It has proved quite hard to take some of the tracks from the last album and place them in that context unless you approach it in a different way. But it’s nice to have a lot of stuff to choose from in a live set, and, to a certain extent, you’re playing to the gallery: people coming to see the concert who want to time travel from all these different places.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.