Old skool memories from altern 8's mark archer

We take a trip down memory lane with Mark Archer, who reminds us of how the UK took DJ culture to another level.

Mike Boorman

Last updated: 16th Aug 2014

Image: iwcp.co.uk

Having spent 25 years in the business, Mark Archer of Altern 8, Bizarre Inc and Nexus 21 fame is still pulling in the crowds, as he looks forward to playing with other old skool luminaries like X-Press 2, Marshall Jefferson and Alison Limerick at Sorted on August 16th.

We thought it was an opportune time to talk to him about what the scene was really like when it was all kicking off in the late eighties, and from having eggs thrown at him while breakdancing on the streets of Stafford, it wasn't long before the industrial centres of the UK became cultural pioneers.

Firstly Mark, where was it you first cut your teeth and got in to the scene?

Frenzy in Stoke (1988) then Joels also in Stoke (Golden was there a few years later), Introspective in Stoke and Number 7's in Burntwood, all between 89 and 90.

Of those places/nights that you've listed, I've only heard of Golden, which I think proves the point of this interview which is to let the world know that there was a lot more history to the house scene in this country than just what went down in London and Manchester in 1988.

But seeing as you were there and I wasn't, you'll know for sure, so do you agree that when people write articles/make tv programmes etc. the influence of scenes like Stoke's in the late eighties is underplayed?

Totally. It's obvious that the bigger cities get talked about as far as the rave scene and acid house, but it wasn't just exclusive to them. Many of the smaller towns and cities had brilliant little nights up and down the country as people who had travelled to big cities and having seen what was on offer had started their own nights up where they lived, exactly the same as it is today. I rarely went outside of Stoke in 1988 as there was no need - there were ace acid house nights going on already.

Shelley's in Stoke is one of the few clubs outside of the major cities that does actually get cited in the present day, and if the old recordings of Sasha's mixes from there are anything to go by, the sound was quite Italian-piano influenced, and what I'd lazily call 'ravey', but if you're talking about nights in the late 80s, it must surely have been acid house, right?

If so, how did it reach Stoke and the surrounding area? What are the back stories behind those nights and the local scene in general?

It seemed that some of the already established DJs (there weren't as many back then as there are now) had been to nights in the bigger cities and decided to do their own thing in Stoke. Kelvin Andrews and Danny Spencer (of Candy Flip fame) played a massive part in bringing acid house to Stoke, as well as Northern Soul DJ Colin Curtis, who DJd at Frenzy alongside record store owner Daz Willot.

The mixing there was awful but back then it was all about hearing new music. After Frenzy (Tuesday nights) came 'Move', a night at Joels hosted by Danny and Kelvin, which later housed Golden. Then came 'Adrenalin' (Wednesday nights) in neighbouring Newcastle-Under-Lyme which took me through to the end of 89.

And why were these nights so short lived? Was it a question of nights at Shelley's being in a bigger venue and swallowing the rest of them up, or was it that they were closed down by the authorities?

Shelley's didn't really kick off until 1990 as far as the whole house thing went, the main reason these nights ended was the bad publicity the media gave the whole acid house scene and so the authorities needed to control it and shut it down.

I saw some interview somewhere where you said that in your youth you would breakdance in your hometown of Stafford. Just the other day someone from my village back home was telling me how a crew of them would breakdance outside this pub in the village, and would get hot fifty-pence pieces hurled at them!

It just blew my mind that a little pit village in the north east of England would have lads breakdancing on the pavement, listening to electro, when I was at school just around the corner. So when you were doing it, were people chucking things at you or did the public generally accept it as something cool?

I've still got my Dearstalker hat from 1984 with an egg mark on it where people threw eggs at us! Any kind of youth movement is looked on as strange when it first starts, as a passing fad and often ridiculed. The whole breakdance thing was massive and nowadays people see it as an amazing dance - house music and acid house was also looked on as a passing fad and ridiculed by people who didn't understand it.

On the theme of dancing, a few people lament the demise of 'proper dancers' in clubs, and no one seems to give a reason. Was it just that once so many people started taking pills, they couldn't be arsed to be co-ordinated?

From it being something that people would form a circle round to enjoy jazz dancers doing their thing or B-Boys doing windmills etc, house music didn't really have a dance that was done by teams of dancers and so that whole thing died off.

With breakdancing to electro etc., it looks to me from the outside that the scene here was basically a replication of what was going on in the US, and nearly all of the early acid house was made in the US, so what were the key moments when you thought the UK had really arrived with its own identity(s) in house music and club culture?

In 1988 there were some really ahead of their time British producers doing their own take on what was coming over from the US, like A Guy Called Gerald (hear the legendary 'Voodoo Ray' below) and 808 State for instance, but it wasn't until 1989/90 that the UK output really started to put us on the map and when producers from the US were replicating styles we were doing - that's when we properly became a home for house music.

What did you think it is about this country that made us able to reinterpret and rehash only a handful of genres from the US, and create a whole industry with a gazillion different factions in it? The US had these sounds and a niche culture for a number of years before we did, but it seemed we made it popular in quicker time than they did… but why?

I think the youth in the UK were far more open minded at that time and don't forget that because of the way the country was being ran back then, it had a lot to do with escapism, so the acid house scene flourished as a truly underground anti-establishment movement and so the music grew with it.

We took all the styles from not only the US, but also new beat from Belgium and the Italo house sound from Italy along with electro and hip hop (which were massive influences for a lot of the UK's producers) and threw it all into the melting pot.

I remember reading somewhere that one of the big US godfathers, perhaps it was Derrick May, basically said that if it wasn't for the UK ravers buying their imports, they'd have been out of a job, because the club culture in the US was being clamped down on in the late 80s.

Is it a fair comment to say that the UK's adoption of acid house and DJ culture helped make the whole thing a global industry, and that what was going on in the UK actually fed back into the original US scenes?

Very fair indeed - I don't think techno would be the global music style that it is today without a certain Birmingham record label [Kool Kat Records]... music spreading to different countries can only be a good thing. House and techno would not have survived in just Chicago and Detroit for as long as they have without the rest of the world getting involved.

Once you hit commercial success, you would undoubtedly have had the opportunity to meet some of the original Detroit/NYC/Chicago set who you probably only knew previously as names on record sleeves. Did any of them turn their noses up at Altern 8's more commercial and light-hearted interpretation of dance music?

The first time I met my musical heroes was while I was recording as Nexus 21 which was our take on what was happening in Detroit and they thought it was cool (I was totally star struck by everyone out there).

They weren't however mad keen on the media term 'hardcore techno' as Altern 8 didn't sound anything liker proper Detroit techno, but techno has become probably the most bastardised genre name ever.

And how did they generally react to the clubs/characters they'd come across in UK clubs? A world apart from what we hear of the legendary US clubs back then, which seemed very very underground, and looked to have more black and gay-dominated crowds than in the UK.

Pretty much how you'd react going to an original Chicago house club, it was something totally different, a totally new and fresh vibe filled with great energy and love, which was obviously very exciting.

Was it difficult getting the sample of Rhythim is Rhythim 'Strings Of Life' cleared for E-vapor-8 (hear it below)? I just couldn't imagine Derrick May and his people really understanding it… like, a deadpan voice saying "they're going mad" over the top of it… I'd love to have seen their faces!

It was one of only two or three samples we ever cleared, but Derrick was cool with it, and as he was one of my main influences, I wanted it to be done properly with credits etc. It's mad, but people have actually asked him why he sampled 'E Vapor 8', having never heard 'Strings Of Life' before!

A lot of your production under various different guises is clearly Detroit influenced, but Altern 8 is a funny one. Yes, it uses drum machines and is made with a repetitive, dancefloor-friendly arrangement, and yes, E-vapor-8 is built around a legendary Detroit sample, but generally, the reference points seem different to me.

What was in your and your production partner's minds when you made that? Were you consciously looking to another scene/sound somewhere else in the world, and if so, were those sounds already part of an existing club culture, or was it more radio? Or did you just magic it up in a moment of inspiration?

Altern 8 came about by accident really, we were owed studio time and got about recording as many tracks as we could in a week. Up until that point I'd mainly just been listening to techno and acid house which I'd already done so wanted to draw on different influences from the music I was then listening to, which in 1990 was load of tracks from Belgium, UK rave stuff, techno, acid etc. so the end result sounded completely different to Nexus 21.

Even when you were in the eye of the storm with appearing on Top Of The Pops etc., did you think that dance music and club culture had the legs to survive until now? Or did you think you were part of a counter culture like Punk, that would pretty much disappear after it became very popular?

I actually kept a scrap book of all the press cuttings and flyers etc that we were on as I didn't think it would last, especially not as long as it has. Not that I didn't think it was good enough to last, but there's not many genres in dance music that can say they have lasted this long.

You must feel quite proud that what you did 20-odd years ago is still considered important enough for people to ask questions about and for people to go and watch you DJ, but it must sometimes be difficult to innovate artistically when you know a lot of people are only there to hear the same old classics. What do you do in your DJ sets to keep yourself interested and to keep it fresh?

I'm incredibly proud to have been a part of this scene - it never ceases to amaze me how long it's gone on for and I'm incredibly grateful for all the chances I've been given to play at clubs in the UK and around the world. I'll never ever get bored of the music that put me where I am - it's a massive part of my life and I love hearing it and playing it, especially when it brings back so many brilliant memories for people who were there but is also a fresh style of music for the new generation of ravers who have never experienced it before.

There's the Shelley's car park, the Christmas pudding-drop from the hot air balloons that never was, your partner in Altern 8 standing to be an MP, the gas masks, the Vicks… those are the kind of amusing factoids that people associate with what you were doing in the early nineties... but from those days, what things do you think people ought to know about you that maybe they wouldn't find in most interviews?

Contrary to popular belief and despite the style of music I made with all these mad little noises in that were aimed directly at the ravers, I steered well clear of any illegal substances as I was way too scared.

What kind of crowd do you think will be at Sorted in Cleethorpes? Mainly oldies? Or do you see a lot of curious youngsters at things like that?

Hopefully a total cross section, people who were there back in the day, the people who just missed out and wanted a chance to capture it all for the past 20 years, the kids who have been brought up on rave and the new generation who are soaking it all up for the 1st time.

What was the sample that you used that said "top one, nice one, get sorted"? I vaguely remember there being some stir about you ripping it off from somewhere else, but surely not?!? I just cannot imagine anyone other than Altern 8 would have done something like that!

It was actually the 3-year-old daughter of the label boss... he got her in the studio and got her to say it, total tongue-in-cheek drug reference but the BBC never got onto it - haha!

Interview: Mike Boorman (follow him on twitter here)

See Mark Archer in action at Sorted this Saturday - grab your tickets here.

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