Interview: ORIGINALS… Mark Archer, Altern 8

“Top one, nice one, get sorted!” Last year marked 30 years in the music business for Mark Archer, better known as one half of Altern 8 and a true legend of the scene.

If they were giving out knighthoods for services to rave, the Stafford native would arguably be at the top of the queue.

While Altern 8’s last release was in 1993, Archer, the self-styled ‘Man Behind the Mask’ (that’s the title of his autobiography) is far from hanging up his boiler suit – he continues to perform and DJ under the Altern-8 name, and is swinging by Dublin’s fair city at the start of June for the inaugural Big Fish Little Fish event.

For the latest instalment of our ORIGINALS interview series, 909originals caught up with him, to discuss the people, places, and most importantly the sounds that shaped his career.

Q. Mark, thanks for talking to us. Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you first get in to music?

From my dad. He was a singer in a band that played comedy clubs and tea dances; things like that. He used to play percussion as well, so there were bongos, congas, a snare drum and cymbal in the house – there were always bits and bobs lying around. For me, it was an opportunity to make lots of noise!

When I was very young, I had no wish to make music – at least not until the early 80s. But it was still a curiosity of mine: how do people actually do it? I would hear a mixtape and wonder ‘how have they made that particular mix?’.

I guess it was around 1987/88, when I got a little sampling keyboard, a Casio SK-1, from a local Dixons, that I started to experiment a bit. I would sample sounds from these early 80s electro tracks and put my own tunes together.

But that was just to satisfy my curiosity, really, I didn’t think I was going to be making music as a career.

Q. What sort of music were you into as a teenager?

When I was 10 or 11 years old I was into heavy metal, but that was a case of ‘if you didn’t like heavy metal you’d get beaten up’. Everybody in school was into metal in the same way that kids these days are all into grime.

After that, the whole two tone/ska thing arrived in the late 70s and early 80s, and I was into that for a bit, before getting into new wave – bands like Big Country and Tears for Fears.

But it wasn’t until electro came along that I had a scene that I jumped headlong into. That’s when I started buying records and getting into breakdancing and body popping and all that.

Man Parrish’s Hip Hop, Be Bop, an early favourite

Q. When did you start collecting records?

I probably bought my very first record on a trip to Wolverhampton or Birmingham. In Stafford, there was a Mike Lloyd Record Shop, and also Lotus Records; I think that’s where I went to buy Planet Rock and Hip Hop, Be Bop, all the early electro stuff.

There was a WH Smith in town as well that used to stock electro cassettes – the Street Sounds mixes, that sort of thing. Later, an Our Price opened up, which remarkably had some really good underground acid house. Even though it was quite a commercial shop, they seemed to be buying in the right kind of stuff.

Q. Were you going clubbing at that stage?

I was still a bit too young to go to clubs. I was 14 or 15, living in this little village where no one else in the village was into the same stuff. In fact, in our school, there were probably three kids who were into electro, and we were considered the weirdos.

The year after we left school, everybody was suddenly into it, and the school even started up its own breakdancing classes. I kind of wish I had been in the year below me.

One of the guys that got me into it, Sean Lester, I ended up being mates with my whole life. I remember one day, he showed up with all these names written on his bag, and I thought it was some weird goth thing. But them he gave me a tape, and that was that, I never looked back.

Q. Did you know what you wanted to do when you left school?

I had no idea. Initially, I was following in my dad’s footsteps by becoming a painter and decorator, but it wasn’t something that I felt I wanted to do – it was just expected of me.

It wasn’t until I started going out, around 1985, that I would get to see the DJs playing in the bars around Stafford, and I said to myself ‘that’s what I want to do’.

Back then, though, if you were the DJ for the night, that was it; there was no muscling in and getting to play a set. There were no inroads. So I decided I had better start practicing, and I started making pause button tape mixes at home, until eventually I got some belt drive decks and started mixing.

Q. How did you end up getting into production?

I kept on with the painting and decorating until 1988, when I got laid off from the firm I was working in. Around that time, I bumped into a lad called Dean Meredith, who used to be in one of the breakdance crews in Stafford, and he had a set of decks in his house.

One day, I came round with my little sampling keyboard, and we started messing around. He would cut between the different tracks, and I would play the bassline or whatever, and we recorded it.

Around that time, a studio opened up in Stafford, Blue Chip Studios, so we decided to bring our tape along for the laugh. The bloke we spoke to signed us up, there and then.

All the way through my career, there’s been this element of mad luck. For one thing, who would have thought that a recording studio would work in Stafford? It’s not the kind of place you expect to see a studio. And to take a pretty crap demo tape along and end up getting signed?

Obviously, the studio guy thought we could be the next Bomb The Bass, or whatever, and he saw pound signs in front of his eyes. We walked out of there literally pinching ourselves, saying ‘what on earth just happened’?

Rhythm Mode:D – didn’t work out as planned

Q. That demo tape led to Rhythm Mode:D, your short-lived hip/hop electro project. Why didn’t that work out?

It was that old tale of being ‘ripped off’ by the music industry – you go in with a certain idea of what you want to do, and they say ‘no, we want you to go in this direction’.

For the first Rhythm Mode:D album, we wanted to do a mashup of acid house and hip hop, but they said no. They were looking for something like M|A|R|R|S, which was in the charts; uptempo beats with lots of samples on top of it, and scratching.

The track So Damn Tough was one example of that. We went in there with our demo tape, and they got their engineer to work it over, and then released it. All we basically did on that track was the scratching, and to put the samples over the top.

That wasn’t the way we wanted to go at all – we weren’t very proud of that one to be honest.

Q. What was the clubbing scene like in Stafford at the time?

In Stafford, the club I had been going to for a couple of years was your bog standard kind of club, where you go to get drunk and maybe pick up a bird, then a kebab on the way home. It was the kind of place where you had to wear a shirt and tie, smart shoes.

But they sectioned off the music there, so there was a bit of indie – The Cult, The Cure and things like that – and a bit of chart music, and a bit of dance music. So if you were in to one particular kind of music, you would go to the bar for a bit, and then after a while, they would put on your kind of music.

So that was my experience of dance music in nightclubs, until around 1988, when this night opened up in Stoke on Trent – Frenzy, at a club called Excalibur.

It was on a Tuesday night, you could wear trainers, jeans, and a smiley t-shirt if you wanted. There was no polished chrome or glitz like in the other clubs – it was totally dark, strobe lights, a smoke machine, UV lights. It was completely different to anything I had experienced at the time.

I don’t know if I was right on top of it from the get go; because living out in Stafford, it took a while for it to filter down to us. But it was absolutely heaving, and it stayed that way all the while it was open… which ended up being just a few months.

There was a big media backlash about the acid house thing, as you know, and pretty soon they had closed their doors.

But as soon as that shut down, another club would open up for a few weeks. The police would get wise to it and that too would shut down, and then there would be another one. There was a succession of nights going on.

Bear in mind that these were all totally legal parties, they weren’t illegal raves or anything like that. Because of what was happening in the media, the police would put the frighteners on the club owners – ‘if you carry on with this, we’ll have to look at your licence’, that sort of thing.

Archer’s time in Bizarre Inc was short-lived

Q. How did Rhythm Mode:D end up evolving into Bizarre Inc, and then Nexus 21 [a Detroit influenced techno outfit in which Archer partnered with Chris Peat, his soon-to-be Altern 8 partner] ?

I was working with Dean on the Rhythm Mode:D thing, and we were constantly asking the studio could we do an acid house album, and they kept on saying no. It was only when you had D-Mob We Call It Acieed in the charts that they finally said ‘ok, you can do an acid house record’.

That’s when we started up Bizarre Inc. The first 12-inch we put out, Technological, got to number 100 in the charts.

It was around that time, though, that Dean decided he wanted to go solo and do Bizarre Inc on his own. Rather than just telling me, he went and got me the sack from my job as an engineer at the studio.

I was on the dole for a bit after that, but I still had plenty of ideas about making music. I rang up the studio one day – Dean was still there, working with Andy Meecham as part of the Bizarre Inc thing, and they were recording a lot of tracks, but they weren’t really taking off. I suppose that’s why they let me come back.

That’s when I met Chris [Peat] . I wasn’t very proficient at playing keyboards, but Chris was, and so the studio manager said“you two should work together”. That’s what gave rise to the Nexus 21 project.

I was lumped in with him, in a way, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. If there had been another keyboard player, I would have probably worked with him, but there wasn’t… so it was me and Chris.

Move My Body, from the eight-track Overload EP, Altern 8’s first release

Q. Nexus 21 [Archer’s pre-Altern 8 group alongside Chris Peat] was quite influenced by Detroit techno. Was that intentional?

Yes. For my 21st birthday, I was bought a box set – about 10 different records – and there was a lot of Chicago and Detroit stuff on it. Once I heard it, I was determined – this is the stuff I want to make. So, armed with that, we went into the studio, and we started sampling.

We didn’t have a 909, or an 808 – we wouldn’t even know how to work one – so we would sample the sounds from other records.

The studio [Blue Chip Studios in Stafford] was set up to be quite commercial, it wasn’t really geared for the sort of stuff we wanted to do – it was more geared towards drums, guitars and all that.

At first, the quality of what we were doing was absolutely terrible. But after a while, they got a decent Akai S900 sampler in the studio, and that became the mainstay of of a lot of the tracks. Chris had a Casio CZ 1000, which had some really nice noises, and we had a bit of outboard gear, so it was now a case of trying to make something that sounded like it came from Detroit.

We didn’t really know what we were doing, production wise – there was no manual that told you ‘this is how you make Detroit techno’. It was just a case of trying it, and seeing how it worked out.

Nexus 21’s Logical Progression was released on seminal techno label R&S

Q. As musical equipment became more affordable and accessible, did you find your sound started to evolve?

During 1988 and 1992, the availability of samplers made it much more accessible for everyone, and gave rise to lots of different styles. Even if people didn’t know how to make music, they could get a piece of equipment and try to emulate what they were listening to.

It was like with acid house and the 303 – that piece of equipment was never meant to do what it ended up doing.

You would try to make one style of music and end up making something completely different, but it sounded decent anyway.

The first album as Nexus 21 had a very specific kind of sound, but the second album, which was never released, was quite different. I had been going to lots of raves, and getting influenced by lots of different things, and that’s what ended up coming out in the studio.

We recorded a whole album, but it never came out, a) because of sample clearance issues, and b) because it didn’t stand up to the first one.

There are some unreleased Nexus 21 tracks that we did in 1990, though, which were the total essence of what we wanted to do. They were even recorded in Detroit! It would be fantastic to get them out some day – I’m hoping we can do that this year, what with it being the 30-year anniversary of Nexus 21.

Nexus 21’s Techno Symphony, from the Progressive Logic EP

Q. As a proper fanboy of Detroit techno, what was it like recording out there?

Detroit was amazing. I was walking around totally gobsmacked for an entire week. The whole scene out there was just how I imagined it. We met Kevin Sanderson, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, saw them working in the studio. It was unbelievable.

They knew about us, too, because of Neil Rushton of Network Records, which we were signed to back then. He had gone over to the States and played our tracks over there.

They thought it was cool that there were some guys from the UK trying to do Detroit stuff… in the US they were being largely ignored.

Q. Were you surprised at how quickly Altern 8 took off?

We released the Overload EP in 1990, and it had eight tracks on it, so I think people bought it for the value for money aspect.

Some of the tracks were getting played at raves and so forth, so when the second release came out, with Infiltrate on it, people were looking forward to it. That’s the one that really landed with people; they would hear the tracks out and about, but they wouldn’t necessarily know who it was by.

It surprised us too. We might be doing a Nexus 21 PA somewhere, and then Grooverider would come on afterwards and play Infiltrate, and the place would go off! We were like ‘what’s going on here?’.

Passion Devotion, from the debut Altern 8 EP, Overload

Q. I read that the Altern 8 boiler suits were introduced because you didn’t want to be recognised as ‘those blokes from Nexus 21’. You obviously didn’t think it was going to take off the way it did?

The suits was a throwaway idea that we had. We were asked to do one PA as Altern 8, and we wanted to find a way so that people wouldn’t recognise us. We never knew there was going to be a second gig, or a third, or a tenth.

As soon as we put those boiler suits on it was like, ‘f**k me, it’s hot in here’.

It wasn’t the best decision I ever made in my musical career – even with the air conditioning you have in the clubs these days, they’re still unbearably hot.

Q. How many boiler suits have you been through over the years?

I’m only on my second suit, would you believe! The first one got retired in 2015.

The masks are a different story, though. You would go through so many of them; they would get damaged and worn out, or someone would sit on one of them.

So I’m constantly making new ones, and giving the old ones to promoters or people I meet at gigs.

Q. It didn’t take long for Altern 8 to go stratospheric – Activ 8 reached number three in the charts. Did you get a lot of stick for suddenly being catapulted to pop stardom?

Activ 8 was the point where it went from us being underground to overground. We didn’t change our style of music, we just happened to make an underground tune that suddenly became commercial and got in the charts. But to us, Activ 8 was just the follow up to Infiltrate.

As I said earlier, when the Overload EP came out, there was a lot of buzz about what the next EP would be, which ended up being Infiltrate.

By the time Activ 8 came out, there were a lot more people waiting for it; plus, when it was on promo, you had DJs playing it our every weekend on pirate radio, or at the raves.

When we got in the charts, some people were snobby about it, telling us we had ‘sold out’. But it’s not a question of selling out, it’s a case that people who have been raving to your track for the past couple of months now have the opportunity to buy it.

Plus, for people who had never even been to a rave, once they hear it, they are like ‘what the hell is this?’

At that stage, it’s opened up to what I would call the ‘British record-buying public’ – those people who buy whatever is in the charts – and then, all of a sudden you are at number 11, and you go on Top of the Pops. And then a whole new range of people hear your music, and boom! You’re up to number six, and then eventually to number three.

When we got to number 11, I remember thinking, ‘this is absolutely mental, but we’re probably going to drop out of the charts next week’. It caught us all unawares.

Activ 8 on Top of the Pops… the first time out

Q. You appeared on Top of the Pops twice, with two different singers – why?

We didn’t actually need a singer, because the vocal on Activ 8 is sampled from an 80s disco track, but there was a girl that was coming along to the Dance Energy raves – she’s actually one of the dancers in the Activ 8 video – and we heard her sing, and she was quite good.

So she was well up for it, but when it came to cameras on, and with millions of people watching at home, she kind of froze.

Then, when we climbed even higher up the charts, and went back on Top of the Pops, it was a case of ‘right, let’s get a proper singer’. The singer we used for that was one of the backing singers for Lisa Stansfield.

You have to put on a decent performance – as we found, you can’t just get someone who says ‘yeah, I can sing’ and then bottles it. It has to be done properly.

Q. What was the whole experience like?

It was surreal. Here I am, after watching Top of the Pops my whole life, and then I’m actually on it.

It’s filmed in the same place they film Eastenders, so you had loads of the cast wandering around, and then of course you have the other people who are on that week’s Top of the Pops. You end up being there all day, because you do so many rehearsals, and you end up chatting to Tina Turner, Seal, Phil Collins, Vanessa Williams, Arrested Development… serious artists.

All the time you’re just saying to yourself ‘what the hell is going on, we’re here doing these rave tracks, we have a three year old girl saying “top one, nice one, get sorted”, and there’s a big tub of Vicks beside the drum machine!’.

It was all very mental.

The group’s second appearance on Top of the Pops was a more polished affair

Q. That was 1991. By 1992/93, the charts were taken over by what you might call ‘cartoon rave’ tracks, things like Sesame’s Treet and Tetris. Did you feel that Altern 8 played a part in fostering that?

No, because we never did a gimmick track. Around the same time as Activ 8 there were tunes like The Prodigy’s Charly, built around that cartoon cat, but it was not a piss-take tune, it was a real banger.

But then, after a few months, you had Sesame’s Treet, Roobarb & Custard, Trip To Trumpton… they were all built around a gimmick.

Every scene has it. It starts off really serious, and then it gets big and people come along with the gimmicks, and that’s sort of what kills it.

In 1989/90, when you had hardcore come along, that’s when the scene kind of split – you had the emergence of the techno scene, and the progressive scene, the garage scene – and all of a sudden the people walking around with a big ‘E’ on their hats, sucking dummies, were getting sneered at.

There was a bit of a backlash. I think it’s around that time that we decided to call it a day.

On the road again … Mark Archer still performs under both his own name and his Altern 8 guise

Q. So Altern 8 had a logical conclusion in other words?

Altern 8 couldn’t have evolved into a banging techno group, and happy hardcore wasn’t my thing, plus we weren’t prepared to go down the jungle route.

So it was a logical decision… let’s quit while we’re ahead.

Thanks again to Mark for the interview. For more information visit Mark’s biography, The Man Behind The Mask can be purchased at 🙂

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