Interview: ORIGINALS… Mark Archer, Altern 8 (Part One)
“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.
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’?
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.
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.
[PART TWO can be found here, in which Mark discusses the influence of Detroit techno on his sound, the birth of Altern 8, and appearing on Top of the Pops alongside a giant tub of Vicks VapoRub.] 🙂