“Oh no… not more bass!” Picking up where we left off, here’s the second instalment of our in-depth interview with rave legend Mark Archer of Altern 8 and Nexus 21.
In this second part, we discuss the influence of Detroit techno on his early productions, how Altern 8 went from ‘underground’ to Top of the Pops in a matter of weeks, and why Sesame’s Treet and Trip To Trumpton spelled the end of the early 90s rave scene.
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.
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.
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?’.
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.
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.
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.
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.