Mark Archer is an artist DJ/Producer and author from the UK who has cemented his position as an iconic pioneer in the era of Rave and dance music with 2 of the most influential bands at the time in the late 80s early 90s with Nexus 21 and Altern 8.
I’ve interviewed Mark in the past and bumped into him in Manchester’s legendary record store Eastern Bloc Records with Tony Considine, but, this interview was great craic live, and Mark reckoned it was the best one he’d had in years! So here it is!
Mike Mannix: Hey Mark, great to talk with you again. Tell me, as a child and teenager, what were your inspirations and your background that led you to become part of Nexus 21 and Altern-8?
Mark Archer: Nice one Mike, I guess it came from 80’s funk and electro and breakdancing. I was collecting all these soul/funk and electro records and DJs were playing this brand-new stuff that was totally different to anything else and then new house records. All these genres and electro changed and transitioned forward, by the late 80’s house was changing and you were going to clubs where they were playing chart music and then a bit of the kind of stuff that you liked, the funk and electro and stuff started creeping in. All of a sudden 88’ came along and you didn’t have to wear a shirt and tie, there was a club that opened on a Tuesday night and you never heard of clubs opening on a weeknight and it played pure acid house all night.
There were strobes and smoke and the club was completely black with drapes and stuff and it was just a million miles away from what I have been used to. There was that early kind of stuff I had been listening to from Detroit, like Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins, and Chicago stuff that really kind of hit me. I wanted to make this kind of stuff and then when I bumped into one of the guys who used to break dance who had a set of decks he was like “come around and we will have a mess about”. I just got myself a little sampling keyboard, it wasn’t to do with mixing or anything. I had no idea how to set up a studio or anything like that, I just bought this little sampling keyboard to mess about at home. There was no intention of making any tracks or anything.
So, we went around to his place and he was doing drum tracks on the decks and I was playing a bassline and we did a very rough demo. At the same time a studio opened up in Stafford and they put an ad in the newspaper asking if anybody wanted to come down if they were in a band or had a demo. So, we went up there with this tape and the guy in the studio was setting up his own label called ‘BlueChip’. Straight away he said he’d sign us on the spot. It was purely mad luck, just being in the right place at the right time. I had been sacked from my job and it was just by chance meeting Dean again and boom it all happened like that. I mean I was starting to make tunes in’ 88’ the first success we had really was in ‘91 so we had been doing it for a few years before we got anywhere, getting into making tunes was a just pure accident.
MM: Some of your earlier stuff is so well put together that it still sounds great today. The changes and the intros and the midsections and all that. So you went from playing on that little keyboard and playing over decks to making fairly complex music, how did that happen so quickly?
MA: I think it was to do with me and Dean just being so into the music. A lot of people would just hear a piece of music and be like “oh, I like that song” but we would find people who would buy electro tapes and reproduce it who were just a bit extra on learning stuff. You’re constantly listening to music and when it breaks down and when it builds up. So, although we started not knowing how to make music we kind of knew already the format and how to build it up and put things together. We had no experience whatsoever, there was no going to college and doing a course in music, we had never touched the software before.
When we were in the studio we had to sit and watch the engineer with a notepad and I would say to him “forget the technical stuff, if I wanted to sample something off this record what buttons would I need to press?” He would be like “you press this, press this, press this” and I would literally write down all the arrows of all the buttons I need to press on a notepad. So, that’s how we learned just sitting there and listening to the music really carefully.
MM: Tell us about the Video shoot on the back of a lorry that got shut down by the Police?
MA: I was there at Shelley’s [Club] pretty much every week if we weren’t doing a gig. There’s a bit in one of our videos where this geezer is dancing with this big inflatable banana behind him and he is soaking wet and that was Kez, the guy who used to dance in our videos. Shelley’s was the place we got all the dancers from, it was way more than a club, it was a religious thing.
When Shelley’s used to close, everyone used to spill out into the car park and hang around their cars with the tunes pumping, and this one night we‘d organised a lorry to roll up with all our kit in the back, when everyone was in the car park we dropped the side down and had the decks and MC kicking off, it was blaring and hundreds of people went mental in the early hours of the morning <laughs>. That is until the police came down and shut us down, but not before we’d recorded it for a video.
My mate, John used to send me the best music tapes back from Sheffield because we had none of that kind of thing in Stafford at all in them days. On one of the tapes, there was a voice I thought that would be a brilliant intro to a tune. I sampled it off one of these cassettes and it was basically just someone talking off the pirate radio, so that’s when we recorded Infiltrate.
The same week we were doing a show in Shelley’s all night dancing away and then someone comes up and has this T-shirt on that said ‘Nexus 21’ on the front he was like ‘are you with Nexus 21?’ and I was like ‘yeah’ and then he was like ‘my mates are over there they really like your stuff, stay here and I’m gonna go and get my mates!’ He disappeared and he came back a couple of minutes later with his mates and he said ‘They’re from Sheffield, they’re called Astrix and Space.’ It was so weird cos I literally sampled them that week and I met them in Shelley’s that night, how spooky is that? From that moment Astrix and Space became my MC’s., they actually still MC with us now.
MM: There’s a very throwaway mentality with this generation in relation to tracks, it’s different from when you had to go crate digging and find tracks and have a tactile relationship with the vinyl as opposed to people just getting the current top ten from Beatport. There’s no loyalty to a good tune?
MA: Yeah, there’s no playing something for months and breaking it. Even in 2005, I was watching Danny Taraus who I’d done the whole Slo Moshun, Bells of New York thing with, and he’d take a tune and play it early in a set just to get some familiarity with it and each week move it later and later until after a few months it’d be a peak night tune because head built it. Nowadays, people are more likely to just download twenty tunes because they’ve an hour mix to do and not play any of them again.
MM: Absolutely. So we have this huge bottomless pit where there’s thousands of techno tracks posted online each week and we’re reaching saturation point. I mean, I’m all for technology but it seems everyone’s a DJ or producer now because they can push a sync button or have cracked software?
MA: It’s totally changed. Back then people treated the scene as a release, not a career. People went out and they were happy just to go out and dance at the weekend and then Monday to Friday you were back to doing your job. You were brought up to believe you needed a career or what was classed as a “normal” job. So if you were playing a warehouse and there was a thousand people, there’d be literally nine or ten people there who were making music. They were the nerds who knew what gear to buy, who go to music shops, go past the guitars and find a 707 at the back to go home and jam on and they’d have nothing else! But now it’s being portrayed as a career with the whole fame thing and people are thinking if I get this plugin or that one then Bosh, I’m there, I’ve got myself a career. So it’s no longer something that’s preserved for the few nerds that were techy back in the day, you go to a warehouse with a thousand people and 75% of them are probably making tunes.
When there was maybe nine or ten people making music then maybe one of them might be able to get something out on wax. Now, you don’t have to have that process. You make yourself an mp3, put it out and boom, you’ve got yourself a record label. So there are so many tunes coming out now whereas
back then if you were putting the money up to do a white label then you weren’t going to put out any old piece of shit
If you’ve put your savings into it and you then have to drive round records shops trying to sell it, if you’ve put out a piece of shit then you weren’t getting your money back. You’ve just got a garage full of white labels that no one wants.
MM: So where do you see the scene in five years, can it keep going the way it’s going?
MA: Well, even in the mid to early 90’s there were people saying it’s died out, it’s all over. It’s not going anywhere,
you can’t kill off something this big
I mean, little sub-scenes or flavours of the month will come and go but it’ll just take a step back or a step sideways and keep evolving. It’s really interesting at the moment with the way the political arena is developing. It’s almost like a carbon copy of the late 80’s when Acid House kicked off and it’s mad that
Acid House is back again and as big as it is at the moment. People are pissed off again with how things are politically and they want to go out and enjoy themselves again
For a long time I’ve DJ-ed for a crowd of people who were either there for it the first time around or who may not have experienced it but would be aware of the history but now there’s people who are coming to gigs who weren’t even born but whose parents would have been into it! So they’re telling me their parents were always playing the music at home and told them if I was ever in town they have to come and see me! So there’s a new layer who have no idea what old skool is and are coming up asking me “what’s this, where can I buy it?” Thinking what I’m playing is brand new! I’ve nothing against moody tunes but
I think when things are bad politically then people don’t want to go out at the weekend and listen to moody music, they want to hear pianos and a bit of euphoria and forget all the shit!
MM: What I’ve noticed now is that a lot of the EDM’ers that have stuck with the scene are now twentysomethings, have gotten into the history of Chicago, Detroit and how that manifested itself in the UK. They’re horrified at how corporate that whole EDM thing had got a few years ago but have moved on and become enthralled by the more underground aspects of it!
MA: I remember when I was about twelve, I moved house into this village and if you didn’t like heavy metal you’d be beaten up, you were getting a pasting. So I bought loads of heavy metal records! I mean music is music and some of those records were alright but as a whole, I think what on earth was I doing liking heavy metal! When you’re young everyone follows trends, you’re swayed at school by the whole peer thing whether it’s fashion or music, you don’t want to be different. You don’t feel as if you’re following but when you look back you realise. Everyone’s allowed like a shit genre of music at some stage!
MM: Tell us about your book, Man Behind the Mask.
MA: To be honest, it’s still blown my head that I’ve done a book. It’s really made me thing how important certain little things that you took for granted at the time. The whole process of getting interviewed every day at a certain time and just freeform answers and then trying to get them into some sort of timeline was really difficult. Just trying to remember “did this come before that?” or “how many times did I go here?” But you remember little things like for my 21st birthday I was bought a box set with 14 albums in it.
Nice present from my girlfriend of the time. I’d heard a lot of the Chicago stuff on it but there was a lot on it that I hadn’t including Wiggin by Derrick May. If it wasn’t being given that box set and hearing that track then there’d have been no Nexus 21, that was the catalyst that started it. Because I decided I wanted to do Techno stuff and sampled the bassline off that track and that was what started Nexus. Or being given a tape at Shelly’s, without that tape we wouldn’t have done Infiltrate. Things that you don’t really think about at all but are that important. Because if we hadn’t started Nexus 21 then there wouldn’t have been an Altern 8. It’s mental how things drop and snowball.
MM: You’ve had huge success so there must be something in Mark Archer where there’s that train of thought that was pushing you.
MA: I can’t see it, I’ve not got the confidence myself to see that I had this. I’m actually an incredibly unlucky person, my wife will bear that out! If I have no money then the car is gonna break down, if I sort that then the washing machine will go! Crap like that happens all the time but on the flip side, the luck that I have had, getting that box set bought, getting into the studio and meeting certain people at the right time. Like with Nexus 21, we were on Blue Chip records and we never saw a penny. They went bust and my Dad said to me “there’s a job as a butcher in the village, get into that and you’ll always have a job. Or you can stick with this music lark. It’s totally up to you but if you don’t do the music you’ll always be wondering what if”. This was the end of 1989, Nexus 21 had ended, we’d done the album and the label had gone bust so that was it, career over.
I’m in a nightclub, speaking to the DJ and I took him a copy of the record. He reaches into his record box and pulls out a copy that he’d already bought. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone who’d bought a record I’d done and he was already gonna play it. And he says “I’ve been asked by these guys who run a record label called Kool Kats to do some A&R for them. They’re over at the bar, why don’t you go and have a word with them?” And Neil Rushton, the boss of Kool Kats, who was just about to start Network records was at the bar. So if I hadn’t been there at that club at that moment, none of this would have happened. So I wasn’t’ thinking I’m going to succeed in that or make this track or do this or that, it was just mad luck and being at the right place at the right time.
we were actually supposed to be called Alien-8
We had these tracks the label didn’t want to put out as Nexus 21 as they were a bit ravey and they didn’t want to put off the existing fan-base. So they ask for another name and we say Alien-8. A couple of weeks after they were pressed up we get the boxes of records, pull one out and they say Altern-8! We’re like “We’re not supposed to be called that.” The label says “Bit late now!” Pure accident. Even the whole 8 thing was an accident. Our first EP, even though it had eight tracks, none had an 8 in the title.
Even when we did Infiltrate which has the 8 sound, we didn’t spell it with an 8. It was only on the third track Activ-8 that we did that so there was no big plan, things just happened. I actually kept a scrap book for the first few years because I never thought it would last, newspaper clippings etc. The excitement was brilliant, it was totally new but we were just going along with it. Next year will be my 30th year doing this and I’m still excited by it but we’re still just going along with it on this journey.
I feel lucky that I get the chance to go and DJ in places like Glastonbury or wherever, to get interviewed by people, it’s not a job, it’s the love of my life
MM: What’s next for you, what’s coming up?
MA: I’m just going to keep going with it. Almost a year ago, I did the Boilerroom thing, the younger crowd so I just thought I’d play some old tunes and see how it went. I reckoned they might only know one or two of them so it might start off a bit iffy and go downhill. It actually started off amazingly and went ballistic! By the next morning, there was 110,000 views on the stream, it’s the little things like that when you go and do something and you don’t know how it’s gonna turn out but it goes brilliant and takes it to a different audience that makes it so worthwhile. I’m just trying to keep the name out there, it’s incredibly flattering that people are still interested after all these years.