The Altern-8 legend will be celebrating three decades in the game in 2018 with a year long tour
Not all heroes wear capes. Some of them wear masks. Chemical warfare masks emblazoned with the letter A and fabled to stash Vaporub to help achieve that ultimate rave high. These heroes buy tanks, they give out sweet baked snacks for tired ravers and call them disco biscuits. They drop Brand-E Christmas puddings from a hot air balloon. They storm the charts and play Top Of The Pops with Nirvana, tour Brazil with Moby and host raves off a truck outside the legendary Shelleys nightclub, where the likes of Sasha cut their teeth.
They also hit hard times, get sick with depression and lose their house. They take up a job in Argos thinking music is over for them. They sell all of their treasured '87-'91 vinyl and precious analogue machines. They duck and dive between insolvency and sudden successful splashes under the revival scene spotlight. They write one of the most compelling and honest DJ biographies published in the last few years: The Man Behind The Mask.
The hero in question is Mark Archer, a man who spent the late 80s and most of the 90s contributing a dizzying array of productions across house, techno, rave and breaks, and across aliases and collaborations such as Xen Mantra, DJ Nex, Slo Moshun and Trackman. Known best as half of iconic rave misfits Altern-8, he was also half of early UK techno pioneers Nexus 21 (both with Chris Peat). And prior to that he was in Rhythm Mode:D (with Bizarre Inc's Dean Meredith) who, in 1988, gave us their debut: a loose-limbed, sample-smashing b-boy party pop record called So Damn Tough.
Thirty years later, Mark is about to celebrate that record - and every release and gig that's followed - with his Man Behind The Mask 30 Year Anniversary tour. Any set you catch him at throughout 2018 will be part of it, and promises an extra deep dive into his own musical history, electronic music history at large and, we're pleased to hear, his new productions. While nowhere near as prolific as they once were, as hinted by his Mele production on Monki & Friends last month they're certainly happening, and they're gradually trickling out from his Stafford laboratory. Or whatever a man who's about to turn 50 calls his studio these days.
Thirty years in the game. 50 years on the planet. One incredible story that's well worth reading if you get the chance. In the meantime, here's an interview with the masked hero himself…
You've been on a bit of rollercoaster ride through life…
"Yeah, sometimes it's like this massive smack in the face. But that's life: one year you're up, the next you're down. But you keep moving forward. I was touched by people who'd read the book and told me how they'd had similar situations to mine and were inspired. That's a great feeling - I didn't think anyone would be interested in my story at all! So to have people get in touch and explain how the book resonated with them is incredible.
"My experiences with bullying and depression, especially. People have written to me and explained I'd captured exactly how they felt too. I could never have anticipated that."
Depression was dealt with in a very different way back then, right?
"It wasn't dealt with at all. People would just tell you, ‘It's all in your mind'. And it is - but you can't control it. You don't know how to talk to people about it. You need help but when someone offers it to you, you push it away. Living on my own for a long length of time made me learn about myself and who I am. I realised I'm so sensitive because I was bullied. People would say, ‘You're too sensitive, you are'."
As if being sensitive is a bad thing!
"That's it. This was the tail-end of a very old tradition of blokes being blokes and wearing the trousers. You had to live up to these stereotypes and we were expected to follow the path that still exists now: leave school, get a 9-5 job, get married, get a mortgage. It doesn't have to be that linear. It doesn't have to be that set path."
Your dad helped you with that, didn't he? He made it clear he wanted you to have a trade, but he also told you ‘You'll never know unless you try…'
"Without that push, none of this would have happened. The Rhythm Mode:D thing would have done its thing, but that probably would have been the end. I'd have probably got that butcher's apprenticeship he wanted me to get deep down."
Reckon you'd have been a good butcher?
"I was a butcher for a day and it was terrible. I was a 14-year-old naive kid and got told to scrub a wooden board 'like I was shagging a woman'! It was so awkward. And he paid me 5p."
So you went into butchering beats! Rhythm Mode:D is so fun and rough. You can hear the development with every release
"Totally! We didn't have tutorials, we didn't have any advice, we didn't look up what kit to get, we had no clue what was going on! We'd go in with an idea and work out what to do.
"The studio manager Kev Roberts wanted the next Rick Astley but we wanted to make acid house. He wanted the Jacksons sample and the whoo-yeah break because that was what was in the charts. It took us a year of working in the studio before he let us make an acid house album, which was Nexus 21's The Rhythm Of Life. And even after a year we were still learning. People look back over the album as classic UK techno but we still had little or no idea of what we were doing."
Sometimes limited knowledge can actually enhance creativity, can't it?
"Yeah, it's something that's lost now. Naivety leads to different ideas because you're working things out and finding other things. Acid house by its very nature was made by mistake and using machines in different ways. You don't get that any more. It's a lot more explicit, you can look up anything."
So you ran Nexus 21 and Altern-8 concurrently for quite a while, right?
"Yeah, it was mad. In 1990 you could go out and hear Self Hypnosis which was out on promo for the Progressive Logic EP and the first Altern-8 EP, Overload was out at the same time. So you would hear tracks from both EPs in the same night quite a lot.
"We made up this press myth that Nexus 21 were helping Altern-8 out, and were buddies but not the same people. When we did the first Altern-8 PA we thought it would be a one-off. We didn't even know there'd be another EP. There was no massive plan. We carried on doing Nexus 21 PAs because that was our main serious project. But then Infiltrate kinda took off… "
I love how few people at the time were really bothered about the future or thinking about careers. Everyone seemed to be living in the moment...
"Totally. We were just making music to play at raves while raves were about. We didn't know how long they'd last. Historically, music moves quickly so we assumed they would pass like everything else. Any success we had at the time was mindblowing because you never thought you'd do anything like that. To be in the charts was a ridiculous notion, and to still be doing it in 30 years? No way, I wouldn't believe you."
I find it mad, especially because the music was so fun and you got up to all kinds of capers, that you and Chris didn't actually get along all that well...
"Oh, when we were on stage, throwing ourselves into it, we got along fine. You're doing your bit and you're have a whale of a time. Off-stage it could get a bit tense but we wouldn't hang around much unless we were working. We did have fun, loads of it, but there was always an undertone. An edge. We were like colleagues.
"In any relationship, there's something you've got in common. Making music was what we had in common. He played keyboards well, I did the sampling and it worked really well. But then it's like moving in with someone and realising that they do things that annoy the fuck out of you. Things break down.
"He's got his view of how things went, and I get it: when Network Records went down and we were out on limb, I was already working on Xen Mantra stuff and doing my stuff as DJ Nex and various projects. I think maybe he felt I was lining my own nest."
When things were down for you, did you ever get bitter?
"Not really, no. I've come to accept that I'm a massively unlucky person. Of course, I've been very blessed and lucky with my career: I've travelled the world and done all kinds of amazing things. But in normal life, I'm fucked. As a kid I had a face full of freckles. I started losing my hair before I was even 18. I was bullied. I've had bad relationships. I've accepted that shit happens to me. I'll get bit of money but the washing machine breaks down or the car's knackered or I've accidently flushed a £400 false tooth down the toilet.
"But life hands you these things and being bitter makes it worse. It's like worrying: it doesn't solve anything. So you climb back up the ladder no matter how many times you get knocked down. You can't give up, you can't get angry, you've got to keep going."
The point in your life where you got that job in Argos seemed just as fulfilling as making a hit record...
"It was! I'd been walking 12 miles to the job centre every day because I couldn't afford petrol and they'd ask what skills I have. I was like, ‘Well I can make techno records,' and surprisingly they didn't have jobs that fit those skills. I couldn't even get a job in McDonalds or Kwik Save. It was like, ‘Shit! I can't get a job anywhere! I'm the worst of the worst!'
"Luckily I had a PC and was decent enough at typing that I passed a typing test to work at Argos, and it really was like, ‘Fucking YES! I got the job!' I was so skint and things were so bleak, it was a huge accomplishment. I had no other skills or background so it felt like there were no jobs in the world I could do. Some people can blag it. I can't it. I've never been one to blow my own trumpet."
You must have a better appreciation of your own influence now though? After 30 years and writing your book, have you got enough perspective to just blow the trumpet a toot or two?
"Nope. I still feel a dick. People have told me I've changed the face of dance music and I'm like, ‘Fuck off!'"
But you honestly did...
"It makes me cringe, though. My wife Nikki says, ‘Look at the way you are when you meet Derrick May or Tyree Cooper'. I'm still a total fanboy even after all these years. They're massive musical heroes of mine who turned my world on its head. She says, ‘That's what people are like with you'. But I'm just Mark from Stafford. I made some tunes, and some people liked them which was cool."
There's a picture of you with Jeff Mills and he's got this Mona Lisa smile, like the biggest Altern-8 fanboy ever. Did you know him from visits to Detroit in the early 90s?
"No that was the first time I met him. Japan, Sonar. We did our Altern-8 DJ set and someone said afterwards, ‘Did you see Jeff Mills standing on the side of the stage for the whole set, smiling and nodding all the way?' That was another ‘wow' moment."
"It's funny, he told us that the first time he ever played in the UK was at Raindance after our PA, and when he was told he was playing after Altern-8 he was really nervous. It's like, ‘Go away mate! You're bloody Jeff Mills!'"
Incredible. So, back to the future. You recently had a track out with Mele on a Monki & Friends EP…
"Mele's great. He's booked me for some gigs in Liverpool and is such a sound lad. He'd been talking about doing a track with me anyway, then Monki started pairing up producers with people that they wanted to work with. It was wicked. To go in the studio and see how he worked. I brought an old school element, he did his tribal thing and it worked together."
Where are you at with productions at the moment?
"I'm not that 19-year-old single bloke who can lock himself away for weeks and churn out tracks anymore. I've got a lot of what I wanted to get out of my head and don't have that urge I had years ago where literally all I wanted to do was make music. You've got to be in the mood. So I've done a few remixes here and there, but only when the time is right.
"Mele and myself will do an EP together eventually, so new things are happening. I've also done a remix of Ethan Fawkes, he's got this authentic 1991 Belgian techno vibe going on so he was a joy to remix. That's coming in January."
Exactly when your Man Behind The Mask 30 Year Anniversary Tour kicks off...
"Yes! Any gig I have after midnight New Year's Eve for the whole of 2018 will be part of the 30 years tour, and it will go on until the following NYE where we'll do a big party for the end of the tour. I'm turning 50 that year, too."
What a way to enter your 50s. But when you went into your 30s and 40s things weren't quite so good, right?
"I'd say things were just normal going into both decades. Absolutely nothing going on - just being a dad but the career on the back foot. Through my 30s were very up and down. Some months you'd get gigs, some months you'd have nothing. Getting the first Altern-8 revival things in the early 2000s was great, but then as I moved into my 40s the recession had kicked in and bookings had thinned right out. But these last few years have just been amazing."
I really felt that watching your famous Boiler Room set. You don't get Boiler Room crowds as lively as that very often!
"You know, I really thought I wouldn't go down well at all. But from the way they kicked off to the first tune I knew it was going to be all right. It's quite intense playing in front of a camera. Mega pressure, actually!
"So was playing the Arcadia show at Glastonbury to around 40,000 people. The biggest gig of my life, especially because it's at Glastonbury where there's so much stuff going on. When people drift off, other people do too. So it was very intense making sure I kept that crowd where they were. Nikki was in the crowd hearing people saying, ‘We'll go after this tune' then I play another one and they're like ‘Actually we'll go after this' until eventually they were like, ‘Fuck it, we're staying!' That's amazing."
You've mentioned Nikki a few times, so let's finish with a big-up to your wife...
"She changed everything. Everything. She met me during a low moment so I knew she knew the real me and wasn't just interested for any other motives. She thought I was a sound technician! But we smiled at each other and I was buzzing but never thought I'd see her again. Turns out she'd spoken to our MC about an Altern-8 gig the year before, where we had an MC who never shut up over the entire set and ruined it.
"Then the next week on the Altern-8 Facebook page she posted about that conversation. So we connected from there and here we are. So from an MC doing a bad job, I actually met my wife! But that's life, isn't it? The rollercoaster doesn't stop..."
Words: Dave Jenkins
Mark's book The Man Behind The Mask is out now. Order your copy here