the untold story of the rise and fall of rave pioneers altern 8
Mark Archer of Altern 8 lifts the lid on the hedonistic, unplanned career of the merry pranksters of rave.
The merry pranksters of rave, dance music duo Altern 8 epitomised hardcore at its hedonistic, unhinged height. Between 1990 and 1993, the duo from the Midlands town of Stafford ruled the hardcore scene with a combination of pioneering, sample-heavy beats, absurd humour, and piss-taking, anti-establishment pluck. Formed of sample maestro Mark Archer and keyboardist Chris Peat, a magpie mentality that saw them snatch snippets from Detroit techno, old electro and hip-hop, adding astringent synth stab sounds on top, was part of the appeal.
The other was their attire, which flipped military iconography on its head. Dressed in chemical warfare full body suits and facemasks, emblazoned with their logo and painted acid yellow, they were day-glo rave warriors, turning what was previously menacing into something striking and comedic.
Their succession of EPs and singles proved hugely popular with rave and club crowds, and saw them hit the pop charts, singles Evapor 8 and Activ 8 reaching the Top 10 of the UK charts, and led to a classic, surreal Top of the Pops performance.
Rivalled only by The Prodigy, Altern 8 are rave ciphers, talismans of their era and the hardcore music they became synonymous with. That music's become hugely influential again on a new generation, with many dance producers now, from Tessela to Mella Dee, lifting its breakbeats and musical principles. Mark Archer has a new autobiography cataloguing his Altern 8 years, The Man Behind the Mask, while Full-On Mask Hysteria is being reissued and remastered, with a host of bonus remixes for its 25th anniversary.
Mark is also performing live as a revived Altern 8 on the regular, with Josh Doherty of acid house act Post Human. I had a long, revealing chat with Mark about his reminiscences of the hardcore era, and why that music's come back to the fore now…
Why have you chosen to re-release Full-On Mask Hysteria?
As well as the time being right, there's a lot of interest in the whole old school thing. At the moment it feels like a really big factor in a lot of styles. I can do a set on Boiler Room, in front of 18-year-olds, and it can go off. This music, that's 25-years-old, is still massively relevant in clubs, which is amazing, a bit of a mind-blower.
Do you think there's a curiosity in hardcore rave music in young club crowds who didn't experience it first time round?
It's completely different to anything that's been around recently. There's kids who've been brought up on it who go to gigs that I play, and then a few people of my age who still manage to get out, and then their younger brothers and sisters who weren't old enough to go to raves, but still collected the music. Then you've got a whole new generation of clubbers who've never heard it before. A girl at the Boiler Room set came up to me and said, 'What is this music, where can I get it?'
Is there vitality in there that's lacking in modern music?
The whole rave acid house thing, because it was the first thing that came along, and the drugs were new, it was a very euphoric time, it was a release from how shit everything was outside of it. The music reflected that, it was a complete opposite. If you look at the other music that's around now, there's nothing that's got that hands-in-the-air thing about it.
Looking back, how did Altern 8 come about?
When we started [Altern 8 precursor] Nexus 21, it was my vision of doing Detroit techno records, that particular kind of music. But when we went in the studio, and we'd been going to lots of different raves in the area, stuff round Birmingham, there were a lot more influences involved. It sounded a bit like Nexus 21 did, but with breakbeats, acid, and all the rest. Our label Network said, 'We really like it, but it might upset the purists, so we can put this out as a side project'. Chris Peat [Mark's studio partner] used to be in a band at school called Alien 8, so we said, 'We'll just call it that'. When the records came back, they didn't have any promos yet, it went straight to finished copies with a big sticker across the Network sleeve. It said 'Altern 8'. We said, 'That's wrong', and they said, 'It's too late now'. That's how the name came about.
What gave you the idea to dress up in the facemasks and boiler suits?
Everything about Altern 8 was a complete accident, really. The way we started, we went in, recorded some tracks, there was no plan to do a side project. The name was an accident. If you notice, even though there's eight tracks on the very first EP we did, none of the tracks have got '8' in. Even when we did Infiltr 8, it didn't have an 8 on the end. It was only when we did Activ 8, we were like, 'Hold on a minute, why don't we put an 8 on the end of it'?
The image was exactly the same. We'd been doing a tour with Warp Records, it was the Warp/Network tour, that was late 1990, early 91. We played the Eclipse in Coventry, and there was Rhythmatic, LFO, Nexus 21 and Nightmares on Wax. We had exactly the same keyboard set-up, exactly the same drum machines, we were actually playing live as Nexus 21. But when it came to Altern 8, we were asked to do a PA at the Eclipse. I thought everyone in the crowd would think we looked exactly the same, and feel cheated, like, 'Hold on a minute, weren't you guys here the other month?' So, let's make it look like we're a completely different group. My brother was in the RAF at the time. I said, 'Have you got anything we can cover ourselves up with?' and he said, 'Yeah, I've got two of these NBC suits'. We whacked those on. I liked the whole acid house day-glo thing, which is why we sprayed the masks fluorescent. And there's a flap on the front pocket with just enough room to write Altern 8. There's a little flap on the arm where the soldier is supposed to put a chemical reactive patch so you know there's chemicals in there, it changes colour or whatever. That was big enough to put an 8 on. That was it.
We thought, 'We'll do the gig in the Eclipse, and that will be the last gig'. We'd probably never have to wear the suits again. It wasn't a fantastic idea, 'cause being in a club that hot wearing those suits, you know… but that was how it went. It became synonymous with us. People don't even think of Altern 8 as people. You can be hanging round with someone you know and you put the suit on and come back in the room, and they're like, 'Fucking hell, it's you'. It's like you're a different person.
Did you feel like you could tap into the fun potential of that?
I'm pretty shy anyway, but no one could see my face. I could be larger-than-life in the suit. You can dick about and do mad stuff, and everyone in the scene loved when you were taking the piss out of the establishment. You're doing Activ 8 on Top of the Pops, it's No.3, and halfway through, you've got someone shouting 'Rushing!' then you've got a three-year-old girl saying 'Top one, nice one, get sorted'.
And I'm there with a pot of Vicks [cold medicine that became a rave signifier as it supposedly intensified ecstasy rushes]. All the ravers at home who were watching it, are like, 'He's got a pot of Vicks on stage and the BBC have got no idea what it's about'. It really did help with the whole thing, but it wasn't a cold, calculated plan.
How did it feel to suddenly be appearing on Top of the Pops?
Absolutely mental. When I was young it was one of my favourite programmes. The first time you saw the moonwalk was on Top of the Pops/ You're sat there feet away from Tina Turner doing her thing, and Cher's on there, we met Kurt Cobain, and it's like, 'Woah!' Now it's like, you tell people you've met Kurt Cobain and it's the most impressive thing you could ever tell 'em. We were about 23 and just going down there and having a laugh.
How did you go about your live performances?
We weren't playing live as Altern 8, there's no way we could have got all the samplers we used on stage, it would have been an absolute nightmare. We had two keyboards that didn't even have a plug on them, and then in time with whatever riff you were pretending to play, you'd be karate chopping the keyboards, I'd come off stage with blisters.
What were some of the best 'live' shows?
We did one, our first really big gig, at Donington Park near Derby. It was an Amnesia House thing. We'd done the big clubs around the area, but this was a massive warehouse, with between 10 and 20,000 people there. You're halfway through the PA, just stood there and there's all these people, and you suddenly realise they're all going nuts because of this.
What was the inspiration behind the music of Altern 8?
I done a book recently, The Man Behind the Mask, and said what I was into, going from electro and then the start of house, then acid house. I've sampled loads of electro stuff, a lot of Egyptian Lover, on the tracks. There's all those influences in there. Sampling breaks, and the stab noises that were coming out of New York and Belgium. We wanted to create an air of familiarity, sampling a tune from a few years previous.
When you heard a tune for the first time, sometimes it would go totally unnoticed until you heard it for a second or a third time. It's like, 'Hang on a minute, we've heard this somewhere before', and get into it. That was the whole intention.
When you sampled those tunes, was that also a way of paying tribute to the music you loved - or was it a way of turning that music to your own ends?
Because of how fast the whole thing was moving, in 91, there was no way you could play a tune from 89, whereas now you can play something from 10 years ago. You'll find tunes that are being produced now that are pretty much exactly the same, it's not changed that drastically. If you have a load of new people coming into the scene, they'll have never heard these tunes, so it was a way of introducing the people to the tunes that even two years previous, we were calling old school.
Where did the toddler speech sample of "Top one, nice one, get sorted" come from on Activ 8?
The Network label boss Neil Rushton, it's his daughter. The Prodigy had done Charly, it was like, 'Let's do our little take on it'. So we sat there very patiently with a three-year-old trying to get her to say what we wanted her to say.
Did you experience snobbishness from house purists?
It wasn't only from house purists, but also from the music media in general. While the rave scene was going on, everyone was bigging it up, it was massive, and then all of a sudden in 91 it started to split.
We'd get to clubs where they'd booked us, and all they were playing progressive house, wearing leather trousers, and we thought, 'We're going to go down like a sack of shit here'. It changed. People started looking down on the dummy-sucking, beany hat-wearing people pulling faces. It's weird how that level of pretentiousness came into the scene, whereas the year before everyone was under one roof.
By 93 the big backlash came. That was when we decided to knock Altern 8 on the head. It could have got to the point where we were flogging a dead horse, so we wanted to leave on a high. Unfortunately, the working relationship between Chris and I was non-existent by that time.
What happened? Do you get on with Chris now?
I'd started recording stuff under different names. Doing some things that were a bit jungley, and I was recording house stuff under the name Xen Mantra. This was around 93. I put a track out under Xen Mantra, and I got Pete Bromley who was the resident at Golden [Stoke club] at the time, to do a remix. He'd play it every week, built it up to one of the club's anthems, even though it was only a small release. It became quite a big tune. I got paid for it, and whereas all the way through Altern 8 and Nexus 21 it didn't matter who'd done what on a tune, we'd split it 50/50 straight down the middle for the sake of argument, when I got paid for this track I'd done myself, Chris wanted half the money. He said, 'Right I'm suing you then'. That was that, and I've not seen him since.
You've been DJing as Mark Archer but you're also playing live as Altern 8 again with Josh from Post Human. Is that due to a reconciliation of sorts with Chris?
It got to the point where he was threatening me with solicitors and whatever, like, 'You've got to stop using the name', and I said, 'Ok then'. I pretty much had to start my career again. Then, in 2013, some lad on Facebook started up a campaign to get Activ 8 back in the charts. So we had to talk to the record label to get it on iTunes so people could actually buy it. After speaking to Neil Rushton, they obviously own the rights to all the Altern 8 stuff, he said, 'Well you didn't actually think up the name Altern 8, the label thought up the name, you've got as much right to use it as Chris has, you can use it when you want'.
Text Ben Murphy