Next up in our on-going series of foundation explorations across bass music and rave culture is Mark Archer. As the founding member and main producer in Altern-8, Mark was one of the first wave of artists to take full-on rave music into the mainstream charts. Infamous for their brazen breakbeat bangers, their tongue-in-cheek approach to the industry and their iconic (and all-too-poignantly fitting for 2020) facemasks, Altern-8’s first chapter ran from 1990 to 1993 and included a string of UK top 40 hits, tours in Brazil, collaborations in techno’s spiritual city Detroit and chart battles with Michael Jackson.
Last month saw Mark release the first new original Altern-8 production in 27 years: Hard Crew.
2020 was shaping up to be a significant one for Mark. Celebrating 30 years since Altern-8’s debut EP Overload, it was going to be another vintage for the rave pioneer who’s enjoyed one of the impressive and endearing comebacks any artist from that era could ever wish for.
After years in the wilderness – no gigs, equipment long since sold to pay the bills – Mark has spent the last 12 years grafting his way back into picture as one of the most humble and switched-on elder rave statesmen. While his old school credentials are unquestionable, he remains fully focused on the present, fully respectful of the new generation and fully able to join the dots between what happened in the beginning and what’s happening right now.
It’s not been an easy ride for the Stafford-born pioneer – at one point his ex Altern-8 partner tried to stop him from using the name (making him DJ as Mark Archer for a few years) – but Mark’s a fighter and has persisted to get to his unique position in dance music right now thanks to a loyal fanbase that crosses generations and support die hard rave events like Bang Face who he pays tribute to with his new single. With a percentage of the proceeds going to WeAreViable, an organisation doing vital work campaigning for a better and more progressive relationship between the government and the nightlife industry, Mark is in fight mode once again.
We called him up to find out more about the new single, get some tales from those early rave days and learn about the influences coming from black music in America that influenced him in the first place. Check out Mark’s curated Origins playlist while you read on…
You were planning on celebrating 30 years of Altern-8 this year, right?
Yeah we had really big plans! There was no seeing this coming, though. Even a few weeks before it was like ‘Ah this will be a minor hiccup.’ We thought it would blow over but now it’s like ‘When will this end?!’ It was like a domino effect, you’re watching gig after gig after gig cancel. And all these new terms we’ve suddenly had to deal with. No one knew what furlough was at the start of the year. Or ‘force majeure’. Have you heard that?
DJs have. It’s when you have to pay the deposit back to a promoter even if the gig is cancelled out of your control. Normally if something goes wrong the artist keeps that but ‘force majeure’ rules over everything. Obviously promoters are losing money too so you don’t blame them, but young DJs just starting off are in tricky situations. They’re not in a situation where they can’t save their deposits in case they need to pay them back – they’ve already spent it on bills or food. It’s made things very difficult for some people. But obviously, on the bigger picture, we’re all lucky. We still have our health. Some people haven’t made it through this.
Amen. And some people are releasing their first production in 27 years! Part of that is to help us get back to the raves and clubs, right?
Yeah a proportion of sales will go to WeAreViable. My wife Nikki is part of that team and they’re working so hard to get the industry back on track and finding ways for the government to listen. If you ask them to bail you out, they’ll turn their nose up. If you come to the government with a plan to make it possible and safe, with proof, then they’re more likely to listen. It’s showing them that it can be done. If you sit there and wait the whole thing will collapse.
Totally. So let’s talk about the track. I think you made it in 2015. Did you always plan to release it?
It was made pretty much like we made tracks to begin with. When we had the very first Altern-8 PA in Eclipse, Coventry, we couldn’t just play all the tracks off our Overload and Vertigo EPs so I wrote a few tracks to fill the PA out and make people be like ‘What’s this?’ Actually Activ-8 started the same way. And Evapor-8. We’d play the tracks and they’d get bigger and more developed and people start asking about them and they become full tracks. Hard Crew came about in exactly the same way. I named it after the Bangface crew. It had those Amens and that bass, it was perfect for them. For a long time it didn’t have a title but I thought I’d pay respect to Bang Face.
They played a role in your come back didn’t they?
They’ve been one of the most constant promoters to book Altern-8 since the late 2000s. Altern-8 stopped in 94 then started again in the 2000s. Bang Face were a huge part of that when they set up in the mid 2000s. They supported us when no one else was. There was a big hardcore backlash at one point and then at another point I couldn’t use the name Altern-8 for a while due to a legal case. But Bang Face and their legendary hard crew were there throughout all of that.
Yeah you’ve had quite a crazy ride from mad highs to moments where you didn’t know if you’d ever DJ again. That’s a true reflection of a career in music and how you always have to fight!
Well, no one has a totally smooth one do they? We all have our troubles but it got to the point where I couldn’t use the name Altern-8 because the other member who was originally in the act was trying to take me to court. So I had to use my real name Mark Archer for a while, but it was like I had to start again. Who the hell is Mark Archer? Who’s going to put that on a flyer? Now I can use the name, thanks to the record label, and it’s worked out really nicely. Promoters ask if I want to play an Altern-8 set or a Mark Archer set which can go from acid house to jungle and have a lot more freedom.
You can go right back to the roots. Across a lot of those genres it’s the breaks that hold it all together. But I know Detroit was also a huge influence on you, right?
It was, but also soul, funk, electro and hip-hop before that. When house came out everything evolved through that. There was a big split between house heads and hip-hop heads but a lot of us were into both. But yeah it was the acid sound from Chicago and the techno from Detroit made me want to produce music.
Firstly as Nexus 21, which was more techno…
Even on that album we threw in a breakbeat. We had a track called Detroit B Boy because we had to throw a breakbeat in there. That’s where the Altern-8 thing came in – it was much more breakbeat influenced. Aesthetically the breakbeat and tempo are the main differences between Detroit and things like jungle and drum & bass. They came from the same place.
You went over to Detroit really early on didn’t you?
Yeah when we first signed to Network it was all a mad whirlwind. They were licencing a lot of music from Detroit and picked up on the stuff we had released on a small local label called Blue Chip. They said wouldn’t it be great to have some Detroit guys to remix your tracks? This blew my mind. These were the guys who inspired us and suddenly they’re remixing us and we’re flying to Detroit to work in their studios. How is this happening?
You’d also sampled tracks by them too, right?
Oh totally. When we started making this music there were no tutorials – you didn’t know what machines made what sounds or what even half of them were called. I’d grown up in this little village in the middle of nowhere in Staffordshire, no music shops or anything, it was just an absolute miracle that a studio had opened up near me in 1988. So while we were working out the machines, we did a hell of a lot of sampling.
Usually we’d just sample on hits like drum sounds and things like that. But when I heard the bassline on Mayday’s Wiggin I thought ‘wow, that’s perfection.’ So I lifted it and built a track around it. Apparently someone asked Derrick May if he’d heard it and he said ‘I’m going to break those motherfuckers kneecaps!’ But when the label explained to him that we were signed, he was cool with it.
Nice. There was an overlap between Nexus 21 and Altern-8 wasn’t there?
We were doing a Warp Records and Network Records tour in early 91 with LFO, Nightmares On Wax, Rythmatic and Nexus 21. We were playing clubs up and down the country and we played the Coventry Eclipse. That same year the Altern-8 Overload EP came out. That was only ever meant to be one EP. Just a project to get some tunes out that didn’t sound enough like Nexus 21. But between that tour and Altern-8 kicking off we were doing a remix for someone else and had a bit of studio time left so we were messing around and recorded Infiltrate. No big game plan, just a bit of spare time and a bit of fun. We played it to the label and they suggested we release it as Altern-8 as a follow-up to the Overload EP. We did and that became big on the rave scene while we were still touring as Nexus 21. So through that we got booked to do an Altern-8 gig at Eclipse but we didn’t want to look exactly the same. We had the same instruments, the same drum machine, the same two guys. So we thought we’d hide our identity a bit. We thought it would be a one-off gig and that would be it. Just a novelty!
The best things often come from the most uncontrived, natural plans…
Yeah, no big plan at all. We weren’t paying much attention to detail. The first EP has eight tracks but we didn’t make a big ‘8’ thing about it. Infiltrate was another missed opportunity to get the 8 pun in there and we didn’t. It was only the third single Activ 8 that we started to think about things like that. But, after the very first PA, we thought the suits would get thrown into a cupboard and never be seen again!
Then within a year or so you were in a chart battle with Vic Reeves and Michael Jackson!
That’s right. 29 years ago to the day we’re talking now! We’d been climbing up the charts slowly we’d been at 11, then number six, then Michael Jackson made his big comeback track with this big 10 minute video that had people like Macauley Culkin in and people like that. Then you had the biggest comedian in the UK at the time Vic Reeves teaming up with one of the biggest indie bands The Wonderstuff. There was no way two lads from Stafford stood a chance, really.
This was super early for rave in the mainstream charts wasn’t it? Like pre-Prodigy
It was quite early on but there’d been a few. A couple of weeks before us K-Klass were at number three with Rhythm Is A Mystery. Quadrophonia had been in the charts, Infiltrate had been at 28 in the summer of 91. So there was a lot of rave stuff going on and the top 10 was full of rave singles. That week when we were at number three Bizarre Inc were at number four. They were also from Stafford, which was pretty mad.
I love how regional raving was and how all these little pockets around the UK opened up. You mention Eclipse, which was Coventry, there was Shelley’s in Stoke wasn’t there?
Yeah everywhere had its big club where things would be based around. Manchester had the Hacidena. Stoke had the Leisure Bowl which was above a bus station. Then Shelley’s came about after. It was a very old nightclub, all chrome and carpet, but the vibe was absolutely amazing. That place and Eclipse were both legendary.
Because you had chart success pretty early did you still get to do a lot of the illegal raves as well?
Oh yeah sure, we’d play anywhere. As Nexus 21 and as Altern-8. When Altern-8 properly kicked off we were doing everything. If your tune got in the charts then you’d be booked to do commercial clubs like Ritzy’s and places like that who’d do these special one-off rave events, but then the night after we’d be playing a big illegal warehouse. It was right across the board, all over the place. Then of course there were shows as far away as America, in 92 we did gigs in Germany and in 1993 we did the tour with Moby and Mark Kamins.
93 was towards the end of Altern-8’s first chapter, right?
Yeah the summer of 93 was where we had the last official single out. Things weren’t working between us and I was dipping my toes into house music as Xen Mantra and Slo Moshun with Danny Weaver. I had a lot of different things going on and was keen to try all kinds of genres.
The music was moving so rapidly wasn’t it?
It was very fast, looking back. Right at the start DJs played everything. Then you had a split where you had the people more into the hardcore and rave sound and the more garage-influenced heads into the mellower sound. Those garage people split into crowds who liked the tranceier and progressive side of things and the people who liked the more soulful US stuff. Then on the hardcore side you had the split where things got darker, which became jungle, and things got a lot more uplifting, which would eventually become happy hardcore. It fragmented really quickly.
You also did stuff as DJ Nex which was one the darker, faster breakbeat vibe. Where did that fit in with big hardcore divide?
That was around 93 and I was going down different paths. I was touring and booked for different nights, so I wasn’t exposed to jungle until after it exploded and you couldn’t avoid it. I knew that I didn’t want to go down the hardcore route any more because everything on that side I was hearing was getting really pitched up and squeaky and cheesy. I didn’t want to be part of that and had been really inspired by house music and acts like Masters At Work that’s when I went into the Xen Mantra project. But DJ Nex was an exploration into darker breaks. A lot of those tracks might have gone into Altern-8 projects but had full release schedule so I was putting them out as DJ Nex. Because they were on a small DIY label we didn’t know if they were getting supported or not, it was only until years later I heard AWOL tapes with guys like Randall playing DJ Nex stuff and Fabio was playing them, too. It was only recently I found this out so we remastered those EPs.
Back to the current release and I think you join all the dots you’ve been connected with across the remixes…
I think so. The original track was aimed squarely at Bang Face. But when it came to the remixes, I could cover the full spectrum. Denham Audio were the perfect choice.
They really are firing out some incredible stuff! So that was an obvious choice. Si from 2 Bad Mice recommended Samurai Breaks who killed it and the last one is Mechanizm & Kin. Kin being Rory who dances for us when we do the PA. It was nice to keep that one in-house.
Part of the crew!
An intrinsic part of the crew. I miss not doing gigs with them this year.
Do you think we’ll hear more original productions from you now?
When Network stopped I had all my eggs in one basket and had no clue what I was going to do in the future. All the money was gone, I was lost, went back to normal work and it totally knocked my confidence. But, seeing how well this is being received, I’ve realised there is an interest in new material from me which has been really flattering. I’ve actually been talking to some people about doing an album…
What a nice banger to end on!
Early days of course but I’ve started some sketches. I’ve got so many different styles I want to explore. Back then you were always trying to keep up or keep ahead. But now I can look back and pick anything from a slower Belgian vibe to a massive Amen banger. There’s a lot to choose from, I’m excited about what’s going to come out of it…