The Man In The Mask: Ascension Meets Altern-8s Mark Archer
Rave legend and author, we caught up with the man himself to talk Gary Numan, Christmas number ones and Vicks Vapour Rub
The rave days were amazing. It was about warehouses, lights, lasers and... Vicks vapour rub. From the crazy videos, appearing live on BBC's pop laden Top of the Pops and the outfits, early 90s rave act Altern-8 were without a doubt one of the pioneers of a scene that entertained millions and has gone on to influence a new era of club music. Ahead of his 30 year celebration in dance music, we met up with the man behind the mask Mark Archer to talk about his journey, life's struggles and the act that was literately discovered by accident.
Describe your music in three words
What I Like
How did you get into music production?
It was completely by accident. I always wanted to be a DJ and after being laid off at the decorators I worked for I bumped into an old mate who had some decks. I had just bought a small (crappy) sampling keyboard to mess about on and he said I should bring it to his. He played beats of a samples album, I played some basslines over the top and that was the start of Rhythm Mode D back in 1988.
Who are your musical influences?
At the time, it was Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, DJ Fast Eddie, Tyree and Armando. They change through the years as you get into new stuff. I’ am always influenced by different tracks I hear which is why Altern 8 came about as the influences were different to when I was doing Nexus 21.
Who inspires you as a DJ?
Technically, it’s probably Ben Sims, although he plays way different music to what I do. Passion wise it’s Billy Daniel Bunter. That man is the next level for always pushing for something new and not just milking the same thing. His love for proper 1988 acid house is unrivalled. The last person is not best known as a DJ but I used to play B2B with him as Slo Moshun back in the mid 90’s. Danny Taurus played at a night in Stoke and the first time I went there he played all night (alongside his DJ partner at the time – Vasco). I didn’t know a single track all night but the vibe they created was amazing. The way they DJ’d together has always inspired me.
How did you get into DJing?
I had always loved the concept of mixing. It was pretty much unknown back in the early 80’s so it was difficult to find tips on it. Most people started with pause button mixing on tape decks then progressed to records. I started in about 1983/84 but it wasn’t really until the early 90’s that I started playing out professionally.
You've probably been asked this a million times but DJing, digital or vinyl?
I am really not arsed to be honest, it’s what comes out the speakers that matters. I have seen people play amazing sets using digital and awful sets off vinyl and vice-versa. The music is what matters.
What are your top 5 tracks of all time?
That is a tough one to narrow down. Mirror In The Bathroom by The Beat is in there, It’s Happenin’ by Plus One, Blorp 93 by Gnork, Land of Confusion by Armando and Beyond The Dance (Cult Mix) by Rhythim is Rhythim
What's the first record you ever bought and do you still have it?
Cars by Gary Numan in 1979. I bottled getting Are Friend Electric, which came out first but bought that second, and yes, I still have it.
How did the Altern-8 story begin?
We were owed some studio time as we didn’t see a penny from any of the tracks we did on Blue Chip Records, so we recorded 10 tracks that had wider influences than just Detroit Techno, which was the main influence for Nexus 21. So when we were signed to Network Records at the beginning of 1990 we played them these 10 tracks. They liked them but said they didn’t want to put them out as Nexus 21, so could we thought of a different name. We came up with the name Alien-8 but when the finished copies of the E.P. turned up at Network, they said Altern 8 on them. It was too late to change it so it stuck.
The masks and the suits were awesome. How did all that come about?
We had been doing the Warp/Network tour in late 1990 to early 1991 as Nexus 21 with LFO, Nightmares On Wax and Rhythmatic. We played a gig at the Eclipse in Coventry, then a few months later we were booked to play as Altern 8. We didn’t want to look the same as the Nexus 21 performance so I asked my brother (who was in the RAF at the time) if he had anything at all we could wear to cover ourselves up. He came up with the two nbc suits and being skint, the B&Q dust masks finished it all off. No big image plan, it was purely just to hide.
What is this about Altern-8 and Vicks Vapour Rub?
A couple of months later we played another gig with LFO but this time as Altern 8, it was a Rezurection gig up in Newcastle. When we got there, we could smell Vicks above everything else and found out by asking that people were using it to heighten the effects of the ecstasy that they were taking. As we’d done a few gigs by this point we realised that breathing the same sweaty air in the masks made them stink so we put Vicks in them so it wasn’t that bad. The Vicks thing kind of stuck with us and people would offer us pots while we were on stage. I even took a pot on to Top of The Pops when we did Activ-8 in November 1991.
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
Being in the position I am now, after everything that has gone on over the last 29 years. The fact I’m still booked to play places and still able to do something I love, that’s the highlight for me.
What was your favourite Altern-8 gig?
All of the gigs that I’ve done that have been really special, from small intimate sets to massive pa’s in front of thousands of people in old hangars back in 1991. However, I think the one gig that really stands out was djing at Glastonbury in 2015 on the Arcadia Stage. The fact that it was Glastonbury, I was closing the stage on the Sunday followed by Groove Armada and 2 Many DJs the pressure was on. Safe to say the night went amazingly.
Did you have any embarrassing/shocking moments on the road?
There have been plenty. The most common one was being booked in a place where you really shouldn’t have been. Sometimes you’re expected to get 5 people and keyboards in places where one person would be cramped. The promoters often didn’t think things through. We played a gig abroad back in 1991 and as we couldn’t take equipment with us. We asked the promoter to hire in gear, when we got to the club there was one keyboard on a stand, so we both had to stand behind it. This wasn’t so bad but half way through the set the house lights came on so everyone could clearly see 2 people behind one keyboard. Good job I had a mask on to hide me going bright red.
After Chris and yourself parted ways, the legal drama that followed must have been a real headache especially having worked together for years before as Altern-8 and Nexus21. Have you guys ever reconciled?
I’ve not seen him since 1994 and on the one occasion I tried emailing him I was greeted with a solicitors letter demanding half of all my earnings.
At one point everything took a turn and you ended up working factory jobs and as a call centre operative at Argos. What were you feeling at this point?
Bills need paying. It’s life, it happens. There is s no point moaning, you just need to get on with it and try to make ends meet.
Your experience is shared with many people in music; DJs, producers and promoters. It is understandable balancing a labour of love with the costs of living why many leave music. What advice would you give someone who's in that situation today?
Don’t give up what you love doing but don’t follow it to the detriment of everything else. You have to live and take care of the ones around you. It is brilliant doing something that you love but it’s not an easy living despite what anyone thinks.
Tell us about the Altern-8-Tive Christmas campaign?
It was a campaign set up by a fan from Brighton (Loz Russell) that my wife spotted on Facebook so we shared it. Within a few days it had over 10,000 likes so we took it seriously and contacted the label to see if they would re-release the track to satisfy the conditions of the charts. It was a great experience and so humbling that so many people got behind an old hardcore tune from the early 90’s that even beat Radio 1’s Single of the Week as far as chart placings go. But as with the early 90’s, Radio 1 (daytime) yet again didn’t support the track. They positively wrote it off, some of the comments from the presenters were unnecessary and of course, favoured their usual suspects. The social campaign was a bit of a headache to be fair. We posted the details of the cut off date, shop links, etc. We were sill barraged with questions of where to buy it and so on. I’m just glad Josh from Posthuman (who is part of Altern 8) was there to help.
To have fans call for your track to be re-released must be humbling?
It was. To have that much love for something I did back then and for others to want it back in the charts, it was unbelievable.
After Altern-8 you still went on to make big tunes like Slo Mushon's Bells of New York, a great track. Do you have any musical training or is everything by ear?
I have never had any musical training at all. Music lessons at school were really a total waste of time but I’m more of an ideas sort of person studio wise. I can get by but credit to Danny Taurus played the brilliant pianos on Bells of New York.
Along with The Prodigy, Altern-8 are without a doubt one of the most influential rave acts and have gone on to inspire so many musicians and helped push dance music into the mainstream. How does it feel to have been an integral part of British club and dance music culture?
Very, very flattering. I just consider myself as Mark from Stafford, I made tunes that I liked and the fact anyone liked them back then was a complete bonus. So for the records I made to still be kicking about today and have had any sort of influence over anyone/anything is more than I could have ever imagined.
You have gone on to write about your experience in Mark Archer: The Man Behind The Mask with praise from some industry figures including Moby, Utah Saints and radio legend Mark Goodier. Your story has been immortalised in literature. How does it feel to share your words with your fans and pass on knowledge to the next generations?
Really, I’m just Mark from Stafford. To think that one day there would be a book with my name is something I wouldn’t have believed when I started music 29 years ago. It is still difficult to believe now but it’s thanks to a lot of great people and friends that I’ve been able to do it.
How do you feel about clubbing and the music scene today?
Love it! I love how there’s still so many different styles and in a lot of places you can still hear it all together. There is still an underground and an ‘overground’. There is still so much for everyone to get involved with and new things to be excited about.
When you started making music it was all samplers and synthesisers. Do you feel music made with hardware shines next to that made with software?
I am a firm believer in that it is what comes out of the speakers that matter. I have heard a lot of dross made on the finest hardware and some absolute belters made on someone’s phone. People should stop getting hung up on what they don’t like and just enjoy what they do.
What is your essential studio tool?
Me. If the person isn’t there you’d not going to get very far with making anything, no matter how much equipment there is. If there’s one piece of kit I love more than anything it would be my Akai S950, the basis of most of the Altern 8 tracks.
What do you enjoy doing outside of DJing and music?
It’s not for an interview ;)
Next year you're celebrating your 30th year in the business. Tell us about your plans?
I am doing a yearlong tour, so hopefully starting on Jan 1st 2018 and finishing at the end of December if it’s possible. Every gig that I play whether it’s a Mark Archer DJ set, Altern , Nexus 21 or Trackman sets, perhaps Xen Mantra and even Slo Moshun (with Danny) DJ sets, they will all be part of the tour. I’ll also be 50 in the July so am looking to having a big party too.
What advice would you offer someone getting into music today?
Try (and it’s very difficult today) to do what you want to do, not what everyone else is doing or what you think people want you to do.
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