Archer and Peat got their start on a deeper tip as Nexus 21, but soon developed Altern-8 as an outlet for ridiculous, fast-paced rave tunes aimed squarely at the bass bin. By the end of 1992, they had concluded a remarkable run of quick and dirty chart-toppers – “Activ 8,” “E-vapor-8,” “Frequency,” “Brutal-8-E” – that captured the spirit of the time. That same year Peat even ran for office. (As a member of the Hardcore (Altern8-ive) party, of course.) By 1994 the duo parted ways, but Mark Archer continues on, preaching the gospel of hardcore around the world. We talked to Archer for an RBMA Radio Fireside Chat earlier this year. Excerpted below are some of the highlights.
Altern-8 started as Nexus 21 in 1989. I’d already been working at Blue Chip Studios in Stafford. I wasn’t that good at playing keyboards at the time, and they’d just got in two lads at the studio to play keyboards, help program computers, things like that. Chris [Peat] was one of them. The studio manager just said, “Why don’t you get Chris to play keyboards?” He wasn’t really into the music, he didn’t go to the clubs, he was more into Depeche Mode, stuff like that.
Then the studio had to close. We were owed some money, so we said to the studio manager, “If you give us the keys for a couple of weeks, while it’s apparently closed, we can do some recording and we’ll call it quits.” We recorded about nine or ten tracks, but rather than them being strict Detroit techno-style tracks – which the Nexus 21 material was – there was lots of different influences like Belgian New Beat, hip house, electro, breakbeats, all kinds of stuff in there. When we played it to Network, who signed us after Blue Chip, they were like, “Let’s call this a different project.” Chris used to be in a rock band at school called Alienate. So we were like, “Let’s call ourselves Alienate.” Sent the tunes to be mastered. Box of tunes turned up. We opened the box, silver sleeve, big sticker along the top: Altern-8.
Someone coined the phrase “faceless techno bollocks” because there was this whole thing about no one knowing who produced what back then. And there were so many PA’s with the whole rave thing where it was, like, a guy with a ponytail and a keyboard and a dancer. That’s one of the reasons why we put the suit on, because it ultimately gave you something slightly different to the whole ponytail thing. If you think of the state of most of the crowd at a rave, they’re not really going to know the difference between two blokes with a ponytail, but you’d hope they’d remember someone in a chemical warfare suit.
We were booked at a club called the Eclipse in Coventry to play as Nexus 21. Then they’d heard that we’d got “Infiltrate” out and they were like, “Can we get you to do an Altern-8 PA?” We’d never done an Altern-8 PA before and I was quite naïve about the whole drug thing back then, so I was like, “People are going to know we’re the same group. We’ve got to look different.”
My brother was in the RAF at the time, so I asked him if he had any of those funny suits. If you’ve ever put a hooded top up and pulled the cords, you look a bit of a loon really. So I was like, “How can I make it look less stupid?” So we went to B&Q, bought some masks, sprayed them and that was that. It was purely to cover up us not being the same group. And me not knowing that half the crowd wouldn’t know whether someone was on stage or not. It worked... but the image stuck.
A lot of people said [we were] taking the piss by doing this. “It’s like rave-by-numbers.” It wasn’t meant as a serious project, but it wasn’t meant as a joke. “Infiltrate” was a big tune. It didn’t have an “8” on the end. We hadn’t even like cottoned on to the whole 8 thing until we got to “Activ 8.” That tune started life as demo just to make up a live set, because we’d got a couple of tunes off the first EP and “Infiltrate” which was doing the rounds at the time, and we needed some new stuff.
I was knocking tunes up in a little studio I’ve got in my bedroom, and it just started off as drums, a stab sample over the top, a tiny bit of sub-bass and an acid loop. We took it into the studio and put the big violin sample, which was off an earlier house record, a Danny D remix of a Kid ’N Play tune that was really big in 1989. Even though it had only been two years, because the music was moving so fast people wouldn’t be playing it in clubs. Whereas now you can play a tune from ten years ago and if it still sounds good, it will fit in with the set. In ’91 you couldn’t play a tune from ’89, ’cos the tempo was changed, the style was changed – it just didn’t happen. We were trying to bring the familiarity back of some of the older tunes.
“It’s in key? It goes!” Back then we used to get interviewed and asked, like, “What’s the meaning behind this track?” It was just made for people to go out and dance to. That’s it. There were no deep hidden meanings at all. It was purely just trying to get something with energy that people would dance to.
It was a very sample-laden mentality because when I used to make tunes myself, I had a sampler, one little keyboard, a 303 and a little mixer, so there wasn’t a lot of keyboard sounds. When I’d buy a record, I’d put the needle on. If the kick drum was clean at the beginning, I’ll have that. If that hi-hat’s clean, I’ll have that. So I used to take all individual sounds off loads of different records, someone’s obviously played that sound in a studio, EQ’d, put effect on, so why bother? Half the sounds on the Altern-8 records, people don’t know where they’re from. They’ll say, “What keyboard did you use to do this?” There’s a lot of the tunes where it’s pure samples all the way, every single sound. But that’s just the way we did stuff.
There was a real sense of community – apart from London, where we never seemed to go down very well at all. The first time we did a Nexus 21 thing down in London it was for a Channel 4 program called Dance Days and it was recorded at Brixton Academy, with the groups on stage, lasers, lights, the whole lot. But there was nobody in the crowd.
I think it was either 808 State or Adamski that did a gig in the evening, and they filmed the crowd scenes, then fitted it all together. So everyone thinks that it was this mad gig where they had reggae artists on and loads of different styles going on and the crowd was going mental to it all. But we were on stage, miming away, and there’s a little kid out the front going, “Fuck off back up North, you wankers!”