Mark Archer: ‘The Man Behind the Mask’

Mark Archer

Mark Archer shares his highlights from the last 3 decades

It’s no mean feat to be actively involved in any creative endeavour for over 10 years, let alone 30 – especially when it comes to music. Having produced and released records since 1988, Mark Archer is an acid house hero and electronic music pioneer in the truest sense of the words. The driving force behind rave pioneers Altern 8 and early UK techno outfit Nexus 21, he co-founded Dansa Records in 1993 and made music under an array of pseudonyms including Trackman, DJ Nex, Xen Mantra and more.

From our perspective, Mark not only embodies everything that’s positive about electronic music, he’s also clocked up an impressive body of work – only equalled by the amount of stories he has to tell. Luckily for us, Mark remembers a lot of what he got up to back then and also kept a scrapbook documenting a lot of what went on: a real testament to his positive outlook and enjoyment of all things bleep, beats, bass and jacking your body.  

We wanted to round off 2018 by asking him to share some of his favourite moments from the last 3 decades of his career, to celebrate what has been a BIG year for him and his ever supportive wife, Nikki.  As he puts it so well “most of the things in this list are things I never ever thought I would do in my life.”

Getting signed to Blue Chip

“This was something that came about as a completely random lucky chain of events. I’d Started messing about doing really basic tracks on the most lo-fi of set up’s with Gareth Bunting and Dean Meredith (under the name Rhythm Mode D), who both lived in or around Stafford. A studio had just opened in early 1988 in Stafford and we took a tape of these crudely put together tracks. I’m not sure what we were expecting to happen but the studio owner had just started a label, and we were signed up on the spot – can’t say any of us expected that at all.”

My first release “So Damn Tough”

“Even though the first release we came out with was nothing at all like the style we wanted to make. The label boss always wanted to chase what was in the charts at the time, so we went in wanting to jam down some acid house. But, because Bomb The Bass and Rob Base & Dj EZ Rock were in the charts, he wanted us to do a track like that,(Gareth left because it wasn’t for him). It was still a release on wax, a massive thing back then and to hear it being played while we were in the local ‘Our Price Records’ having a mooch was too much: I went really red and walked out the shop!”

Getting DJ reactions to ‘Nexus 21’

“We were never really told how well anything we did at Blue Chip was doing, right from the first release we had as Rhythm Mode D, up to the end when the studio closed. I saw that the first 12” release as Bizarre Inc. got to number 100 in the UK singles charts but that was it… until we started to get a few DJ reactions faxed back to the Blue Chip office about the first Nexus 21 release (Still) Life Keeps Moving. One such reaction was from Mike Pickering (a resident at the Hacienda at the time) and to know that he was playing it and possibly at the Hacienda totally blew me away.”

Signing to Network

“Towards the end of 1989, Blue Chip studio’s and the record label closed down. At the time, I thought that was it, the end of my music career. I didn’t really have the confidence or equipment to make new tracks and start sending to labels. After speaking to Neil Macey (the dj at No.7’s in Burntwood where I used to go every week), he introduced me to Neil Rushton who was already running the successful KoolKat Records out of Birmingham. Neil already knew about Nexus 21 and had our album in his office, he invited us to a meeting as they were starting up a new label called Network Records. They already had the first few releases scheduled but wanted us to join the label – bingo, back in the game!”

Trip to Detroit

“Everyone at KoolKat/Network Records knew that the music I wanted to make as Nexus 21 was Detroit Techno, but being from Stafford and not having any kind of recording background before 1988, I didn’t know about half of the equipment that was needed to make what I wanted. They not only asked Kevin Saunderson, Marc Kinchen and Carl Craig to remix (Still) Life Keeps Moving, but arranged for us to go over to Detroit to record in the KMS studio’s. The whole experience totally blew my mind, even to this day it’s still one of those things I can’t get my head around. Being in Detroit with people who are my musical heroes and playing computer games with them and then going to BBQ’s with them… I was totally gobsmacked. To top this all off, we recorded 4 tracks with Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir and Mark Kinchen (only one of which has been released): they were obviously the most ‘Detroit’ things we did!”

Mark Archer, Derrick May & Juan Atkins in the studio.

Releases on KMS/Remixes by Detroit artists

“As part of the remix deal for (Still) Life Keeps Moving, Kevin Saunderson was able to release the Detroit remixes of the track on his KMS imprint, another dream come true and so early in my career. He also released another track that myself and Chris had recorded under the name C+M Connection called Another Night. This track was recorded late in 1989 for Blue Chip and we did a remix using the Nexus 21 name for the B side. Network asked us when we signed if we had any unreleased material, so we gave them that. They thought the techno mix sounded so different they renamed it Biorhythms to tie it in with a compilation they were doing of the same name. Turns out Blue Chip did release it without us knowing and I only found that out about 13 years ago.

Warp Network Tour

“In 1990, Warp and Network Records had a fantastic reputation of releasing innovative dance music and a lot of this came from the Northern Techno/Bleep scene. The labels decided to put four artists together for a tour, these were: LFO, Nightmares On Wax, Rhythmatic and Nexus 21. To go on tour so soon after signing with Network was incredible, and to be on the tour with the groups who were big hitters at that time was just amazing. We played some fantastic gigs (and some not so fantastic) up and down the country, we even managed to get banned from The Mean Fiddler after one of the dancers started a food fight!”

Infiltrate 202

The very first release by Altern 8 was the 8 track ‘Overload EP’ (we didn’t get on to the whole 8 thing until Activ 8). Because it was value for money, dj’s were buying it to pad out their sets. When the follow up came, people were already waiting for it. Infiltrate 202 (no 8 thing yet) was recorded in a few hours on someone else’s remix budget. I wanted to get all the bits of tunes that I liked and put them all together, crowd noises, sub bass, breakbeats, acidy sounds – which resulted in Infiltrate (202 was from my Roland MC202 that we used for the sub bass). It just seemed to strike a chord with the rave crowd, maybe it was the vocal or the cheeky 808 State sample but it went off, and it’s one of my proudest production moments.”

The Shelley’s Car Park Gig

“If I wasn’t playing a gig, I was either in Shelley’s or at the Eclipse in Coventry. I’d been going out in Stoke since 1988 so when one club ended or closed down, another opened. Shelley’s was Stoke’s Hacienda, it was the club that people travelled from as far as Scotland and London to go to. We had played there a fair few times and had dropped Activ 8 thereon a dub plate for the first time ever. So, when we came to do the video for Activ 8, it made perfect sense to do the video there.

I’d noticed that after the club finished, people stood around cars listening to tinny car stereos of the latest rave tapes and thought ‘why don’t we give them some proper quality sound to listen to. So on the 15th of September 1991, we parked a truck in the carpark so it would just look like a lorry driver getting some rest. On the back of the truck we had a generator and a 5k sound system, as well as our set up and UV tubes. 15 minutes before the end of the night we came out and got set up ready. As soon as the car park was full of ravers, we lifted the side of the tarpaulin up and started playing. It was all recorded by a local freelance news reported Dominic Green, and he wasn’t wrong when he shouted ‘They’re going mad!’”

Activ 8 charts

“This was one of the moments where I really didn’t know what to do with myself at all. We had already dipped into the UK top 40 with Infiltrate 202 in the summer of 1991 but after playing Activ 8 as a demo from the very first Altern 8 gigs, right up until October when it was released, the demand for the single was the biggest so far. I was at home in our 2 up 2 down terrace in Stafford, V reg Mini parked outside contemplating going to Lotus Records in town to see what had come in that day when I got a call from Network to say that Activ 8 had gone straight in the charts at number 12. I just stood there with not a clue what to do or say.”

Top Of The Pops

“One of the most surreal experiences of my whole career. Being on the show and standing on a stage looking out at all the crew and cameras scripting how the show is going to work, then thinking about how you’ve watched this programme since you were a kid and seen some really magical moments: it just blew my head off really. It’s not just the fact you’re on such an iconic programme, getting to see the ins and outs of how it’s all put together but you also meet people you normally wouldn’t (unless you won prizes to meet them at a concert or were a bit of a stalker maybe). Although at the time, we didn’t realise how big they were going to be or how famous the lead singer would end up, but on reflection, meeting Nirvana and having a chat with them when they appeared on the show performing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was pretty mad.”

NYE Birmingham (then Wigan)

“NYE 1991 and Birmingham was to become the ‘City of Music’ for 1992. Activ 8 was still pottering about in the charts having been there since early November. We had been booked for a gig by Birmingham City Council, I assumed it was going to be in a small social club type vibe as we weren’t given much info about the night at all. My dad phoned me in the early evening to say that he’d heard reports that there was around 45,000 people in Centenary Square because of the gig. That’s when the nerves started to kick in. When we got there it was a massive event with loads of different artists on the bill, and Central TV were filming it. We did 15 minutes in total on Stage and the sight of all those people (and the 2000 or so ravers right down at the front going mental) was unbelievable. Not the most underground gig we ever played, but one of the biggest.”

Working with Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King in New York

“This one didn’t really hit me until after we had done it, mainly because the label boss kept mentioning the track ‘Shame’ that I wasn’t massively familiar with. We worked on a remake of Shame and wrote another track (while we were there – talk about lack of preparation) so we could do an Altern 8 vs Evelyn King release midway between our singles. It was only when I got back and was playing ‘Love Come Down’ and ‘I’m In Love’ that I realised – No Way! I’ve worked with Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King!”

Full On Mask Hysteria

“When it came to making the Altern 8 album, we didn’t want to try and make a snapshot of 1992 that may make the album fashionable but dateable. We wanted to try and make it a ‘story so far’ piece.  So, with ‘Full on Mask Hysteria’ we included all the b sides that may have been missed and tracks spanning the past two years of Altern 8. It’s totally different to the 5 albums that I’d already done with either Dean or Chris and the last album I’ve made. A lot more thought went into it and compiling all the tracks together, at the end we actually used a computer instead of just copying tracks to a main DAT (which was a first). I’m honestly humbled by how people hold the album in such high esteem after all these years and see it as one of the main ‘rave’ albums alongside the Prodigy’s ‘Experience’.”

Brazil tour with Moby

“This was another moment that I didn’t understand how big it really was until years later. In 1993 when in the UK we were winding down really, we didn’t really have many tracks to promote so we weren’t gigging that much (unlike 91 and 92 which were ridiculous). We were asked to play in Brazil and we jumped at the chance, as it’s not somewhere I ever thought I’d be able to go to. As usual, there weren’t that many details about the gig but it turned out we were doing three dates with Moby. This was the first electronic dance music tour ever to come to Brazil and it went down in dance music history there (I still get booked in Brazil because of how big this was). Playing in massive warehouses rammed from front to back alongside Moby, Mark Kamins (R.I.P.) and Soul Slinger to made this a tour to remember.”

Slo Moshun – Bells Of New York

“While we were still playing abroad in 1993 as Altern 8, I’d started to record music on my own under different names. I’d already had one ep out under the name Dj Nex, and started doing more progressive house (as it was known then) under the name Xen Mantra (this turned out to be the release that split the original Altern 8 for good). I asked a local Dj, Pete Bromley to remix one of the Xen Mantra tracks for me and he brought a friend of his (Danny Taurus) to the studio to do the keyboards. After working on the remix, we started to work on different tracks and remixes together. I’d already completed one track that was for Xen Mantra and Danny said that it was ‘too big’ for this project, so why didn’t we do another track together and call it something new. I had been working on some hip hop beats and when Danny heard them he said we should work a track round them, so it slowed down in the middle. We recorded the track, Danny designed a record label logo on the bus home and we took the tracks to Network (who were now called 6X6) with a view to us putting it out on a made up American import release. It became one of the big tunes of late 1993 early 1994 and gave me the confidence that I could make different music, and not just work with the same person (who I had done since 1989).”

Glade Festival 2006 (my first ever festival)

“I’d never been to a festival before this one, they’d never really appealed to me but this one changed everything. We (myself and Mkone who I was djing with at the time) had been booked to play at Bangface in London the previous year, we went down, played and honestly didn’t think we fit with what was going on, so never expected to be booked again. We were then booked to play the Bangface takeover tent on the Sunday. Again we turned up and played what we do but this was just one of those sets, one where you’re at the right place – at the right time. Everything just seemed to work and the place went absolutely mental (especially when I played ‘Strings Of Life’ as my last tune). Bangface have been very good to me and I’m massively grateful for their help over the past 13 years.”

Brazil 2006 – Overnight

“Myself and Mkone were asked to return to Brazil in 2006 to dj at an event called Overnight. As Mkone was our second MC, back in the early days he never wore an A8 suit, and I only wore mine when asked. We got to Brazil and the promoters were shocked we didn’t bring them with us as they wanted to recreate the beginning of the Evapor 8 video. We were basically carried round a massive warehouse full of screaming ravers, on top of a wooden platform (on a blow up double mattress) by about 6 bouncers, while Dj Andy cut up the into of Evapor 8 for ages. We eventually got up on the dj platform high up on one side of the warehouse. To see the reaction of the crowd and the fact they sang all the words louder than the music itself after 13 years of not playing there…. That’s one gig I’ll never forget.”

DS:93 : Songs For Einna EP

“It took me years to get together all the equipment that I needed to make the tunes that I wanted to back in 1988/9, picking pieces up when and if I ever saw them. By the time I had recorded a DAT full of Detroit inspired Techno tracks in 1996, Network/6X6 records were coming to an end and the plan to re-start KoolKat records never happened. The tracks sat on DAT tape until someone in 2005 said that I should send them to a few labels. R&S said they didn’t contain that certain something they were looking for, but Dust Science from Sheffield said they were starting a  label where they would only press 93 of each track in a series of 9. The ep sold out before it’s release and copies went straight on discogs for £60, which was really nice as I’d not had a release out for a few years but I story I was told by James Stevenson (label manager at Transmat at the time) totally made my year.

I’d bought a copy of the EP myself as I wanted to send a copy to Derrick May (there was no promo mail out or promo copies at all). James had messaged me to say that after he received the record at Transmat, rather than mentioning it, he just put it on in the office and let it play. Later on he took Derrick to the airport as he was playing a gig in Sheffield (that I went to purely by coincidence) and Derrick had asked what that music was playing in the office as “it sounded like Detroit used to be”.

For me that was the biggest compliment ever, coming from one of my musical hero’s and likening it to a music that I’ve always tried hard to make.”

My first time at Glastonbury (25 June 2009)

“Glastonbury is a big deal for me, so to get a booking to play there for the first time was amazing. I’d never been to Glastonbury so didn’t really know what to expect or know how vast it really was. I was djing in the Team Love tent, which had a very varied line up which included East 17 (hadn’t been on a line up with them since the early 90’s) and came on after Jamie Jones who finished his set early in a bit of a strop because of technical issues. The tent was absolutely heaving and had open sides so you could see that there was just as many people outside the tent as inside as the sun was going down. At a certain point in the set, I asked Mkone to hype the crowd up (the breakdown of playing with knives by Bizarre Inc) as I wanted to climb out of the dj booth on to the stage and get a video. It was absolute goosebumps!”

B2B with Ben Sims in Belgium

“Although this was a gig I won’t forget, it’s also a gig there’s parts I can’t remember at all. It was a big event, De:tuned ‘Meeting Of The Minds’ in Antwerp. I was in full on fan boy mode because all the Belgian Techno legends were there like Outlander, Frank De Wulf and CJ Bolland but my nerves were worse than usual as Ben is well known for his mixing and I didn’t want to mess up and look stupid. To say I was tipsy is a massive understatement, when Ben sent me the recording of the set I asked who played the first and last three tunes… It was me, and I couldn’t remember playing them. It was a complete honour though, the set went down brilliantly. Luckily for me it wasn’t the last time I’ve played alongside Ben but the whole night was incredibly special.”

Activ 8 Christmas Campaign

“In 2013, a very nice chap (Loz Russell) on facebook decided to start a campaign to get Activ 8 to the Christmas number one spot. The campaign brought a lot of headaches for not only myself, but for Nikki and for Josh (Posthuman/Balkan Vinyl) who’d offered to help manage the campaign on social media. It had been started as a light hearted idea with no real idea how to get the track into the charts, Nikki had noticed it one Saturday morning and posted it up. It had 600 likes and by the Monday morning it had gone up to 4000, this is when we thought we should maybe help Loz realise his goal. It mean getting in contact with the record label to see if they would put Activ 8 up online so it could legitimately enter the charts, asking for a load of remixes as favours by some very talented and generous producer friends, fending off people who branded us devil worshippers and homophobes because it ‘was a Christmas chart’. It also meant that after a few years of not being able to use the name Altern 8, I was given permission by the label and so changed my djing career which I had to start all over again a few years previously.

Needless to say we didn’t get any Radio One support (just like back in 1991) and didn’t make the top spot, but to get a 22 year old hardcore rave track back in the charts, beating Radio One’s single of the week was a proud moment.”

Arcadia at Glastonbury

“Since my first set at Glastonbury in 2009, I’ve played there a few times and had some brilliant times but this one stands out. I’d played on the Arcadia stage the year before at Boomtown, that time I was the first dj to play on the Sunday evening. I started the set to a handful of people but luckily there was a decent crowd by the time I’d finished, but it was light so the full effect of the stage couldn’t be seen. At Glastonbury I was closing the stage on the Sunday night, so finishing the stage for the whole weekend (no pressure). It’s got to be the most nervous I’ve ever been during a dj set, with between 35,000 and 40,000 people round the stage. I was concentrating on every tune and every mix and didn’t really take it in until it was finished. Despite all the noise of the compressed air cannons and flame throwers, I could still hear Nikki out in the crowd shouting support!”

Boiler room

“I’d been asked by a few people why I hadn’t done a Boiler Room and I honestly thought that it wasn’t something I’d ever be asked to do. All the sets I’d seen online were new music and there didn’t ever seem to be anyone playing a full set of oldskool. When I was asked, I did have my reservations about it as we’ve all seen the videos of the Boiler Room crowds (not the kind of crowd I’d get at oldskool gigs) and seen the trolls slating the Djs on the live stream. But, Nikki persuaded me that it would be cool.

I have Lone to thank for it as he apparently requested that I played at the gig in Nottingham where he was playing live. When I got there and saw how young the crowd was and how the first two dj’s were playing techno, I thought I was going to go down like a lead balloon. It’s bad enough having a camera pointing at you and it being streamed, but also being the sort of odd one out musically – I really thought it wouldn’t work. I couldn’t have been more wrong, from the first breakdown on the first track it went off – thank you Lone and thank you Boiler Room.”

Man Behind The Mask

“Most of the things in this list are thing I never ever thought I would do in my life. I never thought that when I left school I’d get to be a dj, even though that’s what I wanted to do. I never thought I’d ever make music even though I was really interested in it, and I certainly never thought I would ever get the chance to write a book. I’d been asked by a few people ‘why don’t you do a book’ but didn’t think recalling stories about gigs would really interest anyone, their ok for chats backstage and after parties… but not a book. It’s not a book about just Altern 8 though, as many people imagine, it’s my whole life pretty much. It’s shattered the preconceived idea of what someone’s life in this industry is like (not that mines the same as everyone’s) and I’ve had loads of amazing messages and comments about how people can relate to certain parts of it. It would never have happened if it wasn’t for Dan and Sonya at Music Mondays, so I’m truly grateful to them for giving me the chance to do it and to Andrew Woods who wrote it all (and listened to my waffle for weeks on end).”

Getting married at Bangface

“I met Nikki in 2009 and it wasn’t long before I’d taken her to her first Bangface. She wore a rather tight dress and heels, not Bangface clobber at all but I didn’t want to put her off by telling her to dress down. She loved it from the minute she walked in and has been to almost every single Bangface I’ve played at. When the Weekender was still down in Hastings, I waited until the Monday morning and decided we go for a stroll along the beach, that’s when I proposed.

From that moment, Nikki wanted to get married at Bangface and thanks to James, we were allowed to make our wedding part of the opening ceremony of the Weekender in 2016. One of the strangest moments of my career, stood on stage with Nikki, both wearing A masks and the crowd at Bangface singing hymns at us.”

30 year tour

“This year’s tour has been something really special. I’d totally missed the 25 year mark and thought it may be a good idea to celebrate 30 years in the industry with a yearlong tour starting on January the first and running for the entire twelve months.

It’s coincided nicely with it being 30 years since the second summer of love and Acid House coming back with a vengeance. When I first started making music, I didn’t think it would last a year and didn’t have any kind of long term plan but just went with it. To still be able to travel, dj and play live is way beyond anything I could have imagined. Hopefully, I’ve got a few more years in me yet but I have genuinely still got the love for playing out and getting finished copies of tracks I’ve made and I don’t think that will ever go away.”