"When House music started it really changed something..." - hmv.com talks to Electribe 101's Billie Ray Martin
Ask anyone who partied their way through the late 80s and early 90s to name some of the most iconic dancefloor fillers of the House music era, and you'll probably hear in response a list of tracks by the likes of Frankie Knuckles, Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk and Mr. Fingers, U.S.-based pioneers whose influence spread across the Atlantic and beyond to inspire a new wave of dance music creators in Europe and the UK.
Among those were the likes of Manchester-based artists like 808 Stateand Birmingham's Electribe 101, whose early club hits helped shaped the House music sound in the UK and whose singer, Hamburg-born Billie Ray Martin, also enjoyed her won hits with dancefloor classics like 'Your Loving Arms'.
Electribe 101's unreleased album Elecribal Soul has become something of a mythical chapter in House music history, but more than 30 years after its initial release was shelved, Martin has resurrected and restored the album, which finally makes its arrival in stores this Friday (March 18).
With Electribal Soul finally released from its cage we spoke to Bille Ray Martin about why she decided to bring it back to life, and why this will be the final Electribe 101 release as she plans for the future...
So Electribal Soul gets a release this week, at long last. Why now? Where did the idea to finally put the album out get started?
“I guess it was a process. First of all, fans were always asking about it, initially I had no intention of doing it. Eventually I started enquiring with a few labels who do that sort of thing, but none of them were really interested at that point, so then I forgot about it again. But it was funny, every time we appeared on these re-runs of Top of the Pops on the BBC, Electribe 101 started trending on Twitter, people were making all these crazy memes and stuff, they were hilarious.
“That kind of convinced me that there was something going on, people were enjoying the music and the re-runs, so I decided OK, I’ll put this out on my label. So then the discussions got started about audio restoration, photos, it was a long process of restoring and mastering, things like that took a long time. My attitude towards it was If I do this, I want to ensure the best quality. Nobody else would go into that minuscule detail that I went into, trying to spot any area where there could be improvements, so that's why that took a long time."
Recording technology has changed a lot since then, especially in electronic music, what kind of media did you have to work with?
“I only had a DAT tape, and whoever recorded it had recorded everything at a very low level, which was kind of a problem. I really didn’t know what it would all sound like once it was mastered. The first guy I sent it to did this crazy thing. Do you know ‘the loudness wars?’ Well, it was uber-loud, not at all in tune with what it was supposed to be. That was nuts, and it sounded horrible. So I went to the next guy, and they did like a techno-dance job on it, everything was really treble-y, so I rejected that.
“Then my former sound engineer, Steve Honest, said ‘I’ll just have a go, just do a little test’. He sent the first song back and it sounded absolutely amazing. If you listened with the most expensive headphones in the world you could probably still hear slight fluctuations, but I wouldn’t call them flaws exactly. I wanted to ensure it sounded fresh with the mastering.”
‘Talking With Myself' was one of those tracks that found a second life in clubs almost a decade later. Did you feel back then that you were a bit ahead of your time?
“I mean, 'Talking With Myself' was a hit when it first came out as well, but what inspired us was that we felt like were part of this global House music movement. And I guess that’s what movements are, whether it’s garage or punk rock, when you’re in that moment it’s inspiring. Literally every week there were new House tracks coming from everywhere, I remember there was a House music track that came out of Africa around the time that suddenly became really popular. And obviously we don’t even have to mention the US because it all came from there, the heroes. We were thrilled to be a part of all that.
“I guess what made us different was the more song-based nature of it, but I think that was also pioneered in America, it was just maybe not so common in House music then. I was personally inspired by people like Robert Owens, because he was writing about things that soul voices had not written about. Then Boy George, and there was an album we were listening to a lot when we were making this record, by MC 900 Ft. Jesus and DJ Zero. There were all these crazy things popping up and they were all amazing to me, each week I would show up at the studio with yet another LP going ‘You’ve got to listen to this! We must do a mix like that!’”
How did your involvement with electronic music begin in the early days? What was the scene like in Germany at that time?
“As a kid I was into Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode and Yazoo. All of it, really. We were fiddling around in the bedroom with electronics and stuff, and then I moved to London. But when House music started it really changed something, because I was looking for something and suddenly it was there. I don’t think I really knew what I was looking for, but it was that. Germany never really had the House music scene that the US or the UK had, later in the 90s they had this big Techno thing, with Love Parade and all of that, it was huge. But House music never really ‘happened’ in Germany in the same way. It was kind of odd, because it seemed like it was happening literally everywhere else in the world.”
What made you gravitate towards London? How did you hook with the other guys in Birmingham?
“We must have met around 1988, I think, because it was around the time I met Mark Moore from S-Express as well, and Electribe met shortly after. Basically I turned up with a record by Julian Jonas and said: ‘This’. And we completely ripped it off! But that’s how we got started, you know? I also had the song ‘Talking with Myself’, so they kind of tailored the music around that song, and the group suddenly had a sound. And it was only after that we realised ‘Oh my god, we’ve got this hit record, we’d better come up with some other stuff’.
“It’s funny, the second single was supposed to be ‘Lipstick On Your Lover’, and we still didn’t really know we could write songs together, we didn’t know how to start. So I said ‘Why don’t you play ‘Talking with Myself’ backwards?’ So this melody emerged, and its basically just ‘Talking with Myself’ played backwards, but then I had this Martha Reeves kind of thing for the chorus. That was supposed to be the second single, which again was us just fishing, really. But then we kind of said ‘Wait a minute, we need to start writing some proper songs here.’ So that’s what we did.”
At what point did Tom Watkins enter the picture?
“I guess he came into the picture after we’d had the first two ‘hit singles’, so ‘Talking With Myself’ and then ‘Tell Me When the Fever Ended’. He contacted us and we learned that he was managing Bros and Pet Shop Boys and all these people. He was a bit of a notorious character, but we were really impressed, so we signed straight away. Bit of a funny decision really, but you just go for it, don’t you?”
You’ve obviously built a solo career since the Electribe days, some of the more recent stuff has been very different – had you fallen out of love with dance music?
“A bit, actually, as a writer. It was a bit of a process, because I’ve got four albums coming up, believing or not, in the next three years. In 2017 I started doing demos, and I think what happened was that a couple of years prior to that I realised I wasn’t happy watching software and files moving by, sitting in the background thinking ‘I could write another verse and another chorus in two minutes if somebody would just f***ing stop the software and talk about chords with me. Do you know what I mean? And even though I worked with really skilled people, you still are bound by things, the bassline dictates that you can’t change chords here or whatever. I don’t think I realised how unhappy I was. The whole thing about trying to do dance and electronic music – and I didn’t always do dance, I did a lot of more downtempo electronica, which I enjoyed much more, to be honest - but I just wasn’t into it at all.
“I couldn’t figure out what it was I needed. I researched a lot, trying to find inspiration, Youtube, Spotify, wherever. Then one day I had a total ‘eureka’ moment, about the kind of music that I wanted to make in the future. And it was very different, so the albums I’m working on now are all very completely different in sound an approach and they each have a theme. So in 2017 I went in the studio with three or sometimes just two people, just to see what happens if we spontaneously develop my songs in the studio and recorded them there and then. And it worked, it was not only a lot of fun, it was chaos but it was fun, and the demos sounded great in a lot of cases, enough for me to pursue this."
Where are you at with that now?
“So, fast-forward five years and I’ve recorded three of them, I’m just doing a string orchestra next week actually, which is really excited, and some of the guys from Tinder Sticks play on one of them as well. I really just thought I would do this exactly the way I want, and the people who have inspired the sound I’m trying to make, I just started contacting them to see what they say. I guess I caught them in the middle of this lockdown period when they couldn’t go on tour, so three of them showed up in the studio. This is all dream come true stuff.
“Then on one of the other albums I was really inspired by Mélanie De Biasio’s band and the way they played, so some of them came. I wasn’t going to stop until I had the perfect thing going on. I can say now that I’m doing exactly what I was always meant to do. I feel like if this is what I’m going to leave behind, these four albums, if I get run over by a bus once it’s done? Fine. So I couldn’t be happier really, it’s just a daunting task.”
Do you think there’s a possibility of any new Electribe 101 music?
“Never again. I’m done. I’m loving going in the studio at the moment, shutting the door and recording live music. And the way I’m producing it and mixing it is not straightforward, so it will have that element of effects being used in crazy ways. There will be experimentation and tape loops, but again that’s all analogue now.”
Electribal Soul is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.