‘ANODES FOR A
Without Cabaret Voltaire the world would be different.
At the start of the 1980s they represented the gleaming edge
of a cyber-noir future that has never rusted or biodegraded.
Back then, Mal and Richard were already sucking in
cultural influences from past visionaries and projecting them
into futures sheened black and shiny as vinyl. Now
the Cabs are no more. But their influence is everywhere...
‘What’s your obsession?
What’s your obsession?
What’s your obsession...?’
(“Obsession” on ‘The Voice Of America’)
In Sheffield. In their Western Works studio. The mixing desk they acquired when they first pacted a leasing deal from Rough Trade is littered with polystyrene coffee cups and magazines. While out of the window, across an industrial roof-scape, the heat-haze dances the city into landscapes of foreign planets. In 1980s terminology Cabaret Voltaire are more William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ than they are New Romantic. More Cyber than Punk... theirs is the real ‘Bladerunner’ soundtrack, played out with neurotic clarity. Try the mutilated minimalism and near-perfect art-brutalism of their ‘Technology’ compilation, issued 12.3.92, collecting and reformulating tracks from their Virgin period. From the sheer physical power of “Ghost Talk” codified with Kraftwerkian synth figures, to the hardest of dense Ibiza sequenced pulses on the 808-Heaven remix of “I Want You”, from a time when it was still possible to take Ibiza-references seriously as a creative force.
From this city Human League first wired the world’s ears, tuned in its eyeballs, then flooded both sensory channels. And from this city Pulp took it into a Different Class. From this city ABC took the Lexicon of Pop to where romance lies – and lies and lies. But this Cab-ish duo would look bad in gold lame suits. They neither look nor act like Pop Stars. Stephen ‘Mal’ Mallinder (bass/ vocals) sits in a neutral brown C&A sweat-shirt, the only hint of obsessive intensity betrayed by his eyes, a stare that could penetrate steel plate, an eyeballing-the-end-of-the-world stare that’s only alleviated by a wryly mocking humour. And Richard H. Kirk (guitar/ FX). He alternately crouches down by the console, hand irrigating an unruly mass of (artificially?) auburn hair, or hunting the desk-top for matches to light a cig. His shirt at first a garishly tasteless technicolour Hawaiian job, then like some elaborate abstract expressionist silk-screen print. A shirt that bags untidily loose over his slack belt so he keeps shoving it back in place irritably. It’s that shirt, above all, that belies any pretentious to Pop Star posing.
All of the bands I speak to around this time deny that a ‘Sheffield Electro Scene’ exists. Although if – as self-evidently it does, this Western Works studio is very much its nexus. And Cabaret Voltaire are probably pissed off being asked about it. ‘I don’t think there is a ‘Scene’, now’ asserts Mal. ‘Yes, it seems to have – you know, kinda fragmented a little bit’ agrees Richard, ‘at one time I would probably tend to agree with what you’re saying, in a lot of ways, yes – there was a kind of ‘Scene’. But these days it seems quite a lot different.’
‘Going back to about 1978-1979’ continues Mal more expansively, ‘then there was some sort of... it wasn’t particularly a ‘Scene’, but it was just – there were quite a lot of people who were doing similar things, and we tended to know each other. But I think the original people – like us, like Clock DVA, the Human League, Glenn Gregory (of Heaven 17), all the people like that... it’s just a case of, everybody’s gone their own ways! We’re all still loosely in contact but I don’t think there’s any ‘Scene’ or anything like that. Anything that’s come up since then hasn’t had much to do with us, and that’s partly by design. We’ve been doing other things. We got a bit too wary of becoming too bogged down in creating that sort of ‘Sheffield Scene’ and feeling as though we were is some way responsible... or whatever. So we just got on with our own things, as everybody else did. While partly, I think, a lot of groups that have come out of Sheffield since us have been more of a reaction to what was happening here all those years ago. They are a reaction to groups like us and the Human League. They began saying ‘hey look, there’s not only the Human League/ Cabaret Voltaire/ Clock DVA-type sounds in Sheffield’. And in that way the new groups coming up were a reaction to us, so that’s why we haven’t had much to do with those groups...’
But Cabaret Voltaire can take it back even further that that. 1974 wasn’t exactly a classic year for Rock. It was Osmonds. It was Chinn-Chapman. It was Abba winning Eurovision. And in retrospect, probably that year’s most intriguing event occurred here in Sheffield. Because that’s when, and where, Cabaret Voltaire were forming as an experimental recording/ studio group of uncertain input and unlimited output. It was Mal. It was Richard. Back then it was Chris Watson as well (synthesiser/ tape sequencing), but he later relocates to ‘Tyne Tees TV’. He is not replaced. But Allan Fish (of Sheffield’s Hula) becomes an added component member, in care of drums/ percussion on stage, screen and record. I get impressions that Mallinder is more inner-directed. Kirk, to a greater degree, outer-directed. Although I could be wrong. Allan denies it, but doesn’t offer a corrective viewpoint beyond explaining an internal ‘fluidity’ of roles within the group. Whatever, the Cabs – operating from Western Works studios, rapidly become art-mechanics of an electro cottage industry. Anodes for a new generation.
They first commence their steady drip-feed of challenging vinyl releases through Rough Trade in July 1978 (an EP called “Extended Play”). They travel through albums like ‘The Voice Of America’ (July 1980) – crude first-generation beat-boxes, bursts of static, Dalek-voices, a discordant weirdness that swirls like avant-garde electronica recorded in a garage, with distorted samples and reverse voices lost in incoherence. Then, with albums ‘Red Mecca’ (September 1981), ‘2 x 45s’ (March 1982), and classic twelve-inch singles “Sluggin Fer Jesus” (March 1981), “Nag Nag Nag” (April 1979), and “Three Mantras” (January 1980) – it’s all about as far removed from Rockist convention as it is from Cage or Stockhausen. While – unlike the high-grade hedonism of the ‘E’-fuelled Dance-culture that will come later, feeding off their pioneering innovations, the Cabaret Voltaire sound inhabits a dour intensity. One that aspires to an aesthetic of austere purity. Industrial in attitude. Industrial in method. The hedonism is there. It merely assumes different guises. With musics made by the treatment of conventional sound sources by electronic processes and by secondary treatments – such as tape collage, they predate the ‘Sheffield Sound’, the Industrial avant-garde, Electro-Pop, Garageland experimentalists, Hip-Hop, Trip-Hop, Techno, and the C30-C60-C90 cassette-DIY underground by a clutch of years. Ushering in a time for entrancing discord. All the way is far enough... In a decade that draws sampling, scratching, remixology and Rap into the mainstream, they are there anticipating, pioneering, or forming a vital part of the first wave of at least the first three. An impressive ratio.
Trawl the ‘Guinness Book Of Hit Singles’ and there’s not much evidence they ever existed (although they are an integral part of the concurrent ‘Indie’ charts). But talk to subsequent bands in the electro-Dance zone – Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, Prodigy, and the respect is tangible. ‘The Cabs’ were the original cartographers of the way it was to evolve. And ways in which – perhaps, it should have evolved. Where beats could target the cerebellum as well as the erogenous zones. But August 1983’s ‘The Crackdown’ is the pivotal event in their evolution. As their first product delivered through a Some Bizarre/ Virgin hook-up, it defines the Cabs decisive switch from the Indie cult-ghetto, to infiltrate the megastore mainstream. High-profile highly-regarded albums will follow clear though to October 1993’s ‘International Language’, but this is as good a point as any to put a stop to time. And to take stock. So we meet for verbal therapy at Western Works to talk through the changes on a packed C90. So let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start...
When you kick-started Cabaret Voltaire you’d have been what – in your late teens? (Mal) Yes. We started when we were about seventeen or eighteen. Were you at Art School or something? (Mal) No. I wasn’t. I was at College, but I did History.
You began evolving in 1974, which was the year of Slade, Sweet, and the Osmonds. It’s difficult to envisage where you were deriving your style from, because there was nothing remotely similar happening at that time. (Mal) It was more... kind of, looking back on what had been done in the past, and sort-of taking a little bit of inspiration from a lot of German groups who were working around 1969/ 1970. I think the European connection, and the Velvet’s were – like, the two link-points. In earlier conversations you’ve mentioned the Velvet Underground as an influence on the extended pieces that make up your ‘Three Mantras’ (May 1980). And there’s a Lou Reed song on ‘Extended Play’ (“Here She Comes Now”). (Mal) Yeah. That first EP. We’ve always been pretty keen on the Velvet Underground. I think it’s quite an influence on what we’ve done. Also some of the stuff that Eno was doing before then. They were probably the only things we saw as parallels. They were the only places where we could see similarities to what we were doing. (Richard) I mean, it wasn’t a case of just listening to them and copying. It was more a case of, we were doing what we were doing, and then we found out that other people were doing similar sorts of things. So obviously you’re bound to feed off it a little bit.
In a ‘Consumers Guide’ column you contributed to ‘New Musical Express’ you favourably mention German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s piece ‘Mantras’. Is there any direct connection there? (Mal – musing for a long moment) Ummm. No. I think it was the pure similarity of the word more than anything else. So when you refer to a ‘European connection’, it was Kraftwerk and Can you were listening to? (Mal) Yes. Can in particular. They were quite an influence because of their rhythms. They were a lot more rhythm-orientated. They weren’t doing just pure abstract stuff, it was their rhythms that always appealed to us as well. We really respect Can, and particularly Holger Czukay’s stuff.
Yours is a collage technique of recording, using ‘sampled’ found-sound. (Kirk) Oh yes. That’s always been so, even now. But Can and the other bands you mention never used those methods. They never used pre-recorded sound, found-sound, musique concrete. Although Kraftwerk used short-wave radio on their ‘Radio-Activity’ (October 1975) album... (Kirk) Knowing them, knowing the way that they function, they probably didn’t even use short-wave radios at all, but synthesised the sound of short-wave radio in the studio. But I know that Can – Holger Czukay, used to use old radio sets. I remember seeing him playing – in Doncaster of all places, and he was just surrounded by a mass of tape-recorders and radio receivers. He had started out as bass-player with Can. But by then he’d actually stopped playing bass with them. He was just there, in the middle of all this equipment. Which was good. Seeing someone actually using THAT as his instrument, solely...
But that was when Cabaret Voltaire were already working as a functioning recording unit. (Kirk) Yes, but it was quite nice to see somebody else using it. We’d been doing it, and so it was really great to find out that someone else was doing it as well. Also concerning origins – Cabaret Voltaire was a name used by the 1916 Dada Absurdist Theatre. And you did a piece called “Dada Man” on an early Industrial C60 tape. What’s the connection there? (Mal) Yes, we were again influenced by the Dada-ist spirit and feeling, and it was also a case of – we were doing a gig and we needed to call ourselves something, and it just became – like, the obvious title... really, in a lot of ways.
The first live Cabaret Voltaire appearance was an Edinburgh Festival gig wasn’t it? (Mal) The first thing we ever did was about 1975. We did a gig. Just a one-off thing. We didn’t play again then for about a year or so. So that’s when we took the name, 1975. We played again in 1976, and really started playing more regularly around 1977. There’s a track on your ‘The Voice Of America’ album (“If The Shadows Could March”) which is bracketed (1974). Is that the recording date? (Mal) Yes it is. It’s just an old track. (Kirk) We just dug it out. We’ve got – like, archives in the cupboard, of tapes dating back from 1974. All sorts of stuff that might eventually see the light of day, and might not.
Some of that early material also emerged on an Industrial-label C60 called ‘1974-’76’. When did you first make that connection with Psychic TV’s Genesis P Orridge – the guy who originated Industrial? (Kirk) A long time ago. When they brought out their first Throbbing Gristle album – ‘Second Annual Report’ (November 1977). We just kind of – we wrote to him, sent him some of our stuff, and sort-of had an ongoing relationship with him from there on. We’ve released stuff on their label. First time we met him was in Wakefield actually. When they played the Technical College, I think... (Mal) Wakefield Industrial College it was. That’s why they did it. Because it was an Industrial College. No other reason. I’ve never quite been able to work out how much of Genesis P Orridge’s extremist persona is real, and how much is contrived for effect. (Mal) It is genuine. Yes. Gen’s been doing it for years. It’s not assumed. It’s just the way he is. (Kirk) There’s a Psychic TV album – ‘Dreams Less Sweet’ (1983) which is pretty mind-blowing. It’s all done in holophonic sound. Strange.
Another early activist of that period, Adi Newton – of Sheffield’s Clock DVA, once told me that he was also involved in early Cabaret Voltaire, as an acquaintance. (Mal) Again, we’ve known Adi for a long time. We knew Adi when he was working on the first Sheffield fanzine – ‘Gun Rubber’. It’s a collector’s item now. That fanzine ran to about seven issues, all of it produced by him and another guy called ‘Ronnie Clocks’ (also known as Paul Bower. He used to be in a group called 2:3). It dates from about then that we knew Adi, so yes, we’ve known Adi for... dunno, a l-o-n-g time. Something like that. A strong aspect of Western Works is that you’ve produced so many other bands here – including New Order, Hula, Eric Random, UV Pop – and “Brigade” by early Clock DVA. So if there is/ was a ‘Sheffield Sound’, then Western Works has got to be its focal point. (Kirk) A few people have... drifted through, shall we say. I suppose that’s because we were the only people who had a studio, apart from anything else. But I mean, it’s always interested us, working with other people. It’s something that’s always – kind of, appealed. To be able to steam in there and play around with other people’s material. Provided they’re into the idea of it, of course.
Were the slides and films always an integral part of the Cabaret Voltaire concept? (Kirk) Yes. From the very first live performance we did we used slides. Trying to maintain some kind of standard whereby we always present something other than just a couple of people of stage. I mean, it’s more... it’s not there to detract from the fact that we don’t particularly move around much. It’s more a case of creating an atmosphere to go with the music. So it’s kind of, you get a total sense of being surrounded by the whole thing, as opposed to just being stood watching it. There weren’t many precedents to that, when you began, unless you go back to psychedelia! (Mal) No. The only group, when we were doing it, who’d used it before in that sense, was the Velvet Underground. (Kirk)... apart from Hawkwind! (Mal) Yes. But I think it’s too simplistic to say ‘Oh yeah, Cabaret Voltaire use films on stage, therefore they just purely fit into the mould of the Velvets or psychedelia’, which isn’t totally true. Because of the context... I wasn’t suggesting that. (Mal) I know, I’m not accusing you, it’s just that it is too easy to put it like that. But I think there’s a lot of scope for using films and slides. We’ve proved as much because a lot more groups are using it now....
‘Spirits walking, Ghost talking...’
(“Ghost Talk” from ‘Drinking Gasoline’ June 1985)
‘The Crackdown’ didn’t top the Indie album chart. For Cabaret Voltaire that’s pretty unique. The biorhythms of the Record Industry depend on hits at regular intervals, and the Cab’s sense of (mis)adventure always resisted that. Listening to each new Cabaret Voltaire vinyl was like walking downstairs and missing the last step. They were never just another picture in the Pop exhibition. They existed in a walled garden of their own devices and strategies.
But back then, around 1983, you couldn’t help but notice the multi-media circus of the senses (print, radio, video) designed to inform you, the consumer, that Cabaret Voltaire had become the band who’d come in from the cold. And the reason that ‘The Crackdown’ didn’t top the Indie chart was that it’s issued through the good graces of the burgeoning mainstream Virgin empire. While the reason the Cab’s suddenly found themselves thrust under the close scrutiny of a prurient press that had previously done its best to ignore them, had something to do with the Machiavellian talents of one Stevo, the teenage managerial alchemist who was by then very much on their side. So what’s the history behind that Stevo connection, the alleged catalyst in this volte-face? Did he do a sleazo ‘man with the fat cigar’ routine – ‘sign on the dotted line boys and I’ll make you stars’? Or was it the other way round – hit-hungry experimentalists from Sheffield hoping to snort up some of the management-magic that gave a grateful world Soft Cell, The The, and Psychic TV?
‘It’s a long story’ muses Mal. ‘Stevo’s known us for ages. And he’s always been onto us to do stuff for him.’ ‘Yes, it’s been on the cards for a while’ confirms Richard. ‘It happened really because we were thinking of changing the way we approached things. And Stevo was there at the time.’ ‘We finally thought, the offer was right, and the time was right, so we kind of – WENT FOR IT!’
But despite wildly exaggerated claims to the contrary those changes in ‘approach’ seem more cosmetic to me, more concerned with packaging than product. After all, cynical pundits had been eagerly howling ‘Sell-out’ at the Cabs with monotonous and premature regularity for the best part of their career, most vociferously when they first put some jive in their stride and some Funk bass-lines in their mix. Suddenly you could dance to their albums. So suddenly, you can buy them at your local Top Forty store instead of the Indie ghetto – but they continue to make highly unlikely Pop Stars. So with superficials thus disposed of we can get down to specific vinyl issues, and chase up some more ghosts of change. ‘The Crackdown’ album was done 24-track. And the album has an actual producer, John Luongo. For Cabaret Voltaire both these things are firsts.
‘He only produced the single (“Just Fascination”)’ corrects Kirk. ‘We produced the album ourselves. We co-produced it with Flood, the guy who was with us engineering. He threw in loads of ideas, so we put him down as co-producer. He played quite a big role in the work.’ ‘Previously we’d just worked in conjunction with engineers, and produced ourselves’ adds Mal. ‘‘The Crackdown’ album was an extension of that principle. We got John Luongo in as an objective ear to produce the single. It was just the single that flew off in a slightly different direction.’
But isn’t creating song-orientated material – like “Just Fascination”, a departure from the ‘collage’ construction used on earlier recordings? ‘I don’t think we went in and envisaged any of the tracks as ‘songs’’ states Mal. ‘We envisaged them as pieces of music, but not with a rigid song structure. The single – the way it was mixed and produced – came out with more of an organised form. That was like as in a song. But we didn’t go in with the intention of writing ‘songs’. They were still loose ideas that we’d formulated. We had no rigid ideas.’
How does that compare with the technique used when recording, say – ‘Three Mantras’? How much of that was preconceived before the sessions commenced? Was there a clear idea of what the finished article would sound like, or was it layered, built up gradually? ‘We knew what we wanted – but not how it would sound. We knew what kind of effect we wanted to create – but not exactly what the end product would be. That was done on four-track equipment anyway, so we were even more restricted in the way we approached it.’ ‘That’s originally all we do have – the idea of an atmosphere or an effect. We don’t have it too tied down when we start doing things’ expands Richard. ‘Three Mantras’ was just the idea of doing two longer numbers. One very much in a Velvet Underground “Sister Ray” vein. The Western mantra. And the other one more like an Eastern...’
‘...drone.’ ‘...mantra-type thing. Initially it was just the Eastern side that was supposed to have a mantra quality. But they just sort of fell together and became ‘Three Mantras’. ‘The Western one was just dealing with the idea of repetition.’
So you compose and decompose, construct and deconstruct. There’s checks and balances, and a substratum of some logical but intuitive development. That seems consistent with a music like ‘Three Mantras’ – a sound that’s splattered onto tape like Rorschach inkblot tests, random – but with metagenetic implications. I’ll buy that. But, at the risk of becoming obsessive, how can that process result in something as tightly assembled as the single, a neat concise three-minutes that refuses to budge from my sound-centre deck? ‘The single was actually mixed in edit-sections’ explains Mal with infinite patience. ‘I don’t know if you’re familiar with studio work, but mixing is a natural thing that everybody does when they record a song. But on the single, and on the album to an extent, we utilised editing as a technique to bring aspects out, rather than just purely mixing them together. It was a case of mixing it a little bit at a time, and then sticking it all together. So that’s why it does sound ordered – but it’s a case of taking the best bits and sequencing them, repeating them, and maybe taking some of the instruments out at certain points. Then sticking it all together like that. It’s quite a long process, but it does work. The idea of using editing as a positive part of the way you work is probably the only new approach he had.’
So what’s been interpreted as greater structure is just the culmination of progressions that have refined and matured a set of basic ideas, album by album? ‘It is a little more disciplined from our point of view, the sound quality is obviously far superior to what we’ve done on eight-track’ concedes Richard. ‘We’re not just sticking a load of things down and leaving it. It’s still spontaneous, but a little more cleaned-up as well...’
‘We’ve gone full circle in a lot of ways. The earliest stuff we did – like that first EP, was very simplistic, it was organised and disciplined because of the way we had to record it. Then, as we progressed, there were a lot of little things going on in there, until we’d built it up to the extent that there was perhaps too much, too many frills. So we gradually started stripping back until we arrived at the point we’re at with ‘The Crackdown’ album. We stripped it back to the bare essentials we started with. So it’s not changed radically, it’s just the approach that altered gradually. It’s gone back to the simple approach we had in the first place.’ You’ve stripped off a lot of the found-sound tapes, and cut back to the essential rhythmic base? ‘In some ways. We’re just trying to use a little bit more subtlety. To try and keep one jump ahead of what everyone else is doing,’ from Mal.
‘But even now, even though maybe the music’s changed and become more ‘musical’, we still use a lot of tapes and things to give it an edge. To create different atmospheres and feelings...’ ‘We still use the tape recorder as another instrument. As much as a guitar or bass.’ And you use the studio itself as an instrument? ‘Oh yes. That is, like, another member of the group.’
‘We also use ‘real’ drums to keep certain amounts of it very flexible, also for its pure sound quality. What you get on a rhythm tape or a drum machine is purely what you get. But human nature being human nature there’s allowance for a little dynamics and change of pace. Things like that.’ Richard stands up, renews his hunt for matches, and warms to the subject. ‘We try to achieve a balance between both. We use pre-recorded rhythms on tape, but Alan (Fish) will lay percussion on top to make it more interesting and more spontaneous. But the technology is getting better. The actual rhythm machines you can get now use real drum sounds digitally recorded. You can have any drum sound put into a Linndrum, any particular sound you like that a drummer has. You send a tape of it, and they’ll send you a chip to put into the machine.’
‘But you’ve got to get that balance’ warns Mal. ‘You can’t ignore technology. It’s all there to be abused, shall we say. You can’t ignore it, and you can’t afford not to be au fait with it, because by doing so you’re cutting down too many possibilities that are open to you. It’s nice that we use real drums and synthetic drums. It’s important to keep up with things, to be able to utilise technology – but also to have the option to use human beings. Anything is useful. It depends on what attitude or frame of mind you go into it with.’
In 1980’s terminology Cabaret Voltaire were more William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ than they were New Romantic. More Cyber than Punk... or perhaps they’d prefer to see themselves as Cybernauts hard-(and soft)-wired into the Punk DIY ethic? On that suitably elevating note the interview winds down. Richard abandons his quest for matches and, shirt rucking up from under his belt, paces across the studio to look out over Sheffield. The temperature has risen, the heat-haze dance has intensified. ‘We’re supposed to be rehearsing’ he confesses over his technicolour shoulder. ‘IN THIS HEAT! The hotter it gets the worse the sound becomes. It’s too hot to do anything. Everything’s over-heating. We just had an amplifier blow up because it was so hot.’ Then, as an unintentional coda, he gives a further conclusive example of the Cab’s ability to unite technology with an innovative human ingenuity. ‘We had to install a fan behind it to keep it cool...!’
It seems strange now, looking back. At the time it was all happening, I got sharply defined impressions that Cabaret Voltaire were the precursors of some future low-protein world awash with squalor and low-cost micro-circuitry gadgets. I got impressions that tomorrow’s vitamin-deficient silicon valley cyber-culture would chart Western Works as its William Morris (the DIY self-sufficiency pioneer who originated the Cab’s title “News From Nowhere”). It seemed that Cabaret Voltaire were the original cartographers of the way it was all to evolve. Ways in which – perhaps, it should have evolved. Where beats could target the cerebellum as well as the erogenous zones. Perhaps there’s still time for that vision to be proved right…?
‘Always work, go to church, do right,
Respect those in authority over you...’
(‘Sensoria’ on ‘Microphonies’)
My Cabaret Voltaire interviews featured in:
‘CABARET VOLTAIRE: A COLLECTION
OF INTERVIEWS 1977-1994’
edited by Fabio Méndez
(Second Edition June 2021) Spain DL 294-2021
‘ANODES FOR A NEW GENERATION’
from ‘North-East Music Fanzine’ (1983)
‘DO YOU BELIEVE IN THE WESTERN WORKS’
from ‘Terminal Fanzine’ (1983)
‘Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music magazine’
‘CABS ON FILM’
from ‘Rouska fanzine’ (May 1985)
‘CHAOTIC ORDER no.15’
(UK – May 2003)