Breaking The Code
Cult masters of industrial funk talk hi-tech sounds, performance CDs and popular commerciality to Nicholas Rowland; the code of the '80s.
Cabaret Voltaire once had their place in the synth boom of the '80s but when their contemporaries sought fame and fortune, the Cabs remained true to their art. But a new LP suggests changes are afoot.
RICHARD H KIRK and Stephen Mallinder would not recommend a week in the Mojave desert as the last word in exotic foreign adventure, especially if you're there to make a promo video for your latest single. A typical day's schedule involves being dragged out of bed at 5am for the first filming session, which has to stop as soon as the sun gets too high and the subtle designer lighting effects are completely bleached out. The cameras are then packed away until 5pm, the "magic hour", when the sun hovers on the horizon and objects cast those long lean shadows: essential accessories for the moody Paris, Texas feel.
It's a timetable which results in more than the usual amount of hanging around, especially if it suddenly decides to pour down for two days and you've scripted for constant sunshine. With only a Pizza Hut, a Mexican fast food restaurant and a marine base for neighbours, that means your off-set recreational options are a mite limited. Cacti don't make for convivial company neither.
Kirk and Mallinder (collectively Cabaret Voltaire, The Cabs or CV depending on your tolerance of abbreviation) discovered all this for themselves on the shoot for 'Don't Argue', the first 45 to be taken off their recent album release, Code. But any complaints they might have concerning the mundanity or discomfort of the proceedings are meant to be taken with a large pinch of Mojave sand. After all, to be filming anywhere but the downtown Sheffield demolition sites and deserted warehouses where, through lack of money, the Cabs' videos usually take place, is something of a pleasant change. And when you're given a generous budget and the opportunity to live it up in Las Vegas after it's all over, well, there are compensations.
The fact is that after nearly ten years in the business, Cabaret Voltaire are finally beginning to benefit from the kind of benefits many newly-signed pop acts casually accept as all part of the package. Benefits like money to live on as well as make records. Benefits like the opportunity to work with producers of your own choosing, or being able to hire in "names" for the odd session or two.
In the Cabs' case, they are reaping the rewards of a change of management and a move from Virgin to EMI. As Kirk explained, signing with the more established label has had the same effect as when they switched from independents, Rough Trade, to Virgin four years ago: more time, more money and the potential to reach a bigger record-buying public.
"The main problem with Virgin was that there was no budget. We just got an advance and had to make the best of it we could. With EMI we had an advance and a recording budget, so we could afford to take our time. We were given a lot of room for experimentation and didn't have to feel rushed or anything like that. We could also work with lots of different producers - American producers - which is exactly what we wanted but which up to now just wasn't possible. Basically, the end result is that we've been able to make a decent album and eat as well."
Code is more than just a "decent album": it's a masterly statement of industrial funk. Aggressive beat box rhythms, a touch of rhythm guitar (courtesy Bill Nelson) and the occasional thin wash of synth are splendidly complemented by Mallinder's compelling whisper of a voice and sinister, sluggish vocal samples copped from San Francisco street evangelists and short-wave radio broadcasts.
As far as the underlying mood of the album is concerned, it represents no radical departure from the tried and trusted CV themes. Long-time fans will recognise the atmosphere of paranoia, the pessimistic view of the Western world (difficult to avoid when you live in Sheffield, I suppose) and the love-hate relationship with our born-again American cousins. But it's never been as danceable as this before, nor have the musical ideas been quite as well organised or as cleverly understated. Compare the duo's last major foray into the singles charts - 'Sensoria' from the 1984 Microphonies album - with the most recent ones - 'Don't Argue' and 'Here To Go' - and you'll see exactly what I mean.
Quite obviously EMI's money has been put to good use, buying time for the Cabs to refine and hone their more usual improvisational approach. Up to now one suspects, partly due to low budgets, it's been a case of "hit record and see what happens", a methodology which has led to some inspired moments in the past (and some not so inspired too). This time around it seems that the more relaxed pace of recording has given rise to a sound which, while it retains the urgency and vigour of earlier albums, is much sparser, better paced and of a much higher recorded quality. Dare I say the word "commercial" even springs to mind from time to time?
"It's all part of a logical progression, a learning process which has been going on for the last ten years", comments Kirk as he sits back in the control room of Cabaret Voltaire's newly-relocated Sheffield studio, Western Works.
"We've always wanted to be provocative and challenging", he explains, "certainly not easy listening, by any means. When we first started off that meant producing a complete wall of sound. But then you learn that if you throw in too many ideas, a lot of them are actually going to get lost in terms of what people can actually take in when they listen to a piece of music. Whereas, if you don't give as much information, it's more likely that people can relate to it.
"That's quite a discipline to learn especially when you're recording on 24 or 48 tracks. You may start with loads of instrumentation, but the art of good production is to get it pared down to something which is acceptable and not over-balanced. It's like jazz: it's not what you play, but what you don't play that matters.
"So we've been gradually moving towards a sparseness of sound anyway, but for this album we decided to be even more disciplined. Up to now, it's all been based on feel, instinctive rather than calculated, so we decided to give things more of a structure. That meant doing everything in groups of 12 or 16 instead of having 13 or 15 bar sections or just changing something whenever we happened to feel like it."
It's not just the bar counts that have been generally tidied up and organised in the "received" manner. The weird rhythmic pulses and more unusual percussion sounds which generally characterise CV's work have also been "normalised".
"For the 'Here To Go' video, the record company said 'What instruments do you want to be seen playing?' I said 'Two Fairlights and a Vox Continental'."
Kirk agrees: "Yeah, we've been through various phases of using processed rhythms that maybe started out sounding like drums or drum machines but by the end sounded nothing like them. That's fine, but you soon realise that if you do that you're just going to alienate people. On the other hand if you use quite simple drum sounds, it's something that people can understand a lot more. Besides, I find that real bass and snare drum sounds actually do the job better than trying to find an equivalent sound. I mean, if you process the bass drum all you do is to weaken the percussive feel of it.
"So there are a lot of different things we could have done, but when you want to get through to people, it's a case of trying not to be too clever. It comes down to this: the more you stick to the little rules, the more you can break the big ones."
AS AN EXAMPLE of this philosophy in practice, Kirk cites LL Cool J:
"That guy is selling millions of records in America, but if you look at the album it's far more avant-garde than a lot of so-called experimental things round at the moment. Yet people seem to have opened up to it, I suppose because the dance base is so strong."
Kirk is encouraged and inspired by the general state of black music coming out of America at the moment, not least because it reflects the same healthy abuse of technology which originally set Cabaret Voltaire on the road to music-making.
"One of the reasons we got involved in using electronic instruments was because none of us could play. We were inspired by Brian Eno who'd announced himself as a non-musician and said that anybody could make music. We realised then that you could produce some form of music without spending Christ knows how long learning to play the guitar. And I'd say that that approach still holds true with us today. Abuse the technology while it's around."
The technology which Kirk is abusing in 1987 represents a considerable advance on the sort of gear that Cabaret Voltaire started out with ten years ago. In those days it was an Akai 4000DS reel-to-reel, cheap ("three quid") guitars, a couple of saxophones and a clarinet, the sound of all of them heavily modified by a series of effects and early synthesisers like the Dewtron, EMS Synthi Hi-Fli and AKS. There were also some extremely dodgy drum machines, many of which Kirk still possesses, including an ancient steam-driven affair housed in a guitar combo which tends to varispeed of its own accord. In those days too, Mallinder sang, shouted and screamed Dalek-like through a ring modulator, a technique which certainly caused a few surprises live, but which, Kirk assured me, the Cabs have no intention of resurrecting for any future live work.
Nowadays the Western Works is furnished with machines of an altogether different calibre. The workhorse is E-mu's SP12 sampling drum machine, which Kirk used to sample and sequence up most of the rhythm tracks for Code. Further sampling power is provided by the Emax, sequenced by the Korg SQD1 which is synced to the SP12 and a trusty TR808 with a Roland SBX90. And if this little lot isn't enough, an adjoining room contains an Alpha Juno 2 and a DX7 to be called upon when required: usually to provide synth bass samples for the SP12. With a six-foot high rack of effects to one side of the mixing desk and a 2" 24-track machine to the side of that, the Cabs have everything they need to produce master quality recordings just as and when it suits them.
Surveying the room with obvious contentment, Kirk comments, "I think it's got to the stage where there's not actually much more I need. Some new effects perhaps, the odd vocoder...
"Actually", he adds having suddenly been struck by a thought, "I must admit that these weird and wonderful effects that people used to make are something I do miss. One of the things which started us off in the early days, one of the things that made it exciting, was to be able to take a guitar and to make it sound like a set of church bells. No-one seems to cater for that insane desire anymore. You buy an SPX90 and there you are, you've got your gated reverb, your flanging, your whatever... And of course, you end up sounding just like everyone else who's bought an SPX90.
"Effects apart though, once you've got something that samples well and you've got something that can sequence those samples, you've just about got the lot. I did think about getting the Emulator III, but at £10,000 or whatever, it's not exactly cheap. I was also really shocked by the cost of the Fairlight Series III. For that amount of money I think I'd want to be able to live in it as well. I did actually hire two Fairlights for the 'Here To Go' video. They said 'What instruments do you want to be seen playing?' and I said 'Two Fairlights and a Vox Continental'. I doubt if anyone got the joke though."
"In the early days what made it exciting, was to be able to take a guitar and to make it sound like church bells; no-one seems to cater for that insane desire anymore."
Cabaret Voltaire's sampling and sequencing setup is finally allowing them to execute with a degree of precision the effects they originally strived to achieve with quarter-inch tape edits. What's most interesting is that, having come to sampling from working off tape, they have a strong grasp of its potential for creating new sounds and effects. Yet many other musicians who haven't followed this tortuous route are still stuck at the gimmick stage, unable to progress beyond the cut-up vocals, the ubiquitous orchestra stab and James Brown rip-offs.
Does this show that if things are actually made more difficult, the end results are more interesting?
Kirk responds: "That's true in a way and I think that the reason is that in those cases what you got was perhaps more accidents. Even now, tape techniques are still usable. For example, when you slow a sound down on tape it seems to have some kind of characteristic which is quite different from doing it with a sampler. It must be a quality of the sound you get from the tape passing over the heads.
"Of course, what you are losing is any possibility of sequencing. And the quality is never as good, either. In that respect, sampling has to be the most radical thing that's happened in music since synthesisers. To think that just about anybody now can take part of a record, break it down and bung it into their own is pretty amazing really."
As to the question of whether it should be used to directly lift sounds off other people's records, in Kirk's opinion, it all comes down to a matter of practicalities.
"You might as well steal. You can spend days trying to get a good bass drum sound so why not take someone else's and then spend your time doing something a bit more creative instead?"
But there's a note of caution too...
"When we steal things, though, we steal from people who know about it. We're really not into this craze at the moment where every record has to have part of a James Brown track on it. I mean, it's really quite funny but, Christ, I think it's killing creativity. When every single advert you see on TV has got Fairlight drum sounds and stuttering vocals - especially anything to do with hair - you think to yourself, it's got to be time to move on."
AND WHAT BETTER subject to move on to than Cabaret Voltaire's future prospects, the most immediate of which is likely to be live work. It's been well over a year since the Cabs last live appearance and this to a lukewarm reception at some highbrow performance arts festival in Vienna. The experience has obviously left Kirk a little nonplussed. Even given 14 months to reflect, he still hasn't managed to figure out just how it was that the duo found themselves in front of several thousand middle-aged Austrians, whose hiking boot toecaps were stubbornly glued to the stadium floor.
The event may have caused Kirk to consolidate his opinion of the Austrian nation, but it hasn't diminished his enthusiasm for live work in general. EMI are just as keen to see Cabaret Voltaire on stage, but it's uncertain when they will actually get around to organising it.
"If it's not before the end of this year, it'll be sometime next year. You know how it is", he adds with simple fatalism.
Exact dates and places will no doubt be determined by the pace of the new album's sales. Meanwhile the Cabs themselves have already given some thought to the matter. The main focus of attention is on how to duplicate live the new-found precision of Code.
"We've upgraded our sound on record, so I think it's important to do that with the way we present ourselves live. I'd also like to make the performances much more strict, much less improvised. For the last two tours we had a drummer and percussionist on stage, but since it's all programmed on Code anyway, I think it will end up with just the two of us and lots more machines."
"When you want to get through to people, it's a case of trying not to be too clever: the more you stick to the little rules, the more you can break the big ones."
He accepts that replacing manpower with machine is rather flying in the face of current trends. Even if you rely exclusively on technology in the studio, when it comes to live work these days you're expected to "prove" your musicianship by retrieving the guitar, bass and drums from the bin and thrashing it out with that warts-and-all human feel. The overt use of technology is no longer a novelty on stage, in fact many punters once again regard it as some form of cheating.
"Whether you actually play live or not, people still think you're using backing tapes. I've been at concerts where you know for a fact it's really being played and people in the audience have said, 'yes, but you know it's all on tape'. Personally I think it's irrelevant how it's done. The main thing for me is to make the performance sound good."
For their last couple of tours CV have been content to record the backing tracks (mainly just a few keyboard parts and sound effects) onto high quality cassette. They've tended to fight shy of any other form of sequencing since, although Kirk has never had any problem with them himself, he knows "hundreds of people" who have. However, it looks as though the next tour with the stripped down line-up will involve a more sophisticated approach.
"I've been toying with the idea of using a sampler to store the basic backbone of the music in the form of sample loops. Like with the Emax you can create a whole song by putting two bars of music down, looping it, then sequencing different loops one after the other. Because it's got lots of different outputs on the back, you can get some interesting stereo effects."
However, there's a distinctly more exciting idea on the cards: the use of CDV (Compact Disc Video). This medium, pioneered by Philips, allows around 20 minutes of video information to be stored on compact disc along with accompanying soundtrack.
"Because we always use films and projections when we play live it seemed a good idea to be able to play the backing tracks and feed out a visual image to the projectors at the same time. That way we'll have the advantage of perfect sync. We'll be able to get about six tracks onto each disc and obviously the CD format means we'll be able to program the tracks in any order we like, so we can shuffle the set around every night if we want. I like the idea of going on tour with a couple of compact discs instead of a big flight case full of cassettes and stuff."
The only snag is that a master disc costs around £1000 to manufacture. That's quite an investment for an hour long show. However, the Cabs' management is looking at the possibility of sponsorship from Philips. And, of course, copies could always be reproduced for sale to the punters after the show: sing-a-long to the backing of your favourite experimental synth duo in the privacy of your own bedroom?
"Yeah, why not?" says Kirk brightly, the spinning dollar signs almost discernible at the back of his eyes. "Only I've lived with the album for so long that the last thing I want to do is record the backing tracks."
Since Western Works II became operational in the last month or so, Kirk can at least look forward to settling down to work on some new material.
And it's clear that the new studio is very much to Kirk's liking. Located in what was once a sweatshop and surrounded by heavy engineering workshops, it offers an unparalleled view of the Sheffield skyline, which I'm told is particularly dramatic at night.
"There's a lot of strange noises here... great for sampling", observes Kirk gleefully as the sound of a machine hammer comes through the floor. His tone is one of a man who finally has all the tools of the trade at his disposal.
"We might hire a few new bits of gear when we do some more recording. It's always nice to get inspired by new sounds. But quite frankly I'm not obsessed with technology. To be a complete techno-buff you do have to devote your whole life to it. I often think that if something's too difficult to program then forget about it, otherwise you find yourself getting bogged down with being a computer programmer and you forget what it was you started to program three days before.
"I'm not really a technician, but I wouldn't consider myself a musician either - and I'm definitely not a songwriter in the sense of sitting down and composing this thing called a song. People are beginning to talk about everything in terms of 'songs' nowadays which I've always been cynical about. To me they're just rhythms and textures, just pieces of bloody music which start and finish. If it bears any resemblance to a song then it's purely coincidental."
Interview by Nicholas Rowland