Life is a Cabaret
Away from the fickleness of the pop music world, Cabaret Voltaire have been quietly breaking the barriers of underground electronic music. Interview by Dan Goldstein.
A major force in Britain's underground electronic music scene for the best part of ten years, Cabaret Voltaire's music is now more forward-looking, more refreshing, and more accessible than it has ever been. Here the Sheffield duo explain how it's done.
Back in the early seventies, when 'progressive' rock had largely stopped progressing and Britain's pop charts had fallen victim to the likes of Gary Glitter and the Bay City Rollers, a few groups of enlightened individuals began experimenting with sound synthesis and how it could be applied to music that was essentially improvised in nature. Most of these - bands such as Can, Neu, Faust and Kraftwerk - were based in Germany, but their influence was felt by a few artists working in the UK, and three of them, Richard Kirk, Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson, formed Cabaret Voltaire in Sheffield 'sometime around 1972 to 73.' Watson left the band some time ago to pursue a career in television (though he maintains an interest in music-making through his participation in The Hafler Trio, a group of uncompromising experimenters currently engaged in challenging widely-accepted theories of sound), but Kirk (the technician) and Mallinder (the vocalist) have continued their activities as a duo, pursuing a wide variety of musical avenues and releasing a bewildering array of records on labels big and small.
'It all began in Chris' loft with the three of us and an assortment of tape recorders', Kirk recalls. 'Gradually we went from cutting up bits of tape to buying our own instruments such as cheap electric guitars and wind instruments. Then Chris sent away for a Dewtron synthesiser kit and built it up himself, and we used that mainly as a processing device because it had no keyboard of its own. If we had anything, we'd put it through the synth.
'It was really just a series of coincidences that made us do what we did in the early days. I suppose our use of tapes came from being interested in people like Eno. He was the first person to incorporate the use of tape into a conventional band line-up, and we were very much influenced by his idea that anyone could make music, regardless of whether or not they were a trained musician. Using tapes was an easy and inexpensive way of getting into electronic music. Often we'd go out into the street and record sounds, because once you've got a sound on tape, you can do all sorts of things with it - cut it up, play it backwards, anything.'
The advent of the Dewtron caused the Cabs to move away from the tape recorder as a prime sound source, but tape techniques have continued to play a major role in their musical development. Even now, with digital sound sampling more commonplace than ever, Kirk still sees a place for the art of tape manipulation.
'Yes. Even in 1984, I think two tape recorders are worth more than a Fairlight in terms of their creative potential: you only have to look at what people like Holger Czukay are doing to show you that. In some ways, even with all this new technology, it's the old ideas that are the best. You can look at the Fairlight and see that it's an easy way of doing what you can do with tape technology, and in many ways I see myself now as being a scholar of tape techniques. The potential of the tape machine is really only limited by your own imagination.'
Still, you can't go on making music with an Akai 4000DS forever, and by the time punk had begun to make its mark and the Cabs had made the move from loft studio to concert hall, they'd built up an awesome variety of musical hardware, most of it fairly rudimentary and very little of what could be described as 'professional' standard. Richard Kirk again.
'I've got a whole history of dreadful drum machines that we've been through over the years - a Farfisa, a Selmer, some sort of combo that's got a drum machine built into the top, an Electro-Harmonix that's only got a separate output for the bass drum, all sorts of rubbish.
'When we started off as a band, we definitely had a fascination for cheap equipment like beaten-up old organs and drum machines. I think it was probably a result of our interest in sixties psychedelic music and bands like the Velvet Underground, who used really cheap and nasty guitars and tacky drum machines. Also, when you look back on it, there actually wasn't much in the way of good equipment available at that time - or at least, not that we could afford.'
Expense, it seems, was the major hurdle facing Cabaret Voltaire when the band's fascination for electronic instruments began to take on unmanageable proportions. Things started looking up, however, as the Cabs' live appearances resulted in the building of a small but dedicated cult following, which by 1978 was sufficient to encourage Rough Trade (themselves one of the many recipients of CV demo tapes) that it was worth dedicating the band's individual brand of improvisational music to vinyl. And in the wake of that first release and several subsequent ones (on both RT and fellow-independents Factory), the band moved musical operations to their present location - Western Works, a large Victorian building not a stone's throw from Sheffield University that looks as though it might once have been a factory, a mill, a warehouse and prison all at the same time. Now it's a modestly-equipped but curiously comfortable 16-track recording studio, complete with a 'live' performance area containing just about every piece of musical gear the band have accumulated during their long career. They don't throw much away.
The control room features a multitrack machine and mixing console courtesy of Soundcraft, the ubiquitous Revox for mastering, and a selection of rack-mounting shapers and effects. It hasn't always been like this, however, as Richard Kirk explains.
'When we first moved in here - which was just about when the first record was coming out - we had a Revox, a six-channel Sony mixer, a couple of (very) cheap guitars, plus our second synth - an EMS Synthi Hi-Fli. All right, it does look a bit like a toilet seat, but it really is an amazing instrument: there are some effects you can get by putting other instruments through it that are just impossible with today's synths. Right from the start, we made a conscious decision that our music would never become entirely electronic, which is probably one reason why in the early days, we used a synth not as the basis of a sound but as a treatment for other instruments. It used to annoy us that people always referred to us as a synthesiser band. To begin with, I'd say we were actually anti-keyboards; we were much more concerned with using a synth to process things.
'To be honest, I don't think our music will ever be totally electronic: there'll always be guitars and wind instruments and percussion. I've just bought an old AKS synth in a suitcase, which I like because it hasn't got any presets and I can muck about with it for days and still not exhaust all its possibilities. It's strange to think that EMS stuff was once considered the bee's knees in synthesisers; they've been superceded by so many other things.
'In some ways it's good to get back to some of yesterday's synths - they make you use your imagination a lot more. And in the early days I suppose that's all we had - not much equipment but a lot of imagination.'
That imagination manifested itself in a series of fresh, invigorating record releases that merged drum machine patterns, improvised guitar and synth parts, taped sounds and vocals treated 'to sound like they were being spoken by a Dalek.'
Unlike many electronic acts, the Cabs always considered playing live to be an important part of their work, and their live performances were more rewarding still: a collage of slides and/or videos would more often than not be used to accompany music that was even more improvised than its recorded equivalent. Kirk agrees that the band's live work was more uncompromising.
'We never pandered to an audience in the sense of giving them what they knew or what they were expecting to hear. Our live music has always been a lot looser in its structure, and we played some concerts that were made up of an entirely new set of songs or of completely improvised music, and people have still enjoyed it.'
The move to a major record label has increased Cabaret Voltaire's UK audience by at least 100%, as well as taking their music to territories the world over. Record company advances have also proved useful in allowing the duo to invest in some more up-to-date hardware (such as the MXR drum machine and recording gear already mentioned, plus a Roland Juno 60 that now acts as the band's main keyboard instrument), but as is so often the case, the current equipment situation isn't as good as it might be.
Richard Kirk has set his heart on an Emulator II ('now all I need is someone to give me the money for one') while both Cabs are anxious to upgrade their recording set-up to 24-track, thereby sidestepping the need to visit other recording studios and enhancing the facilities at the band's continuous disposal.
On an artistic level, the duo are hoping to extend their promotional video work to the making of a full-length feature film, though again, finances are the major stumbling block.
'It's nice of you to come up here', Kirk comments as we leave the studio in readiness for the return trip to London. 'Until we get all the gear we want, we need all the coverage we can get.'
At least he's honest about it.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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