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.'
Recently, however, Cabaret Voltaire's output has become more accessible, both live and on record. Random synth noises have given way to interweaving sequencer parts and polysynth melodies, the drum machine patterns have become clearer and better defined, and now, just to make a change, the eccentric treatments have been removed from Mallinder's vocals. At last, CV fans can hear what 'Mal' is talking about, and he's glad of the fact.
'Some time ago we realised the danger of becoming too esoteric. We put a lot of effort into our work but it was all a bit wasteful because we were still only reaching a very limited audience: things were getting too self-indulgent.
'As a reaction to that, I suppose we've more or less slipped into giving our music more structure, and it's paid off - there are more people listening to our stuff than ever. It means that we've given, say, our use of tapes more power by putting it into a more accessible structure.'
But if you think the band's most recent output - their first album for Virgin, Crackdown, and a new one yet to be titled - has been consciously crafted to comply with a more commercial formula, you'd be wrong. True, it does sound as if Kirk and Mallinder are writing verses and choruses, but any songs of this structure that are recorded occur entirely by accident, it seems. Mal illuminates.
'We have given our music more of a conventional structure, but when I listen to a record I can never tell when a chorus is going to come in or what's going to come next. When we're writing something, we just add lines and different bits of melody where we think they ought to go, without paying attention to whether or not that's where musical convention says they should be. That's why I don't think either of us see ourselves as musicians, because we haven't really got any idea what musical conventions are.'
Like his colleague, Richard Kirk sees the band's change in musical style as a perfectly natural - though nonetheless quite dramatic - process.
'Put it like this, our music's got tunes in it now, and it never used to have in the past! That's a bit of a sweeping statement, but it is more or less the case. I think it's come about partly because we want more people to hear what we're doing, and partly because the instruments we've got now have enabled us to write and play things easier - a programmable drum machine is a good example of that.'
So changes in technology have been just as important as changes in attitude?
'Yes. For instance, we've always been fascinated by repetition and rhythm in music. It's always been a factor underlying what we do, and as we've got hold of better equipment, we've been able to write our own drum patterns and bring them higher up in the mix. Our main drum machine now is the MXR Drum Computer, which I personally prefer to the Linn because the sounds are a lot sharper and clearer, and as a result of getting that, the rhythmic side has been brought to the fore as the available technology has progressed.' Kirk also makes use of a Roland TR808 rhythm composer and a TB303 Bass Line from the same company, though curiously, the two machines don't work as well together as they should...
'They just won't interface properly. The way you're supposed to work it is to build up a pattern on the Bass Line first and then construct a rhythm around that, which I don't particularly like because I prefer to work the other way. If we decide we're going to do a rhythm-based song, we always start with the drum pattern first, layering the other instrumental parts on top of that on the multitrack machine.'
The studio, it appears, is the other technological influence governing CV's writing process. Stephen Mallinder says they couldn't live without it.
'We use the studio as a writing tool, and we've developed a sort of layering process using it. In the early days we might have used a simple tape loop to give a track a nucleus or structure, and now that same role is performed by the drum machines. We tend to work from rhythm patterns as the backbone of the piece. Even if we've got a melodic idea in our heads before we start, we'll still begin with an acoustic drummer or a drum machine. Once that's done, we'll layer the other parts on top, leaving a lot of it to chance elements because we still rely to a large extent on improvisation when we're recording. Once that process is complete, we introduce some sort of structure by dropping parts in and cutting them out again at the mix-down stage.'
Does having more tracks to work with result in a better finished product?
'Well, the music is certainly more accessible and better arranged than it used to be. In some ways, having 16 tracks makes things a lot easier because it eliminates most of the bouncing-down, but on the other hand, the more tracks you have, the more options you have, so it can make the recording process longer as well.'
Although Western Works remains the nerve centre of the Cabs' writing activities, when it comes to making an album, the duo invariably move operations to a professional 24-track facility when the time has come for final overdubs and mixing-down. Kirk explains the rationale behind this somewhat eccentric procedure.
'For me it's very important to have access to good equipment. Unless you're playing rock 'n' roll or some form of music that doesn't involve much in the way of technology, you've got to have good gear to make the best of your ideas. That's really why we like to do the last stage of recording and mixing at state-of-the-art studios, because they give us access to a wider range of rack equipment as well as providing more tracks to play around with, of course.
'For the latest album we did the basic tracks in Sheffield and a lot of the overdubbing at Sarm in London, which proved ridiculously expensive. The only reason we went there was that it was the only studio that offered a Solid State Logic desk at short notice: afterwards we did the last bit of mixing at the Townhouse, and in general I think I preferred the atmosphere and the people there.
'We hired a few instruments during the recording, such as a DX7 and a Fairlight. When we hired the DX7 out, I took the manual home for a few days and understood about half of it, which was enough to get me editing the factory sounds. I'm sure I didn't know why I was doing what I was doing, but I got some good sounds out of it just the same. I'd really like to have a DX7 in the studio all the time, because the principles behind it are so different from those behind any other synth.
'With the Fairlight we didn't even bother trying to work our way round it: we just hired a programmer when we hired the machine. Basically, I knew what I wanted from it and it saved a lot of time, having someone who could get what I asked him for almost instantly. I had a lot of sounds recorded on quarter-inch tape that I wanted to play from a keyboard, so the operator just sampled them all: we sampled Mal's voice and I played that from the keyboard too, which was interesting.'
In the interests of extending the range of their musical activities, Cabaret Voltaire have worked on and off with a number of other musicians, and for the latest album and its mildly wonderful 45rpm excerpt, 'Sensoria', they enlisted the help of percussionist Mark Tattersall, Tabla player Eric Random and drummer Roger Quail. Mal gives the reasons for their inclusion.
'It comes back to our desire not to make things totally electronic. The most interesting music is always a hybrid of different influences and backgrounds, and I think the blend of acoustic and electronic percussion is a lot more intriguing than the use of something totally electronic: we use percussion players to inject an acoustic feel into the electronic pulse. We feel that they're more likely to be sympathetic to what we're doing than session musicians. If we want something new melodically - a particular sound colour that appeals to us - then we'll get that sound from something like a Fairlight or a DX7 and play it ourselves. That way we can have the range of sounds available to a session player but still play them in our own style.'
The addition of both more advanced musical machinery and extra percussionists has given much of the Cabs' output a distinctly dance-orientated flavour: a far cry from the unwieldy improvisation of yesteryear. An obvious question came to mind. Was the progression an entirely internal one, or were Kirk and Mallinder influenced by musical trends outside their Sheffield base?
'It's a strange state of affairs', Kirk reflects. 'If you look at the electro stuff coming out of New York at the moment, it's obviously been influenced by the likes of Kraftwerk via the English underground - the likes of us. Black music has always been very forward-looking: it's always embraced new technology as it's become available, and now that music has come back and influenced us in turn - it's like a sort of cross-fertilisation of ideas.
'Some of the things we've heard that have come out of America - like Praxis and Malcolm X - are some of the most powerful pieces of rhythmic music there's ever been. What's interesting is that it's getting more and more minimal: we've got to the stage now where they've pared it down to just rhythm box and vocals, with maybe a synth line with a delay on it here and there and a bit of Emulator or tapes. On the one hand it's great that music can be so minimal and yet so powerful, but on the other hand, I don't think our music will ever be as stripped down as that.'
The New York scene hasn't passed Stephen Mallinder by, either.
'It's been a big influence on me. I like the rhythmic structures they're using - they're quite similar to what we do - and the notion of combining completely alien source material with a well-established dance structure. It's not the only rhythmic thing, though. African and aboriginal rhythms have also been a strong influence on me, though I'm equally interested in some of the atmospheres and sound colours they use: in general I find I'm more susceptible to the sounds of instruments rather than any musical structure.'
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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