Non-Stop Electronic Cabaret
Having helped establish the direction of British electronic experimental music in the early-'80s and helped guide it through the dance explosion, Cabaret Voltaire have released a new album. Tim Goodyer finds out why the tracks sound strangely familiar.
From their early electronic experimentations to their latest album release, Cabaret Voltaire's watchword has been technology - and they've served it as well as it's served them.
"We've always felt that taking technology, using it and juxtaposing it with other things is always the way that music is going to go", says Stephen Mallinder, neatly summing up Cabaret Voltaire's 20-year career in electronic and experimental music. What he's failed to address, however, is just how influential that career has been.
Formed in Sheffield in the early 70s, Cabaret Voltaire initially inhabited a shady world of tape editing and ring modulators, their live shows assaulting the audience's senses like punk or metal a decade or two later. There were three of them then - Stephen Mallinder sang, whilst Richard Kirk and Chris Watson adapted technology to their own ends. Watson was soon to disappear, however, leaving Mallinder and Kirk to their own devices - literal and figurative.
Their first LP, Mix Up on Rough Trade records, didn't appear until 1979, but it did mark a milestone in the evolution of British experimental music. For Cabaret Voltaire it marked the first of a series of recording "periods" they were to experience. From Rough Trade they moved to Virgin, releasing three popular albums between 1983 and '85 (The Crackdown, Micro-Phonies and The Covenant, The Sword and the Arm of The Lord). Nineteen-eighty-three also saw the release of one of the first ever long-form videos, a procession of disturbing images accompanied by a disturbing soundtrack which was uniquely Cabaret Voltaire. (Recently re-released through BMG Video.)
From Virgin, the Cabs moved to Parlophone for another two LPs - Code (1987) and Groovy Laidback and Nasty (1990). But with the move to Virgin had come a growing identification with dance music; melodic considerations were still minimal but their use of repetition and exploration of sound textures were years ahead of their time. The Parlophone period, meanwhile, saw them distilling elements of experimentation and dance (and even borrowing from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring) in pursuit of a more commercial level of experimentation. Identifying heavily with Brian Eno's definition of "non-musicians", the means to the music had been technology all the way down the line. In the early days it was cheap guitars and drum machines fed through ring modulators, by the time of Groovy... it had escalated to the heights of E-mu's Emax and SSL's automated mixers. But it was all technology.
Since (amicably) parting company with Parlophone, Cabaret Voltaire have released material on the Belgian Crepescule label and have several releases planned for a label of their own. The Northern techno movement - which has benefitted from earlier Cabaret Voltaire influences - has also profited by Richard Kirk's direct participation in various tracks released on the Warp label. Tricky Disco's eponymous single for one, and the highly-influential prototype bleep track, 'Testone' by Sweet Exorcist, for another. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Cabs are about to release an album of remixes of the Virgin era material, appropriately entitled Technology. If you're familiar with original tracks you'll find listening to it an enlightening experience - tracks such as 'Just Fascination' (from The Crackdown) and 'Sleepwalking' (from The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of The Lord) have acquired a duplicity which allows them to simultaneously exist in the seedy experimentalism of the early-'80s and the beat-driven '90s. It's recommended listening. And if the Cabs' own remixes aren't enough to recommend the album to the techno fraternity, a single, 'I Want You' (originally from The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of The Lord), has been further remixed by Altern-8 for imminent release.
"We'd toyed with the idea of doing something like this for a long time", comments Kirk, "and I think sufficient time had elapsed between when we did all that stuff in the early and mid-'80s for us to come back to it.
"We liked the remix album that Yello did, and it was that and the Kraftwerk remix thing that made us think the time was right. The Virgin material seemed to be quite suited to it, so we got all the tapes and went ahead with it. It was almost like being given someone else's multitrack and thinking 'What shall we take from this?' because we were distanced from it. We tried to take what we thought were the most important elements and, given what's happened in music since then, it was a case of making it very sparse and being ultra selective about which parts we used."
"It got a life of its own as it went along", elaborates Mallinder. "It was initially an idea to be able to repromote our back catalogue by doing this CD of remixes, and that was meant to regenerate interest in it. But Virgin then realised that it was more like a new LP, and from that came the idea to bring it out on vinyl, doing the 12" and the promo..."
"Originally it wasn't going to be released on vinyl", Kirk elaborates, "it was going to be CD only. But they decided they wanted to bring it out on vinyl too - which is good because it's kinda dance based and mixing people would want it on vinyl rather than CD."
Given their relatively low public profile, it's surprising just how strong is the influence Cabaret Voltaire have exerted through the mid-'8Os synth-pop movement and beyond into the UK techno scene. Could this retrospective album be a way of taking credit for some of their past achievements? As their press officer had put it just before the interview, "they're rather backwards in coming forwards".
"It's awkward for us to say what influence we've had, but at the same time it is a way of short-circuiting the past and putting it into a modern context", Mallinder comments. "Hopefully, people will be able to see the relationship between what we've done in the past and its relevance today in terms of it not sounding like old ideas welded onto new sounds."
"I think the main difference is the tempo", ventures Kirk. "A lot of the stuff is slower than what's going on today; everything's sort of speeded up somewhat ridiculously. We thought about it a lot: should we speed our stuff up or should we leave it as it is? In the end we thought it would make a change to hear something a little bit slower. I think it's more for home consumption than an out-and-out club environment."
"What was groovy in 1985 was about 108-112bpm", says Mallinder, "but now it's kind of 128 minimum, so it doesn't mean they're slow tracks. They've got their place and we didn't want to get locked into making them sound too contemporary or vogue-ish. They sounded funky enough at the time so we thought we'd leave 'em like that. There again, although we went into the project with the idea of it being 12" mixes, it was meant to be an album as well. We wanted to give it club elements that we've come to work with but, at the same time, it's got to have some durability."
If their track record is an indication, durability is one quality the remixes should have in spades - all the Virgin back catalogue has been re-released on CD, and when ten copies of the sadly deleted Code turned up at Parlophone's press office a while back, they disappeared within a few days.
Another indication of Cabaret Voltaire's durability is the range of artists they can claim to have influenced - typically, they're reluctant to claim too much credit.
"Any kind of reference we take as flattering", comments Mallinder. "I don't think anyone's tried to link us with anything we don't feel any part of. I think it's kind of self-evident what we've done because it's all electro based and there are obvious links with what's around. We're quite happy to accept that responsibility. Although I don't think we're particularly responsible for the rave stuff at the moment.
"We will always carry on and do another record, so it doesn't really make any difference what everybody else does - we don't create something and then sit back to see if it's any kind of bombshell. For us it's a record, a piece of music, that, hopefully, we're proud of and then it's onto the hext. We're pretty prolific so we don't sit around examining the results. The early Virgin stuff wasn't what we thought would be happening in five years time, it was just 'what we did'. We were just using what was available to us, I don't think we were conscious of starting any trends."
"We liked the remix album that Yello did; that and the Kraftwerk remix thing made us think the time was right - so we got all the tapes and went ahead with it."
Back in the days when Cabaret voltaire were a three-piece, it was Watson who bought and built their first synthesiser - a Dewtron kit. Kirk continued the quest, building up an enormous collection of gear over the years. Little, if any of it, is ever disposed of. It sounds like a great way to live but what happens when you decide to remix material that's almost ten years old?
"One of the things we did before we started the remix album", begins Mallinder, "was to have a lot of the older stuff MIDI'd up to give us a bit more scope - stuff we'd have used on those original records. That was the link between the two things.
"When we were doing those early things, a lot of it was done with edits. What you heard on record wasn't reflected in the structure that was on 24-track, so the 2" master wasn't that relevant anyway. The finished versions of the originals were very much based on edit sections; the 24-track often didn't make much sense.
"This time we picked out from the multitrack what we needed, but instead of using a half-inch machine, or a quarter-inch machine to piece it together, we used a sampler."
"We've still got the 24-track machine", reveals Kirk, "but all we use that for now is vocals - and we sample them from it anyway. Everything is computer automated now, including the vocals.
"We've been toying with the idea of getting a digital eight-track and getting rid of the 24-track altogether because unless you use it for remixes it's redundant. And it's so big!
"We've got two Revoxes but we hardly ever use them either. We try to do everything in the computer so we don't need to edit. Obviously it would be nice to have a Sound Tools system to edit in, but we're restricted by our budget."
"When we did this remix album, we did actually run the 24-track for a couple of tracks", says Mallinder. "Most of what we did was rewritten and rearranged in the computer, and using the 24-track would have fucked up the original tape. A few bits were flown in from the 24-track, but not very many."
Kirk steps back in: "We just sampled everything that we needed and reconstructed the tracks the way we wanted them. We've also sampled off the old drum machines - we've got loads of poxy old drum machines that we used to use, and every now and again we'll drag one of those out and sample some of the sounds or maybe even a couple of bars of it playing along. We still use the old VCS3 and we went out and bought a second SH09 and had it MIDI'd up especially for this album."
One of the trademarks of Cabaret Voltaire's early material was heavy use of signal processing. Has the advance of technology - not least in the areas of budget signal processors - influenced Kirk and Mallinder's working methods?
"We've got the dodgy old flanger/phasers that we've accumulated over the years", comments Kirk, "but I can't remember the last time we bought any effects. I mean, they've kind of become surplus to requirements if you're sampling a lot of things, because you get that texture from the samples. When you sample something it's probably already got an effect on anyway.
"These days we play everything in off the DX7", he continues, "that's the master keyboard for everything. The D20 we only use sparingly for pads because it's a bit clean. The SP12 is still kicking around but it doesn't get used much. The best thing about it is its hi-hats; as a sampler the sample time is that short that it's been superseded. But if you could get it updated and get the sample time increased, you could do away with everything else - you've got everything in one box."
With such a heavy requirement for samples, I wondered if just one S1000 was enough to get the job done.
"It is restricting", Kirk agrees, "but that's where the Emax comes in. We keep the Emax just for vocals, really. But because of the way we approach things these days we don't use as many vocals as we did - it's very sparse. Ideally we could do with a couple of S1000s with big memories but it is nice to work within some constraints. Again, the thing that stops us is finance."
Computers and samplers having replaced mag tape and razor blades, I wondered what considerations the new technology had brought.
"I think the balance of creativity shifts", Kirk opines. "If you've got a computer and sequencer, it frees up your time to concentrate on other things - like your arrangements or the space in the music and getting a good balance. Before, there were a lot of other things to worry about. Mixing is so much easier if you can get everything where you want it inside the computer and the sampler. Sometimes we don't even have to touch the desk as the stuff goes onto the DAT player. It also gives a clarity that I like when it's coming straight out of the sampler and onto the DAT - you can hear all the scummy noises better than you could before.
"In some respects there's no difference between the old days of having 24 tracks of tape and having a computer and 32 channels of music, and the boxes that produce the sound. It's the same idea but in some respects it's more efficient and easier to operate."
"It doesn't really make any difference what everybody else does - we don't create something and then sit back to see if it's any kind of bombshell."
"Even though people are still saying that they're not musicians, in many ways computer music is now more 'traditional' than rock music", Mallinder offers. "Beethoven didn't play everything, he wrote it down for other people to play - rather like the way we write music into the computer today.
"The notion is still the ideas and the ability to translate those ideas. It's just the process that differs. The question is whether it sounds different now to the way it did, and obviously it does. But what you play isn't going to be any different, whether you play it into a computer or onto tape and mix it through an SSL desk or whether you edit it on tape. It's the whole structure of things that's changed.
"Our approach to music has always been very rhythmic - even the vocals - so working with the computer enhances that. It doesn't contradict or block what we're trying to do."
"We do use delays and the Groove functions on the C-Lab", Kirk elaborates. "I think that's why people started sampling breakbeats - they'd got bored of drum machines being so metronomic and they wanted to put some of the feel back - 'We can sample two bars of this and there's funkiness ready-made in there'."
Moving on from Technology, Cabaret Voltaire are already busy with a number of new projects. Most of their activities have been based around the establishment of their label, Plastex. Having left EMI and secured the release of some material on Crepescule (which was only available on import in the UK), Kirk and Mallinder found themselves without a record deal.
"It was really a case of not having or wanting a deal to walk straight back into", recalls Mallinder. "But at the same time, we had material we wanted to bring out and it became the obvious option - to do it on our own label."
"It gives us the freedom to do things that wouldn't really make any sense coming through a major label", says Kirk. "It's not commercial in any way and it's not aimed at any sort of chart, so it makes sense that it comes out this way.
"There's a sort of 'ambient' Cabaret Voltaire album coming out on it. It's more soundtrack than anything else in so much as it's a collection of tracks, but there's no vocals on it apart from samples. It's ambient house, I guess. That's what I'd call it if I had to put a label on it."
"The notion was for it to be ambient but it became more thematic than anything else", Mallinder continues. "It's not exactly floatation tank music - well, some of it is, but the rest of it's pretty rhythmic."
"The label's not just for Cabaret Voltaire material, either", explains Kirk. "So far we've brought two things out that we were involved in as an experiment, and hopefully this year we'll be able to bring out a few things that are completely outside of what we're doing. It's early days really.
"We do get quite a lot of tapes coming our way and some of them are excellent. There's a lot of material, a lot of music, out there that I'd certainly like to bring out, but I'd like to be able to do a good job on it. I mean, we're not in a position to finance things very strongly - obviously, we've got the use of our own studio but the label's a pretty low-budget affair so we have to be careful about what we do."
"Things are gradually moving along at the moment", says Mallinder, summing up. "It's nice having your own label but it does give you the headache of having to do a good job on anything you want to bring out. You do feel a bit edgy at times about pre-sales and things like that because you haven't got a pot of money to fall back on to kick things into gear. As Rich says, we're just feeling our way through it at the moment."
Renowned for the uncompromising live shows of their early years, it's pleasing to learn that there are also live dates in the offing.
"We're going to do some live versions of the ambient album", confirms Mallinder, "but we've no idea of how we're going to do it yet. It's this 'thing' that we're going to have to deal with when we get there. We have been playing live using a DAT with the basic stuff on and a percussionist with an Octapad and a combination of TR727 sounds, Alesis and the internal sounds, and Rich plays keyboards over that. So it's got a backbone and we work around that. We certainly don't trust the computer enough to take it out live.
"The problem - not only with DAT, but with computers as well - is that once it's down there it always comes out the speakers the same. It would be nice to not lose the structure, but to make it a lot more fluid at the same time."
"We're thinking about transferring tracks to a digital multitrack and mixing it live", Kirk offers. "That way a live performance won't just be a reproduction of the CD. We're supposed to be doing a performance of it at the Scala Cinema with some films and stuff where we'll use some of the ambient LP. We'll be providing some of the visuals, but there's also some talk of us picking out a film and providing a live soundtrack to it."
That Cabaret Voltaire have helped shape the development of British electronic music is certain. The reappearance of some of their earlier work in the mainstream of dance music is likely to earn them overdue attention from the present generation of hi-tech musicians and dance fans alike. Most of all, that Kirk and Mallinder are still active in the front line of this fast developing musical form is greatly reassuring to everyone with its best interests at heart.
"Well", says Kirk as the interview comes to a close, "we can't let people off the hook this early in the game, can we?"