A potential cabaret act?
Another unique combination of album review and interview — Andy Darlington on The Cabs and "The Crackdown"
This Cabaret Voltaire album, their eighth, has probably received more media wind-up than all its predecessors laid groove to groove. But that fact says more about the non-recognition afforded their early work than about any radical new departures audible on 'Crackdown'. Inevitably there are developments, a greater sense of discipline, of maturity, but what they've lost in risk they've gained in certainty, and on the whole everyone's a winner. This time around there's a higher vocal profile with distortion and effects kept to a minimum. There's some voice phone-in distancing on '24-24', odd found-sound tape dialogue in the eerie instrumental 'Maim', and in the fade of the compulsive 'Talking Time'; but to compensate there's a corresponding upgearing of dense storming crossrhythms and percussion, particularly on 'In the Shadows'. There's some frills added by Dave Ball and some production ideas from engineer Flood — another name known to those familiar with Soft Cell liner notes. But ultimately any judgement of loss-or-gain comes down to context.
Viewed as the latest instalment of the Cab's saga there are key techniques, logical evolutions, and familiar reference points sufficient to satisfy the most discriminating of purist devotees. Yet sucked into the new chart company that the marketing strategy invites, there's got to be comparisons with the Blancmanges and Passages of this world; setting up the Cab's hypnotic repetition and density, accumulative intensity, and dynamic tension against electro-pop's more immediate hooks and melodic bribes. On repeated plays at high volume 'Crackdown' condenses out favourably — head and shoulders above all such ephemeral analogies, but it's odd that such comparisons should have to be made in the first place. The album's lineage predates the entire genre!
'The Crackdown' won't top the Indie chart. For Cabaret Voltaire that's pretty unusual. You can't help but have noticed the recent multi-media circus of the senses (print, radio, video) designed to inform you, the consumer, that Cabaret Voltaire is now the band who've come in from the cold. The reason their new album won't top the Indie chart is that it's issued through the good graces of the burgeoning Virgin empire; and the reason the Cabs suddenly find themselves thrust under the close scrutiny of a prurient press that's previously done its best to ignore them, has something to do with the machiavellian talents of one Stevo of Some Bizarre, who's now very much on their side.
"It's a long story," muses Stephen Mallinder. "Stevo's known us for ages. And he's always been onto us to do stuff for him." "It's been on the cards for a while" confirms Richard Kirk. "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!"
In their Western Works studio. The mixing desk they acquired from Rough Trade when they first closed a now-defunct leasing deal is littered with polystyrene coffee cups and magazines. Out of the window, across industrial roofs, the heat-haze dances the city into landscapes of foreign planets. From this city Human League first wired the world's ears, tuned in its eyeballs, then flooded both sensory channels. But this duo neither look nor act like Pop Stars. 'Mal' Mallinder sits in a neutral brown C&A sweat-shirt, the only hint of obsessive intensity betrayed by his eyes, a start that could penetrate steel plate, an end-of-the-world stare that's only alleviated by a wryly mocking humour. And Kirk. He alternately crouches down by the console, hand irrigating an unruly mass of (artificially?) auburn hair, or hunts the desk-top for matches to light a cig.
This album was done 24-track. This album has an actual producer, John Luongo. For Cabaret Voltaire both these things are firsts.
"He only produced the single," corrects Kirk. "We produced the album ourselves. 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. This 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 the slightly different direction."
But isn't writing song-orientated material — like the single, 'Just Fascination' — a departure from the 'collage' construction used on earlier recordings?
"We finally thought; the offer was right, and the time was right, so we kind of — WENT FOR IT!"
"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 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 4-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... 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 are 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 inkblot tests, randomly — but how can that process result in something as tightly assembled as the single?
"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 we 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?
"You can't ignore technology. It's all there to be abused."
"It is a little more disciplined from our point of view, the sound quality is obviously far superior to what we've done on 8-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 the first EP in October 1978 — 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, we built it up to the extent that there was perhaps too much, too many frills. So we gradually started stripping back until we got to the point we're at with this album. We've stripped it back to the bare essentials we started with. So it's not changed radically, it's just the approach that's 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," says 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 use 'real' drums to keep certain amounts of it very flexible, also for the pure sound. 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 Linn Drum these days, 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."
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 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 put a fan behind it to keep it cool!"
Interview by Andy Darlington