Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder: music + art / design (2010)

In the art world, people either know of them and have immediate respect, or due to a higher education gap, know nothing about them at all. Active from 1973-1994, Cabaret Voltaire began as an experimental band making sounds. The band was inspired by the Dada movement’s “Cabaret Voltaire” club in Zurich during the First World War, while they were approaching musical and contextual issues in the late 20th century.

Three band members—Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson—formed the group and worked in the 1970s in their hometown Sheffield, England, which continued to be very much the catalyst of Cabaret Voltaire’s work over two decades. Watson left around 1981, and after this time into the middle 80s, their combinations of music, electronica, and art began to experience wider international popularity around club scenes, most notably in the UK and the US. In fact, it was in 1984 when I recall first hearing the music of Cabaret Voltaire, played in heavy rotation at an alternative college music bar in New Orleans, USA.

It was also a time when they released the influential Gasoline in your eye 11-track video compilation (1985), of which the video Sensoria, directed by Peter Care, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Interestingly, they actively steered clear of formal university art and music education, opting instead for a “primitive” or a somewhat self-taught approach. It was this alternative education that enabled the band to shape their own views and develop them in their own way.

Cabaret Voltaire is considered to have been highly influential to other bands—and later bands—specifically with regard to how they developed, in relation to developments in electronic and industrial music, and their use of found sound clips.

To learn more about this pioneering music and video art at that time, I interviewed Stephen Mallinder. The following are excerpts of our conversation:

R.J. Preece: What were a couple of things that you think people should know about your work in the 1970s?

Stephen Mallinder: We were responding to a period in the 70s when we started that it was very much you cannot be involved in music unless you studied to do music. And we were coming from a completely different place, which was saying “sound” is what you want to define it as, and you can shape it into music in whichever way you want.

Music doesn’t have to be so rule-based—and so strict in its structures, construction and perception. We were sort of coming from an angle where we wanted to break rules. We were iconoclastic. We weren’t there to sort of follow the trends really. So it was important that we were making a statement against that.

R.J. Preece: So would you describe that approach or thinking as “punk”?

Stephen Mallinder: I don’t think it had a name when we started. If punk has any roots, Dada is part of it. And we saw ourselves as part of a kind of Dada tradition. This was in the sense that if Dada was reacting to the morality and aesthetics of pre-WWI, then we were very much a reaction to the pomposity of rock that existed within music at that time.

I think we saw our reaction coming from Dada, but at the same time, it formed into punk, which was very much a reaction to the social conditions. That was part of it for us as well, and that’s why we were kind of swept along with punk. It was an important period for us, because even though we weren’t a “punk band”, and what became a model for a punk band, we were able to be dragged along by the spirit of that time.

There were a lot of things going on… if you’re going to change things, one of the things we had to change is to get away from that traditional model of rock music, and we were a part of that.

R.J. Preece: What do you see yourself as going after with Crackdown?

Stephen Mallinder: I think what we tried to do lyrically, vocally and musically was to capture a sound. Crackdown, the video, interpreted and reflected a sense of authority and austerity and a sense of slight, impending doom. The video included some political and urban footage, the riot police, etc., and I think, gave that feeling.

Music: Crackdown from the EP The Crackdown (1982). Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder, Alan Fish and Dave Ball. Produced by Cabaret Voltaire and Flood. Video edited by Peter Care.

Stephen Mallinder: In the 80s, we were still living in a kind of Cold War environment. In that period, we had the Cold War mentality imbued through us—the Post-war [environment] and the Cold War. I think we were reflecting some of that. This was before the Wall collapsed, etc.

We’ve always been journalists—and have seen ourselves in that way. But we sort of recontextualized it through music. We’ve always been observant of things, and I think Crackdown was very much like that and the film interpretation was that journalistic view of that situation.

R.J. Preece: Kino was shot in Berlin, right?

Stephen Mallinder: Some of it was shot in Berlin, but a lot of it was filmed in Hamburg, along the Reeperbahn in Hamburg in the famous red light district. Kino is obviously German and “film” and “cinema” and we were always cinematic in our thinking. It worked really well as a song title, and to build into a lyric, and also how we embraced mulit-media at the time.

R.J. Preece: Kino is “sensation” in some way, right?

Kino (1985). Music by Kirk/Mallinder and drums by Mark Tattersall.

Stephen Mallinder: I think probably underneath it all, film has its own rhythm and its own dynamic, and we were trying to capture the movement of film and cross-reference it with music.

R.J. Preece: Was this video influenced by your time in Japan? I spent a year there…

Stephen Mallinder: There certainly was an element of that. Going there in the early 80s was quite a culture shock. I think the bombardment of Shinjuku and all that would have filtered through, which certainly informed things we later filmed.

R. J. Preece: Big Funk —was this partly filmed in Greece?

Stephen Mallinder: Well-spotted (laughs). I have to say even though Richard and I edited Big Funk, some of the footage was shot by Peter Care. We were film buffs as much as music buffs, and so there are film reference as well as sound references.

R.J. Preece: Would you describe Big Funk as pure beat music-oriented? It seems like there is something underneath it.

Stephen Mallinder: I think in everything we did, there’s a sense of tension and a sense of things pulling in a different way. It’s interesting calling it “beat music”. That’s quite true, the rhythm is up to the fore, it’s got a slap bass, and it’s got “funk” in the title. But I think there’s always a level of irony when we did those kind of things. I think underneath it all was a little bit of a Europeanness in it. Even though we were influenced by American culture and music, we like the rest of Europe have been colonized with that in the post-war period. At the same time there’s a sense of dirty earthiness and Europeanness and Britishness in it as well.

Big Funk (1985). Music by Kirk/Mallinder.

R.J. Preece: The way that you are splicing the images and bombarding us with the flashes of the images, you could feel it. Were you kind of parallelling the bombardment of visuals and messages that we receive—and specifically at the time in the 80s—and what’s behind the surface of all these things?

Stephen Mallinder: Yes, one of the tropes of our videos is that they were very rhythmic with clipped edits. And as sonic journalists, we were increasingly becoming bombarded with global images. It was the early idea of the cut-up, the idea of images being juxtapositioned, which we were doing with sound. That was the early days of samples.

We had always used found sound, but we had always used it in an analogue way. And it was the early days of using collage and sound in a digital way. MTV, a couple of years later would be that way. And the cut-and-slash sort of thing would be used 8-9 years later.

It was a technique that worked for us as it reflected the kind of sound we were using.

R.J. Preece: Is Sensoria a synthesis of your interest in sound, lyrics and visual?

Stephen Mallinder: That’s an interesting description of that. The video combined the two songs from Micro-Phonies, Do Right and Sensoria.

In many ways, it is a synthesis of those tracks, and also morphs lots of different ideas and visuals in the video itself.

Sensoria, in the collection of MoMA, New York. Directed by Peter Care. Music is a combination of the songs Do Right and Sensoria on Micro-Phonies (1984), produced by Flood and Cabaret Voltaire.

Stephen Mallinder: We were fortunate at that time we were working with Virgin, and with Flood, probably more well-known as Brian Eno’s engineer now and U2’s producer, etc. Even though we weren’t working in a strictly popular music area, which was great, we were lucky enough to work with people who were on the cusp of those sort of things. So Crackdown had Dave Ball playing on it. Flood worked on our next album, and Adrian Sherwood worked with us on Code. We also worked with Marshall Jefferson for Groovy, Laidback and Nasty. So we were lucky to work with some really great people.

R.J. Preece: I think we know that what you did was artistically and musically significant. But at the time in the mid-80s, did you know it? Or when did you know it?

Stephen Mallinder: I think you have a certain level of confidence in what you do. "Arrogance" is the wrong word. I think when you go into it, you’re aware that you’re doing it for the right reasons—and you have your own moral and ethical code. And we weren’t driven by money, but by a a desire to make music and make a statement. Even if that statement was ambiguous, we kind of wanted to cause a stir. We thought that by having the name “Cabaret Voltaire”, that with it came a certain responsibility. It wasn’t meant to be purely entertainment; it was meant to be something a little bit more serious—and to provoke people—wrapped within an outer wrapping of entertainment. We were working in entertainment, in the music industry, with popular music, it was important, but it was something that we also felt was a responsibility.

Looking back, I think we were very much a part of democratizing music, and we wanted to demystify the process of making music—to show it’s a myth. You don’t have to be trained in music to create sounds and to produce and release music. That’s what we were saying back in 73-74. And that’s the way the world is now—and all the tools of creation, production and dissemination are there in everybody’s bedrooms, front rooms and studios.

I think that’s the fascinating thing that exists now. This contrasts with a celebrity art and celebrity music culture.

I wish I had a crystal ball to see how it’s going to work out… is pleased to report that Stephen Mallinder joined our editorial advisory team a few months after this interview.