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cabaret voltaire

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interview with stephen mallinder by andrez - zebra mag - 1996

The legacy that Cabaret Voltaire brings to mind is an inspiring albeit elongated one. From the grinding musical iconoclasm that represents albums such as 'Mix-Up' and 'Voice Of America' in 1979 to the avant garde techno philanderings of 'Plasticity' thirteen years later, a lot has happened since three teenagers called Stephen Mallinder, Richard H. Kirk and Chris Watson first dabbled with tape-loops and cut-ups of sound in the depths of Watson's loft in Sheffield in the UK, back in 1973. These days Stephen Mallinder resides in Perth, Australia, and his part of the musical journey continues as evidenced through the new 'Late Night Boulevard' compilation available locally through MDS.

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The concern facing me as I prepared to do an interview with Stephen Mallinder, better known as just plain 'Mal' to his friends, was where precisely to begin. A 23 year history of producing music makes for a lot of research, too many questions, and a long-winded article; besides, I'd written my post-grad. thesis on Cabaret Voltaire and there was a lot I wanted to know for my own sake. So I gave in to all these whims, and fortunately Stephen Mallinder turned out to be one of the more patient, entertaining and self-effacing interviewees I've interrogated this year. So now it's your turn to bear with me.

In the beginning there was industrial music. Not the worn-out grunge-guitar industrial we've come to know in recent years, as produced by bands like Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy and LeŠther Strip, but a genre of sound based around eclectic cut-ups and tape-loops and a mentality just as inspired by William S. Burroughs as it was by Stockhausen and Dadaist ideals; it was in itself a reaction against the conservative rock music of the time. Industrial's arrival pre-dated that of punk, and its active lifetime can be narrowed down to the period of 1974 to 1981; it was a constantly evolving phenomenon, so much so that by 1980 the music, direction and motivations of the protagonists involved was quite different from what they were in 1974.

Primarily based in Britain and exemplified by bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and SPK, the musical aspect of the industrial genre brought to light many ideas which had already been floating around the performance art and mail art categories in the first half of the 1970's; industrial music as a "live" experience was therefore often accompanied by other equally attuned means of communication such as visual slide-shows, record covers, live performance techniques, and cut-and-pasted "subversive" handouts.

Often ignored in favour of its better known sibling punk music, industrial could be seen as the direct genetic forebearer of techno. The same subversive elements applied as did the application of machine-based technology with loops of sound re-wound, inverted and turned upside down.

It was in this scenario that Cabaret Voltaire first emerged in 1973. Drawing upon the diverse influences of electronic music pioneers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage as well as Beat generation writers William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Cabaret Voltaire also plundered from the art styles of Dada and Surrealism - even taking their name from the Dadaist club established in Zurich in 1916 by German writer Hugo Ball.

These ethics still hold true in Stephen Mallinder's psyche in 1996: "Oh yeah, I'm still quite radical in my approach", he confirms, "even though maybe the bedrock of the things I do is quite musical I still like the thought of twisting things round. I think it's a tradition that you can see in many other artists these days, like DJ Shadow for instance." He shrugs. "It's just something that I do and I never try to define it too hard. Define it as art and you get too caught up in the pomposity of it all; music's always been a working class thing afterall, which I kind of like as well. I'm a bit of both - I can be an arty wanker when I want to be, but I try not to be too much!"

He continues: "At the same time I do think the manipulation of sound in our early days - the physical act of cutting up tapes, creating tape loops and all that - has a strong reference to Burroughs and Gysin; in terms of the Dada thing, there's a similarity between the Dadaists' reaction to the bourgeoisie and the war and our own position - we felt alienated from popular culture ourselves. I think those kinds of attitudes become embedded within you, but I'm not sure how it relates now . . ."

It's been 23 years since Cabaret Voltaire first began to find its (musical) feet, from early tapes to 'The Conversation' album released in 1994. "Yeah, it's been a long, long time - quite an interesting spell, really", Stephen quips. "The scary thing is how little we've changed in twenty years - if you ignore the technology, the processes, the content and the intent we've probably not changed as radically as you'd think - because everybody has their ideal concept of music, and you work with that and how it reflects the environment you're working in at that particular moment."

This inspires another question in itself: in the '70s Cabaret Voltaire went for a sound that was less than user-friendly and virtually anarchic, whereas in the 1990s the Cabs sound has become far more refined and, dare we say, melodic - so has this been a change brought about by experience and subtlety rather than related to age and chilling out? "I think subtlety's definitely the main thing", Stephen agrees, "and also you have to look at the timing. At the time when we made more aggressive and in-your-face sounds we were working within the context of '70s rock ideology - there was no real concept of subtlety then; you had to hit a brick with a brick. I mean there was a lot of bad music made in the '70s and we were very much a reaction against that. But then along came punk and music changed; you adapt your process to the particular time-frame you're working within."

True to this philosophy, the Cabs always have been a constantly morphing entity - over the ensuing two decades they moved on through the realms of New Wave pop, EBM, funk, hip hop and eventually techno itself. "We didn't want to carry the banner for industrial, so in the early '80s we moved on into what we saw was more radically different music, and at various stages that was the whole electro thing, a lot of the early hip hop, and that sort of thing - anything that was underground."

A startling number of techno luminaries cite Cabaret Voltaire as an early influence, from Front 242 to CJ Bolland, David Harrow to Autechre, Jammin' Unit to Oliver Lieb, and Australians such as Zen Paradox's Steve Law, David Thrussell of Snog, Arthur Arkin and Ollie Olsen. "Yeah, I'm responsible for a lot of people's mistakes!" he laughs. "Actually, to be quite honest it's nice to know that - and it's great if I helped to get people interested in music."

Perhaps most tellingly Mallinder's observation that appeared in a feature article on Cabaret Voltaire in NME in 1980 was this: "You realise that music isn't simply making noises on guitars and drums or whatever. It's a reflection of a hell of a lot of your environment, social conditions, economic structures; although I don't think we put too much emphasis on that in our music, you realise how much music is a reflection of the time you live in."

Obviously, on an environmental level, things have changed. In 1980 when Cabaret Voltaire were at their peak of industrial iconoclasm, the creative trio of Stephen Mallinder, Richard H. Kirk and Chris Watson lived and worked in their studio called Western Works - within sight of a dole queue and next door to a workshop that manufactured nuclear shelters - in a Sheffield that was then a run-down city struggling to break away from its industrialized past. Now one member of this creative synod resides in sunny Perth, Australia . . .

"There's a slight difference", he agrees with a chuckle. "Especially the weather. Perth's a kind of quiet place, but it's nice. When you spend most of your life walking around a grey, miserable environment, then find yourself in a warm, rural and less urban environment it's got to affect your personality to some degree, even on a subconscious level. Just the Vitamin D levels and seratonin coming out . . . ! So I think just being here and making music probably means that I'm under less pressure than I was in the UK. And to tell the truth I fancied a change of scenery." On the other side of the world? "Yeah, fuck it, why not? That's part of life as well!"

A perverse sense of humour also fuelled much of what industrial - and especially Cabaret Voltaire - was all about. In their live shows the Cabs indulged in visual imagery that sent up religion and pornography, and with track titles like 'Nag, Nag, Nag', 'Do The Mussolini (Headkick)' and 'Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself)' they were obviously poking their tongues very firmly into their cheeks. "Exactly!" Mal laughs. "I mean why otherwise call a track 'Digital Rasta' or just plain 'James Brown'? I think when you've been in Cabaret Voltaire you're laiden with heavy things; it's quite nice to have a comic element in there."

Stephen speaks of contemporary influences and styles he likes, especially the variants of drum'n' bass as produced by LTJ Bukem, Photek, Doc Scott and Goldie, as well as house and Detroit techno. "There's so much fucking good music out there", he enthuses. "I think music's going through a great renaissance at the moment!"

These days it's a more sublime but no less active Stephen Mallinder who continues to make music himself, has his own radio shows, writes for the local music press, and produces other people's sounds from his home-base in Perth. "I find myself being more of a catalyst for other things", he muses. "I quite enjoy working with other people; I find enjoyment sparking creativity in people around me. You know, I'm working with Travis Calley as Sassi & Loco, and I'm producing the album by this band Travis is part of. I find that I'm enjoying the interaction that music can offer rather than doing the solitary trip. Basically I like to egg other people into doing things!" He laughs.

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