Considered by some to be a guru of the new dance, mixing driving beats with eclectic found sounds, Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H. Kirk remains an influential voice. Mark J. Prendergast tracks him down.
Cabaret Voltaire put the breakbeat into British music. Now 20 years old, they have been a major influence on UK House music and, amongst other things, on the Zooropa‑ry of U2. Bono and the other boys readily admit the importance and influence of Cabaret Voltaire, both as original Dadaist Zurich club and as late '70s post‑industrial media terrorists.
Cabaret Voltaire began their musical life in a flat in Sheffield, equipped only with an EMS VCS3 synthesizer, an oscillator, and a Revox tape machine. The trio — Kirk, Mallinder, and Watson — drew their inspiration from Pierre Schaeffer, Stockhausen and Can. Their arena was sound for sound's sake and they wrote letters to Brian Eno seeking advice. Caught up in the rush of indie labels that was the post‑punk zeitgeist of the late 1970s, Cabaret Voltaire burst on the scene with a form of electronic music that used the outside world as its raw material. As lynchpins of a new avant‑garde, they aligned themselves not with contemporary musicians but with the literary inventions of William Burroughs.
After the zenith and five‑figure sales that was Red Mecca in 1981, Chris Watson left to devote his life to bird sounds. Kirk and Mallinder gravitated more to the beat and America. Mixers like John 'Tokes' Potoker made singles like the 1984 'Sensoria' dance‑floor smashes of their time. By the late '80s the duo were in Chicago soaking up the original House scene and getting black mix stars like Marshall Jefferson (of 'Move Your Body' fame) to work on their sound. Back in England, the likes of Paul Oakenfold supported their re‑emergence as proud gurus of the new dance craze.
The '90s have so far been a cool period for Cabaret Voltaire . No longer seen as indie stars of yesteryear's NME, they have now consolidated a new following and a new kind of music. Albums like Body And Soul, Colours, Plasticity and International Language took Techno and the Ambient sound into a new dimension of sophistication and smoothness. Richard Kirk's own work with Sweet Exorcist and his first solo venture Sandoz, a synthesis of world music and electronics, represents some of the best electronic music around. To celebrate their commitment and longevity, I spoke to Richard H. Kirk about all manner of things Voltaire.
There was a period during your career on Parlophone when you seemed to be out of the public eye. Post‑EMI, your sound became pretty contemporary. Why?
"It was to do with my involvement in Sweet Exorcist and getting really into the electronic dance thing. I hooked up with Richard Barrett in Sheffield (aka DJ Parrot), who had a number of hits with the Funky Worm on a label called Warp, which is pretty big now. It was a question of being on EMI for God‑knows‑how‑long and not being allowed to release many records. When we were on Virgin between '83 and '85, it was like 'wow!' — they let you get on with it. With EMI there were larger amounts of money involved and more interference. On the second and last album, Groovy, Laidback & Nasty, there were too many voices being heard and in the end only the EP was real Cabaret Voltaire."
The image of Cabaret Voltaire has always been less important than the sound. Was it always a case of the noises you came up with coupled with the experiments in video being the image?
"Yes, and it also suited us. I'm not into projecting an image. During the '70s and '80s image was very important. What's good about House is that it's the sound of the music that matters — what you look like is irrelevant. There have been a lot of very fashion‑oriented things going on in the business. The retro groups are not only making music that has been done twice or three times before, but it is the fourth time we've seen this kind of image and style being presented as new."
Is Stockhausen still an influence?
"In terms of attitude towards sound, probably now more than five years ago. Stockhausen and John Cage, of course, in terms of sound, ambience, and 'found' recordings. But it's never been a case of us trying to reproduce what they were doing."
How do you view the music you've been making recently — the Plasticity and International Language albums?
"International Language went in a very hard direction, like something from the late '70s in terms of its sound sources. It used things like old drum machines that are sampled, looped, and played around with. It was specifically made for CD, with a special mix done with three DAT players, using crossfading to bring in quite a lot of random elements. Randomness, that's what came back with that release. Plasticity had everything programmed and automated by machines; with International Language there's a whole other album going on within it and which keeps coming to the surface."
How much are you influenced by Chicago and Detroit music?
"One good thing about the EMI period was that we did go to the USA and work with Marshall Jefferson, which was amazing. We met all of his friends, who were part of the original House scene, like Armando and Mike Dunn. Quite a lot of these people used to drop by the studio in Chicago while we were working. Ironically, Cabaret Voltaire were more well known in America at the time, while these guys were huge names in Britain."
Why do you think this House music took off in the late '80s?
"People were just looking for a way forward, and because of certain chemical ingestions and a desire for liberation, the whole thing just gelled in 1987. Things have steadied since then, and the more forward edges of House have been sucked into the mainstream. That's why on the newer stuff we do, the rhythm is not so much to the forefront. House has now become electronic music rather than dance music. There's also much more of an interest in Ambient music."
How would you describe your solo recording Sandoz?
"Well it's not Ambient, because there are too many drums and things on it. The sounds are the result of my listening over the past six months. Moments are 'techno' in the same sense that Model 500 or Derrick May are 'techno', but not in the sense of what they call Techno today (150 bpm?). Sandoz is just me hanging out and having fun, trying to be a bit more melodic than usual. Originally, it came out as 12‑inch singles and no‑one knew who it was. It was great to distribute 500 copies to DJs and to the shops around Sheffield without people knowing who it was. It was back to the DIY ethic — and that's what modern electronic music is all about now. Most of the stuff is made in somebody's bedroom, which is not too dissimilar to punk — the desire to express something with one chord or one sequence or one sampled note."
In reality, people are constantly re‑inventing music. Younger people will always find things from the past and present them in a new way by adding something of themselves.
Are you still interested in film/video and its use on stage?
"There was a 60‑minute video to go with Plasticity and some live dates we did — a festival in Holland — contained over an hour's worth of new visuals. We bought a special Panasonic video mixer and effects generator and just set to work with it. It's like an audio mixer, only you hook up two or three VHS players to it instead. It's got a digitising section and costs only £500, and it meant we could do most of the visuals at home. When we first started working in that field 10 years ago, you would have paid £5,000 or £10,000 for a toy like that. We've gone back to using video projections after the 16mm stuff we used when we were on EMI and had a huge budget to play around with. Now we use our imagination more."
Are you still interested in the academic side of experimental music — is it still a life‑giving force for you or something just lost in its own world?
"Well, even Phillip Glass is a popular classical composer now. He even performs versions of David Bowie's and Brian Eno's music. It's weird, but as time goes on more stuff like that will filter into the mainstream. Will Steve Reich? Maybe not, but who knows? Things like that will always exist. People outside the field of Rock music will look at those people and continue to draw inspiration from them. That's a parallel thing which is always going to be there. It's like the cliche that Pop is dead. In reality, people are constantly re‑inventing music. Younger people will always find things from the past and present them in a new way by adding something of themselves."
Who do you look to for inspiration?
"I've listened to Fela Kuti a lot. I saw him at Brixton Academy and that was the best musical event I've seen for a long time. A 40‑piece orchestra came on stage and built this music up from something really quiet — and only 30 minutes later did Fela appear. I like music that builds and builds and then just lets go. I listen to Jazz and quite a lot of Dub. There is quite a lot of stuff coming out of Holland on a label called D‑Jax, which is bringing out some interesting music under the dance banner. They don't seem to care whether it's played in a club or not. It's pure electronic music really."
Are you still influenced by writers?
"We're still into Burroughs, who is a massive influence; in terms of body of work and the influence that he's had, he's a key figure of our time. He's one of the clearest‑thinking and shrewdest movers of the 20th century."
Any further comments on the ambisonic deluxe sound of your International Language album?
"Well, firstly, it's not specifically about music — it's political, in a leftish way. People over here have been ground down a lot by the government — you are either in or out. Creativity is stifled, and people's fighting spirit is weak. This recording is there to strengthen people's spirit. I think that the idea of intelligence in music has now resurfaced. The ideas of William Gibson will feed through more now, like the way music will in the near future be fed through to people's homes. International Language samples ourselves: 'Taxi Mutant' uses samples of 'Taxi Music' off Johnny Yesno. Do you know that the Aphex Twin music is made up of constant resampling of his own music? This new album does sound good, because of the tri‑stereo image effect that we achieved on the mix."
Would you say that your music is driven more by ideas than technology?
"Well, it used to be the case that a new piece of equipment would spawn a new album, or at least several new tracks. But because it's all sampling‑based, it's more sound oriented in terms of things we find on other records. We use the standard Akai S1000 sampler without expanded memory. We used to use the Fairlight with a programmer, when we were on Virgin — we used it on the album Microphonies — but that's a real dinosaur thing now." (Laughs).
- Soundcraft Series 760 24‑track tape machine.
- Revox PR66 2‑track tape machine.
- Sony DTC‑1000ES DAT recorder.
- Casio DA7 portable DAT recorder.
- Tascam 122 cassette recorder.
- Soundcraft Series 1624 mixer.
- JBL 4425 studio monitors.
- Yamaha NS10m nearfield monitors.
- Quad 520f power amp.
- Akai S1000 sampler.
- Emu Emax keyboard sampler.
- Oberheim Matrix 1000 synth module.
- Roland Juno 60 synth.
- Yamaha DX7 synthesizer.
- Roland SH09 synth (with MIDI).
- EMS Synthi A synth.
- Putney VCS3 synth.
- Roland TR808 drum machine (with MIDI).
- Roland TR909 drum machine.
- Roland TB303 Bassline synth (with MIDI).
- C‑Lab Notator + Unitor + Export.
- Atari 1040ST + monitor.
- Lexicon PCM70 digital effects.
- Lexicon PCM60 digital reverb.
- MXR 01a digital reverb
- Bel BD80 delay.
- Yamaha EMP700 multi‑effects.
- Alesis Quadraverb.
- Drawmer dual gates (2).
- Drawmer compressor/limiter.
- Neumann U89i mic.
1. Mix‑Up (Rough Trade 1979/MuteCD 1990).
2. The Voice Of America (Rough Trade 1980/MuteCD 1990).
3. Red Mecca (Rough Trade 1981/MuteCD 1990).
4. 2 x 45 (Rough Trade 1982/MuteCD 1990).
5. Hai! (Rough Trade 1982/MuteCD 1990).
6. Johnny Yesno (Doublevision 1983/MuteCD 1990).
Here is the classic early line‑up of Cabaret Voltaire with Chris Watson joining Richard Kirk and Stephen Mallinder in the excavation of some dark and cryptic sounds. Mix‑Up and America are pure Schaeffer/Cage territory with sound and tape being manipulated to striking effect. Red Mecca is a brooding evocation of William Burroughs territory, portraying modern life as a decaying mass of infection. Still a classic, it collides synthesizer and ethnic sounds with off‑beat rhythms to shivering effect. 2 x 45 is where the modern story begins, with rhythm and structure leaking into burnt texture. The track 'Yashar', with its "70 billion people out there, where are they hiding?" chorus, is still essential. Johnny Yesno was actually recorded in 1981 for a film and is more avant‑garde in its soundscape. Watson was long gone by its release.
6. The Crackdown (Virgin 1983).
7. Microphonies (Virgin 1984).
8. The Covenant, The Sword & The Arm Of The Lord (Virgin 1985).
Mallinder and Kirk hit the big time with a trilogy of albums which celebrate black disco grooves and sequenced beats. 'Just Fascination' (on Crackdown) sees them entering the chart/video flux, with cries of 'sell‑out' from the underground. The album came with extra tracks featuring the Ambient film work. Microphonies hones the beat tauter in honour of James Brown with the 'Tokes' Potoker‑mixed 'Sensoria' the stand‑out attraction. The Covenant opts for allowing earlier random Cabs noises into the beat‑dotted stream.
9. The Drain Train (Doublevision 1986/MuteCD 1990).
10. Code (Parlophone 1987).
11. 8 Crepuscule Tracks (Crepuscule 1988).
12. Groovy, Laidback & Nasty (Parlophone 1990).
13. Listen Up With (Mute 1990).
14. The Living Legends (Mute 1990).
The Cabs go even more commercial with the hip‑hop and funk grooves of the Drain Train EP. Code signifies a low‑point in the partnership but also a huge worldwide distribution for their sound. The 'Crepuscule' disc represents one of the finest discs of Cabaret Voltaire music extant. Representing trio recordings for the Belgian label from the early '80s, it includes the famous 'Jesus' trilogy as well as the phenomenal 'Gut Level' from 1982, which pre‑dated the frenetic Techno beat by at least seven years. 'Invocation' fits perfectly into today's Ambient obsession while 'Theme From Shaft' is just so '70s. Groovy, Laidback... was the Cabs returning to the womb of Chicago and hitching up with Marshall Jefferson for some slick mixing. Paul Oakenfold polished off the album back in the UK. Listen Up With is a collection of oddities from tapes and compilation records which fall into the 'musique concrete' area. Living Legends culls together their more resonant 'Punky' singles, including the awesome 'Nag Nag Nag' from 1979.
15. Body & Soul (Crepescule 1991).
16. Colours (Plastex 1991).
17. Technology (Virgin 1992).
18. Plasticity (Plastex 1992).
19. International Language (Plastex 1993).
Body is the Cabs back being the Cabs. Rough edges are allowed into the complete computer‑generated album, which alternates 'beat' music with stunning electronic tone poems like 'Decay' and 'Western Land'. Technology is a rather unsuccessful remix of tracks from their Virgin period. Plasticity weaves Rap, Ethnic sampling, voices and other aspects of House in a seamless slipstream of state of the art mixing. International Language deepens and widens the sound by combining multiple mixes with less computer‑generated data. It is certainly more 'spacey' than its predecessor, which is the intention.
The next Cabs album is due out in April or May of 1994, on Plastex. It's a double CD entitled Conversation.
RICHARD H. KIRK: SOLO
1. Sandoz (Touch 1993)
2. Dark Continent (Touch 1993)
3. Virtual State (Warp 1994)
Kirk's solo discs further investigate the looser areas of modern House. Stripped of their 'beats', some tracks could be Tangerine Dream in their heyday.
- THE SPACE...
"The original Western Works was near to the University and the hospital in Sheffield, but it was in a bad way. It became just ridiculous trying to work in a derelict building. That was demolished and in 1987 we moved to another place near the football ground and the railway station. It has quite a big control room with windows and a lot of natural light. There's a certain degree of sound‑proofing, but nothing which would impress a proper recording studio designer. There's another room cum realism area; it's not sound‑proofed and is completely acoustically live; percussion and vocals get a nice edge in there. Then there's a store room."
- THE STUDIO GEAR...
"What I use in the studio now is not that different to when we started. There's an old 1624 Soundcraft desk that's pretty knackered but has a nice warm sound that you wouldn't get on a modern one. Our outboard gear is pretty bog standard, just ordinary delay lines and digital reverbs. Nothing very expensive. When we bought the Lexicon PCM70 it was £2,000 — but now you could get it for £500. More recently we bought a Quadraverb GT and a Yamaha EMP700 guitar multi‑effects processor, though I haven't played guitar for ages and ages. I'm more keyboards‑based now.
"I like the NS10 studio monitors and the big JBL 4425s, which are kind of shot now. We've got loads of analogue synths MIDI'd and piles of records to sample from. We've got a VCS3 and a Synthi A, which are the same thing really but a different shape. We're going to have them converted. The Roland 303 is MIDI'd up but the box is bigger than the synth itself, which is hilarious."
- THE COMPUTER
"We use C‑Lab Notator on an Atari. Most people we know use this but our approach is different. It's down to our choice of sampling. I tend to use things that other people would throw away — sample bits from records that sound different. The end result is always going to be slightly unusual. Most people take breakbeats now and just loop them. We tend to chop them up and turn them around to create that unique Cabaret Voltaire sound."