Cabaret Voltaire

By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 1993

To fans of electronic and experimental music, Cabaret Voltaire are truly legends. Since 1978, the Sheffield-based group has been using technology to push the boundries of music to the absolute limits. Originally a trio of Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder and Christopher Watkins, Cabaret Voltaire are right up there with Throbbing Gristle as the pioneers of “industrial” music.

The band, now consisting of just Kirk and Mallinder, has continued to evolve over the years and expand out of the “industrial” genre. Cabaret Voltaire has released two albums in the past year and half – “Plasticity” and “International Language”- and in April will complete the trilogy with “The Conversation.” The three releases show that Cabaret Voltaire are right at home with todays styles of electronic music.

In Britain, Cabaret Voltaire are releasing on their own label (their music is licensed to Instinct for American distribution). Kirk says that having their own label allows them the luxury of putting out as many CDs as they want, bringing back the highly prolific nature that Cabaret Voltaire displayed in their early years.

“Ultimately, I feel happier not working with the framework of a major because they don’t like you to make too many records,” he explains. “They prefer you to do like one record and spend the next three years promoting it. It’s frustrating to me as an artist because I like to be constantly working on new music, and if you’ve got no outlet it’s frustrating.”

Another advantage that working on their own label provided was the chance to get away from the highly structured, song-based style of their past few major label releases in favor of a more experimental, soundtrack-style sound. The music on “International Language” and “Plasticity” fuses together trancey dance beats and analog synth sounds with spoken word samples and ambient noises. Kirk feels that trying to force traditional song structure onto these compositions would not have worked, so it was decided to keep the CDs instrumental. The upcoming “The Conversation” CD with carry on these same musical themes, and Kirk says that it will then be time to re-think the sound, possibly returning to the use of sung vocals.

On the trio of new releases, the vocal and spoken-word samples play an integral part of the sound. Sometimes they carry the tracks along, while other times the words themselves serve as background noise. Kirk says that the samples come from a variety of different sources and there is no set way the group goes about using them.

“Basically, I’ve been collecting things, taping things from TV, collecting movies, ever since I got a video player in the late 70s,” he says. “I’ve got a huge source to draw upon in terms of finding dialog or spoken work or whatever. Also stuff from radio, from shortwave radio, or whatever. It really depends, sometimes you get a piece of dialogue and then you construct some music underneath it. Or other times you construct a piece of music or a rhythm, then maybe you want to sample just one word and repeat that in rhythm with the track. There’s no rules.”

Kirk currently sees Cabaret Voltaire as mainly a studio project, although live performance has been part of the band ever since they first started. They haven’t played live since the end of 1992, and don’t see themselves doing it again until the end of the year. While the technology has advanced a great deal since since they began, Cabaret Voltaire still find it limiting in terms of live performance.”

“Obviously the stuff you do in the studio is a little bit sophisticated and doesn’t often work very well in the live context because a lot of it’s computer-based and that equipment doesn’t like to be transported around,” says Kirk. “It gets a knock and the thing gets screwed up. So we tend to put some of it onto DAT and use that as the basis for the performance. Obviously, there’s a lot of stuff going on on top of that which is live. But it would be nice to try and make the concerts more live, but it is very difficult at the moment, which comes down to the technology.”

Cabaret Voltaire’s new releases are the logical extension of the experimental work they began creating in the 70s. At the time, they were among a small handful of bands using non-traditional techniques and new technology to re-define music.”

“A lot of it is accidental. When we first started out we weren’t hearing a lot of things that were interesting,” says Kirk. “We had a lot of diverse influences and it was like we were trying to express those influences within some kind of framework that we could actually work within, because no one was a musician. It was all kind of pretty basic stuff and we were using synthesizers and tape recorders and tape loops . We couldn’t play instruments as such so we just made a noise. It just kind of got more refined as we went along.”

By 1987, Cabaret Voltaire’s sound was refined enough to get them a major label release in American, “Code” (EMI/Manhatten). The LP had a highly technological feel but also strong song-based form. Kirk acknowledges that this was a very commercial recording, while he says he is still proud of it. “Code” also had a strong house influence, an influence that has remained with the band on subsequent projects.

Cabaret Voltaire are currently working on a video companion to the “Plasticity” album. All the footage has been shot but needs to be edited. The project should see the light of day by the end of the year. Video is something that Cabaret Voltaire has worked with extensively in the past, to the point where they had even run their own company.

“We were actively working in video until ’85, maybe ’86,” explains Kirk. “Again, that was something that as scaled down a little bit when we started getting involved with major labels. We set up a video label called Doublevision in the early 80s and released a Cabaret Voltaire 90-minute video, which was like a multimedia thing. Also, there were a number of other releases by other artists, different filmmakers and bands. The last thing we commercially released was, I think in 1985, another long-form piece called ‘Gasoline in Your Eye.’ That was the last thing we did commercially but we still use visuals for the live performances and constantly collect it and put together visual imagery. A lot of it is only seen at the concerts. Nothing’s been made available for people to buy.”

Richard H. Kirk on Technology

Analog equipment, including classic Roland gear like the TB303, TR808, and SH101, has experienced a resurgence in popularity with rave, techno and other current forms of electronic music.

Chaos Control: Why do you think people are going back to using this old equipment?

Richard Kirk:Part of it is due to the house music and techno music scene that started up in the middle to late 80s. That kind of popularized analog equipment again. And people like something that has actually got knobs on it, that you can turn rather than programming something. It’s more of a physical thing. I think that those synthesizers have got quite a good depth and a warmth that you might not get with digital synths.

CC: But why didn’t people use them as extensively back in the early 80s, when they were originally introduced?

RK:It’s difficult to say. Perhaps it was because people in the musical arena maybe didn’t think they were sophisticated enough. I mean, they were quite crude, the initial synths.

Chaos Control: The technology involved in creating electronic music has improved a great deal since Cabaret Voltaire first emerged. But do you still find it limiting at all? Is there anything you’d like to see created or improved?

Richard Kirk:In terms of samplers, you have this thing called ‘time stretch,’ which alters the pitch of an instrument. If you pitch something up on a keyboard, on a sampler it speeds up. There’s this idea of a time stretch, which you get in some of the samplers. I’d like to see this get more instant. It’s kind of a big number crunching job at the moment and it’s not entirely successful. So I’d like that to become a bit more easier to deal with.

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