The Life Beyond: Stephen Mallinder Talks

A man at the forefront of electronic music since punk first mobilized a liberationist DIY underground to create without compromise

The Life Beyond: Stephen Mallinder Talks

A man at the forefront of electronic music since punk first mobilized a liberationist DIY underground to create without compromise

Stephen Mallinder has been at the forefront of electronic music since punk first mobilized a liberationist DIY underground to create without compromise. In Mallinder’s case this activation manifested itself in the form of Cabaret Voltaire, a band named after the infamous spiritual home of the Dadaists and conceived with fellow Sheffield denizens Richard H. Kirk and Chris Watson. The band’s later association with the labels that helped instigate and legitimize the distribution of independent music would see them compiled on the fabled Factory Sampler EP and later become the first UK act on Rough Trade. Yet their initial experiments preceded the historic ‘year zero’ that many tedious talking heads documentaries cite as the supposed starting point of punk. As early as 1973 Mallinder’s collaboration with Kirk and Watson saw experiments with reel to reel recorders in Watson’s loft. Foregrounded with robotic recitations, radiophonic futurism and blasted textural decay, this assorted early material realised a malevolent form of future shock that opened up a whole new terrain of sound.

‘Three Guys Walk Into A Room…’ Richard H. Kirk, Chris Watson, Stephen Mallinder 

These embryonic attempts demonstrated an anarchic sense of innovation, and from this point on the band’s identity would prove to be an ever fluid entity, one that remained in a constant state of evolution. Outré tape experiments began to incorporate skeletal drum machine rhythms and layers of industrial grade distortion and with their 1979 debut, Mix Up, the band discharged wrung out machine abuse as Mallinder gave voice to a torrent of garrotted radioactive vocals that at times sounded barely human. Their follow up, The Voice of America, saw a transition into rabid, reductionist electronics and erratic cut ups that crept towards a more assertive beat, whilst the denser psychedelic dread and lurid atmospherics of their next record, Red Mecca, eventually gave way to the desolation and stroboscopic intensity of the Johnny Yesno soundtrack.

Early Cabs Photomontage

The first transmissions Extended Play (1978) & Mix Up (1979)

Cabs Platters

Seconds Too Late (1980), Yashar (1982), James Brown (1984)

Cabs Platters

Seconds Too Late (1980), Yashar (1982), James Brown (1984)

In 1981 Watson left the band for a career in television going on to attain well deserved renown as a sound recordist. Left to their devices, as a duo Kirk and Mallinder continued to explore the provocative intensities that had established the band’s reputation. Yet Watson’s departure and their subsequent move from Rough Trade to Some Bizarre heralded a transformation that introduced the blueprints of Chicago house and acid to their subversive engineering, along with a more pronounced incorporation of dub and funk. These newfound occupations would lead to a string of performances at the Hacienda and as their sound morphed into something at odds with, yet approaching, the mechanics of dance music, they began to infiltrate the charts. Later they spent time in New York heading out to Danceteria whilst collaborating with the likes of Arthur Baker and Afrika Bambaata. By 1990 they were working with Marshall Jefferson and Ten City, and Mallinder had already familiarised himself with the bourgeoning party scenes in London and Sheffield, at that time spearheaded by the Shoom and Jive Turkey nights. Cabaret Voltaire had come a long way from splicing tape in loft rooms and getting hospitalized at early Joy Division gigs.

Their perpetual capacity to change and adapt whilst remaining ahead of the curve has since assured them a rare standing in both post punk and dance music culture, not least as pioneers of sampling, found sound and audiovisual experimentation. Recent years have seen projects which seek to recognise the time in which Mallinder made his initial impact with the band. 2016 has marked forty years of punk whilst last year the documentary film Industrial Soundtrack for Urban Decay elaborated on the inception and ideas behind Industrial music, a development which Cabaret Voltaire, along with Throbbing Gristle, SPK and Test Dept, had played a key role in. A brace of Mute reissues has also helped accommodate a re-examination of the band’s work, placing the abrasive grind and fractious transmissions of their nascent days alongside the insistent pulse and hedonistic energy of their later period.

Today Mallinder divides his time between teaching, research, art projects and for the last few years, Wrangler, a project formed with long-time associate Phil Winter (Tunng) and Ben Edwards (aka Benge - John Foxx & The Maths) Inspired by a mutual love for analogue hardware and primitive electro their latest record ‘White Glue’ adds a more direct dimension to the mutant aspects outlaid on their debut, ‘LA Spark’. Where ‘LA Spark’ opted for contorted vocals and twisted effects, ‘White Glue’ guns for a more immediate synthetic mettle. Sharing some of the DNA of the Cabs forays into dance music, ‘White Glue’ is the second record to have come out of Benge’s Memetune studios, a base which has become an important catalyst in their collaboration. Like the Cabs Western Works space, it gives the impression of a galvanising environment for an electronic music centred on the shifting nuances and dynamics of vintage synthesizers. It’s with this recent work that Mallinder has returned to the consistent form of the Cabs, adding hard edged minimalism and warped funk to traces of Chicago house and Detroit electro, albeit traces that suggest a novel lease of raw polish.

The reason for our conversation is the new Wrangler record, yet inevitably the history of the Cabs looms large. With the breadth of their history in mind, it makes you wonder what Mallinder makes of those days in 2016, whether recent commemorations have prompted a pause for reflection and whether any new conclusions have been reached. Before he divulges anything on the matter technical issues cause a bit of a delay and I’m left thinking it feels somewhat appropriate that our conversation is subject to a dodgy, grainy reception that cuts out words at will, as if in some small way acknowledging the disintegrative quality of Cabaret Voltaire’s early work. Yet once the clarity becomes clearer the voice on the other side feels a lot more human than on record. Fortunately, this is matched by responses which are forthcoming but self-deprecatory in character, no more so than in our first point of conversation. As Mallinder deliberates what the history of the Cabs means to him today he indicates an unwillingness to self-aggrandize and nostalgically recount, instead situating his thoughts within the context of the internet era whilst acknowledging the perils of living in the past:

‘Everything's historicised. We live in a world where we're culturally aware of what went before us. We're constantly looking in the rear view mirror cause it seems important to where we are now and it seems that with most people they're trying to comprehend the past and it's easier with hindsight. I'm not really sure how I feel about it because it's just constantly there. I'm trying my best not to look back too much. Having said that I don't succeed. As I write a lot and I do tend to talk about those times.’

Although keen to stress a level headed attitude towards his past history, Mallinder is still effusive and clearly proud of what he, Kirk and Watson achieved, something that becomes abundantly clear when I ask him, somewhat reductively, to single out the records that have gone on to assume the greatest personal significance. It’s not an easy ask where Cabaret Voltaire are concerned, least of all Mallinder who is all too aware of the protean nature of the Cabs discography:

‘Like even now, people say 'oh you like Cabaret Voltaire'. It's like, 'which version of Cabaret Voltaire?' All that stuff that was archived in the attic tapes, that was really cool. But I think in some ways 'Voice of America' probably captured for me that early period [released in 1980]. Chris was in the band and I think we were at our peak in terms of being strange and really uncompromising but also I think 'VOA' had a bit more substance to it than some of the others. It was incredibly weird but it had something about it. And then we went to Virgin and we started doing a lot of electro stuff, we did 'Yashar' [circa 1982]. Chris had left and me and Richard moved into that world, very embryonic electro stuff which was really fucking cool. It was like punk but American based and technology based. Very drum machine orientated. I think in that period [the mid 80s] 'The Covenant, The Sword and the Lord' is my favourite. We'd worked with Flood and done some really cool stuff but then we actually just went and did an album, just me and Richard in our own studio and I think it was a significant record, because it had everything we'd absorbed but it was down to us so it lacked a lot of the polish that 'Crackdown' perhaps had. And then after that we did, 'Percussion Force’ and 'Body and Soul' for Crepuscule [released in the early 90s] I really like that period of the Cabs too. It's not particularly well known but it was the stuff Richard and I did without a label breathing down our necks.’

Despite the detail with which these personal recollections are delivered, Mallinder is more eagerly contemplative about the bigger picture. As talk turns to the resurgence of what has now been enshrined as Industrial music, he apportions a certain sense of correspondence between the society he and many of his contemporaries were contending with and the present state of things:

‘There seems to be a massive interest in what people call the Industrial period. I think people are seeing parallels in some ways with what's happening at the moment with certain things. Back then it was the collapse of an industrial society and we were moving into a technological society, a society which we are now.’

‘Out late’

Stephen Mallinder, Richard H. Kirk 

Just as there was a sense of anxiety about industrial decline and the rise of the right during the 1980s – concerns which haven’t exactly been alleviated - there’s an anxiety today about technological surveillance and corporate power at the expense of privacy and personal freedom. It’s those parallels that Mallinder has remained alert to and which have informed his work, from those feted days in Cabaret Voltaire to his contemporary work with Wrangler. Both feel informed by an eye for an ambiguous though discerning social critique that feels defined by less of a dogmatic diagnosis than a subtle, multifaceted interrogation. It’s one of the reasons his work has remained relevant and it’s clear that he’s still grappling with the anxieties that modernity presents:

‘It's almost like no matter how successful and invasive this technological society is there's a kind of reaction to it at the moment and there's a wariness it seems to me in terms of the power of technology, not so much in relation to governments now but in relation to corporations. I think there's a response and reaction to that. And for some reason the collapse and the challenge of governmental powers during the 1980s seems to be resonant today. There's a sort of feeling. I'm not saying there's insurrection on the streets but there's a vibe of people being used and manipulated. It's a very divisive society and it's a very unequal society and I think that's what that industrial period recognised; the inequality between different places and different classes. I think in an odd way that seems to resonate today. People just feel shifted and moved around and disenfranchised so I can understand the fascination with that period.’ 

That’s not to say that his work has always been driven by a polemic, just that Mallinder has hardly ignored those kinds of concerns. A focal part of the Cabs contention concerned how information was being disseminated by the media at the time. There was a seditious edge to how this fascination was incorporated into their work. The importance of this idea is something Mallinder is keen to highlight:

‘We always saw ourselves as a journalistic band in that sense. We were almost tapping into what was going on, no different from any other group but we tended not to pick on personal subjects but wider issues and the media was very important and still is, increasingly important now in the world in which we live. I think we were aware of how significant the media was so we always took a lot of images and sounds from it and threw it back at people as if to say 'this is what you see daily on the news, these are things you see daily on TV'. So the idea was to rip it apart and put it back together but show it to people in a completely different context and then it has a different value. Like some of those redneck speeches, there's an irony to them. We were showing a lot of what was going on in wars and things around the world. It was actually to put it into a different context. Strangely enough we didn't consciously do it, we were aware of what we were doing but it wasn't absolutely deliberate. In a sense the visuals were also important in that they were really pre-empting the world in which we live. It’s 'infotainment', where the lines between what is information and what is entertainment, what is there for titillation and what is there to make an actual impact on people are blurred. All those boundaries have completely collapsed and it's this onslaught of images and sounds that we absorbed in a different way. A lot of the Cabs sounds and a lot of the Cabs videos for the live shows were part of that, and were blurring the lines, showing people images in different ways. Our idea wasn't to make it a consumable product like it is on multiple TV channels like it is today, it wasn't done like that, it was just to provoke thought and that's why we did it and I think it's increasingly important how we view the media in this world.’

A creative modification of media sources is a topic that again comes into play when discussion turns to the particulars of Mallinder’s approach to lyrics. The cut up technique pioneered by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin remains a vital influence but his execution of those ideas has changed over time:

‘I will always in some way relate to those cut up processes because I'm bombarded constantly with information, whether from TV, newspapers, websites. I see myself as a filter of all those things. I'm not telling the story of my life, I'm telling something about all our lives in that we're surrounded this information, this constant bombardment. Not that I'm sitting there actually cutting up bits of newspaper but I am constantly writing and recontextualising and twisting and turning a lot of those phrases that come to me through the media. I love the idea of familiar phrases being repurposed. All I do is repurpose words, that's what anyone ever does with words, it's just how you put them together. It's not as literal as it sometimes was in the Cabs days in that it was collage and word montage back then. Now it tends to be a more nuanced and subtle version of filtering phrases.’

An instance where this filter is effectively drawn upon on ‘White Glue’ is on ‘Stop’, a track led by the lines ‘Stop spending money you don’t have/Stop buying shit you don’t need’. It’s a disarmingly frank lyric to hear, considering the ambiguous provocation that informed the vocal content that littered the Cabs work. However the story behind its inclusion reveals its premise to be a reflection of street level reality rather than crude sloganeering, the result of an everyday observation that bears a surprising relevance to the early work of British filmmaker Ben Wheatley: 

‘The thing with 'Stop' was that I didn't actually write that. That was in a Ben Wheatley film, 'Down Terrace'. That was filmed twenty yards from my house, it's a real road and filmed on that road. I live next to Down Terrace. There's a scene in the film set in an underpass and the main character gets stabbed. On that wall that's at the top of my road and I walk through there with my dog constantly, the bit where he’s stabbed, at that very spot were these words that I used to see every day (‘Stop buying money you don’t have on shit you don’t need’) and that’s where it came from.’ The motivation to insert such discoveries comes from an artistic license that prioritises the overall effect rather than the oppressive notion of a message, the precedence of which Mallinder is less concerned about than how words can be manipulated and related to in different ways. He downplays the idea that his lyrics can be boiled down to one mode of interpretation: ‘I quite like the idea of words and voices getting enmeshed in the music and if people want to take meanings from it I’m happy with it or even bother to listen, some people just see the voice as another instrument and that’s fine.’ 

Benge, Stephen Mallinder, Phil Winter (Photo courtesy of Robin Rimbaud)

As for the heavily treated alterations his vocals have been subject to throughout his career, Mallinder divulges that his interest in vocal manipulation has existed from an early age:

‘I think I've always been fascinated by the manipulation of the voice. When I was a little kid we had a Sparky's Magic Piano which was like a prototype vocoder voice. I don't know how it was done actually. There was also a record from the 1960s, when I was a little kid and I was fascinated by these processed voices. And later listening to the Daleks. I loved the idea of the human voice being effected. We were all about processing, we processed all kinds of instruments in the Cabs. The voice wasn't exclusive. We never thought 'oh we can't touch that, the voice is sacrosanct' and I like the idea of a voice becoming an instrument and I like the idea of a voice becoming a sound source so it was a very conscious thing. There are times when I pull it back and I don't do it. There are records where I just use a little reverb and a little delay so I've not always done it but I do like it and it's reached a point where it's not a signature but it's an element of what we do and with Wrangler it is and although I don't always do it I like the idea of continuing to pursue what can be done with the human voice and treading that thin line between the voice retaining its humanity and what makes a voice human and I love that, it has to be a voice but also pushing it to an extreme where it becomes a sound source. I think it's endless. I think the danger is the human voice has a default when it comes to music and popular music particularly where people go 'you can sing, oh great, sing on this' and it's not about that. It's about the combination of words, the human voice and the processing. So I like to play with all three of them really. There's no hierarchy, one doesn't have superiority over the other. The only danger is sometimes people sort of don't spot the sentiments or think about the sentiments behind the work because they're more focused on the effect of the voice so sometimes that's a little bit lost but not all the time. But I encourage people to make their own interpretations anyway.’

Mallinder’s approach to lyricism and vocal effects are therefore part of an ongoing experiment, one which is more about process and the state of the wider world rather than something egocentric and emotionally intimate. And even when it comes to an issue which involves him and his history his reflections are candid and shot through with deliberated restraint rather than self-absorption and vanity. A case in point being the corrective caveats he adds to his consideration of how the Cabs time has been estimated and why the industrial aesthetic has remained an attractive draw for contemporary artists. Indicating that retrospective recall often doesn’t tell the full story it’s a theory which also reveals potential parallels between his past and present:

‘I think what it is, is that people have a certain impression of what Cabaret Voltaire was and what that period was and what it actually was…I think people like that kind of ghost in the machine idea that proliferated during the industrial era particularly in terms of aesthetics with glitch videos. I still do things like that myself because I come from that period but I can see people are fascinated with the dirtier aesthetic parts of the 80s. It's not exactly the full story but I can see why people find it appealing as it’s a nice reaction to the slickness of a technological era. Technology is making everything so smooth, so clean, there's no errors or faults with anything it seems nowadays.’

In a lot of ways, this accounts not only for the enduring appeal of the industrial aesthetic but also helps to explain the fascination and use of analogue technology that characterises and drives the Wrangler material. You get the impression that Wrangler are drawn to the same sense of errorism and unpredictability that informed the Cabs, as opposed to a digitally airbrushed conformity that seeks to veil and varnish over interesting defections. Although the contemporary fanaticism reserved for analogue synths is sometimes excessive, the approach that Wrangler have struck upon is one that has reaped originality. Yet despite the similarities between Mallinder’s most notable projects there are important distinctions that stem from changing times, developing technology and the overreliance on samplers that coincided with the tail end of the Cabs career, a reason that may throw light upon the roots of differentiation between the two projects:

‘For the Cabs we used a lot of found sources. Very Duchamp, very Burroughs in that sense. Recordings and things from TV. And gradually in the early period of the Cabs we just used to use tape recorders to play them in and it was very physical and hands on. The major change was that samplers became the norm and it wasn't just us that was using them, everyone was using them. I think the Cabs used them in a very interesting and quite extreme way. We didn't go 'oh let's use a nice little horn section' all the time and do that, we'd actually choose the weird bits. But because of that change Wrangler don't use sampler sounds and part of the reason is because of that shift, the one the Cabs pre-empted and eventually became a part of. Wrangler wanted to avoid that for various reasons. One because it was something that was done with the Cabs. With Wrangler we wanted to have a level of purity on every sound that's on the Wrangler album. Most of the drum sounds aren't a rhythm box - some are, sometimes we used a Linndrum - but there are no rhythms, everything we write is by hand, done physically using noise and filters and stuff like that, a lot of the hi-hats, snares, kick drums are actually created on modular synths. So in some ways reverting to sampled sounds is a little bit too easy nowadays so we don't find it an interesting challenge. So we don't use any samplers whatsoever in any of our stuff. It's the same with the visuals aswell. I still use found sources for installations and things like that but with Wrangler when we're live its purely generated visuals that our visual guy, Dan Conway, does. We use the analogue synths because the sounds we get are quite unique, difficult to replicate even half an hour later that makes it harder to interpret live too. With the Cabs we did use some analogue synths but mainly we used processors more than anything else.’

Between the end of the Cabs in the early 90s and the recent conception of Wrangler, Mallinder remained busy for many years after having emigrated to Australia. His activities, for whatever reason, went largely unnoticed despite the many projects he involved himself in:

‘They're kind of 'the lost years'. I was based in Perth but the label I ran was distributed out of Melbourne, I used to play Melbourne and Sydney quite a bit so I used to do quite a bit of stuff. I travelled and I ran Offworld Sounds with the label, I think we had about 40 releases, it was nice to work with loads of different people, artists from Australia but we licensed stuff from Fila Brazilia, hip hop guys from Brooklyn and people in Vienna. It was almost like a family label and people were very supportive of us. Part of that Offworld productions where I put on gigs and I was a promoter and some of them were quite big, I did a big Summer festival in Perth, part of a national thing that we did, called Vibes on A Summer's Day which later became Good Vibrations and that ended up with 30,000 people. We started it off with a couple of thousand people for a day long festival. I used to bring people over from the UK, people who I'm friends with and close to, it became a way of connecting with people. It was like I was the salesman in the Graham Greene book, 'Our Man in Havana'. I was basically this strange colonial outpost in Australia and everybody used to come through and I had a radio show every Friday and people used to come in. I had a ball. Funnily enough I was more connected to international music while I was in Australia than I would have been had I been in England. I did do a lot of stuff but people just didn't notice it. I did bits of teaching and wrote a phD and ran cultural programmes (I was a radio producer) so I was pretty active and that was my bag in Australia and finally came back here finishing off my phD. And the rest of it merges into Wrangler’

Mallinder cites this time as a learning curve, one that invested him with an independence that needed to be realized in the wake of the ‘incredible comfort zone’ that the Cabs had facilitated. In a sense it seems to have had the effect of resetting his outlook and preparing him for his current commitment to Wrangler.

Born out of years of Mallinder and Phil [Winter] DJing together and swapping records as well as off the cuff studio sessions with both Phil and Benge, it’s a project that, judged by the tone of his conversation, encompasses a social aspect as much as one predicated on music. Benge’s obsession with car boot sales, marathon afternoons in the pub and the seclusion of Memetune’s new location in Cornwall all crop up alongside explanations of where the similarities in their respective outlooks lie. At its heart, Mallinder reveals Wrangler to be inherently rhythmic in their philosophy:

'We love house and we love Go Go, we’re big Trouble Funk fans, we love electro, R&B, we're from that world. People say ah 'Dirty' sounds like a Cabs song, to me it sounds like an old electro track. That's our thing, that's what we do. We indulge it. And Benge is a drummer. It's a natural thing, two bass players and a drummer in a band and two people who grew up during the time of electro and early hip hop. We're into weird music, we're into physical music. We don't write songs. We don't sing ballads. Our way of connecting is through rhythm, it's what we do.’

Although there’s an established pedigree to what Wrangler elicit, their direction is equally informed by contemporary progress. Mallinder cites Julie Campbell (aka Lonelady – who guests on new track ‘Dirty’) and Gazelle Twin as cohorts whilst singling out Factory Floor as proof that the past can be reworked into something ‘very minimal’ but ‘powerful’. Similarly, when it comes to current affairs, Wrangler have been just as active in their attempt to distil the harsh reality of environmental decline and the subterfuge of political manoeuvring:

‘The thing with ‘LA Spark’, that was about global warming but no one got it. It's about a world falling apart. It was about climate change. ‘White Glue’ is entirely about elites ('Superset') There's such massive inequality and there's such overt opulent wealth and displays of wealth contrasted with a complete lack of compassion for most human beings in the world so that's the theme that underpins it all. Alpha Omega was written entirely about David Cameron's government. (“A favour for a favour, alpha and omega”)’

It's fitting for a record that employs the invigorated drive of dance music whilst conveying a tangible unease within the rush and pulse of it all. It’s almost as if the mood permeating the Cabs work has come full circle. The abuse of power is not the only issue Mallinder is concerned with either. After revealing his fascination with various media and how that factors into his work, our final port of call considers the future of shared information: 

‘Storage used to be finite, now it’s a bit of a free for all with the limitless shelf capacity of the internet. I'm intrigued to know where we're going because it's exponential now. The amount of videos that go up on Youtube every second and the amount of photographs online. It's really weird. We see everything and instantly so all of time and space has completely collapsed. When I was a little kid you lie there and think 'fucking hell, space is infinite, what do you mean it's infinite?' I couldn't get my head round it. And it's the same with a digital universe. All this information and images. Maybe I don't need to get my head round it and like the universe you just say 'fuck it, it exists'. But yeah since we've been having this conversation and even before the start of this sentence I think of how many videos, images and bits of information have been shared and archived somewhere on the internet. It's quite frightening really.’

As our conversation ends I’m left pondering temporal collapse and information overload. Yet I’m reassured by the thought that, as demonstrated by Mallinder’s work, almost everything can be filtered, claimed, taken elsewhere and thrown back. As for his own future, Mallinder is less optimistic, at least where his chances of escaping his past are concerned:

‘I suppose it's going to be difficult for me as I can't go anywhere without people taking about my past. Even if I did a fucking musical, people would still manage to shoehorn references to the Cabs into it. So I just accept that really. It's the world I have to live with.’ 

It seems he’s coping well enough.


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