It was both a pleasure and an education to grab an hour of Steve Mallinder’s time over a cuppa to find out what the co-founder of Cabaret Voltaire, now with the brilliant Wrangler, was up to.
Since forming Cabaret Voltaire in 1973 Mal has remained at the forefront of experimental electronic music whilst working across film, theatre and art to create new ways of hearing and contextualising sound. To see and feel things differently, and as required - to see things for what they really are.
One of his many projects is The Unfilmables, which brings together Wrangler, Francesca and Mica Levi. An extraordinarily ambitious imagined 40-minute abstraction of a film that was never made, in which the soundtrack and 'film' will be mixed live throughout the performance. The first of three shows is at the Brighton Dome Theatre on the 14th of May and will only be Wranglers second performance in 2017.
CIS: What got you into electronic music? Was it because it was all rock and no roll?
SM: That was the reason we did it. We formed in 73 and played our first gig in 75. It took the arrival of Punk to level the playing field and provide access to gigs. Before Punk there wasn’t any opportunities to play and we had spent quite a few years in our loft creating soundscape experiments. We used tape recorders, a home-built synth, an EMS VCS 3 synthesiser (the one Brian Eno used in Roxy Music, who were a big influence on us).
We were much more interested in sound than formula. We liked guitars and bands but we wanted to do something very different to that
There was a level of intellectualism in music back then; Bowie leading folks to Ballard and Boroughs, a portal into another world. Richard (Kirk, co-founder of Cabaret Voltaire) and I were skinheads, original soul boys from working class areas of Sheffield. We weren’t clever middle class intellectuals but we were instinctively drawn to the art side of music and performance. We took our name from the Dadaism movement. Rock n roll didn’t do it for us, abstract expressionism did. That’s where our influences were; on the arty side of things.
There was also acknowledgment that rock was out of your ‘reach’ and frame of reference financially. None of us were musically trained or could afford lessons and proper equipment. But we had this space in the loft and we worked away, messing about, hours of taped experiments, making noises. Rather than buy an amp we stuck the guitar through anything with an input to see what would happen to the sound.
Our circumstances lent themselves to experimenting with sound rather than forming a 'band'
"Cabaret Voltaire's early training as media guerrillas vested them with the mobility to slip in and out of the mainstream earshot almost at will. As yet to be properly pinned down, they've sustained a campaign of civil and dancehall disobedience through more than 15 years. Filtering influences as diverse as Stockhausen, Can, early Roxy Music, Velvet Underground and James Brown through various tape and electronic devices, they have in turn infiltrated all manner of heresies and subversions into the often-conservative territory of dance music”. (Excerpt taken from Grey Area Mute catalogue, Copyright BIBA KOPF, NADA, 1990).
CIS: Having your own technologically enabled space, whether it be the loft, your first proper studio, Western Works, or now with Wrangler, that space is integral to your work. Has this enabled you to forge ahead with new musical discoveries free from the interference of the arbitrary taste makers? Does it stop you becoming jaded?
SM: Music has become part of me, of who I am. It’s what I do a lot of the time. Steve Cobby from Fila Brazillia, whom I collaborate with, said of what we do, “this is mental health for us”. It’s how we negotiate our lives and who we are, so there’s that part. There’s also that I still love doing it; experimenting with noise and sound. There’s also an element of never having achieved a level where you are trapped by your own creations, so I keep going. Perhaps Cabaret Voltaire did get to that point. There are also those times when you wonder why am I still doing this!
I did have a break, not for long, only 6 months when I went to Australia and intentionally took a step back. It was the mid 90’s and I remember saying at the time that I felt that music had become too easy. The development of home studios meant that anybody could turn out albums. For me the music had stopped being special. It wasn’t that I was cynical about what other people were doing, or a sense of elitism. Perhaps it had all become too formulaic. It had become a little like that in the Cabs in the early 90’s; release two albums a year, sell them to the same people, do six shows, do this and do that and then do it all again next year. I didn’t want that routine for the rest of my life so I went looking for a change.
CIS: So much seminal music is borne from great mistakes and spontaneity. The wide spread availability of hardware and software offering touch of a button solutions out of a box, potentially erodes and dilutes the invisible hand of brilliant experimental accidents. How does Wrangler avoid this?
SM: By not using computers. That’s a lie in the sense that we use computers live to trigger loops but when we make music it’s all done on analogue and modular gear, old drum machines and effects pedals. It’s a bit of a step back in time our studio, but it is of that era when making electronic music was tactile and hands-on. I don’t like sitting in front of a laptop.
CIS: Laptop watching; the modern recording obsession of looking at, rather than listening to music.
SM: Yeah exactly and it’s not collaborative although folks have managed to interact, it’s just not my thing. I am not from the digital era which is very rule based. It’s not my natural habitat. I like messing around with things. Wrangler were recording last week and we got really into this old bit of kit we had obtained which had a three second sample time. I became the drum machine; mouthing the sounds, capturing three second samples and it sounded great! This bit of gear had its own character and noise but most folks would have thrown it in the bin. We made three tracks out of it. Glitches and distortions and the nature of those sounds is part of the very fabric of the songs.
I love the power of machines, which you don’t get with a computer. I know a sequencer or a drum machines is not specifically mechanical, but they work in a mechanical way.
I enjoy working within and subverting the limitations of mechanical processes. Music by artists rather than music by engineers.
CIS: Musically, who inspires you?
SM: Our new drum machine! As soon as we turned it on it was one of those “fuck that’s good” moments.
I listen to such varied musical styles and I dip into so many different things. Off the top of my head, I’ve been listening to the new Scott Walker LP, Johan Johanssen, Demdyke Stare, Kemper Norton, Billy Holiday, DJ Food’s remixes of Aphex Twin. Crooked Man’s new album is fucking great. Juan Atkins Cybertron from 1980. There is a new band called Africaine 808 from London, who are brilliant. All kinds of shit. There’s tracks where I’ve no idea what era they come from. The other day I was listening to ‘Riot in Lagos’ by Ryuichi Sakamoto. It’s from 1984 but could easily be released in the here and now.
(CIS: From the minute, we met it was apparent that I was in the company of a fella with an encyclopaedic knowledge and passion for music, art and experimentation, but not a hint of pretence, bullshit or stardom. Top bloke!)
CIS: White Glue by Wrangler is a brilliant record. Each tune evolves across multiple melody lines, counter melodies and abstractions. A pulsing weaving electronic symphony. A record which offers warmth within a world mired in decay, cold futurism and decadence, where the game is rigged in favour of the few. Despite its sonic density and conceptual heaviness, its bloody great to dance to (standing up or lying down).
SM: There’s a level of intelligence to it, to avoid lyrics which were throw away. White Glue is very different to the first album which is much darker and more dystopian, rawer, rough-edged. We’ve been around a wee while now and the audience has morphed from hardcore Cabs fans to a cross-mix of the old guard to folks who never heard CV but who dig us and love electronic music.
CIS: Warp Records label owner Steve Beckett remembers the ‘new Yorkshire house' sound as evolving from north England reggae systems:
“People like Ital Rockers in Leeds who didn’t get as much recognition, but who were doing the mental-est records ever. They’d cut just 20 or 30 tracks on acetate, and have sound-system parties underneath this hotel. No lights, 200 people, and they’d play reggae, then hip hop, then these bleep and bass tunes. And they’d be toasting on top of it”. (Excerpt from the brilliant Energy Flash by Simon Reynolds)
What was your take on House music?
SM: Going to Chicago to find Marshall Jefferson to produce Groovy, Laidback And Nasty! Along with Detroit, Chicago played a pivotal role in the development of House music. I loved the music, the city and some of the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. We'd been making house music for years before 88. Its electronic music.
CIS: I must ask you about your involvement in the early days of New Order?
SM: We were friends, Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire and we did what friends would do. We offered New Order our studio so they could have some peace and quiet to go about demoing new songs for their new band. That’s it really. The tapes are available on YouTube. I even had a go at singing vocals. So did Rob Gretton, everyone did.
CIS: Nice one Mal, I think we’re done.
SM: A pleasure, all the best.
Get White Glue by Wrangler: https://wrangler.tmstor.es
Catch you all next Friday when we dance to the rhythm of the one; the incredible Sly & The Family Stone.
Until then, peace
Colour Is Sound
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