Mostly known for being a founding member of the legendary band Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield-born singer and musician Stephen Mallinder is back with two other big names of contemporary electronics: Phil Winter (Tunng, Lone Taxidermist) and Benge, whose Memetune studios in the heart of London saw the birth of their collaborative project Wrangler. Their new album “LA Spark” is going to refresh some awesome analogue sonorities in the beginning of May. We had a chat about that and some of its stylistic resemblances with Stephen.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi Stephen! It’s a great honour to speak with you… first of all, how are you?
Stephen Mallinder: I’m very well thank you, I just had a couple of days away, the first time for while that I’ve had chance to do that, and stayed in a windmill. I’ve changed my name to Mal Quixote.
Chain D.L.K.: So Mal Quixote, tell us, do you think that cultural and social conditions which brought to the birth of industrial in Sheffield are somehow repeatable? How do you remember those years?
Stephen Mallinder: I don’t think the conditions can be repeated, but the feelings and ideas people have can be in tune with what happened during that period. That’s what music, well all art, is really about now – changing contexts but with a knowledge and understanding of what has happened before so it can be re-made to current situations.
I suppose when you live your life you don’t really consider how it might be remembered while you are actually experiencing it. We just lived through it and responded as we thought we should for the sake of our sanity and dignity. The time was one of tension and conflict but there was a sense of reaction in everything we all did.
We were conscious that we were all going against the tide – Thatcher’s Britain. It was very chauvinistic and there was pressure to fall in line or be beaten down. There was a clear sense of “us” and “them” – them being a majority of people who looked backwards to an old authoritarian view and were happy to bully others. The north of England was being sacrificed for a southern culture of money and cheap materialism.
But we enjoyed it, we revelled in that attitude, it was fun sticking two fingers up to the conservative attitudes of the time. We weren’t despondent, we were rebellious but out for a good time.
Music was a way of responding. We saw it all collapsing around us and music was a way of empowering ourselves. I think that is still a valid starting point for making music then and now.
Chain D.L.K.: Your name and artistic path is unavoidably connected to Cabaret Voltaire and I can’t avoid a question about that experience… CV were maybe the first industrial band that almost completely purged its sound from rock like Suicide maybe did, but your “exit strategies” from rock structure were so full of variations that it’s undeniable it was somehow prodigious… did you meet any resistance from labels, clubs or listeners for that stylistic choice?
Stephen Mallinder: Oh it was very difficult for people to comprehend in the very early days. Electronic music had no real history, outside of avantgarde circles, so people were confused. But you’re quite right it was a conscious attempt to make a fresh start. We had no real connection to rock and certainly no wish to use it as a starting point. It was a dull, out of date, mode of expression as far as we were concerned.
But we did see the attraction in repetition and rhythm, the power of noise, the need for expression. These were all part of rock but the tools for achieving these were so outmoded that we chose new technologies – rhythm machines, tape loops, sequencers, effects units.
It became more of a problem when we played live as venues and sound systems weren’t equipped to accommodate this sort of instrumentation. That was the hard part. It wasn’t until we had a bit of money to get things made specifically for us to make playing live a bit more straightforward.
Timing was really important, punk had begun to break down barriers, and independent labels could spring up, new promoters, designers, fanzines – a whole generation of like-minded artists were staring to emerge from the darkness. We were quite different, but people were becoming interested in difference, other ways of doing things, so that worked for us.
Chain D.L.K.: In my book “Mix Up” is the proper masterpiece out of all of CV’s rich repertoire… what’s your favorite album or song? Why?
Stephen Mallinder: Personally I think all the releases have something that I like (and stuff I don’t – you never make the perfect record). For us it was important to capture everything as we moved along, so our recordings are a story of those times. Very few bands or artists had that opportunity to do this because record companies tended to get them to go into a studio with a producer and make an album that suited their purposes – they gave them money then told them how to spend it. We on the other hand used our money to buy our independence, build our studio and have the facilities to record when and how we chose.
It meant that we could capture our progression and we made a lot of different records as we evolved. They all have something unique that represented the times we worked in.
Personally I like “The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of the Lord” – we had just made a couple of albums (“Crackdown” and “Microphonies”) with other producers using different studios and then did this with just Richard and myself so it was good to translate all we had learnt. It was at a time when we were cutting loose with technology, cool equipment and no rules, so I have good memories of that.
Chain D.L.K.: You had a considerable experience as an art and music journalist, didn’t you? In your opinion, is there any recidivus mistake contemporary reviewers make when approaching electronic music critically?
Stephen Mallinder: I wouldn’t like to get into criticising the critics. You have to accept that when you make and release something then other have a right to express opinions whether you agree with them or not. I try not to take too seriously – either the good or bad reviews.
But I do think it is difficult sometimes for reviewers to appreciate the wider context. When you have had a long career in making music I think you have a right to try different things and take risks even if you make mistakes. If not, artists will just keep repeating themselves and making the same record.
Cabaret Voltaire made such a wide spectrum of music over a long period so it is wrong for people to say “this was their good stuff and the other stuff is rubbish”. That fails to take into account the times, conditions, technologies and wider cultural contexts in which they were all made.
It’s dumb to have a dogmatic view of a piece of music made 20 years ago, it was made originally for those times.
Chain D.L.K.: I’ve read you earned a Ph.D. in music and popular culture at Perth with a very interesting thesis which I’m just reading and was titled “Movement – Journey of the Beat”… could you summarize it for our readers?
Stephen Mallinder: Well quite briefly it is about how rhythm moves through time and space. It shows how the beat carries people and ideas, starting from the post American Civil War, where instruments and people all collided in Congo Square, New Orleans, through to globally dispersed communities of bedroom producers making dubstep and techno. It is done to show how digitization disrupts as time and space collapse online. A bit more detailed but essentially that’s it. It looks at the rhythms of Detroit, Jamaica, Sheffield, Düsseldorf and Chicago to see how and why they moved and the communities that were built up around them.
Chain D.L.K.: Let’s speak about Wrangler… well, have you ever erroneously addressed Ben and Phil calling them Richard or Chris? 🙂
Stephen Mallinder: Well it’s been a while since Chris and I were in the studio so that’s not a problem, and I had to call Richard “sir” so no mix ups there.
Phil and myself have been friends for a very long time so I’m pretty used to being in studios with him. Benge I’ve known quite a while as well and we tend to call him Flange or Phase so all good in the studio names department.
Chain D.L.K.: Jokes apart, you made a great team… was reciprocal understanding immediate or have you wrangled over sonic dosages?
Stephen Mallinder: No we all got along very well from the start, as soon as we were in the studio together. There’s no egos going on and we have a lot of respect for all the work each of us do. We have general mutterings over which bits to use and how things should develop but when you are recording it’s good to try all different approaches so we’ll try every idea and see what works. You’ve got to enjoy it and be going in the same direction, which we are, so all works well.
Chain D.L.K.: You named your project Wrangler after the recording studio in Shoreditch, didn’t you? Could you tell us something about the gestational period of both your collaborative project and the studio?
Stephen Mallinder: The studio is what Benge has put together gradually over the years so I’m lucky to get the benefit of working there, the studio is the hub around which we work.
‘Wrangle’ is the term used to describe wrestling with some of the older analogue equipment. A lot of the technology has a mind of its own – you can’t just turn it on and expect it to do what it’s told, you have to battle it into submission. You have to get to grips with analogue gear so that’s what a Wrangler does.
We try to all work together in the writing stage – we will set up in the rehearsal room and all play together to get a feeling of how a track might evolve and what the possibilities are rather than just laying down a track at a time. We play live so that’s an important element.
We will lay a vocal early in the process so we have something to work around and then gradually shape the track.
Chain D.L.K.: Your new album “LA Spark” features contributions by Tom Rogerson and Serafina Steer as well. How did you attract them to Wrangler?
Stephen Mallinder: They are both friends, there’s a loose community of friends and colleagues who support each other. It’s better that way as you have an understanding of what we’re all trying to do rather than getting someone in to do a part.
Tom runs a London jazz night club with an improvisational philosophy to it – we’ve played a couple of times and Tom joins in on tracks so it came from there.
Sefa is a well-respected harpist who has her own recording career, she kindly came and did vocals for us.
Chain D.L.K.: Echoes of more neglected Cabs stuff are sometimes audible in Wrangler… is this reprise fortuitous?
Stephen Mallinder: It’s just how it all came together. There will always be a reference to the Cabs if I do vocals as that’s just my personal style I’m afraid. The fact that Wrangler uses some of the technology from the Cabs period is a factor but I think the differences are more important than the similarities – Benge and Phil are very talented and have a real identity to how they work and that is two-thirds of the Wrangler sound.
If “LA Spark” had have been a Cabs album people would have been very surprised. It is quite distinct – respect to Benge and Phil.
Chain D.L.K.: I surmise someone already labelled Wrangler‘s sound as “retro-futuristic”… do you agree with such tag?
Stephen Mallinder: I think you might be the first so I’ll take that very gladly. I think that captures the idea that we can reference bits of the past but this very much a contemporary record. It was made in the last 6 months and for me that is what it sounds like and should be the most important consideration.
Chain D.L.K.: The cover artwork is a throw back to some bitonal 80’es graphics as well, isn’t it?
Stephen Mallinder: It was good to have a very simple but quite dramatic image for the sleeve. It was inspired by an old “doctored” image that mashed up old portraits. In the end it was done on a library photocopy machine by Benge, using his brother Dan’s photos and a bucket of paint. Then finally designed by Dan Conway who does our live visuals and projections.
All created by the Wrangler family.
The original blown-up images will be on sale as a limited edition of Wrangler prints.
Chain D.L.K.: The final “Peace & Love” is quite different from the rest of the album… I’ve read somewhere it was originally commissioned by Tate Modern…
Stephen Mallinder: Yes we were asked to do an installation to be shown in the Turbines Gallery at the Tate Modern as part of Tracey Moberly’s Tweet-Me-Up Exhibition in 2012.
It was a 10-minute piece that was accompanied by a clip made by Dan Conway. We made an edited version for the album.
Chain D.L.K.: Some drum machines sounds are really primitive… did you have to remove dust from circuits?
Stephen Mallinder: The great joy of older equipment is that it’s not guaranteed to work exactly as you think – it has its own character and it’s wonderful to have that identity and sound on a track.
Of course the downside to this is it might break half way through recording or in the middle of a gig – that’s the adrenalin rush you need when you play.
Music should always have an unpredictable element to it – that’s why the dust is important.
Chain D.L.K.: Is the IIC of “Mus IIC” a reference to one of the first Apple “compacts” or what?
Stephen Mallinder: I’ll leave that for everyone to decide… every album needs a mystery!
Chain D.L.K.: One of the feature of The Cabs themes used to be a certain paranoid approach to technology and some lyrics seemed to describe a society where technology was a sort of disease… do you feel the same?
Stephen Mallinder: I guess the words from the album would suggest so. I think even more than ever we should be questioning power, control and individual liberty. The power may have shifted but people’s lives are being shaped by forces that are outside them, but they are also able to empower themselves by new technologies.
But I’d like to think that there are many ways to look at the music and words, it’s up to other people to listen to whatever level they wish and interpret how they choose.
All the lyrics are meant to work only in the context of the music, they are inseparable.
Some of my lyrics are supposed to be funny.
Chain D.L.K.: They are! I know you already performed “LA Spark” on stage… any forthcoming live shows within and outside the UK borders?
Stephen Mallinder: Oh yes we’ve got gigs around the UK and now Europe, can we come to Italy? We’d love that!
visit MemeTune electronic music studio and record label on the web at: memetune.net