It’s Sheffield 1973. Stephen Mallinder (above, standing) and friends Richard H Kirk and Chris Watson formed Cabaret Voltaire, an electronic music band whose effect on modern electronic music will greatly outweigh their fame. Mallinder and his colleagues’ ground-breaking work will later influence pioneers like New Order and many electro and house producers.
Now here in the 21st century, the desire to create and innovate still obsesses Mallinder. He may no longer be a member of Cabaret Voltaire, but the musical exploration carries on. Perhaps it’s more fevered than ever. After travelling around doing some journalism and broadcasting, undertaking a Ph.D in music and popular culture in Australia and running a record label, the sort of things we all do when seeing the world, he elected to live in Brighton upon his return. Now seven years on, he’s still charmed by the City. “I got asked to do some work here at the Faculty of Arts,” Mallinder tells me. “Then I started doing loads of things. There are some really interesting people here, so it’s nice to be attached to that.”
We’re talking over coffee, just before the start of Brighton Digital Festival. His standing as something of an expert on electronic music has resulted in his participation in two events at the month long celebration. He’s often matter of fact when talking about past achievements, or those yet to come, describing his lecturing at Brighton University as an: “occasional spot of teaching.” It might be down to the confidence a wealth of experience lends. Events are recalled with an air of fondness, rather than wielded to impress. As we talk, it dawns on me Mallinder has been making music for over four decades now. As you might imagine, he’s erudite and utterly diverting.
During those years he’s worked with numerous visionary artists and producers, including Afrika Bambaataa, John Robie, Adrian Sherwood and Marshall Jefferson. Involvements like these and his unwavering dedication to pushing musical limitations has led to Mallinder being a familiar presence at numerous music, arts and film festivals, providing an authoritative voice on the history and development of electronic music.
This wealth of knowledge has led to playing a part in a radio documentary being broadcast as part of Brighton Digital Festival. Wonderland Film & Music in partnership with Sensoria, Melting Vinyl, Radioreverb 97.2fm and Resonance 104.4fm are to present a very special radio broadcast of Kafka Chic, the story of the Sheffield music scene, this month.
Written by Michael Somerset-Ward and Dean Honer, this docu-drama picks through the city’s rich musical history, contrasting the seminal year of 1980 and now. Narrated by Graham Fellows, it features contributors from Martyn Ware, Philip Oakey, Glenn Gregory, as well as Mallinder himself. Broadcast at 4pm, on Sun 28 Sept 2014, on RadioReverb, there’s also a number of listening events being planned at cafes around the City.
Perceived as a grim northern manufacturing town, winding down from Industrial Revolution boom times, Sheffield has shaped the ideals and imaginations of many great musicians. While steel had defined the city for hundreds of years, the failing 70’s economy provided an abundance of empty spaces where people could get creative.
It was in this environment that Cabaret Voltaire flourished. Extended Play, the group’s first release in 1979, provided the debut record for legendary indie label Rough Trade Records.
As if the band’s historical credentials hadn’t been enforced enough by that, they also featured on A Factory Sampler, the first release for seminal Manchester label, Factory Records. From here Mallinder has gone on to record over 30 albums, each of them breaking new ground in what you can get machines to do.
Mallinder’s expertise is being called on again in September, when he introduces Wonderland’s screening of I Dream of Wires this month. Another strand of Brighton Digital Festival and Scalarama, a music, film and digital festival, the show is being produced in association with Melting Vinyl, and gives a brief insight into the prestigious history of the analogue synthesiser.
Showing at St. George’s in Kemp Town, on Tues 9 Sept 2014, this independent documentary is as much a history of music as it is the technology that facilitated it. Charting the rise, demise and resurgence of the modular synthesizer, it features interviews with over 100 musicians, inventors and enthusiasts, including Trent Reznor, Gary Numan, Vince Clarke, Daniel Miller, Carl Craig and John Foxx.
Written and directed by Robert Fantinatto, the film explores the passions, obsessions and dreams of people who have dedicated part of their lives to these esoteric machines. “It’s where we started, with this technology. Although a lot of it was what we dreamed of, rather than what we could afford to buy. We had loads of analogue and modular gear,” Mallinder recalls. “I guess it’s a part of my musical history and my story. It resonates even more, as Wrangler is produced all on analogue gear, so it’s come full circle.”
Wrangler is Mallinder’s new passion, which finds him teaming up with Tunng ‘s Phil Winter and acclaimed experimental producer Benge. Something of an electronic super-group, they came together with a shared ethos – to push the frontiers of what is possible, or even acceptable in electronic music.
The debut Wrangler album, LA Spark, sees pulsing synth shapes mingle with gated percussion and oddly evocative vocals. Old familiar analogue-era sounds pervade their music, but these have been lovingly updated and tweaked for a modern ear. “The name Wrangler comes from having analogue gear that doesn’t submit to your will. It’s as if we’re dealing with an electronic beast, trying to make do what we want.” Although predisposed to employ vintage gear, the trio create music sharply focused on the future. Existing in a no-man’s land between art and music, Wrangler seem revolutionary and explorative instead of commercial and obvious. There’s every chance, 100 years from now, the band’s output will be providing background music for upscale cocktail lounges the world over.
This new output comes when the artistic value of so much popular music is decreasing, due to different delivery methods and sifting commercial demands. By embracing analogue gear once more, Mallinder and co are returning to a very physical and tactile way of making electronic music. Rather than simple button pushing, it returns the live process back to music production. “There’s an element of chaos, because you only exert a certain amount of control over what happens.”
Machines, so far, are mere tools. At best they can only realise imagination, not replace it. Whilst much electronic music, particularly any intended for a dancefloor, is inevitably shaped by technology, it’s fair to say Mallinder has always strived to reverse this relationship between man and machine.
There exists something faintly dramatic about the rich, but occasionally unwieldy, sonic shapes of the analogue synth. It certainly makes for a more interesting live spectacle, when compared to the underwhelming world of pre-programmed loops and drum patterns. Of course there will always be a place in music for people embracing cutting-edge technologies but, as part of a performance, it too often provides little in the way of visual entertainment. “Audiences are bored of laptops, there’s not a great deal of pleasure in standing watching someone use one.”
Unlike computer-centric soft synth music creation, where the same sounds pop up across the output of disparate producers, there’s a distinctly unique aspect to working with this old technology. Perhaps this promise of individuality offers an answer to why it’s again booming in popularity. “There are all sorts of reasons why it’s back in favour. We all share a fascination with the past. But also people are always looking for authenticity, so the idea of analogue equipment lends itself to that. Electronic music has its own sense of history now.”
Wrangler’s album, LA Spark, is out now
I Dream Of Wires comes to St. George’s, Kemp Town, on Tues 9 Sept 2014.
Kafka Chic will be broadcast at 4pm, on Sun 28 Sept 2014, via RadioReverb 97.2FM, with special events being held at The Marwood Café, Redroaster St James Street and Redroaster Seven Dials.