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Richard H Kirk

'I'm not so ruled by technology': Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H Kirk on 40 years at the electronic coalface and why raw ideas always trump new advances in studio tech...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 21 Dec 2016
  • min read
Richard H Kirk has been plotting his own shapes and lines through outsider electronics and dancefloor experimentation since the early seventies.

His future musings led to the formation of Cabaret Voltaire, whose outré blips and bleeps powered a generation of producers in the band's native Sheffield and far beyond.

Together with Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson, Richard’s proto-techno and boundary-pushing bent spilt from their homemade studio to change the shape of modular music forever.

As a trio, and later a duo, Cabaret Voltaire took on the repetitive aesthetics of earlier forms of dance music, dub and funk, wringing hypnotic drones from their rudimentary technology.

Throughout, Richard has also worked as a soloist, under his own name and as Sandoz - his raw invention continuing unfettered. Altogether, it’s a sprawling catalogue spanning major label successes and independent highs.

With a new album on the way, plus the recent arrival of two ace retrospective boxsets through Mute Records, we spent some time with Richard to find out more about his life in music...

What triggered you to start making music in the first place?
I think just being a fan of music really, and being a bit obsessed by it. Then I got together with some like-minded people. I started working with Chris Watson in about 1974, just doing experiments using some tape recorders. We just went from there really…

What did you have to hand back then? Was it literally just a microphone and some tape recorders?
Pretty much! Then I bought a clarinet which I electrified. I put a pick-up on it and started to use it through effects that were really meant for a guitar, but seemed to work quite well with wind instruments as well.

I used to make loops by overloading the clarinet into a tape recorder and covering up the erase head, which meant that you were actually multi-tracking with very basic tools.

You said you were a big fan of music at that time. What were you listening to? Were you tuning into stuff like COUM Transmissions?
We didn’t actually hear about Throbbing Gristle until probably about 1977. We'd already been making music concrete type material using the arsenal of equipment that we were slowly building up.

Mainly, the sorts of things I was listening to in the early seventies were David Bowie and Roxy Music, part of the glam era. That led on to discovering things like the Velvet Underground, and then a lot of German electronic bands, and also dub by the mid-seventies. I acquired my first dub album, and that all became quite influential in terms of what I went on to do.

What’s your relationship to dub? How has it influenced your solo stuff like Sandoz?
It was basically a massive eye opener in terms of how the Jamaican guys were using a studio. They were using the mixing desk as an instrument. I used to go to quite a few shebeens, blues clubs, where there'd be sound systems in someone's cellar. It was great to go into that environment and hear the music rattling around, giving you that kick in the chest that you get from that heavy base.

How has your approach to music-making and electronics changed over the years?
It's been changed by technology, but I think technology's got to a point now where it’s not as interesting as it was. There were a few things that happened, like the invention of the sampler, which was very important, and also the use of a sequencer in the early eighties.

Over the years, I'm still using technology that's out of date because it’s part of what I do. I’ll write music using an old Atari 1040ST computer, with a sequencer called C-Lab that came out in the late eighties. The combination of that with the sampler were very important.

Now, it’s much easier because you’ve got computer programmes allowing you to have everything in a laptop. I also use Pro Tools, although it’s quite an old copy.

I don't think things have changed that much. If you bought something tomorrow, would it give you that much more flexibility? All you're getting is people developing plug-ins to replicate analogue equipment, which I always thought was quite funny, because I'm still using analogue equipment anyway.

I'm sure there are many toys out there, but I'm not so ruled by technology. Technology was always a catalyst - it allowed you to do things, especially if you weren’t the world's best musician. It gave you the options to do things that maybe you couldn’t play yourself.

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How do you think technology has changed electronic music?
I’m not sure because I don’t actually listen to that much electronic music. It’s like a busman's holiday! If you're working with that kind of stuff, the last thing you want to do is listen to more of the same.

I think the whole thing with modular synthesis, to me, is that it's become chic and trendy. I've been using modular synthesis for a long time in the form an EMS Synthi A, which was basically a synth without any keyboards or preset, so you only got out of it what you put in. It was using a patch bay where you could group oscillators to ring modulators, or filters, or whatever.

I'm just bored by it. Everywhere you go, ‘Oh, I'm using modular synthesis,’ and it’s like, ‘Well, maybe you should broaden your horizons a little bit, and don’t just follow what everyone else is doing’.

I suppose the music is only as good as the raw ideas you put in…
Yes. My interest with electronic music and what was happening with Cabaret Voltaire wasn’t all that synth based. It was more about using synthesisers to process the sound of voices and instruments. Basically, you ended up with something that didn’t sound like anything you’d ever heard before, and that was the whole point.

How did the Cabaret Voltaire sound evolve over time, do you think? What was the internal dynamic?
Well, basically, in the early days, we were just mates. We were interested in music. The music and soundscape side was generally what Chris and myself did, and then we would get Mal [Stephen Mallinder] to add some bass guitar and vocals on top of that.

Then, when Chris left, I took over completely in terms of creating the soundscapes, and the rhythms and music, and Mal would concentrate on the vocals really. So that's how it devolved really.

Going into the eighties and working in larger studios outside of our own Western Works was a good learning experience. We were fortunate enough to work with a guy called Flood, who, as you know, went on to work with some very big artists subsequent to Cabaret Voltaire. We learned a lot from him, and he probably learned a few things from us, you know?

It was nice to have someone there who was very open minded. Our experience of working with engineers and producers prior to that could be problematic, because a lot of people just have a rulebook. You can't do this. You can't do that. But we threw the rulebook away and we just did what we thought was good.

What was that kind of atmosphere like for somebody like yourself at that time? Did you feel that you could do anything?
It was a bit daunting. I remember when we first started to work with Some Bizarre and via them signed with Virgin Records. I think we'd actually made most of the album before we actually signed anything.

Some Bizarre's head, Stevo, said, ‘Look, I’ll put up a budget of £10,000 for you to go and make an album, but I’d like you to do it in a commercial studio,’ which turned out to be Trident Studios in London. We just loaded up everything from Western Works and took that down.

I think we had about one and a half ideas for songs and after four days, we'd made most of the album. We just went into it full-on. Obviously, we spent more time mixing. The Crackdown album, was made in about four days, which is not that good considering The Beatles used to record an entire album in an afternoon!

You’ve made so much music, on your own and in the band. What, for you, stands up the best?
That’s a very difficult question. Everything that I've done with Cabaret Voltaire or on my own I totally stand by, because it was right for whatever time it was done.

Thankfully, I think a lot of it's stood the test of time, which is why we ended up with these two box sets. Some of the stuff's been out of print for 10 years, maybe 20 years.

What was it like to go through all that stuff for the two boxsets?
When it’s something that you’ve not heard for a long time, it’s sad in some ways because it reminds you of those times which have gone. Also, it’s quite joyous when you find something and you think, ‘Wow, why did I never release this 30 years ago?’

What do you think about Cabaret Voltaire’s legacy? Loads of bands cite you as a major influence…
I don’t have any strong feelings about it. Without wanting to sound big headed, I've read countless interviews with artists who’ve said that Cabaret Voltaire was a big influence. It’s nice that people have been inspired in the same way that I was inspired by the Velvet Underground.

There's that story that the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everybody who bought them formed a band. I think there's a little bit of that to Cabaret Voltaire, because we were never fantastically commercially successful. It’s always been underground.

Did you feel like part of a wider electronic community back then?
Well, I still live in Sheffield, so I'm not part of any community! I live here, I travel, but I still do all my work here. It’s been the one constant. The studio, Western Works, is still where I record everything.

I think you feel more like a community when you go out to play live and meet people at festivals or whatever throughout Europe. There are always people who are interesting.

What’s your relationship with music-making these days, and what keeps you going back into the studio?
Boredom, which is probably what started the whole thing. In the early- to mid-seventies in Sheffield, there wasn’t a lot going on. You had to find your own entertainment, which turned out to be making weird electronic music. I’d say it’s not that different for me now. I'm still making a lot of new music, and I've continued to do so over the years.

What's next for you?
I have a new album that'll be released in the new year under my own name, which I've worked on for three or four years. Then, after that, because I've been taking Cabaret Voltaire out on the road, the next thing will be to think about making a new album, or maybe even a DVD for Cabaret Voltaire.

Richard H. Kirk #7489 (Collected Works 1974 - 1989) and Sandoz #9294 (Collected Works 1992 - 1994) are out now on Mute Records.