Why Kill Time? 40 Years of Electronic Music from Cabaret Voltaire to Wrangler | An Interview with Stephen Mallinder

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]tephen Mallinder does not slow down. As a founding member of the electronic band Cabaret Voltaire, Mallinder’s influence has flowed through the veins of avant garde, noise, experimental and dance music since the mid 1970s. Nowadays, Mallinder’s been busy with DJing and, most importantly, working in Wrangler, a supergroup of sorts with members Benge and Phil Winter since early 2014.

Wrangler’s new album, White Glue, comes out on September 23rd with their first single, “Stupid”—an analog-fuled, funky dance track and its coinciding video filmed in just one shot. In conjunction with Rough Trade’s 40th anniversary celebration, Wrangler will perform alongside former Czars frontman, John Grant—a seemingly unlikely pairing… at first. Held in London on October 22nd, the Rough Trade bill also features Scritti Politti (featuring Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip) and The Raincoats with Angel Olsen.

Post-Punk.com got to chat with Mallinder about White Glue and Rough Trade’s 40th anniversary, but not without including some Burroughs and Bowie along the way:

Let’s talk about your new LP White Glue. Can you talk a bit about how it came about?

White Glue was stuff we’ve been playing live for about 18 months. We really just put it all together starting around Christmastime and finished it about 5 months later, so it’s quite concentrated. The earlier stuff was a work in progress—it probably took about 2 years to actually do the album and 3 months to actually nail it.

Where did you record the majority of the album? Did you do it in the studio or send each other files electronically?

We’ve done a few remixes where sometimes we’re asked to do a tune and we’re all over the place because Phil’s in London, I’m in Brighton and Benge is in Cornwall. If we’ve got to do a mix, Phil and I work in London while we pull it altogether but we try to be in the same room when we finish. Wrangler has one rule: when we write we do our own music because it’s performance based. It’s not one of those things that is computer-based in the sense that we send sound files. We all like to work together and be in the room. Strangely, it’s electronic music which is progressive, but in some ways we are traditional in that we work together and it has to come organically—otherwise it’s not really us.

You signed to Rough Trade almost 40 years ago with Cabaret Voltaire, now you are coming full circle with your Wrangler performance at the Rough Trade series in October.

It’s kind of odd because, obviously, Cabaret Voltaire was the first domestic release for Rough Trade and it was our first release, so they were there at the very beginning of my music career. For quite a number of years when we were making proper records, they distributed our label Double Vision so we’ve always had a connection. So when we were asked to be part of the 40 year anniversary then it was a lovely opportunity.

The pairing of Wrangler with John Grant for the Rough Trade performance is an unexpected one. How did that come about?

John has expressed his knowledge and interest of electronic music and we’ve been aware of this for a while. We first met him a couple years ago: he came to see a show when Wrangler played the Sensoria festival with Chris and Cosey. We met for the first time and that’s when I realized he’s a massive Cabs fan and Throbbing Gristle fan—he knows all about electronic music. And even though his music is placed little bit more in a different world, when you listen to his records and you do see him live you realize he does use a lot of electronic bass lines and that kind of technology. The culture is part of him as well, so when you get below the surface it’s not as weird as you say. He loves it because he gets to do electronic stuff. He’s on holiday doing this—we just do this. We don’t have holidays to make this kind of music.

Wrangler just did a remix for his last single “Voodoo Doll” and we just played the Albert Hall with him. It’s been the culmination of all these things and we’ve been connecting with him for the past couple years.

Credit: Hana Knizova

You first signed to Rough Trade thanks to Throbbing Gristle’s recommendation—do you ever wonder what it might have been like if you signed to Industrial Records instead?

Industrial Records distributed through Rough Trade so I guess we went to the source in that sense by going to them, but we were very close in terms of doing gigs and releasing stuff on Industrial. But our first album, Mix-Up, was more between Factory Records and Rough Trade but Tony [Wilson, co-founder of Factory] didn’t have money for that. Tony was bringing out the first Joy Division album with his funds because [Unknown Pleasures] was their first proper album as well. Tony put money into the Joy Division album and so we went with Rough Trade and it was all very amicable because everybody knew each other.

Cabaret Voltaire predated basically everyone in the industrial scene, were you aware that you were initiating something completely new and avant garde—that you are the very root of the movement?

I don’t think we were conscious that there was a actual movement because there weren’t many people doing it. It wasn’t arrogance but we were very confident in that we were doing something quite different. We didn’t think many people would be into it but we felt the right people would.

But it is what happened years after. Because when we first started there weren’t that many groups doing that kind of thing anyway so we certainly didn’t think we were part of any massive thing. It was very much an incremental thing partly because we only knew how to do this confidently. We just said, “this is what we do take it or leave it”—and it was nice because as soon as we started, people did take it and we were actually a little bit surprised. We were aware that it was touching a nerve but I don’t think we ever felt that it was going to be anything more.

Then again, we also felt the basis of rock music wasn’t going to last forever—it had to go somewhere. We felt music had to evolve—we were a small part of that change and part of the catalyst for that evolution. So we were aware of that but we didn’t know what would happen.

What was it that drew you to this type of experimentation?

[Cabaret Voltaire] enjoyed the aspect that we didn’t know what result we were going to get—we had no idea. Once you set out to make music you literally had no idea what the end of that piece of music was going to be. We did enjoy that process.

At the same time, the other part is the effect—we felt as though we wanted to be a part of something groundbreaking and interesting. We thought, “If we do this we’re a lot cooler than anyone else.” When we were teenagers, that was our version of being cool—it wasn’t going to be standing with a guitar and pulling rock poses. That wasn’t cool to us. What was cool was to go, “Yeah we’re into William Burroughs, yeah we’re into J.G. Ballard, we’re into this weird stuff.” Throbbing Gristle was a lot like us—we didn’t give a fuck because we were confident that we were different. We liked the effect of it, it was actually fun making the music—it wasn’t like anything else. It was art really: creating pieces of sound. We felt more comfortable creating art than popular music.

What you just described sounds similar to the ethos of the punk movement which was happening parallel to the early industrial scene.

The difference was about the tools in the sense that, no matter what punks said they wanted to be or how they wanted to change things, it was inherently conservative because it was just using a medium that was there already. It’s great they wanted to make noise, but they were still making it with the stuff they were going against. Some of it was good, some of it was bad because, ostensibly, that is music and there’s always going to be good and bad music. Whatever punk did was music but [Cabaret Voltaire] made sound so that’s what we were trying to change. For us, it was more of a paradigm shift and punk was trying to be a paradigm shift culturally—but sonically, what they were making was inherently quite normal. It was bass, drums, guitar, occasional keyboards and a vocalist—that was it.

Do you think that’s why punk went so mainstream so fast and then imploded on itself?

Yes, I think what punk taught us was how much the media can quickly co-op something that is seen as revolutionary and alternative and quickly commoditize it. It had been done before in the early 1950s with rock’n’roll and Elvis—you sort of take the power out of it to assimilate it in the mainstream. It loses its importance and was easily shifted into a thing that was marketable.

Is this why such commoditization has never really happened with industrial music since it’s not as traditional in sound?

Industrial is a term I can’t really define that much—I don’t entirely understand it. It’s a blanket term for many different things. Perhaps that’s part of it—that it was harder to pigeonhole. I think America did it a little bit with Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails, and all that—it was quite identifiable. But in England it was just Throbbing Gristle. Cabaret Voltaire was electronic, we just happened to be from an industrial town. I think in America it became a slightly different thing—those bands became a more suburban youth culture thing that still exists very much. Part of it shifted into goth, but it retained an identity in America. For an English person, it’s hard to answer that question because we don’t quite get it the same way Americans do. I think it meant more in America, it actually signified something. In England it was a journalistic term, it was quite convenient.

Do you think Throbbing Gristle would say the same?

Yeah, I think they would—but it’s easier for them to say, “We started industrial music.” They made the slogan industrial music for industrial people. I could go into the brutalist nature of it, the very urban part of it, all those things. And it represented for us—particularly those of us in England—a point of declining industry. It was a reaction to all those cities and all those spaces collapsing and falling apart. It was about the collapse of industry. I can talk about industrial culturally but, musically, it is much harder as it is so many different things.

Cabaret Voltaire circa 1974/5
Cabaret Voltaire circa 1974/5

What about the now-infamous show in Brussels with Joy Divison and William Burroughs in 1980—did you get to meet Burroughs as well?

Yes—Richard and I met him a few times, as well in New York. We went to the Bunker in the Bowery and hung out with him and John Giorno in 1984 or 1983. The first time we met him in Brussels we were a lot younger and it was quite awe-inspiring so I was quite happy just to breathe the same air as him.

Do you think industrial would exist without the influence of Burroughs?

Not really—we’re just another link in the chain but Burroughs is obviously such a literary icon. Not just literary, but also in terms of processes and interests. He was doing interesting things with sound and he understood the world in which he inhabited. He taught us to deconstruct the world—which is what he was doing with words—and we followed on and deconstructed our world in sound. So what he was doing and how he was approaching the processes taught us ways of looking at how to make music but also how to look at the world around you. I am just a mere gnat compared to him.

Also speaking of influences, I heard you were a Bowie fan. When was the first time you heard him and why do you think he had such an impact on you?

First time I heard Bowie was in 1971 when he did Space Oddity. Then I’ve just followed him since. He was one of those catalyst people. He was a magpie who stole—and I mean this in a really good way—he was able to absorb the world around him but was such a brilliant filter. He soaked it all up but only the good bits came through: he worked with them and used them.

While punk was happening Bowie was able to complement what was going on around that period with Low and Heroes without getting his hands dirty. He didn’t have to jump in—Iggy did a lot of that for him, like “Go over there and be mental with all those punks, Iggy, and I’ll stay here and be really fucking cool.” We forget how great some of his records like Station to Station are as well, so he was always doing brilliant music. I was lucky enough to have been around when he started so I was able to witness it all and blessed to have seen that because he was so important.

What bands are you listening to nowadays? Who is sparking your interest?

I’m spoiled because with Wrangler I am working with people I admire. It’s kind of incestuous.

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