He’s been known by many aliases throughout his long solo career, but Richard H Kirk is now once again Cabaret Voltaire. After a hiatus of more than 25 years, the Cabs’ ‘Shadow Of Fear’ album is both a reflection of the current madness and a nod to the possibility of happier times ahead

It’s strange to credit, so grimly apposite is it, so apt are its cracked atmospheres, its remorseless rhythms, its vicious guitar frottage, but the new Cabaret Voltaire album was in the can prior to what Richard H Kirk describes as “the weirdness” of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s as if the world has come to bear out some paranoid, fevered speculation on the part of Kirk.

The year is 2020. Donald Trump is President of the United States, a far-right campaign group has engineered Britain’s breakaway from the European Union, and the world is in the grip of a pandemic that has already wiped out hundreds of thousands of lives and for which there is no known cure.

It’s the sort of scenario ‘Shadow Of Fear’ anticipates, with its barking snatches of hysterical, demagogue-style voices, the visceral rush of accelerating into dark tunnels towards an uncertain fate, the frantic haywire buzz of electronics suggesting malfunction and breakdown.

Kirk is all too aware of this unwanted coincidence. He also suspects that, in true pioneering spirit, he may have contracted Covid-19 at the very beginning of this year.

“I haven’t been out of the house since January,” he says. “I’m lucky in that I have a garden, so I can get fresh air when I need it. But I was ill in January. I was ill for six weeks. I don’t know what it was and I didn’t get tested. And then my wife got ill, so now we’re both at home. I’ve never known times like these in my life. Not only is there a pandemic, but then to be plunged into Brexit, when you could be looking at food and medicine shortages. And then you look at America and the riots there. It’s as if Charles Manson’s ‘Helter Skelter’ thing has come true!”

He laughs at the thought of there being some grain of truth in the pop-eyed little murderer’s insane prediction of a race war in America, but only briefly.

“It really has become pretty scary. It’s quite something that some of the countries with the highest death rates are run by populist knobheads. It could all get biblical. I should be out on the road promoting the album, but I can’t see that happening for, what, a year? Without a vaccine, you’re not safe. I’m 64, I’m a smoker. I’ve been keeping my head down, but how long does that have to last?”

I am speaking to Richard H Kirk at his home in Sheffield, the city in which he has remained throughout his working life. He is the sole remaining member of Cabaret Voltaire. Chris Watson left almost 40 years ago, to work initially with David Attenborough and then as a field recording artist, while Stephen Mallinder these days releases music with Wrangler or under his own name (as with his recent ‘Um Dada’). Thankfully, the Cabs have not followed the lead of some other bands, from Faust to The Sweet to UB40, in which different versions of the group tour under the same name.

‘Shadow Of Fear’ is Cabaret Voltaire’s first album for 26 years. Its beginnings stretch back to 2014, to the Berlin Atonal Festival, where Kirk played his first show as Cabaret Voltaire on his own.

“When I agreed to do the record, I’d spent a very intense two months in the studio. I’d come up with about three hours’ worth of ideas designed for live performance rather than for vinyl or CD. I spent from September of last year through to April of this year refining and organising it.”

The result of this refinement and organisation is impressive and timely. It carries on the Cabs’ theme of a high-pressure media environment, a modern age in which we are clamped to a matrix of chilling commands, mixed messages and hysteria. Kirk is particularly feeling this right now, with the 24-hour updates on the pandemic that seem less like a valid information flow, more a mechanism to generate anxiety, even panic.

“What really kills me is the media don’t leave it alone and they are making things worse. So from the minute you get up in the morning, all you hear is ‘coronavirus, coronavirus…’. It’s like a mantra. It’s even been co-opted into advertising. I personally think, yeah, keep people informed, but don’t keep whacking them over the head with it. It doesn’t help that the government don’t have a clue with these different rules for different parts of the country. I was watching Boris Johnson on TV and, good god, what’s he on? Is he still ill with the virus, or what? The ‘Rule Of Six’? It’s like some cabalistic cult. God help us!”

The situation is intensified by the existence of social media, of course. Kirk, however, decided to give that a swerve long ago.

“I don’t use it and I don’t look at it, so I suppose I’m grumbling about mainstream media. I decided I didn’t want to get involved in Facebook or Twitter. Some may think that’s a bit weird, but I’d go a bit mad if I got into them. Maybe it’s an age thing, but when I see people who seem to do nothing but constantly update their Facebook page, I think, ‘How about going out and living?’.”

And so to ‘Shadow Of Fear’.

The opener, ‘Be Free’, a poignant exhortation in our current curtailed circumstances, is prophetic funk noir, with its strafing sodium lights, intense monochromatic shades and shuddering sheet metal. “Be free” intones a voice, as if it were an instruction. One can only think of our government ministers urging us to go out, even at the risk of infection, and have fun. Eat out, crowd into pubs, but not for the sake of our own health. “The city is falling apart” declares the voice. It’s truly uncanny.

Kirk talks about the next track, ‘The Power (Of Their Knowledge)’, with its curving gothic tunnels and central vocal extract (“You start with nothing and you END with nothing!”), as double-edged. There’s the manipulative wiles of populist/authoritarian PR machines, but also the formidable weight of humankind’s pooled brains to seek a vaccine. ‘Night Of The Jackal’ is meanwhile like being spirited into an underground lab, the peripheral sound of data processing and test tube explosions making their own addition to the album’s overall nervous tension.

Elsewhere on the record, ‘Papa Nine Zero Delta United’, its drum programming reminiscent of the Cabs’ 1981 album ‘Red Mecca’, immediately zooms off in a future direction – a silver dream machine proceeding through driving rain, hissing sporadic bursts of exhaust steam – and is a sort of antacid house (alkaline house?). The similarly accelerated ‘Universal Energy’, obliquely announced by some Eartha Kitt-type siren, uses a rhythm that could pass for Space’s ‘Magic Fly’ as its launchpad, except it doesn’t launch. It stays on the dancefloor of a derelict Studio 54-style club, glitter balls still revolving eerily of their own momentum.

“It’s not sampled from ‘Magic Fly’,” says Kirk. “For one thing, I don’t have the budget to settle the court action!”

As with the final track, ‘What’s Goin’ On’, an unabashed reference to the 1971 Marvin Gaye album, the only samples are culled from old newsreels, cop shows, evangelical sermons and sci-fi films. The music is all performed by Kirk.

“I was talking to someone about this the other day,” he says. “This guy was under the impression that I used a lot of samples from old soul records, but I don’t. The horns and stuff aren’t stolen from anywhere. The horns, the guitars… I play all of those myself. But I love Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’. It really doesn’t feel that far from where we are at the present.”

Kirk goes on to assert the importance of Surrealism to Cabaret Voltaire, a name taken from the Zürich nightclub where the first Dada events took place in 1916, and we discuss Salvador Dalí for a while. ‘Shadow Of Fear’ comes across like one of his mental landscapes, in which motifs rear and recur.

For Dalí, it was soft watches and spindly-legged elements. For Kirk, it’s what he has always brought to the Cabs – the mutations of funk, the wah-wah, the brass and the searing electronics. I’m also thinking of Dalí’s “paranoiac-critical method”, a technique by which he would work himself into such a state of mind that he would make all manner of improbable juxtapositions, using paranoia as a creative energy. This is certainly the case with the track ‘Microscopic Flesh Fragment’. Kirk is gratified by the comparison.

“Yeah, well, that’s great. I take that as a compliment. When I was young, I was a fan of Dalí. I’d never seen paintings like his before and I loved the way he twisted reality. There’s also the way he talked about people being ‘cretinised’. Every time I see a reality TV show or a game show, I think that’s right. Another influence is Isidore Ducasse, the French poet who talks about the beauty of a chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella. It’s the idea of bringing completely disparate components together to create something new. It’s the same with Burroughs and his cut-ups. I still think it’s a very valid reference point. I know JG Ballard swore by it until his dying day.”

Listening to ‘Shadow Of Fear’, there are moments when it’s tempting to make psychogeographical links with Sheffield itself. After all, Cabaret Voltaire initiated the first great electronic wave from the city back in the 1970s, a scene that also included The Human League, Clock DVA and Vice Versa (the prototype for ABC) – bleak, urban, post-industrial. A feeling of steel repurposed for synthesisers. Later on, in 1989, Sheffield gave birth to Warp Records, founded by Steve Beckett, Rob Mitchell and Rob Gordon, in whose development Richard Kirk also had a hand. But despite having maintained his home in the city, Kirk really doesn’t buy into the idea of Sheffield having any role in shaping his sound.

“No, I wouldn’t say Sheffield affects what I’m doing and I’m not sure it ever did anyway. When I go out in Sheffield, I find it’s changed so much that I don’t recognise it. A lot of the character has been taken away from the place. It could be any northern or Midlands medium-sized city. That’s why I love Europe. If you’re in Berlin, you pretty much know that it’s Berlin. I tend to look at global rather than local stuff and I think that was always true with Cabaret Voltaire – the Baader-Meinhof Group weren’t from Sheffield – which is possibly why we were always more popular outside of England.”

So has he ever thought of relocating? To Europe perhaps? How about Berlin?

“I have thought about it, but I’m more likely to relocate to somewhere where the weather’s a bit more user-friendly. Berlin gets a bit parky! As for Sheffield, it is quite anonymous and, in terms of where you live, you get a better quality of life for less outlay than somewhere like London. Still, for all I know, there might not be any of Sheffield left!”

Kirk has toured a lot in Europe over the last few years. His visits to Sheffield city centre are (or, sadly, were) generally for the purpose of getting on a train to St Pancras to hop onto the Eurostar. Like David Bowie, Cabaret Voltaire were part of the Europhile wave of British music in the 1970s, setting their faces eastward for inspiration. While American funk is also a stimulus and Stateside TV a fertile source of found recordings, Kirk remains interested in European art and music, its formal experimentalism stretching back to the early 20th century, and he feels spiritually at home on the continent.

“I started going to Europe to nose around when I was 18, on the old Interrail ticket, and in the past five years that’s where I’ve been mainly plying my trade. The audiences are keen to listen to music they’ve never heard before. It’s a big ask, but they’re really open to it.”

Playing live as Cabaret Voltaire, however, Kirk has held fast to older methods. He’s as wary of laptops as live tools as he is of social media.

“I don’t use computers live, or haven’t done yet, so I can’t reproduce everything I do in the studio. I have to work around the limitations and there’s a lot of improvisation in the live work. I do use computers when I’m recording, but I’ve always had this fear of them just… going, crashing. It would be a bit awkward if that happened in the middle of a live show. I know people have back-ups, separate hard drives, but I’m not technologically at that stage yet, so I use more vintage equipment. The improvisation also allows for more fluidity. It allows for an escape if things go wrong – all is not lost!”

What sort of crowd does Kirk attract? A young one?

“Definitely. I’ve seen people at some of the gigs who look older than me, but also a lot of youngsters. Perhaps they know something about Cabaret Voltaire’s history and see the potential it has for now.”

It’s hardly surprising. Electronica is the principal element of 21st century music, with methods once considered avant-garde now mainstream practice, and the sort of synthphobia that held the Cabs back in the past is as dead as the typewriter. But are audiences on the continent more receptive to Kirk’s strain of avant-garde than those in the UK?

“That’s difficult to say. In Europe, more people will turn up. You do get the odd troll shouting, ‘This is not the Cabs!’, but that’s mainly in the UK, and it only spurs me on. I don’t like all this nostalgia. I was watching Madness on some Sky TV show the other night. I used to love Madness, but people come to see them now just to try to relive their youth.

“Kraftwerk are the exception to the rule. I saw them in Sheffield in 2017. I looked around and practically everyone had grey hair. But what they’re doing is more like an art project. They’re not a rock ’n’ roll band and no one’s doing air guitars to them. I do wonder when the robots will take over completely with Kraftwerk and Ralf can have a bit of a rest.”

Here’s the paradox. In true Futurist spirit, Kirk abhors the nostalgia that has such a gravitational pull on contemporary music, especially the hankering for reunions. When I spoke to him in 2015, he assured me that he would never countenance a Cabaret Voltaire reunion with the original line-up.

“I’m not 25 anymore,” he said. “I can’t play guitar with the sort of violence I used to.”

For Kirk, reunions are as satisfying as watching John McEnroe playing an exhibition tennis match at the Royal Albert Hall. That said, he feels the original Cabaret Voltaire project petered out in an unsatisfactory manner, following their signing to EMI and the overbearing commercialisation imposed on the group, the desire to mould them somehow into a smooth, radio-friendly electronic funk outfit. Hence his desire to revive the moniker now.

“EMI had been throwing money at Cabaret Voltaire, putting out various dance mixes that never got anywhere, and I was a bit unhappy at the time. I thought ‘Groovy, Laidback And Nasty’ was… well, I couldn’t hear the nasty in it. There were too many outsiders poking their noses in. It wasn’t all bad, though. It was great working with Marshall Jefferson and living in Chicago for a year.”

It was when an engineer remarked, enthusiastically (and somewhat bizarrely), that Stephen Mallinder’s singing sounded like Phil Collins that Kirk felt things had gone awry and the band were being pushed in the wrong direction. This was not the desideratum of the Cabs.

“The irony is, it got us dropped from our American record label because they wanted something more industrial. So it was good to get back to working on projects that were more cutting-edge. I think it was at a time when the money men decided what was going to be the single, but that’s understandable because we were never supported by radio and TV.

“There was still something dangerous about Cabaret Voltaire, even in a watered-down form. In those days, you needed to have a music video and be on kids’ TV, and that always caused a problem because you couldn’t show any guns or naked ladies. I know that sounds cheesy, but it was that trash aesthetic, you know? So you’ve got your hands tied behind your back.”

Unshackled from EMI, Kirk returned to Western Works, the Cabs’ original studio in Sheffield. After making some foundational records in the efflorescence of Warp and bleep music in the early 90s, he proceeded to forge multiple solo careers under a dazzling array of aliases, each tailored for projects that took in the disparate styles, and chance meeting of styles, that he has absorbed and reprocessed over the years – funk, disco, industrial, arpeggiated ambient, tropicalia noir, techno, house, krautrock, musique concrète, field recordings.

Kirk bores quickly of passing fads, pursuing antithetical approaches rather than settling into grooves, enjoying stark, jarring contrasts and improbable contradictions. Cabaret Voltaire is but one string to his many-stringed bow.

I wonder how Kirk creates his music. With preliminary sketches, gradually fleshed out and coloured in, or in feverish bursts of activity at his machines?

“A lot of it is spontaneous. Sometimes I’m working on a track and I find myself saying, ‘How the fuck did that happen? How did that come about?’. It’s very instinctive in that I might be using different pieces of rhythm, or whatever, and when they lock together into some sort of groove or meaningful landscape then I feel, yes, I want to carry on with this and complete it.”

Ultimately, and quite emphatically, Kirk prefers working alone. It ties in with his feeling that, as with Kraftwerk, what he’s doing is an art project with aspects of literature thrown in. This is particularly the case in the creation of his pseudonyms, with which he takes the same care, puts in the same thought, as a novelist titling their books and chapters in order to establish an atmosphere, to provoke a suggestion – however nebulous – in the mind of the reader. And literature is rarely a collaborative project. Nor, with high profile exceptions such as the Chapman Brothers and Gilbert & George, is art.

“Yes, I do prefer working alone. I often feel more like a painter when I’m in my studio. And that’s where I started off. I did a lot of art in my younger days, before I was making music. You get very wrapped up in your own world when you’re working by yourself in that way. Maybe I’ll collaborate with others in the future, but this suits the way I organise my time. If you want to work with someone in a physical sense, it has to be when they’re available, when you’re available. You could file share, but I’ve never worked creatively like that, except when I’m doing remixes, which is OK. It’s never been something that I’ve tried.”

The year is 2020. It’s been a grim hiatus, but Richard H Kirk is far from finished. Further Cabaret Voltaire releases created during the ‘Shadow Of Fear’ sessions are already in the can and will see the light of day in 2021.

Following each of our interviews, which were conducted over two days, Kirk would disappear into the studio. There is so much more work to be done. The world of Cabaret Voltaire is no longer a far-fetched proposition, it’s a reflection of the actual environment we currently inhabit, speeding across who knows where, hectored by voices on all sides. Kirk’s music is supremely relevant to that because, far from holding fast to obsolete traditions or seeking escapism or promising solace, he feeds off paranoia, strife and nervous anxiety, turning it into an artistic force.

“I think it was Brian Eno who said that he has input and output when he’s working on things. Trying to convert all this stuff that’s going on in the world into an artistic statement is like feeding it through a mangle and seeing what comes out of the other end.”

And yet, do not entirely despair, yea, even in the shadow of fear, for twinkling in the corner of the eye of this album is the prospect of joy. All this may well pass. It’s most evident on ‘Universal Energy’, a banger glimmering with the eternal light of dance music.

“It was part of the first bunch of tracks that I wrote and it seemed to get people moving,” says Kirk. “There’s got to be light and shade. There’s got to be something uplifting, rather than everything being doom-laden. I see it now as imagining a vaccine and everyone being back on the dancefloor, but don’t take that too seriously!”

‘Shadow Of Fear’ is out on Mute

You May Also Like
Read More

Catskills Records: Paws And Rewind

Celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, under the radar Brighton-based Catskills Records is an imprint well worth discovering. We chat with founders, brothers Amr and Kahalid Mallassi, and meet Pepe DeluxÉ and Husky Rescue, the double whammy of Finnish bands that still sets the label apart…
Read More

David Bowie: Speed Of Life

Two pioneering albums, a classical music voiceover, a safari, an imposter, encounters with Blondie, Eddie & The Hots Rods and Devo and, in the midst of a bleak Berlin winter, an ill-fated film, David Bowie had reached almost terminal velocity by December 1977…
Read More

Ambient: Dream State

How do you define ambient music? What’s the role of ambient today? And how might it sound in the future? We put these questions and others to our esteemed panel of ambient artists