An off-the-wall supergroup, where Stephen Mallinder and John Grant share the mic, and a debut long-player that’s high on our Album Of The Year list already… meet Creep Show
United by a shared love of antique modular machines that fizz, crackle, thump, squelch and oscillate, Creep Show could well be the world’s first steampunk synth nerd supergroup. Featuring two studio boffins and two semi-legendary vocalists, this kaleidoscopic collective cements the long-standing mutual friendship between poison-tipped soft-rock balladeer John Grant, and Wrangler, the cultish electro-funk trio made up of Ben “Benge” Edwards, Phil Winter of Tunng and Stephen “Mal” Mallinder, formerly of Cabaret Voltaire.
Creep Show’s debut album, ‘Mr Dynamite’, is a sumptuous banquet of techno torch songs, analogue audioscapes and mutant discotronica. It is funny and funky, mischievous and menacing, romantic and sardonic, with recurring nods to the vintage beatbox aesthetic of 1980s electro. But Mallinder denies any knowingly nostalgic intent.
“Those sounds just resonate with us,” explains Mal over coffee in an east London bar, where the globally-scattered members of Creep Show assemble for a rare face-to-face summit. “They are like air to us really, so it feels natural to build on them and incorporate them.”
“We are just making music that we love,” agrees Grant. “And a Korg MS-20 bassline is really timeless.”
Creep Show grew out of an exploratory live collaboration between Grant and Wrangler at London’s Barbican Centre in October 2016, part of the celebrations for the Rough Trade label’s 40th anniversary. The project had clearly begun to evolve by April last year, when Grant invited Wrangler to play at North Atlantic Flux, a charmingly left-field festival he curated as part of Hull’s City Of Culture programme.
“That was deep into the relationship at that point,” Grant says with a grin. “Balls deep.”
As it happens, Electronic Sound was present to witness both Grant and Wrangler play in Hull a year ago, the former filling an ornate Victorian civic hall with his bittersweet chansons of doomed romance and sexual angst, while the latter mapped out a futuristic electro-punk dystopia in a semi-derelict warehouse on the city’s industrial fringes. The two wildly diverse locations seem to embody the broad gulf between Grant’s artisan songcraft and Wrangler’s synth-heavy sonics, but the singer insists the divide is not really that wide.
“It’s misleading to see me in that way,” he protests, “because my insides look like a Yamaha CS-80. That is my true love, the synth. Even the most singer-songwriter music that I do is inspired by the stuff that Mal and Wrangler have made, even if it doesn’t sound like it. We all love sounds. Sound design really is something that brings you together.”
“John’s music is inspired by past sounds as well as future sounds,” agrees Benge. “Obviously Wrangler are referencing a lot of earlier music, and then bringing it up to date. I think that same sensibility goes through John’s work.”
Mal insists that Grant and Wrangler share not just musical common ground, but a cultural hinterland too.
“If you listen to John’s early stuff, it’s all drum machines and basslines, the same stuff that we do,” he says. “The same DNA is in there basically. And also probably culturally, we all like the same shit films and science fiction and crappy books; we’ve all got an interest in popular culture and junk culture.”
Benge and Winter initially founded Wrangler with a purist manifesto to compose each track using a single vintage synthesiser. All analogue, no digital: no laptops or drum machines. They have since relaxed their austere rulebook a little, but not much. ‘Mr Dynamite’ was still made on mostly antique technology, with no presets or plug-ins, with just a minor sprinkling of programmed beats and computer sequencing.
“It’s all done in the control room, apart from a couple of vocals,” explains Mal, “so literally you are just sat in a big playpen. Whenever we are working, each of us is no more than six inches away from a piece of equipment. In fact we only used three leads on the entire album. It’s a very physical thing. We become at one with the technology.”
“We are assimilated into the Borg,” smiles Grant.
‘Mr Dynamite’ was recorded at Benge’s home studio deep in the Cornish countryside near Bodmin, a living museum of classic synthesiser technology. He only needs a gentle nudge to wax lyrical about his babies: Moogs and Korgs, Buchlas and Rolands, an E-Mu Modulator and an ARP 2500. But he is most proud of his vintage Yamaha CS-80, the polyphonic 1970s monster beloved of Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder, Michael Jackson and many others.
“I read somewhere that it has got two miles of wiring inside,” he says.
“It weighs a fucking ton, I’ll tell you that,” offers Mal.
A key factor in the creative process is that all four members must be in the same location at the same time.
“It’s not Wrangler unless we are all in the same room,” says Mal. “Working with John was a new dynamic and a new element, but he works in exactly the same way as we do. We bounce off each other really. And because our stuff is based on equipment and technology and having access to things, we don’t really work remotely because we don’t do laptop stuff.”
Benge claims Grant has brought a new level of professionalism to the “one-finger keyboard people” of Wrangler.
“We never had chords before, so this is new to us,” he tells the singer. “Actually you introduced some of the white notes; normally we just use the black notes.”
This is Wrangler humour, wry and dry and slightly surreal. One minute they are sharing synth nerd in-jokes and cheap sexual innuendo, the next they are debating the submerged influence of Euclidean geometry on the history of dance music. The power balance between them seems pretty relaxed, with no obvious alpha male egos to spoil the party.
“There aren’t really four egos in the room, just four individuals,” says Grant, “sharing a love of sounds, getting excited about sounds. So there is really no power dynamic. But I see the three of us centred around Mal; all of us have been inspired by him.”
“That’s because I do the cooking,” laughs Mal. “I make the pasta. I’m everybody’s mum, ha!”
Creep Show may run on broadly egalitarian principles, but Mallinder is clearly the group’s elder statesman. He is the most vocal in interviews and, at 63, the oldest member with the deepest musical history. Indeed, Grant’s long-standing love for Mallinder’s former group, seminal disco-punk Dadaists Cabaret Voltaire, has obviously been crucial to this new collaboration. Grant describes the Cabs as “musical royalty” and calls their run of classic 1980s albums, “inextricable from my musical DNA.”
Wrangler and Creep Show are shaping up to be Mallinder’s third-act comeback, his most high-profile musical projects since Cabaret Voltaire disbanded in the mid-90s, after which he relocated to Australia for more than a decade. He jokingly calls this chapter his “lost years”, partly because he seemed to disappear from the parochial UK media radar.
“Jarvis Cocker told people I’d gone to be a sheep farmer!” he laughs.
In reality, Mal kept himself extremely busy in Perth, Western Australia, home to his wife Hayley. He co-founded a label called Offworld Sounds, hosted shows on community radio, launched a touring festival called Vibes On A Summer’s Day, and more. In 2011, he completed a PhD in Music And Popular Culture entitled ‘Movement: Journey Of The Beat’ at Perth’s Murdoch University. And then it was time to come home. He now lives in Brighton, where he balances multiple musical projects with some part-time teaching at the university.
“It was funny in Australia because I was working with young electronic music producers, and it was quite nice because they didn’t give a fuck about me,” he says. “But even though I loved working in Australia, that was of its time. It was nice to come back and work with people who probably had more of an empathy with my past; a bit more heritage. So in answer to what you’re probably saying, I feel like I’ve come home.”
There are some inescapably Cabs-like numbers on ‘Mr Dynamite’, all heavily processed vocal collages and fidgety future-funk paranoia. Have Creep Show ever shelved a track because it sounded too much like Cabaret Voltaire?
“Nothing can sound too Cabaret Voltaire,” says Grant, only half joking.
“The thing is, we made so much music in the Cabs,” says Mal. “If you mic up a Hoover it’s the Cabs! We toyed with everything from doing funk records to Hoover records, but I am never conscious of wanting to copy or emulate anything I’ve done before. So if there are similarities it’s purely because it’s me. My self-awareness is fucking shit, basically.”
That said, Mallinder’s machine-mulched vocals and artfully scrambled lyrics on ‘Mr Dynamite’ are more playful than usual, eschewing the spiky political and social commentary that runs right through Cabaret Voltaire and into Wrangler. Mal concedes that the forthcoming third Wrangler album will be “really dark” too, but with Creep Show he didn’t feel any obligation to protest against the state of the world.
“We’re not the fucking Levellers!” he splutters. “Not being rude, much as I love Crass and stuff like that, but you just make music that is appropriate for you. Wrangler, even musically, has got nothing to do with the words. I don’t write overtly political commentaries; that is just how I think about things, I see things in that social context. I would never preach, but I wouldn’t be true to myself if I wrote really anodyne stuff either.”
Of course, argues Winter, escapism and optimism can be political statements in themselves.
“These days, things have almost got so ridiculous that there is a really valid point in just escaping and getting away from that,” he says. “Music should also embrace that element. People have enough shit to deal with already. It’s about balancing all that. Being true to yourself but not depressing people.”
“It’s down to the individual,” adds Grant. “The escapism thing is just as relevant as talking about the way things are. Having a good mix, but not shoving things down people’s throats, I think that is the best way.
“Everything should be in the spectrum,” Mal nods. “As artists you should be allowed to play with every element available to you, every emotion, every sentiment. We don’t represent just one thing, we represent the whole gamut of human experience. And it’s about the future too. It’s not just about what you are, it’s about what you want to become, so there’s got to be an optimism in there too.”
For Grant too, there is something of the holiday romance about Creep Show, a light-hearted digression from his more acerbic solo material. He describes recording this album as “pure fun from start to finish”, in contrast to the “mind fuck” of making his own albums.
“We aren’t that self-conscious in this collective,” explains Grant. “When I am on my own I have to consciously distil myself and take how I want to be perceived out of the equation in order to make the art I want to make. But in this collective I don’t have to do that. I don’t know why that works but it happens quite naturally.”
‘Mr Dynamite’ even features probably the most blissfully happy John Grant song to date, the luminous electro ballad, ‘Safe And Sound’, which was written for another artist, but ended up being reworked as a heart-tugging album highlight.
“That surprised me too,” agrees Grant. “I really shy away from things that have too positive a message, but that song definitely has a message I can get behind.”
Creep Show is just the first fruit of a bumper musical harvest for all four members. A third Wrangler album is nearing completion, while Winter is readying the new Tunng record and Grant is midway through recording his next, which will be co-produced by Benge. The quartet seems unclear whether ‘Mr Dynamite’ is a standalone project or the first in a series, but in theory all are keen to repeat the experience.
“I hope it’s not a one-off,” says Grant. “I think we’d all like to do another. I’m positive that we will make it happen because it’s fun. We don’t really give a fuck how it goes down because it’s just an excuse to spend some time together and get a lot of laughing done.”
There is no finer reason for getting together and making music. Because life is a Dadaist disco-punk cabaret, old chums. And tonight, Creep Show are going to party like it’s 1979.
‘Mr Dynamite’ is released by Bella Union