Cabaret Voltaire: ‘The people who are running stuff are just hopeless’

Cabaret Voltaire’s first album in over a quarter of a century holds a mirror up to turbulent times.

Cabaret Voltaire

Called Shadow of Fear, it is Richard H Kirk’s first record as the sole member of the band, and continues an electronic legacy forged in Sheffield almost 50 years ago.

Kirk, now 64, says he arrived at the album’s title in the autumn of 2019. “I was jotting down a few words and titles and ideas just to kind of bounce off, so that’s been around since the beginning of September last year, but it somehow does seem very appropriate one way or another if you look at stuff that’s going on.”

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Aside from Covid – which he believes he and his wife had earlier in the year, with long-lasting effects – there has been the fiercely contested US elections and widespread civil unrest following the killings of Rodney King and Breeona Taylor. “It’s almost as if the US has gone back to the 1960s with race riots,” he says. “I’d be surprised if there wasn’t more unrest once all the unemployment starts biting. I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t see that here, and then if you out on top of that a no-deal Brexit and we could all be living on dog food. The people who are running stuff are just hopeless.”

It’s now six years since Kirk reactivated Cabaret Voltaire as a live act, after two decades making techno music under other aliases such as Sweet Exorcist and Sandoz. Without his previous bandmates Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson, Kirk says he was determined this would be a new beginning.

“I just started everything from scratch,” he explains. “I was determined not to be playing Nag Nag Nag or Sensoria or any of the history because it’s boring for me and I just didn’t think it was appropriate. I wanted to relaunch Cabaret Voltaire more as an art project rather than a band.”

The live shows across Europe left him with three hours worth of “rough” audio material with which to work. “Some of it’s very rhythmic and got people dancing, some of it’s not ambient but more drone-like. The challenge was to smarten that up into what would be the album. It took me eight months.”

As well as familiar touchstones – techno, house and dub –Shadow of Fear was also inspired by contemporary classical music and surrealism. “People talk a lot about neo-classical music that’s played a lot at night on Radio 3 which combines orchestra and electronics, I have dabbled in this in the past, but I think part of it – and this happened during Brexit – was I just had to switch Radio 4 off and switch channels for a while.

“It was an influence, but I think the main influence was surrealism, just trying to create some dream-like theatre of music that’s suggestive of a lot of things but not really specific. Just trying to create a mood of otherworldliness and alienation, and then the fear. When (the virus) came along, because I’m 64 years old and a smoker, I’m thinking I’m a prime candidate to get taken down.”

Kirk is at pains to point out that “it’s not like I’m writing a Covid rock opera”, as he is keenly aware of the scale of the loss of life to the pandemic, particularly in care homes – “it was like when you bait a trap for a tiger with a goat and leave it to escape, that’s what the Government were doing telling hospitals to send people back without testing them”. His concerns were more focused on “sociological problems”, he says. “I watch a lot of news coverage, the way the Government have lied and denied; in my lifetime I don’t think I’ve known anything quite so bad.”

The meaning of the songs however is left to the listener’s interpretation. “That’s always been a Cabaret Voltaire trait, even back in the day,” he says. “I remember discussions that were had about ‘we don’t want to be The Clash, we’re not sloganeering’ – not that there’s anything wrong with The Clash – but we don’t want to be feeding people things. Unlike Boris Johnson with his various slogans, that was never on the agenda and I wouldn’t want to make it on the agenda now.

“It’s just subtle things about one thing or another and then just elements that you put in there, juxtapositions of things that normally don’t exist on the same page.”

While Richard H Kirk accepts the process of making this record has been back-to-front – “It’s like I’ve done the touring, and then the album and now I’m not on the road” – he says he’s never been one to follow music industry cycles. “Prior to 2014 I was releasing quite a lot of albums and back catalogue and didn’t do many live shows anyway. Back in the day big record companies used to give you money, that was called tour support, to get out and promote the album, now people say the album’s promoting the tour. I’m not sure that’s true in my case, but it’s not an unreasonable way of looking at it.”

Shadow of Fear is out on Mute on Friday November 20.