Richard H. Kirk and Cabaret Voltaire Have More to Teach Us
Richard H. Kirk is the driving force behind Cabaret Voltaire, the influential Sheffield-based project that pushed the limits of electronic music in the post-punk era. Though the band dissolved in the '90s, eventually reemerging with Kirk as the lone member in the past few years, he kept moving with a series of projects under his own name, as well as dozens of others, steadily releasing output across a plethora of labels. Now two of his projects, Sandoz and Richard H. Kirk, have been gathered up for release by Mute, which dropped box sets in the tail end of 2016 (order yours).
With these releases on deck, we interviewed Kirk about the releases, their origins (both logistically and thematically), the return of the band and whether the teacher has become the pupil. The results of our conversation are below.
You have a zillion aliases, but you put out a specific Richard H. Kirk eight-disc box set through Mute. How did that come about? Outside of the stuff that was available, did you have to do a lot of digging to put together the package?
Yeah. It was over six months of work. We started compiling towards the end of October of last year, and it carried on through April of this year. I worked quite closely with the guy who does the artwork, so I was sourcing the music and sourcing images as well from the relevant periods. Quite a dig, quite a big thing, but I’m kinda used to it. [Laughs] I did two years working on the Cabaret Voltaire box set that came out a couple years ago, so I’m kind of slowly working through the past, and hopefully once I’ve done that, I can concentrate on the new things. [Laughs]
A lot of the material has been with Mute since the early '90s, and some of it came out as individual albums, and then it kind of relegated back to just downloads. When I resigned with them after the contract expired in 2011 or thereabouts, it was understood that there would be physical releases, and that was pretty important to me. So, that was what we ended up with, really.
There are so many components to this box set. A lot of these are older pieces — there’s an anthology there, so some of it was probably tough to get. What are you most excited about getting out there?
To be honest, all of it. It was originally some of the albums that I made between the late '70s and mid-'80s that had been out before as CDs, and vinyl and cassettes. It was Mute that suggested bringing it all together as a box set for a physical release. So, I was happy with that — sounded good to me.
There’s a lot of B-sides and things that are harder to get. Do you have a favorite track that is kinda weirder and out of the ordinary from the box set that's kinda sexy and on its own? A little bit rarer?
Not really. With the Kirk box set, there was the CD Super Duper Soul, which, there were some things on there that have been sort of laid around for 30 years or whatever. It was nice to rediscover those. Once things have been dormant for so long, then it’s like, "Why didn’t I do something with this back at the time?" But maybe there just weren’t the right circumstances, or maybe I wasn’t completely sure about the material. But it seemed to have all aged really well, so it made sense to put this as an unreleased bonus CD, which is always a good thing to attract people to the project. I know a lot of people that want to collect everything. Maybe that sounds a little bit cynical [laughs], but it’s kind of the way these things work. It’s always good that there’s an unreleased element to attract attention.
This is one of two box sets that you have coming out. The other one is obviously under the Sandoz name, and that collects your work from ’92 - ’94, with some notable exceptions in there. I feel like a lot of artists come to African music via Fela Kuti and a lot of the African drum sounds that came from the early '70s. What was your on-ramp for this project?
I was listening to Fela Kuti in the '70s quite a lot. I kind of always listened to Fela Kuti, but that wasn’t particularly the inspiration for doing Sandoz. It was just more general — the idea of the fusion of electronic music with African rhythms and voices. That was kind of how the project started, really. There was also quite a big influence from the Detroit people in the techno scene in the late '80s. I guess part of me was thinking about that, but also thinking about Africa and also maybe even Jamaica, and it just kind of built from there.
When I started doing Sandoz, it was all kind of released as white label, so no one really knew who was behind it. At that point in time — late '80s, early '90s — there was a lot of great music coming out where it wasn’t about personalities or anything like that. It was purely just about the music. The kind [where] people didn’t even really care who made it, as long as it sounded good, and that was really kind of liberating. After being known for Cabaret Voltaire for so long, it was really nice to not be judged by that grim history.
You sort of answered my next question indirectly. Obviously, you've had dozens of projects over the years under various different names, and they’ve all had slightly different approaches, and basically what that comes from is that white label culture via the electronic music scene. You kind of wanted to basically hide from yourself?
Yeah, to a certain extent. It’s always nice to get recognition and have people write nice stuff about what you did. When the whole house scene erupted in the late '80s, it was almost like punk. It was a bit like a ground zero thing, and a lot of people disregarded a lot of past music, and it was nice to sort of sidestep that by just appearing out of nowhere again.
A lot of this time while doing this, you were involved with Cabaret Voltaire. CV were dormant for 20 years and came back a couple years ago. I know you’ve done several different festivals, including Berlin, Incubate Festival and more. How active is that project?
It’s very active. I’ve done quite a few live performances this year, quite a few last year — maybe about four or five a year is the maximum. I don’t take everything that I’m offered, just festivals where I’m playing amongst contemporary artists rather than being caught in a nostalgic thing where there’s just loads of '80s bands on the bill. I’m not interested in that. I’m trying to take the project into a new phase and reinvent it. There’s no past material in the live show. It’s more of an audiovisual thing to me because I’m not really lit on stage. There’s a very large video screen with three images, and basically I’m just kind of lurking on the stage creating a live soundtrack to the pictures. It’s moved away from the notion of a live band into more of an art project. I feel comfortable with that, rather than just trying to get up there and recreate past glories, because I think that would be so sad, personally. [Laughs] It would never be as good. Times have changed. People move on. I’m a lot older now than I was in the heyday of CV, and it just feels right doing it this way.
People complained about the volume [at Incubate Festival] because I like to play very, very loud, and I want the physicality of the soundtrack to hit you right in the chest. Mostly, people love that [chuckles], but you have a few people who may be freaked out by it. It’s kind of like an audiovisual assault on the senses, which was always true anyway with CV. There was always a visual element as well as a band performing, but now it’s not really a band — just me doing what I feel is appropriate.
As far as that’s concerned, do you plan on coming to our side of the pond and doing any gigs associated with that?
It’s always open, but to be honest with you, there hasn’t really been any concrete offers to come to the States, strangely enough. There was an offer from Coachella, but they wanted me to reform the original band, and I just didn’t want to do that. It’s probably not the right kind of festival anyway. I mean, I know it’s a big festival in the States, but for what I’m doing now, I draw the smaller kind of underground events, or maybe even film festivals, or festivals that are more to do with audiovisual than just straight out bands playing.
It’s obvious that a lot of what you’ve done has helped pave a path for modern-day electronic music. That said, let's circle back. Are there any modern artists that you personally reference or take influence from, whether within any kind of electronic music genre, or noise, or industrial, or anything outside of it? Are there any other influential things that you’re listening to?
Probably not, and this is true going back over the years with CV. It may have been Holger Czukay of Can who said, "Never take your influences from the present; always look to the past or the future.” I always stuck with that as a concept because I tend to avoid listening to the obvious things, because I don’t want to be influenced by them. I always say, "I don’t want to end up sounding like X, Y or Z.” There are a lot of great things going on, and there are some things I like, but I tend not to look there for inspiration. I find that inspiration generally comes from going back and listening to things that turned me on many years ago.
Are you a record guy?
Well, let's just say that I’ve never downloaded any music in my life, either legally or illegally. [Laughs] I’m either CD or vinyl — that’s what I like. I don’t think MP3s sound really all that good, but then again, a lot of the music made over the years is currently only available as downloads. I guess it’s either that or nothing, but I know that there are other formats other than MP3 that you can download now, like FLAC and WAV files, which are technically much better than MP3s, I think. But I just heard today on the news that apparently vinyl sales have overtaken downloads. I don’t know whether that’s in England or a worldwide thing, but that’s good news to me. Vinyl still sounds great, you know?
We talked about CV, and obviously you have these box sets that you’re excited to have out, but what else do you currently have baking in 2017?
Well, the new album that I mentioned, I’ve been working on for like three and a half years, and finally finished that earlier this year, so that’s been kind of running concurrent with the work that I’ve been doing with the CV live shows. So, at the moment, I’m just kind of having a break. I finished the last CV show in November, and I’ll probably start again in maybe April.
I definitely want to record a new CV album, but I’m not immediately in a rush. I’m just writing new material for the live shows, and when I’ve got enough material, then I’ll start to think about refining that material. It’s designed for a live performance, so maybe I’ll even put out a live album. I’ve quite a lot of recordings from the past two and a half years. It’s one thing writing material, but to perform it live it is a lot more crude. It’s almost like half-finished and not too sophisticated, and that needs to be translated into a new album, but there’s no immediate rush. I’m thinking of taking some time out to sit out for Christmas, and maybe in January I might go back into the studio, but I don’t have any concrete plans. Because, like I said, I have a new Richard Kirk album that will be released [in] maybe like March, so I’m in good shape in terms of getting things out there because of the two box sets, and then a new album. I don’t want to overload the market. [Laughs]
One last question that you kind of addressed a little bit with the Coachella thing: How do you respond to critics who say CV is the three of you?
I respond to critics in the way that I normally do — by saying that the other two people left. Chris [Watson] left in 1982, and Steve [Mallinder] left in 1993 and went to Australia for like 15 years. I was always left with the option to continue with CV. I just think it would be asking for trouble to try and go back. Like I said before, to try and recreate the past would be a mistake. It would harm the reputation of what it was, and I always make it very clear when I’m doing a live performance that it’s new material, and if you don’t want to hear that, then don’t turn up to the show. If you’re expecting the greatest hits, you’re going to be very disappointed. [Chuckles] As far as all that goes, I haven’t had anyone complain. A lot of younger people have come to the live shows, and people seem to enjoy it. [It's an] if it’s not broke, don’t fix it sort of thing.