“You have to move on in life,” says Richard H. Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire, which began as a three piece industrial band in 1973 and swept through alternative clubs throughout the 1980s with their funky metallic grooves. Now, as the sole member of the band, Kirk wants to look into the future instead of at the past – and that is what the new LP, Shadow of Fear , is about. The Cabaret Voltaire name was left inactive for twenty years until Kirk began playing live under the moniker in 2014 and, subsequently, the foundation of an album came to life. Shadow of Fear retains the peculiar brilliance that the band is known for: the tension between a rhythm that could rush you to the dance floor and an eerie, surrealistic layering of disparate sounds. With a hypnotic bricolage of loops, cuts, and repeating samples that are nearly spiritual in their repetition, Shadow of Fear thrives on a light handed approach to lingering paranoia – all set to an addictive beat. We got to speak with Kirk about his album out on Mute Records, his fears and, of course, the future.
The album title, Shadow of Fear , is interesting because you made the album before the pandemic, correct?
Most of it. When I started [recording] in September of last year, I found the title and wrote it down and thought that could be a good title. And by the time I’d finished in March, April, of this year, when the lockdowns had started in England, the title seemed more than appropriate considering the kind of media panic and frenzy that was spreading along with the virus.
It makes sense. What were you fearful of before the pandemic? Do you think your idea of what fear is has changed since all this has happened?
Not really. The way that I look at the world might be a little bit unusual but in England, around 2016, we had Brexit where the idea was to persuade people we should leave the European Union and become independent. Which, to me, was a totally stupid idea. And that generated a lot of fear by certain right wing populist people. They were trying to scare people, saying that we’re going to be overrun by people from Turkey, or Syria, or, basically, people with different colored skin. That really turned ugly. And then, of course, the other thing that added to the fear was when Trump was elected. So I think that in England, and in the US, there was already an atmosphere – not a good atmosphere.I might add that things were looking like they were taking a step backwards in time.
And along came the virus and almost kicked a lot of what I just said off the headlines. So it was like a sucker punch, it really did get kind of scary. I’m scared — I don’t want to go before my time. It’s suddenly very strange to be confronted with your own mortality. You bump into the wrong person in a shop and next minute, you’re in intensive care. Then next minute, you could be dead. And then, of course, you’ve got all the idiots who say so how can this be, that it’s no worse than having the flu. So yeah, very strange.
Many shadows of fear.
Yeah, but I don’t think it’s a particularly down album. Quite a lot of it is uplifting at the same time.
Yeah, I agree. I think that there’s hope in the album. It’s not super depressing — it’s easy to listen to.
Yeah, which can’t be said for the other two albums scheduled for next year. As part of the series of Shadow of Fear , I would certainly say that they aren’t easy to listen to. They are two 60 minute drone pieces, very electronic, very head music rather than body music. There is also a 12 inch single [coming out] in February of tracks that were too dance floor oriented to fit comfortably on the album. So, this is really just the first wave.
You made all three of these at the same time?
Yeah, because I’ve been playing live shows over the past five years. And, and as part of that process, I’ve written a lot of material. Basically, [the next two albums are] the elements of the live show where there’s no bass or anything in it, it drops down and becomes more mantra like, or more sort of meditational. And I just thought it would be nice that they were available as well. Don’t get me wrong, Shadow of Fear is the main part of the project, the other two are a nice addition to what you have with the first element.
When you go into the studio, how do you approach making a track? What is that process?
It varies. A lot of the time, I will start with a loop of something, whether it’s the voice or rhythm, or bass. The work I do now is more like being a painter or sculptor whereby I’m totally on my own in the studio, and I just build up the track a little bit at a time and add things and then remove things. Then at some point during that process I will know when it’s time to master it and finalize it. A lot of what I do is really intuitive or instinctive. I don’t have a plan. And I like to keep things open ended. Don’t rule anything out. Don’t rule anything in.
Is it true you went back to working with your old Cabaret Voltaire setup for Shadow of Fear? Do you like working with constraints instead of having all the software at your fingertips?
Some of the album was made using Pro Tools and the Mac, but then I have another very old computer called an Atari which uses some software that’s on a 3.5 floppy disk. And that’s the sequencer. It’s kind of jumping between the two technologies. I laughingly said to someone the other day that even my computer setup is vintage. I did explore the whole gradient and I think now that I’ve made this album, it really will be time to buy a new computer and then some new music software. But it just takes so long to learn this stuff and I didn’t want to do that when I was in the middle of making this record. Otherwise, it could have taken me a lot longer. So I’d had some sense of urgency that kept me on the straight and narrow and I thought, “Okay, let’s just work with what you got and see what happens.”
That’s interesting. I feel like a lot of newer producers prefer to try to learn how to use vintage hardware and it’s just easier for them to use software like Pro Tools.
Mainly people use Ableton. The bad thing about music software now, to me, is that when I bought Pro Tools, I owned it outright. I just just paid whatever the cost was but apparently, now you can only lease it. So you’re paying for it every month and you never own it. And you get upgrades and stuff. I think with Ableton you can just buy that and you don’t need to subscribe. I think you get a free update. Then I looked at another program called Reaper, which is actually by New York based designers and is incredibly cheap—but it looks incredibly difficult to work. It has a lot of potential, an old friend of mine recommended I should try that. So I downloaded the manual and there’s like 500 pages [to go through]. I remember from way back in the day that when you got equipment that promised a lot, it was incredibly quite difficult to program—it took a lot of practice. But, at the end of the day, you get a load of digital tracks and you get a load of effects.
You mentioned earlier that you’re more like a painter these days. Cabaret Voltaire has always been inspired by Surrealism, so what is it about Surrealism that you find inspiring?
Well, partly because Dadaism and Surrealism were just really taking the piss out of the bourgeois concepts of morality. So that’s always been a cool thing, I think. But with Surrealism it was mainly the juxtaposition of different imagery or words that have no business being on the same page. And I feel a lot of what I do with music and some of the vocal samples I use fall under that definition.
How do you differentiate between your solo work and Cabaret Voltaire?
It’s been a long time since I made a Cabaret Voltaire album. The last one was The Conversation, which was released in 1994. I had kind of forgotten a lot about what a Cabaret Voltaire album should be, or could be. It was about relearning that, and then that takes you on a trip where you look into trying to make that apparent in the work. But I mean, this was totally specific because [Shadow of Fear] had started out as Cabaret Voltaire live shows—so for this project it could have not been anything else. Whereas, some of the projects that I do, maybe I’d have to decide right at the end, “What is this?” And then give it a name. But this was already defined to what it was going to be.
Do you plan on touring when you’re able?
Yeah, I did five years of touring mainly around Europe where I was playing kind of odd venues and strange festivals. I really enjoy it. I enjoy meeting people out there and getting to see all the bands and the social aspect of it. I’m not only missing the buzz of the live show, but the travel. And the cash.
I’m not the only person in that situation. But I won’t bang on about it—that’s not why I do what I do. It’s just the way that music’s become. Because back in the day it used to be that you’d make an album and it would earn you decent amounts of money. Record companies used to give you money to go on tour, to promote the album. But now people say it’s almost like you do the album [to promote the tour].
Do you think that’s the biggest thing that’s changed in the music industry over time?
I think it’s because of the internet. You know, because music has become devalued. The only way you can really do well from recorded music now is if someone uses it on a commercial, or if or if it gets to be used in a Hollywood movie. There was a period when people just suddenly realized that they could get whatever music they want by just going online. And I think that that kind of created a bombshell on the recorded music [industry]. That’s the situation and you just have to deal with it.
What do you think the next step is? Will the focus always be on touring? Or what do you see happening in the future for the music industry?
I honestly don’t know—if I knew that I could probably use it to my advantage. I think it’s pretty much going to stay like it is.
I wonder if, after the pandemic, there’ll be more internet based events or hybrids. I’m just not sure.
They don’t work for me. If you go to the live show, you need to be in a big room full of people who are either drunk or high or just generally out to have a good time and to enjoy themselves. And the volume—you need that kind of sound. I can’t see how that can be replicated using some computer screens. It’s just not for me anyway, it doesn’t translate. I think once it becomes safe to mix with people in large numbers, people will just embrace it because they’ll have missed it so much.
Yeah, I agree. There’s nothing like a live show.
Yeah, but maybe not too large [of an event]. But I’m saying if 10 people socially distance in a small room—I hope I’m not killing someone’s dreams—it’s never gonna work.
Yeah, a live show is as much about the crowd and the atmosphere as it is the artist, honestly.
The social side of it. And having said that, it’s not perfect because it really pisses me off when I’m playing a live show and I see everyone’s watching it via a mobile phone, looking at it on a two inch screen. People have grown up with a technology that feels right to them. But it wouldn’t feel right for me.
Yeah, I’m always astonished by people who film a whole live show and just watch their screen as they’re filming it.
Yeah, and emailing it off to some friends. I mean, you have to be there. This is the whole point of the live show. It’s live.
Maybe after quarantine and all this time spent behind a computer screen the experience will be more important to them.
Shadow of Fear is released worldwide today. It can be streamed and purchased here
Interview by Andi Harriman
Andi Harriman is the author of Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace: The Worldwide Compendium of Postpunk and Goth in the 1980s. She resides in Brooklyn, New York where she writes, DJs and lectures on all things dark and gloomy.
Photos Courtesy of Richard H. Kirk