It felt like things had come full circle when Stephen Mallinder found himself working with his students in Brighton making 16mm film loops. More than forty years earlier, he and his collaborators in Sheffield-sired electronic trio Cabaret Voltaire had done something similar. Taking their name from a Dadaist nightclub and inspired by William Burroughs, Mallinder, Richard H Kirk and Chris Watson cut and pasted a set of rhythmically pulsed soundtracks to a scary dystopian future set to back-drops of found footage collages. Now here was Mallinder in a digital future which seemed to have caught up on itself.
“Technology has changed everything,” he says, “but it’s great that a new generation want to work that way.”
A similar sense of experimentation with sound and film should be in evidence when Mallinder’s current band, Wrangler, appear at Glasgow Film Festival this week as one half of an event called The Unfilmables. Scheduled as part of GFF’s Sound and Vision strand following a short tour of England in 2017, The Unfilmables puts together a selection of artists to reimagine two of the greatest films never made.
Opening the evening will be Oscar nominated composer and front-woman of Micachu and The Shapes, Mica Levi. She collaborates with her video artist sister Francesca on The Colour of Chips, a northern English reworking of Armenian film-maker Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates. For the second half, Wrangler’s trio of Mallinder, Phil Winter of folktronica sextet, Tunng, and Benge, the recording name of electronic-based musician and producer Ben Edwards, team up with film-maker Tash Tung and live visual manipulator Daniel Conway to present a version of The Tourist. Clair Noto’s dystopian science-fiction story was set to go into production in 1980, but instead disappeared down a rabbit hole of development hell which itself sounds worthy of a big screen feature.
“If you’re going to do a live soundtrack,” says Mallinder, “you want to do it to a science fiction film. I think Benge has always wanted to do something with Logan’s Run, because it’s his favourite film. One of the early ideas was to work with the original version of Dune, or do an imagined version of David Lynch directing The Empire Strikes Back, but when I got a copy of the screenplay for The Tourist, it was such an amazing story that we went for that.”
Noto’s script focuses on Grave Ripley, one of thousands of exiled and sexually charged aliens who have taken on human form while trying to get back to their home planet. They congregate in a club called The Corridor, where all manner of wild liaisons take place as they unveil their original bodies.
Steeped in a new wave sensibility, Noto’s script was picked up by Universal, with director Brian Gibson, director of Hazel O’Connor vehicle Breaking Glass, assigned to it along with various co-writers. Designer HR Giger, who had worked on Ridley Scott’s dark sci-fi, Alien, designing the eponymous foreign body, was also drafted in, with his published designs for The Corridor’s regulars causing a sensation when they were published.
Once things stalled, Noto’s script briefly attracted the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, with Quadrophenia director Franc Roddam also involved. Financial problems intervened, and again, things stalled, before the script found its way back to Universal, who still own the rights after effectively burying the project. All of which made for a tantalising project for Wrangler.
“What we’ve done is work around key scenes and build around them so you get an abstraction of things. We’re not going to have car chases and things like that, but we don’t use found footage either like we did with the Cabs. That would feel like I was imitating myself.
“The film is mixed live, and there are elements of improvisation in the music as well, so the film and the sound feed off each other. Even though we’ve done a lot of preparation, it will be a mystery to us as much as the audience how it turns out.”
Film has always been key to Mallinder’s work. One of Cabaret Voltaire’s earliest presentations was an audio-visual installation shown at the 1975 Edinburgh Film Festival, and their industrial atmospherics were arguably tailor-made for art-house cinema. There were references to Orson Welles’ film, A Touch of Evil, on the band’s 1981 album, Red Mecca, and Cabaret Voltaire’s original trio provided the sound-track to Johnny Yesno. This album-length film was made in 1983 by acclaimed video director Peter Care and released by the band’s own video company, Doublevision.
Over more than two decades with Mallinder as the band’s bass player and vocalist, Cabaret Voltaire moved from out-there experimentalism to more seductive club-based sounds. With Watson having left more than a decade before for a career in TV that has seen him go on to become one of the world’s most renowned field recordists, Mallinder and Kirk called it a day in 1994. Kirk has gone on to release a welter of material, both under his own name and numerous aliases including Sandoz and Blacworld.
Mallinder moved to Australia, where he formed one half of the Ku-Ling Brothers, and played as part of another duo, Sassi and Loco. Both acts released records on Mallinder’s OffWorld Sounds label. On his return to Britain, Mallinder completed his PhD thesis, Movement: Journey of the Beat, and has written a chapter for a book on noise and contemporary music.
In 2012, Mallinder released an album with Steve Cobby of Fila Brazilia under the name of Hey Rube! As Wrangler, Mallinder, Winter and Benge have released two original albums, LA Spark, plus its 2016 follow-up, White Glue. The same year also saw them put out Sparked, a ‘modular remix project’ with reworkings of Wrangler originals by fellow travellers including Mute Records boss Daniel Miller, Scanner and Chris Carter, formerly of Throbbing Gristle.
While Wrangler play regular live shows, as they did recently in Aberdeen when they performed as part of the SPECTRA festival of light, their work seems to attract collaborators from other artforms. Last year, Wrangler took part in Cotton Panic!, a multi-media theatre piece about the nineteenth century cotton famine caused by the American Civil War brought the industrial revolution in the north of England to its knees. The 70-minute piece was created with actress Jane Horrocks, writer Nick Vivian and director Wils Wilson for Manchester International Festival. The Tourist mixes up retro-future conceptualism even more.
“The Tourist is a historic piece now,” says Mallinder. “It comes out of what was a lovely period of science fiction, but some of the values of the time that are in it sit slightly uncomfortably today. The anachronisms in it are both its strength and its weakness in a way.”
The next Wrangler album, The Situation, is set for release later this year, as is a collaboration with John Grant that began as a project for the fortieth anniversary concert for Rough Trade, the record label that put out early Cabs work.
With Mallinder’s former bandmate Richard H Kirk having revived the Cabaret Voltaire name in recent years, the legacy of Mallinder’s first band has trickled down extensively into popular culture. Apart from the Edinburgh nightclub called Cabaret Voltaire where Kirk performed a few years back, for the last decade, Sheffield has hosted Sensoria, an annual festival of music, film and digital media named after Cabaret Voltaire’s MTV-friendly single that featured a video by Care.
“It’s weird,” says Mallinder, “I’m involved in the sound art course here in Brighton, but we didn’t have anything like that back then. What’s happened in the interim is there’s a massive body of work that exists which didn’t exist before. I suppose the work we did with Cabaret Voltaire has become part of a popular cultural canon now.”
Wrangler, Tash Tung and Daniel Conway present The Tourist as part of The Unfilmables at Glasgow Film Festival, St Luke’s, Glasgow, February 28.
The Herald, February 27th 2018