Wrangler’s Stephen Mallinder: Celebrity Culture Has Trivialised Music (interview)
Almost 4 decades after helping to pioneer electronic synth music, Cabaret Voltaire co-founder Stephen Mallinder continues to make experimental, leftfield, electronic music, these days with his Wrangler cohorts Phil Winter and Benge.
Chatting to Skrufff this week about Wrangler’s new (and debut album) LA Spark, he’s philosophical about both his own path as a musical outsider and the state of popular- and dance – music today.
“We were talking the other day and saying it was not much more that 6 years between Woodstock and the Sex Pistols (1969 to 1976), look at what happened in that time span, then apply that to today – what has really changed in music/creative output between 2008 and 2014? . . . Very little,” he points out.
“Many things have happened globally but popular music is just morphing and looping back on itself.”
So he’s not presumably expecting a musical/ cultural revolution similar to punk/ rave to happen anytime soon?
“The revolution is not going to come in the type of music people make but instead in how people actually make, listen, share and connect with music. It’s about how much we are adapting and customising our own bits of culture,” he suggests.
“Music is not changing but we are changing, how we consider music, the past, and build it into our identity. It’s all quite discrete – it’s no good looking for big mass cultural changes, it’s all about micro-communities, niches and changes of context. Perhaps celebrity culture has damned music to being part of the trivialisation of things – it distracts us too much rather than informing and energising us.”
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): Starting with LA Spark, we’re supposedly living in a digital download/ streaming/ short-attention span era: why make an album at all; what statement lies behind it?
Wrangler (Stephen Mallinder): “Yes it’s odd but the ‘album’ format seems to remain a default even in the bit-size download world. I think it’s inevitable that people will find ways of aggregating information – even online there is a need to group stuff, website, iTunes etc do it all the time.
Sometimes its better if artists do this themselves by defining their music and the album will always be an important music format regardless of whether it’s actual ‘product’. Artists like to make a statement and a collection of tracks is the best way to present what you are about. And as music is a creative process we all put great store in the artist, we still look to them.
Plus the industry still benchmarks ‘the album’ – for reviewing, selling and uploading. Its kind of like saying why do they sell milk in pints or litres – everything is standardised in some way. It also means you build a package around the collection – it’s a way of presenting ideas.”
Wrangler (Stephen Mallinder): “The statement for us was ‘this is Wrangler, its what happens when these 3 particular people make music’.”
Skrufff: the album’s accompanying press release talks of ‘sounds being ripped from a golden era of analogue electronic music to create forward-looking, new music’: where did you start with the music making process? How did it practically work?
Wrangler (Stephen Mallinder): “Well there’s a whole back story as we’ve had a long association – Phil and myself have been friends and involved in music since the mid-1980s. We’ve always hooked up even when we lived in different parts of the world. I met Benge through Phil and was aware of his history in electronic music. We all began making stuff about 3 years ago, when we did the first release ‘Sequence On’ and we spent quite a bit of time just writing and doing remixes – John Foxx, Bomb the Bass etc.
The studio boasts a lot of analogue gear which Benge has been collecting and Phil and I have been working with since the ‘80s. It shapes the sound but also reflects our interests and how we like to work. It’s a very physical and tactile way of making electronic music that allows a more collaborative way of recording and playing It’s quite a live process.”
Skrufff: Wrangler itself is a distinctly retrospective name; evoking 70s denim; why did you pick it as a band name?
Wrangler (Stephen Mallinder): “Ha . . . It’s funny how people have interpreted it, we are aware of how it might be seen but that’s cool as it’s actually a great band name and defies the more technical branding that a lot of electronica has – its beautifully ambiguous, and somehow very real. We were hoping to all get free Wrangler Jeeps.
In fact, as a practical term it’s a reference to working with analogue gear – unlike laptop, and soft synth, music-making there’s a distinctly physical aspect to it. Wrangling is what you do to make a analogue equipment submit to your will – you have to literally wrestle with it to get the sounds you want. Hence Wrangler – its what all three of us are – a job description. Phil and Benge named it thus!”
Skrufff: What do you make of today’s EDM era: how much do you subscribe to the theory that EDM’s a gateway drug to higher quality made-from-the-heart electronic music?
Wrangler (Stephen Mallinder): “I’m not sure where we fit into current electronic music, I think we like the idea of people listening and taking it in as well as responding physically, so we’re not designed exclusively for the dancefloor. Nothing wrong with that but I think we have a challenging sound, so not sure if current EDM would get it, audience wise .. But I would imagine a number of producers would get it. Our collective history would elicit some respect. And I think there is a fascination with the use of past analogue technologies – the actual sound, the visceral quality and the feeling that it’s authentic electronic technology – people respect the roots of most music.”
Skrufff : You’re also lecturing at Brighton University: how much does today’s era of mass youth unemployment and cultural mainstream mediocrity remind you of the 70s (if at all)
Wrangler (Stephen Mallinder): “Well you can’t replicate the time but there are quite a lot of similar challenges that remain. There has always been a challenge to making yourself heard but today we have artists who are trying to rise above noise. In the past it was a case of how do I get something out to get heard, today it is much easier to create but much more difficult to have impact with the critical mass of music and other information out there.
It has always been difficult to set exchange values for creative products, and in real terms the value of most music has been decreasing since digitisation so staying afloat is never easy but today there is the added pressure of volume, in market terms supply is far outstripping demand.
I think celebrity culture has trivialised a lot of music output, dance music was always a healthy antidote – it was faceless, but eventually bigger names have overtaken and made it part of the mainstream, it was ever thus. Making stuff on the edge is always harder, you have to believe in what you do and really enjoy it – again I’m not sure any of that has changed.”
Skrufff: How much do you see yourself as a radical (still?) what motivates you to continue making- and releasing- music 40 years on?
Wrangler (Stephen Mallinder): “Well I’d be flattering myself if I though I could have any real impact but I owe it to myself to stay true to some vague principles. In truth if I wanted to be radical I’d perhaps not do music but I do and I’d like to think I still stir the pot a little bit. Effective music should find some balance between challenging people’s expectations but also draw them in somehow. I also still like to build words into electronic music which can be a good way of avoiding mediocrity. But to be honest I’d be embarrassed if it didn’t have some attitude.
Why? I still love it and enjoy working with people who are into it. You shouldn’t stop doing the things you enjoy.
Skrufff: Electronic music remains dominated by club/ dancefloor culture; what are the plans for remixes? Any plans to DJ yourself?
Wrangler (Stephen Mallinder): “Well we’ve made a wish list of people who work with modular, analogue, equipment – everyone from Daniel Miller to Giorgio Moroder – with the idea of them doing a mix with the analogue equipment of their choice. Be nice if it happened. Also we have mixes coming from Elizabeth (Gazelle Twin) and Ekoplkz on the way.
I’m not sure I’d be the best at making a track that was tailored exclusively for the dancefloor – club music is formulated – technology can shape it for you, so I guess in theory someone else could do it – cool by me as long as it sounded good and they acknowledged your work … There’s always been a bit of theivery and skullduggery in remixes. I still DJ from time to time but we’ve been playing a fair few Wrangler gigs and I’m enjoying that so it’s reduced my DJing tendencies a bit.”
LA Spark is out now on Memetune Records. Click below for ‘Mind Your Own Sequence’ (vinyl and download)
Stephen’s old band Cabaret Voltaire release a new compilation #7885 (Electropunk to Technopop 1978 – 1985) on 23 June 2014. Featuring classic tracks such as Nag Nag Nag, Do The Mussolini (Headkick), Sensoria, Landslide, I Want You and Just Fascination, #7885 (Electropunk to Technopop 1978 – 1985) was curated by Richard H Kirk.
Jonty Skrufff: https://twitter.com/djjontyskrufff