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A Magazine for Sheffield

Richard H Kirk On Johnny YesNo, Sweet Exorcist and the riots

Outsider producer Kirk tells Now Then about the newly-updated hallucinatory 'Sheffield film noir' Johnny YesNo, featuring music by his band Cabaret Voltaire. 

Johnny yesno redux

A still from Johnny YesNo Redux.

Richard H Kirk was one of the founding members of influential Sheffield group Cabaret Voltaire, who formed in the early 70s and quickly became known for their 'difficult' art-music performances, incorporating early samplers, processed guitars and projected visuals.

Taking inspiration from krautrock, Dadaism and the burgeoning postpunk scene in the UK, the trio explored the outer realms of industrial experimentalism throughout the 70s and 80s, making an indelible mark on Sheffield.

Richard has been a solo artist since the mid-80s under a range of pseudonyms, including Sandoz, Electronic Eye and Sweet Exorcist (with DJ Parrot). He still creates music under the Cabaret Voltaire name and continues to be as prolific as ever.

This year has seen the release of an updated version of cult Sheffield film noir Johnny YesNo, re-shot by original director Peter Care with a remixed soundtrack by Richard, as well as a compilation for Warp Records including some of the label's earliest releases by Sweet Exorcist, entitled RetroActivity.

You remade the music for Johnny YesNo and Peter Care remade the visuals. I understand that was quite a long process...

Not half. It was six years altogether. The longest project I've ever been involved in. Back in 2005, I got a message that Peter Care had been trying to get in touch. The last time we worked together was 1989 for the last Cabaret Voltaire video, 'Chicago'. He'd been keeping up with what I'd been doing musically since the early 90s. He rang me up from Los Angeles and we were talking about Johnny YesNo, and how it should be on DVD, because it had been unavailable for god knows how many years since we originally released it. I spoke to Mute, who had already done a lot of Cabaret Voltaire re-issues. We had the idea of remixing the music and the film, so that's what we did.

I spent about four months bashing the music out and sending it over to Peter, who then started building the new cast. Because there wasn't much of a budget, Peter was having to wait for people who could help out for nothing. It just took time but I think it was worth it. There was a full screening of it in London in November, but I'm not sure how that went.

Did you add new parts?

I went through all the tracks on the original VHS. There was JohnnyYesNo and another five or six clips using Cab's music. It was all about using certain sounds as a building block to remake a track; just taking certain elements, constructing new rhythms, ripping the shit out of it and building it back up in a different way. Very good fun, in fact.

It must have been useful for Peter to have your completed soundtrack before he shot the new material too.

Yeah. When the original film was made, he approached us about doing the music after, which is generally how it's done. But for the remake, it was music first, and that's why the tracks are so long. I did that so he had flexibility, so he could loop or edit them. He didn't do that but I decided to leave them as they were, because everyone at Mute liked it and I liked it.

Is the soundtrack out now as well?

It's all in one - four discs. It actually looks not that different from VHS, because it's a DVD case but it's thick. On one side you've got the two films, and on the other you've got the CDs and a nice little booklet with an essay by Ken Hollings. For economic reasons we couldn't do anything flash, so I just left it to Ian at Designer's Republic to decide on the packaging.

Were you tempted to revisit any of the other stuff originally released on your VHS label, Doublevision?

We started Doublevision in 1983. The first release was a long-form video of Cabaret Voltaire - quite a low tech thing done on fairly basic equipment. The second was Johnny YesNo. We also did this thing called TVWipeout, which was like a TV programme that covered art, music and film but without the shitty presenters. It would be impossible to re-issue that. There was so much high-profile material on it because we had signed with Virgin. We got access to an interview with Bowie, some Andy Warhol clips from films, as well as local bands like The Box, who we interviewed and filmed playing live. It would be a copyright nightmare trying to clear it all.

When video first came out in the late 70s, it was 40 or 50 quid for a music video. We did it for 15 quid and still made some money, so in some ways it was quite radical - trying to bring it down a level, rather than it being controlled by Hollywood.

I was watching the BB C documentary Synth Britannia the other day. I thought it was really interesting how you mentioned that some people think the Cabaret Voltaire album Red Mecca was more the soundtrack to the riots in 1981 than the Specials' 'Ghost Town'. I was wondering what you thought of the recent riots, because there are a good few parallels.

It is interesting, because 30 years on we are still living in the same fucking situation. We've got David Cameron in power, like we had Thatcher coming in in the late 70s. I wouldn't be surprised if they don't just close England down, because this country is fucked. Cameron will have blood on his hands this winter. So many old people are going to die because he has not kept a lid on the energy companies. Everything's being cut down. Hospitals are bad enough, but now they are talking about cutting more jobs, cutting benefits for the old and disabled. I just think, you bunch of callous bastards. They're all millionaires. They don't understand what it's like to be poor. I'm not saying Labour are any better.

Nicking a load of iPods does not a revolution make, but I definitely see similarities to the 80s. It's spookily similar.

What prompted you to re-release the Sweet Exorcist material with Warp last month?

Last year, the licence period for Sweet Exorcist with Warp expired. We re-signed it in 1999 for a ten year period. So it was a question of whether we should keep it at Warp or try and find a new home for it. I always thought it should stay with Warp. It was done there and CCEP was their first ever album. Basically they said yes, but I thought it would be a bit of a shame if it got re-signed and ended up in the digital graveyard. So after we'd signed it, I said to Steve Beckett, why don't we just compile everything together, put all the 12 inches on one CD - because a lot of them had never been available on CD - and put the album on a separate CD. He came back to me and asked if I had any unreleased mixes, because it would be nice for fans to get something extra. So I spent about three weeks going through my archives, transferring stuff. Some of the tracks were on tape, some were on an early digital format, some were on Betamax tape, some were on DAT.

So you weren't tempted to revisit the tracks or get someone else to remix them?

There was a remix of 'Testone' that Winston Hazell and Russ Orton did, a sort of ragga/dancehall mix, for the Warp10 thing, so we'd already been there. In actual fact someone at Warp suggested me remixing an LFO track and Mark Bell remixing Sweet Exorcist. I said yes, if you can find Mark Bell and get a response from him, and I think we're still waiting on that one...

Do you keep up with much of the stuff being released on Warp?

Bits and pieces. If I see something reviewed I might go and have a listen. I don't keep up with a lot of new music. There's just so much stuff - you've either got to know everything or know nothing and keep ploughing your own furrow. Obviously stuff reaches me because I'm in touch with a lot of people and they make recommendations.

So how do you do live sets these days?

I prefer to play live than DJ, but the problem is that when I play live, whether it's over here or abroad, I don't travel with any equipment. So the promoter has to hire me a back line. But that's going to have to change, because people don't want to pay that much money. I did a live show in May as part of the Mute Records Short Circuit Festival at the Roundhouse. I got totally screwed over because I need a good sound check, but the problem is everyone else just turned up and plugged their laptops in. Unfortunately, my live set is a bit more complicated, because I'm trying to bring you a scaled down version of what I do in the studio, with live keyboards and some pre-recorded bits.

Do you do many?

I go through periods. I suspect that because I've been doing quite a lot of press recently, it'll ring some bell in some promoter's head. I don't really go to clubs any more unless I'm DJing. A person of my age stood in a club usually looks like he's up to something dodgy. I did a DJ set for the Black Dog last year at the Millennium Gallery. That's where I feel comfortable now and that's the direction I'm going to go. I'm even less interested in the rock venue route.

What keeps you in Sheffield? Have you never been tempted to move away?

Yeah, but not to London. I always fancied moving somewhere warm, especially as I'm getting older and the winters are getting colder. I've always stayed in Sheffield because I have a lot of family here and I was born here - at the Jessop Hospital opposite our old studio at Western Works - so it's my 'hood'. It's always been a good place to work and reasonably cheap to live. If I hadn't had the opportunity to travel, with the band and on my own, I might've moved away, because it can be pretty grim living in Sheffield. But it's a good place to come back to and a good place to get things done.

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