Name: Stephen Mallinder
Occupation: Musician, writer, artist, teacher, doctor
Current Release: Stephen Mallinder's tick tick tick is out via Dais.
If you enjoyed this interview with Stephen Mallinder and would like to keep up to date with his work, visit him on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
Over the course of his career, Stephen has worked with a wide range of artists, including Chris Connelly, Shaun Ryder, Paul Barker, and Richard H. Kirk.
[Read our Chris Connelly interview]
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
In regard to writing I tend to be sparked by external events and themes – much of the work for for Wrangler, and Cabaret Voltaire filters the times in which we exist.
I think in the Cabs it was quite self-evident, the titles alone - ‘Crackdown‘, ‘Thank You America‘, ‘Do Right‘. With Wrangler the albums have specific themes, if very oblique in their realistion - ‘LA Spark‘ had a world on fire at it’s core,‘White Glue‘ was corrosive political, and commercial, power,‘A Situation‘ was technological control.
My own self titled releases tend to draw on the personal, and observational, rather than single underlying matters. That separation helps me compartmentalise.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Lyrically I think little things eat away at you and then when it comes to writing and recording they begin to take form. And musically it’s very similar, there’s usually something out there, ill-defined but a vibe that sonically guides you.
In regard to process, I’m happy to chop things up, in the writing but also once recorded. What you imagine works as a hook can sometimes feel contrived so I make another part take shape as a chorus - ‘ringdropp‘ worked like that on the new album.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Most tracks go through various iterations, most of the tracks for tick tick tick were written at home on Ableton, then I went and finished them in the studio with Benge.
I don’t have a set idea of how they will end up, the initial writing and recording stage is about experimenting – I’m not a song writer who simply gets it down; the studio is a compositional tool, it’s how I’ve always worked.
Making music is a playful process, I never want to lose that.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
(laughs) No I just start and then roll with it, and you can have glass of wine, or beer, at the end of the day.
I think you should always be switched on but also it should capture where you’re at, the mood your in at that moment, energentic, knackered, angry, sad.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
Both lyrically and sonically it’s about getting something down and reacting to it even if it is automatically rejected. It’s about action and reaction – I have a dialectic approach to things: try something, respond with an opposite, sythesise the results (both literally and metaphorically).
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
I think I’ll refer back to my first answer there, but I will add that the process is often shaped rhythmically. I like to use words like drums in many cases, although not on everything – some words should punch, some should flow.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I personally feel lyrics should be contextualised by the sounds – it is not strictly poetry, or at least I don’t approach in that way. I would rather have a synergy.
But of course the words should have their own frame of reference. So when most effective they can stand alone and have power.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I shape, and add, and structure. The trick is knowing when to stop. I like a minimal approach for my own stuff.
“Colour” on Um Dada had power from allowing each single sound it’s own space. The dynamic can be lost when cluttered with stuff – I try not to over embellish, I’m not a cake decorator.
We used no reverb on tick tick tick - purity of sound, allow the sounds to exist without diffusion.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I don’t believe in shutting out possibilities. Always leave the process open to new unexpected collisions and find new contexts
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Personally I think we should act as conduits, and facilitators, as well as creators, otherwise we are merely administrators in the process.
I guess I’m happy at times to lose control and see where things go once a system is put in place.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Creativity is a state of mind not merely an activity. We should all be creative in ever aspects of life, from how we present ourselves, engage with ideas, and how we interact with, and respond to, everything around us.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Stupid as it may sound the format can help dictate. We release on vinyl which has strict criteria – length of sides. So at a certain point, look to how tracks work in that format. On other occassions, when for example we recently did a live film score the process becomes much more fluid and open ended.
With regard to the pieces themselves that is the subjective art – it’s complete when it feels right, when you try things and they don’t really add anything, then you pull back and produce the final version.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I have always had the same relationship with my music from the very beginning right up to the most recent release – I am massively connected emotionally with it until the moment of release, and unless it’s a track being played live I will rarey listen to it unless it comes on somewhere.
At the point of release it’s public property and have no control over how it is received or perceived.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Very involved, I mix every record I make and have always been part of the mastering with Cabs.
I was at every mastering session with George Peckham to oversee things and hang with George.
Wrangler is aways mastered by Shawn Joseph at Optimum, and I love the mastering on the Dais stuff, and asked specifically forJosh Bonati who does the label releases.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I’ve never felt that and I am usually onto the next record.
There’s always more to do – at this very moment I’m the studio with John Grant doing the next Creep Show album.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
No. As I previously alluded to creativity is inherent in all of us, it’s merely a question of recognising it. In some people it may be how they match their jacket and shirt, in others how they design their bathroom, how they relate to their loved ones, the words they use. In Einstein it was how he approached numbers.
It’s intuitive, it is part of being human.