With its electronic clamor and confrontational attitude, Cabaret Voltaire appears to be a quintessential representative of England’s fertile, anything-goes post-punk era. So it’s surprising to realize that the group--which started as a trio and is now a two-man operation--actually got its start 11 years ago, during one of rock’s most barren periods.
“Pre-punk was a very, very stale sort of atmosphere,” said Cabaret Voltaire’s singer, Stephen Mallinder, who joins his partner Richard Kirk and hired drummer Mark Tattersall tonight at the Palace for a show that will combine video and other visual elements with the team’s dense, driving electro-pop.
“That’s probably why we started,” Mallinder continued during a phone interview from San Francisco, first stop on the group’s short U.S. tour. “It was music to entertain ourselves. It was a very dull time. We needed punk in a lot of respects. Although the music and terminology were different, a lot of the spirit was the same as we had at the time.”
The atmosphere in the pre-punk days wasn’t just dull, it could be downright hostile--and Mallinder remembers being hit and thrown off the stage by some unappreciative listeners.
“It was only to be expected,” he explained, “because we set out to annoy people--literally. We had no subtlety. It was more a performance-art type of performance than a concert.
“Now, I think we’ve grown up a little bit and our audiences have grown with us. The environment has changed. Now, we try to excite and not just blandly entertain people, but in the early days it was more to antagonize.”
Cabaret Voltaire was formed in 1974 by Mallinder, Kirk and the departed Chris Watson, who were all inspired by Roxy Music’s fusion of rock and electronics and by other new-music forebears: New York’s Velvet Underground, Germany’s Can and Kraftwerk.
The group originated not only in an unlikely time, but an unlikely place: the industrial city of Sheffield, about 200 miles north of London.
“I think there’s a vague influence on the music,” said Mallinder, who spends most of his time in London but returns to Sheffield to record at the group’s Western Works studio/headquarters. “I couldn’t say you could tie it down literally to the locale and geography. I think what we do is very much urban music, city music. It has to be an urban environment that brings music like that about.”
With the arrival of ’76 punk upheaval, Cabaret Voltaire hooked up with the pioneer independent label Rough Trade and became a prominent force in the English rock underground.
In recent years, the duo has been moving toward the surface, gradually tempering its harsh dissonance with the danceable electro-pop approach of the current “Microphonies” album. Also bringing Cabaret Voltaire closer to today’s mainstream is the group’s longtime involvement in video, which is now paying off in the popularity of the striking “Sensoria” clip.
“We’ve never felt tied to any one thing,” Mallinder said of the transition. “We never felt, ‘Well, we’re called a weird band, so we’ve got to be a weird band for the rest of our lives.’
“We felt we wanted to do something that was more accessible. . . . On the other hand, we wanted to do it on our own terms. Even though the music’s more accessible, it’s not a complete sellout--it’s not out-and-out commercial and it’s not oriented toward the hit single or anything like that.”