Richard H. Kirk, Post-Punk Pioneer of Industrial Music, Dies at 65
Richard H. Kirk, a founding member of the English group Cabaret Voltaire and a major figure in the creation of the post-punk style known as …
Richard H. Kirk, a founding member of the English group Cabaret Voltaire and a major figure in the creation of the post-punk style known as industrial music, has died. He was 65.
His death was confirmed by his former record label, Mute, in an Instagram post on Sept. 21. The post did not say when or where he died or cite the cause.
Mr. Kirk formed Cabaret Voltaire in 1973 in Sheffield, England, with Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson. They borrowed the name from the Zurich nightclub where Dada, an art movement that responded to society’s ills with irrationality, was born in the early years of the 20th century.
“When we started, we wanted to do something with sound, but none of us knew how to play an instrument,” Mr. Kirk said in an interview for a 1985 New York Times article about industrial music. “So we started using tape recorders and various pieces of junk and gradually learned to play instruments like guitars and bass.” Despite his claim, Mr. Kirk was initially a clarinetist, and he developed a scratching, slashing style as a guitarist.
The members of Cabaret Voltaire created the template for what would become known as industrial music: hectoring vocals, mechanical rhythms, scraps of recorded speech snatched from mass media, conventional instruments rendered alien with electronic effects.
On early-1980s recordings like “Three Mantras,” “The Voice of America” and “Red Mecca,” the group embraced the literary cutup techniques of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, the British author J.G. Ballard’s dystopian provocations and punk rock’s abrasive stance. Musical influences included Brian Eno, the German band Can and Jamaican dub.
Mr. Watson left the group in 1981, and Mr. Kirk and Mr. Mallinder pursued a more commercial direction that brought them to the cusp of mainstream success. Cabaret Voltaire disbanded in 1994, after which Mr. Kirk pursued a bewildering range of solo projects and collaborations. He revived Cabaret Voltaire as a solo effort in 2009, focusing exclusively on new material, and released three albums in 2020 and 2021.
Mr. Kirk was born on March 21, 1956, and grew up in Sheffield, a steel town. “You looked down into the valley and all you could see was blackened buildings,” he told the author and critic Simon Reynolds in an interview for his book “Rip It Up and Start Again” (2005), an authoritative post-punk history.
Sheffield was a bastion for Labour Party and radical-left politics, and as a teenager Mr. Kirk was a member of the Young Communist League. “My dad was a member of the party at one point, and I wore the badge when I went to school,” he told Mr. Reynolds. “But I never took it really seriously.”
Mr. Mallinder, in a 2006 interview on the Red Bull Music Academy website, said that he and Mr. Kirk had been drawn to Black American music from an early age. “We used to go to soul clubs from when we were about 13 or 14,” he said. “We were both working-class kids; we grew up with that. And anything else that was in our world at that moment, it didn’t really matter to us.”
But local performances by Roxy Music, then an up-and-coming art-rock band that included Mr. Eno on primitive synthesizers and tape effects, suggested new possibilities.
“People like Brian Eno were a massive influence on us, because he was actually integrating things that were nonmusical, and that appealed to us,” Mr. Mallinder said. “We didn’t really want to be musicians. The idea of being technically proficient or learning a traditional instrument was kind of anathema to us.”
Mr. Kirk attended art school and completed a one-year program in sculpture. He joined Mr. Mallinder and Mr. Watson, a Dada-besotted telephone engineer, in Cabaret Voltaire, which was initially an amorphous, boundary-pushing workshop project based in Mr. Watson’s attic.
“We studiously went there Tuesdays and Thursdays every week and experimented for two hours or so, during which time we’d lay down maybe three or four compositions,” Mr. Kirk told Mr. Reynolds. Less musicians than provocateurs at first, Cabaret Voltaire was soon swept up in England’s punk-rock revolution. In 1978, the group established Western Works, a rehearsal and recording studio based in what had previously been the offices of the Sheffield Federation of Young Socialists.
“Western Works gave us the freedom to do what we wanted,” Mr. Kirk said. An advance from the independent label Rough Trade helped the band outfit the studio with a four-track recorder and mixing desk. Rough Trade proceeded to issue some of the band’s most influential and enduring work.
After Mr. Watson left the group, Mr. Kirk and Mr. Mallinder moved increasingly toward unambiguous dance-floor rhythms, drum machines and lush synthesizer sounds, scoring underground hits like “Sensoria,” “James Brown” and “I Want You.” A major-label contract with EMI resulted in a collaboration with the influential producer Adrian Sherwood on the group’s album “Code” (1987), and a 1990 collaboration with Chicago house-music producers, “Groovy, Laidback and Nasty.” But audience indifference and mounting debt led to the group’s dissolution four years later.
Mr. Kirk plunged into an array of pseudonymous side projects and collaborations. Performing with Richard Barratt (a.k.a. DJ Parrot) in a duo called Sweet Exorcist, he was among the earliest artists documented by the fledgling Warp label. He had another potent collaboration, with the Sheffield recording engineer Robert Gordon, as the techno duo XON.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Kirk rejected lucrative offers by festivals like Coachella to revive the original Cabaret Voltaire. “Some people might think I’m daft for not taking the money, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable within myself doing that,” he said in a 2017 interview with Fact magazine. “Cabaret Voltaire was always about breaking new ground and moving forward.”
He bolstered that impression by declining to perform any older Cabaret Voltaire material. “I always make it really clear that if you think you’re going to come and hear the greatest hits, then don’t come because you’re not,” he told Fact. “What you might get is the same spirit.”