Last week, on 21 September, the world lost a singular talent and an electronic music trailblazer: Richard H. Kirk.
The pioneering Sheffield-born musician and Cabaret Voltaire co-founder passed away aged 65. His long-time label Mute confirmed his death, writing in a statement: “It is with great sadness that we confirm our great and dear friend, Richard H. Kirk has passed away. Richard was a towering creative genius who led a singular and driven path throughout his life and musical career. We will miss him so much. We ask that his family are given space at this time.”
Tributes to the late artist and, indeed, “towering creative genius”, flooded the internet in the days following. Friends, fellow artists and fans – plus amalgamations of the three – saluted Kirk’s work and legacy; swapping stories about their earliest encounters with his music, favourite releases and standout memories.
Kirk’s decade-spanning career began in the 70s with the formation of Cabaret Voltaire, or simply the Cabs. He founded the group in 1973 alongside Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson. Over the years, the group’s output evolved from DIY electronics and reel-to-reel experiments into a more structured, rhythmic style – one that aligned them with early industrial music and post-punk. As the outfit’s profile grew as did that of its fanbase, with the likes of Orbital, Depeche Mode and New Order influenced by the works of Kirk and Cabaret Voltaire.
At the time of his passing, Kirk was the sole remaining member of Cabaret Voltaire. In 2020, the group released an album entitled Shadow of Fear. It was the band’s first new full-length in 26 years, and Cabaret Voltaire’s first release with Kirk as the sole member. Two further releases were shared earlier this year.
Kirk maintained an illustrious and prolific career as a solo artist as well, releasing inventive and experimental electronic music under a plethora of aliases, including Sandoz, Electronic Eye and Sweet Exorcist – a collaborative project with Richard Barratt, aka DJ Parrot or Crooked Man.
Here, we speak to artists who, in their own words, reflect on their favourite moments with Kirk, his revolutionary approach and the role he played in shaping their own respective careers.
Daniel MillerMute Records
I met Richard and Cabaret Voltaire in 1978, when they released their [Extended Play] EP on Rough Trade. I saw them play at the Electric Ballroom around that time, which was very memorable. Cabaret Voltaire were completely uncompromising, single-minded. [Richard was] chasing his own direction, which is fantastic. That’s the kind of artist you like to work with. He had a clear idea, it was almost like he was on a creative path.
A few years ago, when he decided to play live again under the name Cabaret Voltaire I saw him play quite a few times. Musically and creatively, it was incredible. Emotionally, it was very strong for me and heartwarming to be in. That was a great buzz, I should say. We played at a festival in Portugal and the Czech Republic. He was never looking back, he never wants to look back. So all the music he was playing was new, and of course I ended up on the album Shadow of Fear again. We reconnected at that point which was great. Over the years, we’d lost touch a little bit, and then we re-released a Cabaret Voltaire album back in the day. It was around that time that we really reconnected on a different level, on a personal level. He was a very warm person, always a joy to be with and to watch and create.
A lot of artists have been inspired by his work, no question about that. Not just at the beginning but right through his career. And I think that’ll continue. The fact that he’ll inspire artists after his music is gone, and will continue to inspire people and also challenge them. That’s his music – his legacy – is the impact he’ll continue to have on his audience and on young people.
He created so much music over the years. Cabaret Voltaire split up, he then worked under different names and styles. He couldn’t have been anybody else. He was always so clearly him, a unique talent. There aren’t that many artists who you can say that about. We’re all going to miss him terribly – as a human being, as a musician, as an artist. It’s a terrible loss.
Mark StewartThe Pop Group
I invited Cabaret Voltaire to play on a sort of mini festival our ‘Pop Group’ had with Nico and Linton Kwasi Johnson. Here is the poster for it at Electric Ballroom (pictured). Richard presented himself as a bit of a dour – in a funny way – northerner to us West Country bumpkins, but he really reminded me of my scientist father: a precision-tooled mind. Biggest shock to me for years. If nobody speaks of remarkable things? Rich truly defied the herd – love ya Kirky.
Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris CarterThrobbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey, Carter Tutti Void
Chris Carter: We first met [Richard] over 40 years ago, at a gig we played together at Sheffield Uni. We’d chat about gear and sampling, comparing synths, effects, techniques and stuff. It was around then that we offered to release some of the Cabs material on cassette on our Industrial Records label. As it happened, Richard had a whole bunch of finished solo tracks he’d been working on – which sounded great – so we decided to put out his album first. That was Disposable Half-Truths – his first solo release and what would be the beginning of this whole stellar alter-ego parallel career.
Cosey Fanni Tutti and Carter: We’ve always stayed in contact, chatting, swapping albums, advice and such – the usual stuff. Years ago, during one of our more intense swapping periods, he sent us a box of CDRs full of all this amazing club music by a bunch of artists we’d never heard of; absolutely brilliant dance tracks. When we asked him who they were and where he got them from he just said, “It’s me.”
Richard wasn’t one for travelling. He famously refused to fly anywhere, but he was OK going by road or train. About 12 years ago, he was persuaded to start gigging again and we started to bump into him at festivals around Europe. You’d see him wandering around backstage with a big smile on his face and a plastic carrier bag full of tapes, floppy disks and CDs – maybe he was paranoid about leaving them on stage. Some of the gear he was using was absolutely ancient – old samplers, keyboards and VHS machines – but he always put together a great show. The last time we saw him was in Paris a couple of years ago. We were sharing a dressing room, he started rummaging around in his bag and pulled out a CD and said, “Here, d’ya want a copy of my new album?” As ever, generous to a fault.
When we played together at the Roundhouse in 2012 he turned up at soundcheck looking really stressed out. I asked if he was OK and he said, “Not really, I’ve just thrown away all my stash.” It turned out that when he got off the train at King’s Cross all he saw was a station full of police with sniffer dogs. He panicked and threw all his weed under the train, but the police were actually there checking another train, not his. His soundcheck took ages because he was so stressed and pissed off – until he managed to get a smoke.
We loved that he wasn’t one for dwelling on the past and was always looking forward, constantly working on new tracks and ideas. His prolific, incomparable contribution to dance and club music, and that he didn’t ‘sell out’. I guess we can at least be thankful that we have his colossal catalogue of music to remember him by.
Nik VoidFactory Floor, Carter Tutti Void
Richard remixed a track for Factory Floor – Two Different Ways – and we then had the opportunity to ask him to DJ on a night we curated for Adidas. I was horrified at the magnitude of branding. Above Richard’s head, the Adidas crew projected a massive Gazelle trainer. He thought it was funny – just happy to be there playing dub. He was extremely chilled.
We later caught up with him at festivals. At Incubate in the Netherlands, he walked on stage in his suit holding a plastic bag full of DAT tapes. They seemed to take forever to load up; once up and running it was mind blowing – order and chaos at the same time! Cabs’ pragmatic approach to gear being the first interpreter grabbed my attention, mainly because Richard seemed caught up with the process of making rather than entertainment. This inspired me massively. Also, the Testone 12-inch on Warp via his Sweet Exorcist moniker, and the fact he wouldn’t fly anywhere. We bumped into him at AMF, he explained how he had travelled by boat.
When I met Richard he was lovely. He and his wife came to see me at a rare, very poorly attended show at a fabulous new theatre complex in Tilburg, Netherlands. It was on a Monday or Tuesday night, so the kids had spent their money on the weekend and couldn’t come up from Amsterdam. Anyway, they were there, and my manager Danilo Pellegrinelli and I hung out with them. The promoters at this new state of the art venue were so kind and kept the fabulous cafe open for us after the show. It was me, Danilo, Richard and his wife, and two or four kids that did manage to get there, and they served us all night.
I had a few days between shows so I stayed at my friend’s apartment in the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Richard was doing a Cab show for a festival in Amsterdam. We had passes so we, of course, went. Richard was like the Wizard of Oz behind a huge wall of old VCRs and monitors he was controlling with the massively loud music. It was awesome!
I think it was later that night, very late, we wandered over to near where I was staying to find something to drink. There was a pizza joint still open and the four of us had plenty of beers and a few bites of pizza and had the most delightful chat. I can’t remember what we talked about, but they were so lovely and before we all toddled off home an invitation to visit them in Sheffield was tendered. Waaaaaa! He was brilliant and funny! I’m so sad. Well, he danced to the death! As one does…
Josh CheonDark Entries
I came across Richard’s music via Cabaret Voltaire when I was 16 years old. My friend was the electronic music director at a college radio station and they were getting rid of all their vinyl which included two CV albums: The Arm of the Lord and Eight Crepuscule Tracks. I still have both copies in my collection, and the review sticker on Arm reads: “A lot of noise not just music – if music at all but a lot like Kraftwerk but very good. Try: Yashar“. Upon hearing The Web my musical ears were forever changed by its blaring synths over a dance rhythm. Those two albums were only the beginning as I would soon snatch up any CV release when record shopping.
Their music would continue to inspire me as I began to DJ at my college radio station and in clubs, eventually starting my record label. My second release was a project called Death Domain who cited CV as an influence. I would soon learn many more bands on my label would follow suit. Fortunately, I was lucky to reissue the music of Eric Random that Richard performed on and produced.
I think everyone who heard a CV album went out and made their own electronic noise. They broke down musical doors with their forward-thinking approach to cut up tapes, dissonant samples and throbbing rhythms. Richard’s prolific and subversive music will live on forever, which means he will, too.
Martin Moscrop and Jez KerrA Certain Ratio
Martin Moscrop: We met Richard when the Cabs played at one of The Factory nights at The Russell Club in Manchester. We thought they were doing everything we love about music: a fucked up Kraftwerk with tape loops, weird sounds and really effected vocals. Richard made his guitar sound like a synth which is what we tried to do after seeing them. He was great to hang out with and learn off. The Cabs were a huge influence on ACR. [Richard] wasn’t afraid to experiment with music, with sounds, he wasn’t afraid of trying new things and being different.
Jez Kerr: I first heard the Cabs while physically putting together the Factory Sampler at 86 Palatine Road – Baader Meinhof completely blew me away. Then I saw them play Nag Nag Nag live and was blown away. The sounds from Richard in Baader Meinhof and the intro on Nag Nag Nag send shivers. His and Mal’s influence was, and is, massive.
Moscrop: Too many fond memories of nights out in Sheffield to mention. Richard came over to Manchester to see Kraftwerk in about 2004 and I met with him, his wife and Eric Random before the show. They were on the guestlist and it turned out that Kraftwerk had been fans of the Cabs since the mid to late 70s. After the show, I said I had to get off and the next day I found out that they all went back to Kraftwerk’s hotel to party with them. I have suffered from severe FOMO ever since…
Cabaret Voltaire were quite a big influence in my first couple bands when I was younger. Since then, I became so fascinated with Richard H. Kirk’s many projects and aliases. A few years back I did a RH Kirk special on Worldwide FM. I also played one of his tracks in most of my earlier mixes.
His experimentation within electronica was really inspiring. Not needing to stick to one sonic lane was also something I cherished. From the super noisy stuff and experimentation with breakbeats and different rhythms, then to projects like Sandoz which were much more melodic. He cast a wide net when making music. He leaves behind catalogues of music and sound that will be discovered for generations.
Although I saw the Cabs quite a few times in the 80s and early 90s, the first time I properly met Richard was at a legendary gig we both played in Sheffield at the iconic Park Hill flats estate in 2010. It was a bit like a south Yorkshire equivalent of meeting the Pope at the Vatican.
Well, at the same gig and during our set (as Sandwell District) he came up to me and asked, “What’s this track?” to which I replied, “Eh, it’s you, it’s the Cabs.” “Ahh… I knew it was bloody good,” he said and we all had a little pogo behind the decks to it. It was one of those amazing moments.
His influence runs like a golden thread through the fabric of electronic music. His ability to move seamlessly with the times while repeatedly making era-defining records on his journey. He never looked back; he was always pushing and always two steps ahead.
I was aware of Cabaret Voltaire through their connection with Throbbing Gristle and knowing that they’d released on Industrial Records, but I think the first song I heard was Nag Nag Nag. I remember being blown away that it was the same band when I heard the single Easy Life in 1990. Expertly showing such stylistic range.
It’s mostly his attitude and hunger for new sounds that inspire me. His idea of taking a contrary position and always challenging the status quo. “That’s the job of an artist in society. It’s not to paint pretty pictures. It’s to say something, even if it’s only ‘Fuck you.’”
I really went down a rabbit hole of listening to all of Cabaret Voltaire’s back catalogue around 2015. This led on to me starting to explore the many monikers and prolific output of Richard H. Kirk – I’ve got about 12 solo Richard albums, and this is barely a dent in his output!
You could (very broadly) split Cabaret Voltaire’s and Richard’s approach into two; I love the lo-fi grainy quality, particularly the experiments and innovations with tapes, early synths, drum machines and effects that take it beyond music into something more like sound art pieces or soundtracks to a hallucination. I love the collage, montage feel to this work. Equally, I love his dance-oriented sound; all those sequenced synth basslines and punchy electro beats and samples had a big influence on the direction of my latest album, Former Things. Richard was also a great anti-guitarist – I love his coruscating, jagged guitar playing. All these elements really resonate with me and my own art school background and approach, and love of rhythm and drum machines.
He was a great artist; to sit alone in his studio and keep creating year after year, as if on an obsessive quest is an incredible achievement. He really did travel deep through territories of exploration to create a towering body of work. A legacy that will challenge, inspire and stand the test of time, without doubt.
Bjorn Copeland and Aaron WarrenBlack Dice
Bjorn Copeland: Cabaret Voltaire was my first exposure to Richard H. Kirk’s music. I kind of lump them in with a long list of bands that you heard mention of – Neu!, The Residents, Chrome, Throbbing Gristle – but whose records were impossible to find in my neck of New England. The first time actually hearing them would have to be credited to an ex-girlfriend, and a **** dealer I frequented, who also sold records. That would have been the late 90s.
Aaron Warren: When I was 19 and living in Boulder, CO, I bought someone’s industrial record collection at a Salvation Army for a few bucks. I got Throbbing Gristle, Chrome and Cabaret Voltaire. The Cabaret Voltaire records sound so immediate and intimate – at once totally mysterious and unknowable but also very approachable – like something I might be able to do myself!
Copeland: There are so many substantial gaps in my memory that it’s hard to recall my initial response to hearing, say, The Voice of America. I do recall being very thirsty for records that surprised me as far as their inventiveness, but that didn’t seem at home in the avant-garde bins of the record store. They seemed to operate with very much a rock spirit, which appealed to me. Whether CV would have viewed this as a compliment or not, I’m not sure.
As someone who has chipped away at a creative ‘career’ for a couple decades, I find it really is essential and encouraging to know that there are folks who have forged a path that is even longer, and that never seemed to shy away from taking chances. It’s impossible to overstate how important that is. Those characters are quite rare. Richard H. Kirk said an immense amount through his body of work, and provided a lifetime worth of ideas for subsequent generations to digest and respond to. No small feat.
Warren: His catalogue is so deep! I just heard Sweet Exorcist for the first time this year! It’s a lifelong dedication to exploration that is the absolute model for us all.
Jan St WernerMouse on Mars
We first heard Sweet Exorcist in the mid-90s. We clonked in right away. The fat and gritty analogue sound of Kirk was much closer to what we liked than the synthetic cleanness of IDM or other techno-influenced pop music. Probably everything you like feeds into your thinking and making. The distinct low-pitched melodic peaks; the funky, clunky rhythms; the freedom to change it all whenever you want to. Also, Sandoz was great, adding another layer of moodiness and abstraction. Sandoz had a great soundtrack-y quality to it without being descriptive or kitsch. [Kirk taught me to] keep moving, keep doing what you enjoy yourself, expand your groove.
I started going to clubs around the age of 15 and Nag Nag Nag and Yashar were always getting played but I didn’t initially know who they were by. Then Sensoria came out and it was a gigantic club hit and I had to have the record. It also had the most incredible, innovative video. From that point on I followed everything Richard did and also explored back into his catalogue.
I thought Cabaret Voltaire were out there in a league of their own. At the point I fell for them they had a unique ability to give the machines a huge dose of funk – at a point where a lot of electronic music was devoid of any kind of groove. They were true pioneers, always morphing, always advancing; accessible yet weird.
I will confess to having “borrowed” some of Richard’s classic sequences for a load of remixes I did. They say “genius steals” but I’m not sure that is right; it’s more I stole from a genius. Let’s keep this to ourselves, OK? I believe his legacy will be eternal. He was always a leader, never a follower. One thing that really stands out for me is that his innovation and quality control never diminished. He never at any point had off periods when he was making lacklustre music, and in his mid 60s was still as pioneering as when he started nearly 50 years earlier. I think we live in quite ageist times so I find that very empowering.