Stephen Mallinder (Cabaret Voltaire) and Lucy Board (Pale Blue Eyes) Talk Sheffield’s Rich Musical History

“We just wanted to create a bit of havoc.”

Lucy Board is one of the primary songwriters for Pale Blue Eyes, an electronic indie-pop band by-way-of Devon and Sheffield; Stephen Mallinder is a musician and producer, and a founding member of the legendary Sheffield-based electronic band Cabaret Voltaire. Pale Blue Eyes’ debut record Souvenirs is out tomorrow on Full-Time Hobby, so to celebrate, the two sat down for the first time to talk about Sheffield’s cultural history.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-Chief, Talkhouse Music

Lucy Board: Shall I give you a little quick bit of background on why I think we’ve got this thing set up?

Stephen Mallinder: You did a dissertation on Sheffield music, didn’t you?

Lucy: Yes, I did. I’ve had to dig out the the title of it and sort of read back over it — because bearing in mind this was quite a little while ago now, over 10 years ago for me. An investigation into Sheffield’s alternative music scene between 1973 and 1978. 

Stephen: Can I read it, Lucy? Can you send it to me? 

Lucy: Yeah, definitely! [Laughs.] It would be so funny to hear how wrong I may have been.

Stephen: No, no. The thing is that I have to do so much about my past — I’m supposed to be doing the first bit of the memoir, and it’s always like, “Well, can you connect it to your past?” Which is like, Alright, but I can’t remember. [Laughs.] So when people write about it, it’s like, Oh, that’s really good. A mate of mine just put all these flyers from when we were 14, 15 years old up this morning on Instagram and — basically what I’m saying to you is, I do outsource some of my memory to people like you. I’ll tell you if it’s wildly wrong. But no, I just want to read it, that was all. And I’ll credit you with anything, by the way, if there’s anything in there and I go, Oh, fuck, I didn’t even remember that.

Lucy: [Laughs.] That would be cool. So, I grew up in Sheffield, and then I went to uni in South Devon — I went to an arts college called Dartington.

Stephen: I know, yeah. A friend of mine was one of the people who helped set it up, and some friends of mine have been teaching down there. 

Lucy: Yeah, I think it was pretty avant garde when it was set up. And then when I studied there, it was actually coming to the end of it — about two years after I finished my degree, it merged with Falmouth. 

I was going to say to you before I hit record, I’m not a journalist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m just a musician. So I haven’t got questions planned or anything, but I’ve had a think about things that I wanted to ask me, just off the back of the fact that I wrote this dissertation with particular reference to Cabaret Voltaire. I would have never have guessed over ten years later that I’d just be getting to chat you, so it’s really cool. But basically, I read a book called Beats Working for a Living by Martin Lilleker — I was down in Devon studying and I found that book in the library with the accompanying CD, and it had Artery and DBA, all these bands on it, and obviously Cabs. And then I also watched the documentary by Eve Wood.Those were the two sort of initial catalysts for starting to think, Oh, I’d really like to research this a bit more, considering I’d grown up in and played in my first bands in Sheffield. I then went to Devon, and it was only when I was in Devon that I think I probably was a bit homesick. That’s when I started to really engage with researching it, and I came across things like Throbbing Gristle — which for me as a sort of teenager, finding that CD in the library and putting it on was just mind-blowing. So then I got onto the links, because you guys had stuff that came out on their label early on.

Stephen: Yeah, yeah.

Lucy: I just went on this magical mystery tour of research. I got onto Dadaism because of your name, and then I got on to William Burroughs’s cut up techniques. The big question is, I’ve read about all that stuff from my point of view, but when you were in it and it was the ‘70s and you were making stuff, what was your — I mean, you’ve said you might not remember it that clearly, but obviously you were probably just sort of doing it instinctively.

Stephen: Yeah, I mean, I do remember it. The thing is, there’s just so much of it and I’m not a collector in the sense that I don’t archive my life. I lived it rather than that. But I do remember much of it. The whole thing when we started was really just finding our own way through it, because there was no model on which we could base what we wanted to do. It’s funny, sometimes you’re better defining what you don’t want to do than what you do want to do, and we kind of emerged at the time in the mid to late ‘70s, and we didn’t want to be part of the the rock thing. We were young, it was pre punk, but there was that kind of sort of feeling out there, particularly of people of that generation was wanting to sort of change all that. We were still living in the post-war world in many respects. So there was that idea of looking towards the future, but our future wasn’t really rock or anything like that. We were interested in different things. 

So we were all kind of into art and we got into Dada and we got into the Velvet Underground, and then we got into this kind of weird German music that was happening at the time, which was bands like Can and Neu and Kraftwerk. So it was just a matter of exploration. But as I say, all these things nowadays, sort of 40-odd years later, are part of the whole cultural landscape. But that moment in time, all that stuff was kind of buried away. So you just had to find your way through it. It wasn’t an age when people went to university to study these things, so we were kind of autodidactic, we taught ourselves a lot of things. And music papers were a big thing — it sounds mad, but the NME every week was kind of like a newsletter from out of the ether for us. There was only probably about two or three things in each copy of the NME each week that we were interested in. Most of it was shit that we hated. But in those, you’d find out about people like William Burroughs through David Bowie talking them about him in ‘74 or whatever, when we were kids, or finding out about the Velvets and Lou Reed and things like that. So you actually pieced this world together, because it wasn’t connected.

We just didn’t want to be rock musicians, but we were influenced by people like Brian Eno, Roxy Music, particularly. And with Brian Eno, that idea of you could make music with non-conventional instruments, with tape recorders and electronic equipment. We’d then gotten into the idea of musique concrète and [Karlheinz] Stockhausen and [Pierre] Schaeffer and people like that. So we’d started to build this weird world that was partly intellectual and arty and partly kind of popular culture. So we just made this world of ourselves because there was no one else in Sheffield doing anything like that. Until we met [Throbbing Gristle] around that time, we weren’t really that aware of anyone really doing stuff [like that]. You know, there were people like Chrome in San Francisco a little bit later. People just started to pop up out of the ground really, but we weren’t aware of them. We saw ourselves more as art than music. We weren’t bothered about success or anything. We just wanted to create a bit of havoc. I think really that was all we wanted to do.

Lucy: At a time where it was, as you say, sort of post-war and actually probably quite hard. Thatcher Britain was bleak, wasn’t it.

Stephen: Yeah.

Lucy: So art was probably like a sort of escapism, maybe, or a flash of color in an otherwise sort of gray time. I don’t know, I’m guessing.

Stephen: No, no, that’s exactly right. It was that kind of emerging from the strange black and white world, which still was pervasive. TV was still largely black and white, it was still a monochrome world. But there was much more color coming into it. And so we were connected with both of those sort of things. 

I mean, Thatcher changed things a little bit. By the time we got to that point in the ‘80s, it was a slightly different thing because punk had happened and post-punk and all those kind of newer ways of doing things that were starting to start to emerge. So there was more of a sense of connection and movement — labels like Rough Trade and Factory Records had started.


So by the time we got Thatcher, it was almost like the world for us was a bit more organized and we could kind of challenge that. Prior to that, it wasn’t there. There weren’t any independent labels when we started and it was still a Labour government with bin strikes and power cuts and and Ted Heath as well. So we started in a pre-Thatcher world, but by the time we got to Thatcher we started to be empowered, people like us. So it was kind of interesting.

Lucy: I remember when I was writing the dissertation that I was trying to draw some parallel between the Sheffield musicians at the time in the late ‘70s doing their version of punk, to say, “We’re going to make music on a synthesizer where we’re just going to play one note over and over again on a synth, and that’s our version of rejecting the punk thing.” I get a bit mixed up with the time frames of things, but you know, certain bands at that time wouldn’t use a guitar. They’d just say, “No, I just want to use electronic and found sound and synthesizers,” and that was like their version of a sort of punk reaction.

Stephen: It’s funny, it goes back to the point I made that we didn’t have any models, we didn’t have anything to base it on. Sheffield was interesting in the sense that it didn’t have a history of music. You go to Manchester and it’s got stronger connection to rock music. So when punk happened, it happened earlier and it happened in that rock kind of format and that was the model that people followed. Whereas in Sheffield, we didn’t really have any kind of like history of — you know, it was Joe Cocker and Dave Barry and apart from that, Tony Christie’s the only other person anyone ever knew from Sheffield. 

It’s not me blowing my own trumpet, but it was the fact that I think that we were one of the first bands to emerge that people went “Oh, bloody hell, they’re not using guitars.” But then other bands started, and the funny thing is that the punk bands that did emerge had a much weirder, artier and kind of electronic bent to them. You know, I’m So Hollow were a punk band, -ish, but they used a Wasp synthesizer. Human League as well, they kind of emerged around the same time as us. But nobody felt obliged in Sheffield to follow the lead of rock. It was a bit idiosyncratic and I don’t know why. Maybe just the fact it was a smaller city, they weren’t trying to play in bigger venues. It was just people fucking around in pubs, really. And I think a few people saw us doing it a bit differently and everyone else went, “Oh, we can be different in Sheffield. It’s alright.”

Lucy: Yeah. What I find crazy about what you did in the ‘70s was you were doing visual projections as well as music, and at the time that was really cutting edge, wasn’t it? That was something quite different that people hadn’t done before. It must be weird in 2022 when everyone’s got TikTok on their mobile phone and they’re essentially like creating collage art on a daily basis. It is actually mad, isn’t it? I wonder what things will be going on in another 34 years that we can’t even imagine now, with technological advances like that. I kind of wish I could go back in time and see what it felt like to see a Cab gig and people losing their minds to this thing that they’ve probably never experienced before. I just find it quite mind-blowing, really.

Stephen: Yeah, it was quite mad because we always wanted to use visuals. And the basis of it was quite simple — we had this image in our mind of the Velvet Underground in the late ‘60s playing at the Dome in New York, and Andy Warhol, Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Visuals had had been used, but they were the only ones who used them in a kind of darker way. Other people used psychedelic stuff, but we were into the idea of using films in a much more subversive way. And it was a similar process — cutting up and messing with film is the same as cutting up and messing with sounds. It’s all part of what we do, because we were part of that TV generation. We were the first generation to grow up where TV was there when we were born. So it was natural for us, if our job as musicians was just mirroring the world we lived in, the visual was as important as the sonic.

Lucy: Yeah. You now live in Brighton, is that right?

Stephen: Yeah.

Lucy:  But do you love Sheffield? Do you go back to Sheffield a lot, or what’s your relationship with Sheffield now?

Stephen: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah. It’s a bit annoying because I’ve not managed to get up this summer, just because I’ve been so busy. But my best mates are still there and my family’s still there, and they still come down here and I still work with Sheffield people all the time. It’s still a big part of me and I go back whenever I can.

Lucy: Yeah. And it seems like a great place. It’s slightly curious, in terms of the sorts of gigs we’re doing with our band, we get offered little tour supports and things like that and Sheffield isn’t coming up very much for the venues we’re playing at the moment, the sort of smaller sized venues. One of the places I’d obviously absolutely love to play with our band is Sheffield, because that’s where I’m from and as yet we haven’t done a single gig up there. I don’t get that, because I think Sheffield should absolutely be in there, shouldn’t it?

Stephen: I don’t sometimes how these things work. I must admit, it is funny, actually, because it’s the same for me with Brighton. I’ve lived here for 13 years, I’ve only ever played here once. I can’t get a gig in Brighton. I’m playing the Leadmill [in Sheffield] in a couple of months. 

Lucy: Oh, you are?

Stephen: Yeah. 

Lucy: Oh, cool! Well, thanks very much for giving your time for this today. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I was going to ask about Western Works, your original workspace, just purely because me and my husband [Matt Board, also of Pale Blue Eyes] have sort of dedicated ourselves to building a home studio. We’ve got an analog console and we have had it set up out the back of my husband’s family home. But that’s been a bit of a labor of love — it ended up needing a lot of restoring all the power supplies, and then every single channel strip needed re-soldering. It’s been a lot of work. But yeah, I was going to ask what that studio space was like and what kit you had. Was it just kind of a creative zone where you all got together?

Stephen: Yeah. The one pure Sheffield punk band were 2.3, who were very political, very smart, very intelligent, really clever, and we shared it originally with them. The building was an old cutlery works that was there, and the top floor was occupied — I don’t know whether they rented it, or squatted it even — by the young socialists, and they they got booted out by the police and or the landlords. For some reason, through Paul and him being connected with all these political kind of things, we were offered the space. It was the top floor and there was two rooms: The bigger room, so they could put the guitars and drums in that they had, and we had the slightly smaller room, which were the original offices for the young socialists. That’s why if you ever see any photos, the walls are still all plastered with socialist kind of things.

We gradually built it up. We just had a Revox tape machine and all our bits and pieces, but then gradually we expanded, and when we got money, we reinvested. After the single, we got some money and got an eight-track. By this time, 2.3 had split up, so we’d taken over both rooms about probably about a year after moving in. Although the other room was occasionally [used] — I remember Def Leppard rehearsing in there once. Human League went in a couple of times. We used to let people use the other room, but eventually we just took over the whole space. 

It was just a drop in space. You know, we’d usually go back after the pub, have a smoke and and watch movies. And so it became this kind of little cultural hub. And then bands used to come and say, “Oh, can you record us?” So it became this informal thing. We often say it was kind of like a Sheffield version of Andy Warhol’s Factory. But obviously we didn’t have all the kind of New York glitterati coming in.

Lucy: [Laughs.] But the Sheffield version.

Stephen: We had the Sheffield version. They Must Be Russians, New Order, The Fall, the Ratios, 203 Skidoo — they all came through, so we had our own kind of arty version.

Lucy: Sounds amazing. 

Stephen: Eventually we got a 24 track in there, but then somebody tried to break in through the roof and landed on top of the 24 track, the tape machine. So a massive hole in the roof — obviously, our security was compromised. We finally left there late ‘80s, I think, probably about ‘87, ‘88. Just under a decade. 

Lucy: Do you know what the building is now?

Stephen: Yeah, I’ve played in it. 

Lucy: Oh, yeah?

Stephen: Believe it or not, the university bought it and it’s the geography department. But some enterprising people decided to do a Western Works festival there about about five years ago, and they had this whole night and I did go up and play. It was a bit of a weird night and it was in approximately where our studio was. We were on the top floor, so it kind of mirrored the building we were in, but it was obviously an institutional 21st century kind of university building. There’s always been talk of trying to get a blue plaque on the wall, but I don’t think anyone’s interested. Sheffield should acknowledge its history in it.

Lucy: I definitely think so, yeah.

Stephen: I mean, it does with Jarvis [Cocker] — they recognise Jarvis. But there’s a lot of other stuff there, that Jarvis would be massively supportive of.

Lucy: Definitely, there’s a wealth of stuff. Well, it’s good chat to you and I’ll email you my dissertation, and you can have a look.

Stephen: [Laughs.] I’m not going to mark you or anything! Lovely speaking to you, Lucy. Good luck with the album!

Pale Blue Eyes is a band from Devon and Sheffield, UK. Their debut record Souvenirs is out September 2, 2022 on Full Time Hobby.