England's Mechanical Cabaret is the larger than life alter ego of Roi Robertson (who is joined live by Bruce Lovelock and Tobi Chandler). Reflecting influences as eclectic as Marc Almond, John Barry and I Start Counting the resultant electronic noise is original, unpredictable, sometimes beautiful and ocassionally unsettling. 2002's debut "We Have An Agenda" slapped down an attention-grabbing calling card and the live bookings came flooding in. Although the follow-up LP has taken four years arriving, this year's "Product For Your Insecurity" demonstrated that the 'difficult second album' is often just a myth by improving on all fronts yet retaining all the key distinctive ingredients. Rob Dyer caught up with Robertson shortly after the band's return from a European tour supporting Mesh...
How would you describe the Mechanical Cabaret sound to those unfortunates not already familiar with your sound?
Always a difficult question, because you don't want to colour peoples own perceptions of what they might find in what you do. In a nutshell I write songs and record them with electronic instruments as do many musicians… I do mainly have a penchant for rusty, creaking old 70's analogue synths; they just sound like electricity! They have a real life and energy of their own… I'm a huge Doctor Who fan and always dreamt of making sounds like they used to use in the years of John Pertwee and Tom Baker.
I like to have a certain 'gritty' 'edgy' quality to my music and sounds, I make mainly my own samples too, although I find some software synths useful. I'm not too purist as to how I make a sound, it just has to be interesting to hear and work for the part or song in question. A lot of people say my stuff is sleazy synth-pop I guess, and that's about as near to summing it up as I can muster although I don't think the Popular 'Charts' could ever be troubled by my nonsense!
It's been 4 years since the debut "We Have An Agenda" - what took you so long?
I recorded that album on very basic equipment; synths, tapes and an Atari sequencer. I wanted to be able to make the record in my head but, given the limitations of my antiquated approach and equipment, came up with something shy of the mark… so, vowing to 'do better next time' I subsequently invested in a proper computer to record with and set about learning how to use it. This took me 2 years, whilst writing and recording new material along the way and having to manage doing a 'day-job' as well, things just took a while! It took me a further 2 years to write, program and record 'Product For Your Insecurity' as I have to do it myself, and I was helped very graciously with the recording of a few songs and the mastering of the album by the lovely Steve Bellamy from Greenhaus; but it won't be anywhere near as long before the next one! I've already written a lot of it actually.
What are you most pleased about with the new album "Product For Your Insecurity"?
Oh, the fact that it sounds pretty much like I meant it to for starters! I can say for the first time that I am actually happy with a record I've made... it feels like the record I've been trying to make ever since I started in music. It gets to the point, I'm really happy with the songs, doesn't pull any punches and has a fantastic energy about it, makes me want to dance around the room and play it to everyone at full blast! It feels coherent and focused, like all my favourite albums do. Can you tell I'm in love with it?! It's my new baby and I want to show it off to the world.
You've just returned from a European tour supporting Mesh. How was that?
My goodness, what a jolly jaunt that was. A life changing experience, no doubt. I wasn't too familiar with Mesh before, I had a couple of things by them, knew they were very popular in Europe in particular; but now I LOVE them. Fantastic band, great songs and the loveliest people too! Their single 'Crash' is brilliant, and I can't stop singing it; I was singing it at the top of my voice down the corridors of the venues on tour to warm up before going on stage! We were so flattered and over the moon that they wanted us to tour with them- us, the misfits of the electronic scene; they, mega electro-pop stars selling tons of records! We all got on extremely well too, I'm glad to say. Playing to the audiences in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Poland was quite an experience… and after a few open mouths and bemused faces at the start of our sets, we ended up getting a great reaction! Especially Northern Germany and Poland… HUGE cheers, countless autographs. They GOT it. They understood what we are doing. En masse. Thank fuck! At last!! We generally feel like black sheep in the UK, never really 'fit in' anywhere, not that you want that exactly, per se - but the people of central Europe have a canny grasp on electronic music, and we felt… at home. For the first time.
Your lyrics are distinctive and are clearly important to you. How do you approach writing a new song - what comes first?
They're the front door to the song for me. I don't like to bury my words in the music, I try to sing about things that affect me and hope that others are affected by what I am saying too. I'm always writing things in my notebook, phrases, ideas for songs etc. Sometimes I have a fully formed 'concept' for a song to start with, or I might be mucking about on a synth and a phrase comes to mind which triggers off the whole track; but I've grown ultra sensitive to the whole 'creative urge' thing these days!! I'm writing more than ever and finding inspiration in almost everything and anything - the rhythm of a bus engine inspired 'Disbehave' for example, whilst 'Cheap And Nasty' came from a more measured consideration of how people can sometimes treat each other. I don't know, I think the more you do it, the more 'tuned-in' you get to 'the force' or whatever you want to call it that shows you these things… makes you see in a different way, find inspiration where you wouldn't expect to. Oh, how artful am I darling? What a pseud…!
I sense an influence of John Barry circa “The Persuaders” in the fantastic instrumental hook on “Don’t Murder Me, I’m Drowning”. Was this a conscious tribute?
I'm a huge fan of John Barry, in particular the kind of atmospheres he creates melodically and the dramatic chord progressions, so it was bound to come out sooner or later in my music I guess! I'm aware that using a Dulcimer sample along with the synths that play the main tune and the style of that part in particular is VERY John Barry-esque! I was also kind of trying in a way to touch on Scott Walker/Jaques Brel/Marc Almond 'chansons' kind of territory with the song itself, so I'll put my hands up, yes, there is something of a homage going on with that song!
Talking of tributes, there’s a cover of Fad Gadget’s “I Discover Love” on the new album. How did you approach that and how did you feel when you heard that Fad had died?
I was asked to do it a few years ago for a CD of covers of Fad songs that my manager/promoter Frankie D was compiling with Frank Tovey, in fact, who he had persuaded to start doing Fad Gadget again after years. I did a basic demo version, which they both liked. Of course, just as things were coming together for Fad again, what with the Depeche Mode tour, new material, fantastic gigs, etc.- he died in the night. I never knew him too well, we'd had a drink together once or twice, that was it - but obviously it was and is a huge loss to music and the world. I've been playing it live ever since, it always goes down well, and after many requests from fans I recorded it and put on the new album.
You mentioned Steve Bellamy of Greenhaus earlier. He co-produced a couple of tracks including “Disbehave” which I think is reminiscent of Greenhaus, especially the opening bars. Presumably you’re a fan of Steve’s work?
Bless him, what a star he is! Steve is exceptionally talented, fab in the studio - I love working with him. We often understand what eachother means musically without saying it sometimes, a really intuitive process. What we did together with Disbehave and Don't Murder Me is really special.
In “It will all come back to you” there’s a reference to the bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub in London in 1999. Why the reference?
I was trying to come up with an example of pure evil in human behaviour, and this extremely violent action against innocent living things based on someones ignorant, predjudiced, and arrogant point of view is a fucking good example isn't it? People actually murdered, simply because they exercised their right to explore their sexuality in a way that still isn't completely accepted by society. A society which actively creates and encourages this out-moded and dangerous viewpoint, I might add. So disappointing. So sad.
You’ve really developed your vocals on the new album. There’s more variety and you seem to be challenging yourself and it’s clearly paying off. (Comment please!)
Thank you! I do try Rob. I worked really hard on my voice to get it to the stage its at, but I've got a long way to go before I'll actully be happy with it myself. I am a firm believer that you work with whatever tools are available to you - so I like what I done on this record, but next time it'll be even better! So watch out.
Given a free choice, who would you have produce the next album?
Daniel Miller from Mute Records. Are you reading this Dan?!! I really mean it. No one knows electronics like he does. Failing this unlikely event, then any of the following: Alan Wilder, Primal Scream, Richard X, Vitalic, Punx Soundcheck or Motor.
You seem to play live constantly. Why do you gig so much? Aren’t you afraid of over-exposure/familiarity breeds contempt, etc?
I don't play live constantly! I like to gig a lot though, because I'm attempting to enjoy my life, music is what I enjoy doing most, and playing live is when you get the honest effect of what you do, you can be direct and entertain and engage people. Thats truly important to me, thats what lifes all about, connecting with others in a genuine and real way. There are enough people with contempt for me as it is, so if they don't like seeing me having my jollies up on stage, well... fuck 'em! I'M enjoying it, and so are plenty of others too.
The subject matter of many of your songs is pretty dark yet you don’t seem the angst-ridden type some might expect, or are you just good at hiding it?
I don't hide anything about myself, what you see is what you get with me. Anyone who knows me knows that. Look, life is as dismal and awful as it ever was, can and will be, BUT... it can be absolutely magical and beautiful too, of course. My view is this; in amongst all the extremes of Nature, however good or hopelessly bad, if I can hold my head up and honestly find it in me to raise a smile despite it all, then perhaps thats a more useful way of thinking, and a bit more productive, and a bit more helpful to myself and others. Ok- sermon over!!
Your sound is distinctively, uncompromisingly English. I’m reminded of everything from The Kinks to I Start Counting when I listen to your music. Do you see yourself in that tradition, if so is it something that is important to you?
Cor blimey guv'nor; is it? I'm no Xenophobe, but I do feel that retaining a sense of Britishness about my music and so on is relevant to me personally, as I AM British- note I didn't say 'English' there? I'm of Scottish, English and Welsh descent so therefore it wouldn't be ME to paper over something like that, would it? Whatever you are, you should be proud of that, but not to the derision of any other person or country, etc. That is an utterly prepostorous way of thinking, and still too prevalent in those who cannot be bothered to think for themselves and who still suck on the flacid, rancid, filthy tabloid tits thrust into their faces every day of the blessed week by Rupert Murdoch et al. I love The Kinks and I love I Start Counting/Komputer too- and their Britishness is absolutely part of the reason for this. My pet hate is British singers using American accents like they're the latest fashion accessory, or that they can possibly suggest some uber-cool stance by adopting one. Hilarious!
What new music is inspiring you?
All music does, I like what I like whatever it is and whoever made it at any point in History so there. Sometimes something new comes along- but not often enough!
What would you like to achieve as Mechanical Cabaret?
A sense of constantly renewed enthusiasm for life and music, a continuation of the momentum that we have been building up since we started in 2000 and to explore strange, new worlds (or just strange new parts of this one) as a result!
Music Reviews: Mechanical Cabaret
Gig Reviews: Mechanical Cabaret
Official Mechanical Cabaret website: http://www.mechanicalcabaret.com
Top photograph courtesy (and copyright) of Mechanical Cabaret