Music: Cabs man helps revive the Manchester sound

Jane Horrocks in Cotton Panic! at Manchester International Festival
Jane Horrocks in Cotton Panic! at Manchester International Festival

Sheffield musician Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire fame is one of the creative talents behind Cotton Panic!, a musical drama opening at Manchester International Festival this weekend.

A collaboration with actor Jane Horrocks and writer Nick Vivian it recalls the Lancashire cotton crisis during the American Civil War.

Jane Horrocks and Stephen Mallinder (second from left)  working on Cotton Panic!
Photograph: Heather Birnie

Jane Horrocks and Stephen Mallinder (second from left) working on Cotton Panic! Photograph: Heather Birnie

In 1861 the supply of cotton dried up as the Civil War took root and the prosperity of the Northof England was under threat. Despite no pay and terrible conditions the factory workers of Lancashire refused to break the embargo on cotton from the Confederate slave states, in support of their battle across the Atlantic.

This world premiere production, performed by Horrocks and Mallinder’s current music outfit Wrangler (also comprising Benge and Phil Winter), and directed by Wils Wilson, will be driven by a dynamic soundtrack of original material, traditional songs, industrial noise and electronic soundscaping.

Cotton Panic! will be staged in the atmospheric Victorian grandeur of Upper Campfield Market Hall from Friday to next Saturday.

“I didn’t know much about the story which was one of the reasons I wanted to do it,” says Mallinder.

It resonates with what is going on today with racism, slavery and a shift to the right

“For Jane it was a lot more personal with her connections to the area and her family going back generations. For me coming from an industrial city there was a sonic connection but that was only partly the reason. I feel it resonates with today.”

It has often been said that the sound of Cabaret Voltaire and other Sheffield bands emerging in the Seventies was inspired by the industrial sounds around them. So did that help here?

“Yes and no,” he replies. “Coming from Sheffield it was a label put on us and I have no problem with that but it wasn’t something we built our identity from. People have made that connection with the decline of industry and the post-industrial landscape but it’s a loose connection.

“The music that we have made is using modal synthesisers and analogue synthesisers. There are recordings of looms and mills but I didn’t want too much of that as it’s a little bit clichéd.

Cabaret Voltaire member Steve Mallinder was quizzed by children at St Wilfrids in Millhouses when he visited his old school

Cabaret Voltaire member Steve Mallinder was quizzed by children at St Wilfrids in Millhouses when he visited his old school

“We are using technology to create an electronic version of those sounds rather than obliquely referencing them. We have a diverse musical and sound palette.”

Mallinder describes Cotton Panic! as a gig rather than a play. “There’s a narrative to it but the words are from people’s testimonies or traditional weavers and workers’ songs and stories of slavery. The music is 100% original. There are also visuals (by Chris Turner) with projections of images, some representational, some abstract.

“It resonates with what’s going on today with racism and slavery and a massive shift to the right and these are strong themes. It’s also a celebration of the power of the human spirit and we need to make those connections right now, especially in Manchester and what’s happened in London.”

He says he has “a massive connection with Manchester” from his time recording for Factory Records and frequenting the Hacienda.

As to what else Mallinder is up to these days: “Wrangler has just finished a series with Live Cinema and the BFI called Unfilmables imagining films which were never made. We’re also just finishing an album working with John Grant (with whom they collaborated last year on a show at the Barbican in London celebrating Rough Trade’s 40th anniversary) and I also teach sound art at the University of Brighton.”

That’s where he now lives but remains close to Sheffield through family and his Sheffield Wednesday allegiance.