I’ve been a huge fan of Steve Cobby for over twenty years without actually registering his whole name. As half of the mighty and influential Fila Brazillia, as The Solid Doctor and hidden inside a whole number of collaborations, he has been just (Cobby) to me, set between brackets as a writer and a producer. I saw him play live once with Fila at DIY’s legendary Bounce back in those days but I only have a flyer as proof of my attendance, the memories are vapour.. but I still play those records out... ‘The Sheriff’, ‘A Zed And Two L’s’..still sooo good. So, when my network alerted me to a brand new album by a ‘Steve Cobby’, I took a fast look at Bandcamp and owned the record in seconds. As good as it ever was. Hull-based with a global outlook, Steve has produced one of my favourite albums of 2014, ‘Saudade’, it’s one word title translating as ‘a yearning, a fathomless, emotional yearning’ that only really makes sense to Brazilians. Or maybe people from Hull as well.
I pinged him a few questions and within days, he sent me back an audio file with his voice and his thoughts…
JT - Where does the Brazilian connection come from? Obviously in the name of your band Fila Brazillia but right up to your new solo album with it’s Brazilian-Portuguese name, ‘Saudade’? You have had the odd track with Brazilian influences in them but not in a blatant way so why the recurring references? The Brazilian bred dog Fila Brasileiro? The trainers? Football? The culture?
SC - It’s not really conscious Justin..like you said, the reason we called it Fila Brazillia was after the Brazilian dog, the Fila Brasileiro, we misspelled it because we didn’t know how to spell it! They were trying to ban it at the time we were looking for a name and I read about an MP standing up and saying (in a stentorian Churchillian voice) ‘I propose an absolute ban for the Fila Brasileiro’ and I was like..Fila Brazillia? I’ve always liked the music but you know, along with African and Asian, it’s not like it’s highlighted in any way and it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision to point out a connection as such. I did like the team as a kid I have to say, a big fan of their football, I don’t listen to the music any more than many other genres though there is plenty of excellent Brazilian music out there.
JT - We are huge fans of music from all over the world, what are you hearing out there that turns you on right now?
SC - I tend to listen back to a lot with music. I’ve been listening to a lot of Gabor Szabo, if you’re familiar with him (Hungarian jazz guitarist who emerged in the 1960s). That’s the beauty of Spotify, you can dig deep and quickly so I’ve been checking a lot of him over the last few days. Oddisee is a favourite producer of mine as well on Mello Music Group and the new Black Opera stuff with Georgia Anne Muldrow who is an uber-talent (we agree! - JT)
JT - It is difficult to explain to post-internet users the relevance of place when it comes to absorbing and being exposed to music in a world where nearly everything is there at the click of a mouse. For example, people who lived in port towns used to be at an advantage when it came to hearing fresh and ‘exotic’ music first, brought in by widely travelled and foreign sailors. The Liverpool scene in the late Fifties which spawned The Beatles is a prime example. Was this felt in Hull or was this irrelevant and out of date as regards to your musical eye opening? Where was your education coming from?
SC - Regarding ports, it’s true, a crossroads. For Hull though, it is a no and it leaves me scratching my head because you’ve only got to go 120 miles due west and get to Liverpool. I don’t know if it was because they were receiving a lot more American traffic that allowed them to lock into Black Culture or the American r&b and blues thing but in Hull, I suppose we were pointing towards Europe, so culturally, I wouldn’t say it was that much of a melting pot. It was a pretty rocky (as in rock music) town when I was growing up, rock, rock,rock. It was a pretty white town as well. In fact I was talking about this last night to a mate about how when I first met Porky (boss of Hull’s finest record label, Pork Recordings), when I was in my twenties, his record collection was a revelation because he was from the Midlands (Wolverhampton) and he had this fantastic collection of reggae and there were no shops selling this, no radio stations you could tune into. As far as I was concerned, reggae was Althea & Donna and Bob Marley so that was something I was really conscious of as I started travelling after leaving school, getting out and about, being exposed to all these different cultures. It did strike me how Hull, for a port, was fairly lacking in multiculturalism in terms of music and I don’t really know why that is, it baffles me.
JT - Back in 1993, when Fila Brazillia’s ‘Pots & Pans/The Sheriff’ came out (and blew my head open!), the backroom at a club or venue was it’s own entity where as a DJ, you could do anything and go really out there with musical choices. Backrooms died for a long while but there’s definitely a resurgence due to I don’t know what, great mid-tempo music, older clubbers? Any thoughts?
SC - You’re right, back rooms did die! I’ll take your word for it that there’s a resurgence,because I wouldn’t have a clue. If there is, all the more power to it because diversity is all I believe. We are living in very, very, very homogenous times, in terms of what fills the sky, and DJ culture is just house (music) culture really. A lot of the other stuff is pushed out to the margins, the peripheries, if you want to do anything with a twist to it, a mixed bag, you’re demoted to suicide-sets and warm-ups which is ever so disappointing, It’s such a shame that we’ve got to this point. I came from a background of a more ‘anything goes’ approach. Certainly before 1988/89, you could go out and hear a massive swathe of stuff that wasn’t pinned down to any particular genre and as you say, it did end up demoted to back rooms and there was this main room culture where people couldn’t dance to soul and funk, hip hop or reggae or whatever. But I suppose things are cyclic and it would be nice to think that we are moving away from a crotchet obsessed musical landscape, I’ve not got anything against it but when it becomes 90% of everything thats perceived as DJ fuel then it becomes a very homogenous diet..
JT - I can see a lineage from yourself and your peers (Nightmares On Wax etc) to acts like Bonobo, that deep, chilled, emotional sound that is everywhere now. What do you think are the ingredients that fed into your sound? Can you perceive a lineage that ended with you?
SC - I can’t perceive a direct lineage but there are bands out there that have been influenced by the same bands that we were influenced by and with every later generation, whether they are directly influenced by us, is something i couldn’t answer unless I’ve read it in an interview. I think as far as Fila were concerned, we did get a tag as a chill out act, but by the same token, there is probably another 40% of (our) stuff that was uptempo, twisted and radical. II think it was easy for the music business to pigeonhole us but we always tended to fight against that and we always thought we were much more varied than people gave us credit for and now, I still think that I’m trying to produce a rainbow (laughs), rather than just pump out, you know, orange all the time.
I won’t name names but I do think there were people who took the blueprint of the things that got labelled Trip Hop and ran with it and any kind of twisting we did with it, any maverick, iconoclastic stuff we were doing was ignored as being I suppose, uncommercial or difficult or didn’t fall into an easy category.So that was rounded off and turned into something more commercial and ultimately more boring and safe, a bit coffee table, a bit fucking head-shop you know, almost muzak and i thought that we were a lot more than a chill out outfit..
JT - With the success of ‘Saudade’, does this feel like a second or third wind for you? Especially as it is a totally solo project?
SC - Yes it is a third wind! It took a long time coming and there’s been ‘trials and tribolazioni’ on the way but yeah! Ashley & Jackson was the first wind when it took eight years to get signed as a musician because I thought that was the way you earned a living, getting signed to a record label. But after two years of being with Big Life Records, I soon realised it was like looking into Dante’s Seventh Level of Hell, because you’re just a commodity, no more, no less and you are at the beckon call of people whose opinion you dont respect, who are trying to make you more radio-friendly, more saleable and not investing in your future. So, after two years of that, I had certainly had enough and that’s when Pork Recordings started and I helped Porky start his label, doing all the production and A&R for it as well as in house engineering and writing and recording. It was about 1994/95 when that began to take off, we’d put a lot of 12 inches out between 1990 and 1995 that had got on a few radars but by the time Fila put their first album out in 1995, we were getting quite a bit of recognition. So that would have been the second wind. That lasted about five or six years, and when we got to about 2002 when the last Fila album came out, we’d hit a natural entropy there. I’d known my partner in Fila, David McSherry, since I was seventeen so we’d reached a natural conclusion and went our separate ways.
In the intervening twelve years since then, I spent time mainly being a father. I became a Dad in 1999 so that took all my focus and I was falling out of love with music a bit. It felt like work and a lot of the fun had disappeared out of it so I just started to work on collaborations; The Cutler stuff sporadically with Porky, Hey Rube! with Stephen Mallinder (from Steve’s electronic pioneer heroes Cabaret Voltaire), the Chieftain stuff with Adam Regan (Different Drummer, Leftfoot), J Star with Sim and Jake from Heights Of Abraham (another great Pork act). For little reward it has to be said, a lot of people don’t know these (projects) exist now or registered at the time, for whatever reason is anybody’s guess. I had an epiphany this time last year (late 2013), instead of spreading myself ever thinner, I’m going to put it all back into my own energies and get myself back on my feet and do it as Steve Cobby, which I’d never done, under my own name. I thought it’s time to take the mask off and release my own stuff which was serendipitous because I had no intention of doing a solo album. I’d actually put it together for my publishing company who had asked if I had anything lying around in hard drives for library music. I went through about ten years of various drives and sent about thirty tunes down to John Griffin at Eagle Eye, the publishers I was with. I thought that there were some there I would rather release than give to library music because once it’s signed away you can turn on the TV and the Tory Party conference comes on and your music’s in the background. So I told him to choose his ten favourites but I wasn’t interested in releasing them so put down twelve as potential for a solo album and was going to put them out on a label that I co-owned called Steel Tiger. My frustrations were running over there though because the label wasn’t being run properly or (had) any energies to it, so instead of using that mechanism, I’d see if anyone else wants to release it. I touted it around a dozen labels I thought might be sympathetic to it, who knew my back story but I didn’t actually receive a reply from anybody except my friend Richard Dorfmeister at G-Star who said they’d stopped releasing stuff! I thought, maybe its time to stop writing? The signs are on the wall. After twelve years of post-Fila activity not really registering, it was time to call it a day? I spent a couple of months feeling sorry for myself and then early this year, I thought fuck it, I’ve got a thirty year skill set, I’m going to put it out myself! I’ll just put it out through Bandcamp, not the old model, just CDs and digital and it did great! The feedback was fantastic! A few people asked for vinyl so I pressed up 200 vinyl and that was a game-changer I think. It got into people’s hands who had never picked up anything digital tfrom me, in the intervening years since Fila and it put me back on a lot of radars, movers and shakers said lots of lovely things about it and it utterly justified my decision to become a one man cottage industry and this absolutely feels like a third wind..massively. I’m back on radars that I’d dropped off when Fila split up I guess. So, that’s the model for me now, if I can get a solo album out once a year or every eighteen months, that would be fine and do very short, bespoke, boutique runs of vinyl and CDs each time and ad infinitum on digital afterwards. I’ve enjoyed dealing directly with fans, its been fantastic in that respect, fingers crossed, I can keep the momentum going now….
Don’t stop yearning Steve and thanks for your words :)
Interview by Justin Turford
Check Steve Cobby and some of his releases and mixes out here: