Never one to play the industry game, we sat down with the nomadic musician to reflect on his innovative career and what he's up to now...
Steve Cobby has never been one for following the format. As well as his infinitely innovative records, an enduring feature of his musical life as the creative force behind electronica legends Fila Brazillia has been a refusal to play the mainstream music industry game. Even before the advent of internet downloading and direct artist engagement with their audience, Cobby was proving that you can get music out to those who love it simply through excellence and word of mouth, without the need for conventional publicity campaigns.
Consequently, we jumped at the rare chance for a chat with the media-shy maestro in his hometown of Hull about his career, current incarnation in “The Cutler” and their new album “Everything is Touching Everything Else”.
For a man who has been accredited with an air of mystery and militancy, Cobby is warm and witty in person, with a charmingly contradictory, and very-Hull, combination of laid-back bloody mindedness.
His musical life began, perhaps surprisingly given the music with which he has made his name, in his last few months at school when he fell in with a local heavy metal band and enjoyed it so much that he thought “this is the life for me” and “forgot to pay attention to my exams”. After a short stint as a postman and an even shorter one working in a TV shop – “it lasted a week – seems I’ve always had trouble getting on with commerce”, his musical career began in earnest with the highly tipped soul band “Ashley & Jackson”, who were quickly signed by a major label subsidiary “Big Life”.
It was never going to work. Cobby describes his time on a mainstream label as “a good look through the door into hell”. He found the music industry anathema to making good music and chafed against the constant demands from the label’s business executives to mould his records to fit their marketing plans. As he says “music is just a commodity to them. It could be anything. The way they think is ‘the public must only like beans because we’ve just sold them a load of beans. Don’t give me something new, give me more beans”. In the end, it was a relief for Cobby when he told a fanzine that “making music for ‘Big Life’ is like feeding pearls to swine” and got kicked off the label.
Partly to alleviate his disillusionment, Cobby had already started work with his friend back in Hull, Dave “Porky” Brennand, on what became the fabled dance and electronica label, Pork Recordings. As Cobby explains, the influential, fiercely independent bands of the Sheffield scene that he got to know in the mid-eighties, such as the early incarnation of The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Hula and Chakk, were a major inspiration for the Pork stable’s idiosyncratic approach. Indeed, two members of Chakk, Sim Lister and Jake Harries joined Cobby to form one of Pork’s best bands, “The Heights of Abraham”.
But Cobby’s most enduring collaboration, “Fila Brazillia”, came with another long-standing friend, David “Man” McSherry. Despite their abstention from orthodox methods of promotion, Fila Brazillia enjoyed a prolonged run of underground success all over the world with their offbeat, eclectic and movingly atmospheric brand of electronica. The nature of their success was all the more astonishing, as it began before the mass take-up of the internet. As Cobby says, still with a hint of wonder, “we somehow discovered that it was possible to sell plenty of albums in all sorts of places like Japan, Australia, America and Russia, just by word of mouth”.
Fila’s insistence on remaining in Hull to create their music in their own way and their own time became an advantage in appealing to foreign fans. Rather than being the city that is often ignorantly derided in the UK, Hull only added to their mystique overseas. As Cobby says, “for most people abroad, Hull is an unknown place onto which they can project their imaginings”.
Fila were prolific too, releasing ten original albums and numerous other singles, EPs, compilations and remixes for the many high profile collaborators who sought them out, such as Radiohead, Lamb and Busta Rhymes, before Cobby and McSherry decided that their partnership had run its course in 2006.
Cobby attributes Fila Brazillia’s fertile rate of production and consistent high quality to their ingrained, working-class work ethic. Cobby says that “I have never been the sort of creative person to idle around, waiting for ‘the muse’ to take me. I don’t really understand ‘writer’s block’ or whatever the musicians’ equivalent is. You never hear of ‘plumbers’ block’ do you? It’s just an excuse for being lazy when someone can’t be bothered. I have always found that creating good music means getting into the studio, trying ideas out and working on them”.
As Cobby points out, Pork and Fila Brazillia’s dedication to independence meant that he had the added bonus of access to his own studio as often as he wanted it. This meant that “we could follow the Kraftwerk ethic and spend proper eight-hour working days in the studio. That gave us all the space we needed to experiment and if we wanted to improve something, then we didn’t have to clock watch like most musicians, who have to rent studio time. There was no ‘that might sound better like such and such’ but ‘oh no, we can’t do it because another hour will cost us another couple of hundred quid that we haven’t got’. In any case, I have always been in this because I want to make music, not as a route to fame, fortune and a jet-set lifestyle. So in the studio is where I want to be”.
Nonetheless, it is not surprising that Cobby was a little jaded by the time Fila Brazillia came to an end and he slowed down his work rate. He was also determined to spend some time raising his kids while they were still young because “you don’t get another chance at that, do you” and to support his wife’s career ambitions.
But, as he puts it, “the kids are growing up and want to do everything for themselves now. They don’t need as much looking after and half of the time I’m just hanging about in the background being a security guard and making sure the house isn’t on fire!”
Whilst Cobby has never completely stopped producing music, his kids growing maturity has coincided with a comprehensive reawakening of his creative enthusiasm. Like all visionaries, Cobby turned out to be way ahead of his time in terms of the way music is made and distributed. He is excited by tools such as Bandcamp that enable musicians to deal directly with their listeners and animatedly details a dazzling array of activity and new collaborations. These include recording with one of his original influences, Stephen Mallinder, a founder and former lead vocalist of Cabaret Voltaire, under the name “Hey, Rube!”.
Cobby’s latest release is the “Everything is Touching Everything Else” album made together as “The Cutler” with his old mate Dave “Porky” Brennand, available on Steel Tiger Records. The album is a resounding statement of Cobby’s resurgent creative genius. It contains the familiar offbeat, beguiling rhythms, intriguing song titles and samples (the late Rodney King, for example, plaintively demanding why “we can’t all just get along”) and showcases Cobby’s extraordinary ability to create soulful electronic music that exudes human warmth. But whilst the style and quality is what we have come to expect from him, “Everything is Touching Everything Else” still manages to sound futuristic and like nothing else that is out there. The music has a visual quality that would make a great soundtrack to the best film you never saw, if only someone could ever make a film this good. Instead, you will just have to sit back, listen to “The Cutler” and let the music make the movie in your own head instead.
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