As one half of Fila Brazillia and then as part of various collaborative projects, and under several solo monikers, Steve Cobby has been a prolific producer of electronic music from the 1980s to the current day. Operating under his own rules and seemingly unaffected by the winds of musical change and fashion his work has often gone under appreciated, but a recent series of albums on his own Déclassé imprint has brought new respect for the Hull based producer. 1BTN’s Ian Lawton quizzed him about his involvement with City of Culture, his collaborations with author Russ Litten, his outspoken support for Jeremy Corbyn and his eagerly anticipated new album Hemidemisemiquaver.
Seems like 2017 was a particularly busy year for you? Is there such a thing as a quiet year for Steve Cobby?
Not now thankfully but between 2004 and 2014 I wasn’t really getting much work. It wasn’t until I put Saudade out that the diary started to fill up again.
I read an interview where you said that Saudade (2014) was your most successful release post-Fila Brazillia. Why was that do you think?
I’m not really sure. I’d started my own imprint (Déclassé) to release on but I wasn’t any less proactive in getting it to market than I had been with The Cutler or Hey Rube or Chieftain which were the collaborations that preceded it. I also think releasing under my own name meant that the connection between the Pork Recordings (label formed in the early 1990s by Steve and David ‘Porky’ Brennand) and Fila epoch was a stronger one whereas numerous projects under different names didn’t do that.
I’m sorry to say that Saudade wasn’t on my radar at first, I listened back to that after noticing that Everliving was making waves amongst the dance music cognoscenti.
My work tends to stay off most radars and seems to operates in a ‘word of mouth’ netherworld so takes a little longer to get recognition, if indeed any is forthcoming.
What would you like to tell us about the new LP ‘Hemidemisemiquaver’!?
Ive always used a 7/10 rule of thumb in the studio. If it made that score then I was happy to let it out into the world. But I made a conscious decision to go for 9/10 (10/10 is unattainable in my book) and see what happens. I revisited mixes innumerable times and altered arrangements and parts constantly until I felt no more could be done. It took a lot of the joy and fun out of the process but I think it was worthwhile now it’s gardening such wonderful responses.
Are there any other musicians playing on the record?
Saudade and Everliving both worked really well as whole albums that make sense as something to listen to in one sitting. It appears that you put a lot of work into making something that is a coherent whole?
I was weaned on LP’s and still love the idea of listening to a quality body of work. I know we’re in the epoch of the singular tune I’m locked into long form. I always think in terms of writing for LP’s.
Is the art of the long player a bit lost at the moment?
As far as my kids are concerned definitely. They just have self-compiled playlists of all their fave tunes from a myriad of artists. Shortening attention spans don’t help I suppose.
I hear DJs playing your music quite often on 1BTN – I’m always playing it. What is your sense of where and how people find out about your music? It’s not on rotation on the BBC as far as I know. Who’s your audience?
Music lovers who don’t drink from the mainstream is about as best a description as I could proffer. I’m certainly not discussed or covered by the beeb very often. The coefficient of internal influence is my best friend I think. Otherwise know as ‘word of mouth’.
Are the youth of Hull down with Steve Cobby?
Not in any great numbers, no. The further you are from home the more exotic you become I think. I’ve never really had a massive hometown fanbase.
If you met a bloke in the pub and he asked you what sort of music you make, what would you tell him?
“Good music sir. Now buy me a pint and I might elaborate….”
The thing I love about your releases, especially Everliving and the tracks I’ve heard off the new album, is that they are so beautifully produced and arranged, really lush and subtle and liquidy (I’m making up words!) Can you say something about your writing/production process and the equipment you are using to get your sound?
Just an iMac, a Mackie mixing desk and an assortment of plug-ins and a few external instruments in the form of a Bass, a handful of Guitars, A wurlitzer Electric piano (needs mending) and a Moog Sub Phatty and a Sequential Circuits Prophet 600. Not a great deal of kit. It all fits into the Shedio which is only 14 by 8 feet in size. As for my writing process, it remains instinctive. I rarely overthink when I’m starting an idea. Just ‘go with the flow’. And as no one tells me what to do (very important) then that flow is up for grabs. I can wander down any tributary I wish. It’s that sincerity that I think listeners respond to. I’m really not playing any game to be ‘in’ or ‘cool’ or indeed commercial.
Where did you earn your chops as a musician and producer?
Self-taught on all fronts (I’m evangelical about that. I think its the quickest route to an original sound) but was also fortunate enough to look over some very good shoulders early in my production career. Martin Moscrop (A Certain Ratio) and Richard Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) in particular.
You did a great remix of one of my favourite Brighton bands Lakuta for Tru Thoughts last year. How was that? Have you seen them play?
My chum Nick Faber facilitated that. It was a nice commission as it gave me an opportunity to throw a bit of a curveball as its in the higher tempos to what I tend to get sent. Hence the dancehall infused rhythm I went for. Not had the chance to see them live but I imagine its a very full sound.
What other Cobby remixes should we be aware of and what’s in the pipeline?
There’s a wee playlist on Soundcloud of my solo mixes. I would invite anyone interested to have a gander https://soundcloud.com/steve-cobby/sets/remixes.
In terms of pipeline I’ve just finished a mix of a Soothsayers tune for Dom Servini at WahWah45’s that was well received and should be seeing the light of day soon. Also a mix I did for Jon Dasilva’s Hallo Halo project last year should be coming out soon.
Can you paint us a picture of Hull, socially and culturally in 2017? How is it live and work there?
I’ve never lived anywhere else so I can’t compare. But I love being amongst my people. My roots go so far down here I can’t imagine uprooting. We’ve got a good outlook and the sense of humour that cultures develop when they don’t have a penny to scratch their arse on. Humour is a good shock absorber for the shit life throws at you.
You’ve never contemplated living in the south?
No. I love visiting the capital but I always considered it would stifle any creative longings I had. I was allowed to develop as an artist up here because I wasn’t having to work morning noon and night to pay a crippling mortgage or rent.
How did you get involved with the Hull City of Culture programme and what events came out of that?
I’ve been involved in a few projects for HCoC, from scoring the music for the film played at the opening ceremony to playing at John Grant’s curated event and some other bits and bobs like Djing in an art gallery for one of the micro launches. I’ve just been invited to DJ at the Turner Awards in December in fact. Looking forward to that as it’s in Hull Minster.
How did you first get involved with Russ Litten? I love his delivery and his words but I haven’t read any of his books.
A Happy accident. He came up after a gig by Scheissegeld, an improv band I’m in and said he really wanted to get up when I offered an open mic to the room. I suggested he do so the next time we played, which he did and totally knocked it out of the park. After that, he suggested coming down to the shedio to see if we could concoct anything interesting. I agreed and we hit it off pretty much straight away. There’s a very good chemistry between us. Neither of us too precious and both singing from the same hymn sheet generally.
How did the For the Many thing come about?
We got invited to play at the Jeremy Corbyn rally in Hull by an old friend who is now Jeremy’s right-hand man. I was to DJ the warm-up and then they wanted two tunes from me and Russ. It was an honour so we wanted to write something specifically for the day and came up with For The Many.
Where do you stand on the idea of culture-led regeneration? Are you a skeptic or can you get behind that idea?
Hmmm. Tough one to call. It’s been excellent having all the different events going on and lovely that folk are visiting in large numbers for the first time. But whether that will be sustained and if it has a long-term impact on the city fortunes is anyone’s guess.
We mentioned the ‘For the Many’ release. You’re quite vocal about politics. How are you feeling about this year in politics and what are your hopes?
I’ve actually stepped back a little since the general election as I felt completely justified after all the shit I got for standing in JC’s corner. I was massively enthused to see so many young guns at the rally and in the demographics of who voted Labour at the general election so I think a part of me feels a torch has been passed in some respects. I think the Tories are dead. If not very soon then in the next decade or so. They belong to the past and their ageing core isn’t being replaced by a new generation.
Have you always been politically engaged or has that become more so in recent years?
Engaged would be too strong a term for sharing posts on social media. But that’s about the limit of my political involvement. Before the internet, I thought all the same things but couldn’t share them with so many folk with the click of a mouse.
Over the years, what artists do you think have done a good job of engaging with activism and political agitation or generating political awareness?
Gil Scot Heron did it the best, but What’s Going On is a very political record without being hectoring. I like that much better than the ‘bang you over the head’ approach. Better to coerce than to force. I’m very wary of introducing an over political narrative to any music I’m involved in as I don’t think its massively effective.
You have produced an overwhelming amount of music under various aliases with loads of different people. Can you tell us about a few of the highlights of your music making over the many years you’ve been in the game? The things that gave you the biggest buzz.
So many its hard to pick any one particular moment or release. I wouldn’t know where to start. Playing live with Fila was a good laugh. It was a pretty brief epoch but the gig at Bimbo’s in San Francisco will stay long in the mind. Also, the Scala and Shepherd’s Bush Empire were other live high tide marks.
You played with Harold Budd at Brighton Dome once I believe?
That was definitely a highlight. Also got to record with him and Bill Nelson, another old hero I befriended.
Have you had much connection with Brighton over the years?
First gig I did there was with Guru Josh and Adamski at the Brighton Centre, so you can guess how long ago that was… Then did the Zap club a few times. One of which when Bobby Gillespie turned up and charmed our backing singer Denise Johnson away to join the Primals. Then had a couple of outstanding nights with Fila at the Concorde and another venue down the front I’ve forgotten the name of… Been a good town for me. Always liked visiting.
What’s the most unfairly slept on Steve Cobby production, what didn’t get the reception it deserved?
Well, I’d say that describes most of my output.
Are you DJing much these days?
Not as much as I used to. Tend to cherry pick and veer towards shows for friends.
Do you manage to earn a comfortable living from making music in these times of Spotify and illegal downloads?
Not a comfortable living but it pays the mortgage and utilities.
What music is on the Cobby turntables, or iPhone, these days? What music have you been excited about in the last couple of years?
Just played at The Enlighten festival in Bury and was taken aback by Wyles & Simpson. Have been hammering their stuff since I got home. Also, MNDGN and Anderson Paak LPs got a lot of spins earlier this year. Action Bronson’s lp before this current one I liked a lot.
Choon and album of 2017 (so far) if you had to pick one of each?
This Is The Kit’s Moonshine Freeze is an astonishingly beautiful piece of work. Also really digging the Bosq mixes of Orchestra
Many thanks, Steve. Hope all goes well with the new album. Be nice if you’d come and play down here sometime soon.
Always open to offers….
Hemidemisemiquaver is released on October 27 2017, and is available via Bandcamp https://stevecobby.bandcamp.com/ and http://stevecobby.co.uk/ where you can also find the collaborations with Russ Litten and the Déclassé back catalogue.
A box set of Steve’s recordings under the name Solid Doctor was released in March 2017 https://soliddoctor.bandcamp.com
Interview by, Ian Lawton