To say Steve Cobby is wacky would be both accurate and severely unjust. One-half of the north-England duo Fila Brazillia (along with Dave McSherry – a.k.a. “Man”), Cobby has a penchant for using impractical metaphors, yet does so in a way that leaves any other definition cold. He is prone to sidetrack himself with stories inside of stories during his many stream-of-consciousness dialogues (apologizing frequently with comments like, “God, I’m off already, aren’t I?”) and to break into accents that fall somewhere between exaggerated Rasta and Yankee. Yet, with all of his scattered verbiage, Cobby’s ideas and intentions for Fila’s music are pure and focused.
“We’re trying to present our humanity,” says Cobby, humbly. “We’re making honest music. Music can be as enlightening as it is melancholy. It runs the whole gamut of emotions. You can make people laugh and it doesn’t get in the way of the next tune striking all the right chords in the heart.”
Fila Brazillia seem to epitomize the concept of “odd couple.” Cobby is more outspoken and handles the PR aspect of the collaboration (hence this solo interview) while Man, whom Cobby describes as “easy-going and a lot less judgmental” oversees the art direction. The two have spent the better part of the last seven years in the top floors of 23 Albion Street (formerly a Masonic lodge for an “ancient” order of Druids) in Hull, where they keep their live instruments up in the attic, and the studio and kitchen on the third floor. Their current studio setup, which they’ve been building for over a decade, is “like an artist’s garret, cause everything’s ready to go – as soon as you want to record something, you can.”
The two met one night in the mid-‘80s after Cobby had seen one of Man’s gigs. They rode the bus home together and, as they say, something just clicked. Both in their own traditional bands, they would get together and experiment with bits of borrowed equipment and studio gear Cobby had bought as part of a recording advance for his band Ashley & Jackson. They worked initially for fun and as an escape from the “world of verse-chorus-verse-chorus,” but found themselves getting more productive together as their bands disintegrated.
“We didn’t have any intention of putting anything out, and then as luck would have it, Porky (found of the now-famous Pork Recordings), was thinking about starting a label. He heard something that we’d done together and just asked us if he could put it out, and we were like, ‘Yeah, if you want.’ So it was like, ‘Right, you’d better think of a name for the song, and a name for the band.”
The band name fell in their lap unexpectedly. One day the two were listening to a radio report about the banning of a certain breed of dog, the Fila Brasileiro. “It’s actually spelled with an ‘s,’ the dog, but on the radio, I had no idea. It just sounded like ‘Fila Brazillia’ so I was like, ‘we’ll anglicize that.’ And yeah, again, more history made, but just off the cuff, really.”
The casualness with which Fila started, though almost laughable, is eminently telling. While their humble beginnings have evolved into a multidimensional livelihood (seven albums, various solo projects, infinite remixes, and now their own Twenty-Three Records label), the one constant that started and still drives almost every facet of their sound and direction is relentless spontaneity. The veracity, humor, emotion, quality and independence that comprise the basic tenants of Fila music all flow from this source.
“We’ve tried to retain that spirit that it was born of. To be fluid, to put aside any restraints on style, to really just come out of the studio happy ‘cause we enjoyed ourselves, ‘cause we’d be like two kids in a sandpit rather than thinking, ‘Right we’ve gotta write this type of song or that type of song.’ We’ve never really done that, and that’s because of the way it started, which was really experimentative.”
Accessing that fluidity requires a certain restraint. Fila generally work five, 8-hour days a week, and though it’s difficult to imagine from the complexity of their arrangements and the precise evolution of their instrumental sounds, the duo try to spend no more than four days on a track. This temperate approach comes through in their music; the essence of a moment is captured without being overly thought out or contrived. Fila use the computer and sampler as vessels, loading them with a dreamy, tender mix of organic and digital. Many of their songs offer the warmth of a sampled live drum set, finger-strummed guitar, and Fender bass mixed out of, under and on top of electro, hip-hop drum loops and melodic, teasing synths.
“It’s no like it has to be a sterile result, you know,” says Cobby. “For us, it’s a case of getting more performance in there, maybe fucking with things so you don’t get that absolute, rigid kind of time feel, and making it a little bit more fluid and human. You can hear the machines and you have a sense of modern texture, but at the same time, there are sounds you get from instruments that you’ll never be able to achieve from programming, and vice versa,” he says.
As Fila’s music over the past decade has retained a signature, warm balance of analog and digital, it has also evolved significantly. Their first album, Old Codes and New Chaos, is housey, four-on-the-floor and marked with politicized, anti-corporate vocal samples. Their next albums – Maim That Tune, Mess, and Black Market Gardening, released between 1995 and 1996 – are more downtempo and spacey, yet equally contemplative.
By the time Fila came out with their fifth album, Luck Be a Weirdo Tonight, not only were they the center of the successful Pork label, but their sound was proving to be a blueprint for other Pork artists. Baby Mammoth, Bullitnuts, later Moss and Leggo Beast were all approaching their music with a similar mix of analog/digital drums, soulful bass, samples and vocals. Fila took stock and decided to change gears. Their subsequent albums, Power Lown and Touch of Cloth, present them as almost a funk-fusion band, more twisted and colorful than ever. The change may have left fans scratching their heads, wondering if Fila had lost its course.
“Really, early on we realized it was going to be bite-the-bullet time when we put out a new album, because it was going to be hard for people to come along with us. A lot of people want to hear the thing that they love, but we’re trying to make some new lovers.”
For those “lovers” who stay, the reward is even more fulfilling. Cobby and Man constantly dare themselves musically, never sparing their audience from their experimentation.
“We’re introducing you to new levels every time,” Cobby explains. “We feel it’s more important to give people what they don’t expect because that’s more exciting…and it can be difficult at first. Usually it gets people, ‘cause it’s still Fila. Our hearts are still in it.”
Like many cult bands, Fila’s reputation grew by word of mouth. Even though they’ve been around for years, it’s been difficult to find a juicy piece of Fila beyond their releases. There’ve been no advertisements or photographs, scarcely an article, and rarely a tour. Certainly, this anonymity has enhanced their mystique and allure. But more importantly, it’s ensured that Fila comes to you unpackaged, in a natural course of events, and that you only get the music. That, however, was not by design.
“We never turned interviews down, but we’ve never really been proactive about it,” notes Cobby. “We were like, ‘Look, we just wanna put out records and do nothing else. So be it.’ So that’s what we did. It was another experiment. Let’s see if we can just let the music speak for itself.”
While many other electronic artists resisted the rigors of a live band, Fila formed a sextet: Cobby on guitars and synth, Man on bass, and four recruited musician friends covering flute, sax, clarinet, harmonica, keys, samples, trumpet, percussion and drums. Cobby says that though the duo was eager to try out a live band, actually working out the details was quite difficult.
“That’s the weird thing about getting the sextet together – we’d never played live, we’d just Djed and had done seven albums in the studio with all the toys. We thought, ‘How do we actually translate that into six live musicians?’” Yet, like most of the challenges they faced, they pulled it off. They’ve spent the last 18 months touring with the sextet, and though currently on hiatus, it will reappear in the future.
Now that Cobby and Man are truly independent, their vision has come full circle. There’s no fear of Twenty-Three turning into a profit-driven machine, since the duo dismiss the mere idea of a conventional label (“They are evil setups. They’re dealing with something that’s spiritual but treating it like Wheetabix,” says Cobby). But they will release nearly a half-dozen offerings through the year, including the follow-up to last year’s Brazilification remix collection. Fila are also finishing up mixes of their collaboration with landscape musicians and idols Harold Budd and Bill Nelson, and have done some work on the second Twilight Singers record with former Afghan Whig Greg Dulli. Cobby is also making progress with new material for his solo project, the Solid Doctor, and is planning to release another record with side project, Heights of Abraham. Meanwhile, they will re-release all previous Fila studio albums on the Twenty-Three label.
Perhaps Fila’s most significant and awaited release will be their eighth full-length album. Though Cobby admits that some of the tracks are similar to those from Power Clown, don’t be fooled. This is Fila Brazillia – expect the unexpected.
“We haven’t got a clue where we’re going musically, and it’s a lovely feeling.”