I heard about Fila Brazillia for first time while standing in Sugarsweet Records in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the summer of 1992. Sugarsweet was a record store owned by Belfast DJs Iain McCready and David Holmes. Iain handed me a stack of that week’s new releases and in the middle of if it was an Italian record called “Holy Dance” by a project called Agua Re. He had placed a small sticker on the record’s distinctive, matt, green sleeve which read “Fila Brazillia Soundalike.” At that point in time I had no idea who, what, where or why Fila Brazillia was but that would change over time because the project became highly prolific as the ‘90s progressed. And yes, some of the mixes of “Holy Dance” bear a striking resemblance to “Mermaids” by Fila Brazilia. Steve Cobby founded Fila Brazillia with partner David McSherry in 1990 and over the next decade they crafted seven albums, god knows how many singles and over 60 remixes.
When you talked about the downtempo or trip-hop genre — and Filla Brazilia wasn’t limited to just that — their project invariably came up along with other stalwarts in that vein such as, Nightmares On Wax and Kruder & Dorfmeister. Cobby is also a solo artist with an impressive canon of work and a collaborator with a dizzying list of other accomplished and influential musicians, among them Kirk and Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire, Harold Budd, Bill Nelson and Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs — Cobby and McSherry played instruments and carried out production work on The Twilight Singers self-titled, debut album, at that time a solo undertaking for The Afghan Whigs lead singer.
Cobby prepares to release his fifth solo LP, Hemidemisemiquaver, and with well over a quarter of a century of music production under his belt it’s only right that I ask him some questions.
Q. Steve, hello, how are you? Tell me something about this new record please. Tell me about the title.
A. Hi Chris. I’ve kept a longlist for potential titles for as long as I can recall. Used to be little notebooks. Now it’s the digital version.. Anything that jumps out at me or pops up goes straight into it. Then when I finish a tune that doesn’t already suggest a title I’ll go to it and see what fits. Obviously some of these end up as LP titles as well. I was initially going to call it Moriens Cano ( my family motto believe it or not), it means ‘dying I sing’ which I decided was too melancholy so went back to the notes and thought Hemidemisemiquaver would be a great title. I knew it was the one when I told my old collaborator Bernard Moss and he fell about laughing…:)
Q. What inspired you to make this record or were there any major inspirations? And what you are trying to say with it?
A. At some point in its gestation I made the decision to be much more meticulous with this than previous outings. I have a 7/10 rule generally for getting things finished. Once I think it’s achieved that status I’m happy to let it into the world. So I wanted to see what happened when I went for 9/10. I ended up doing many more mix downs, tweaking arrangements, editing down to the essence as it were. I think my last two trips to Japan in the past 18 months are the reason I took that approach. I fell in love with it and the eye for detail in their culture is astonishing. Shinto buddhism and love of nature being the key I think.
I also knew I wanted it to press up to a double LP without sonic degradation so I had to make sure I wouldn’t go over 12/13 minutes per side. Another reason I took a razor to so much of it. I have a tendency to let tunes roll on so I was conscious of keeping them all sub 6 minutes.
Q. The opening track “Jenkem” is a very pleasant number with an ‘80s, electro-disco feel. The second track “Rick James Dwells In The Abyss” slyly begins in a similar way but deviates significantly shortly thereafter. What drew you to this snippet of Charlie Murphy talking about the famous funk artist and why name the entire track after it?
A. The vocal sample was added pretty early in it’s inception but once it went in I couldn’t imagine calling the tune anything else to be honest. I loved the inflection and suggestion in it. I’m also a fan of disparate elements rubbing up against each other so I liked the laid back rhythm married with the dark overtones of the vocal. The trouble was each time I came back to the song to try and finish it off, it seemed to stall and wither mid tune and sounded pedestrian. Very very late on its creation I played along to it on my Alesis electronic drum kit trying to inject some life into the rhythm but it wasn’t happening. Almost in frustration I kicked into double time and had a “light bulb” moment. The original drums sounded great now they were part of a tension and release scenario so I left them alone. I’ve always loved a curveball or two and chucking in what you would least expect from time to time. Keeps folk on their toes.
Q. Within the first tracks the album touches on disco, rock, funk and reggae. Did you set out to create a diverse album or is that just the way it came together?
A. I just see music as lots of different colours and flavours that can happily sit side by side. I grew up listening to a really wide selection of styles so it’s bound to come out in my writing. It’s not premeditated as such. It’s something I’ve always done as my back catalogue is testament to. Its also commercial suicide so it’s not the type of thing thats encouraged by the music business as such.
Q. “Fixing The Shadows,” the fourth track on the record is a really chill number and cleans the palette for the mellow Euro houseisms of “The Canyons Of Lower Manhattan.” Do you like these types of contrasts? Do you think it’s important to have very mellow tracks on your records?
A. The running orders are different on the LP due to getting maximum cut time per side. The actual point that tune drops on the CD is the last track. Thats where I’d ideally site it. Not that I think it makes a massive difference. Again, due to my influences I think light and shade makes for a better listen in terms of long players. More like Tapas than just endless bowls of Olives.
Q. There’s definitely an eclectic edge to your past, solo work, and within other projects. Is this something you have always actively pursued?
A. I’m not a massive fan of pop music. All that lowest common denominator stuff and everything sounding like everything else in terms of writing and production. So to choose to reject that ethic can be seen as eclectic but it’s not willful. I’d love to be out selling Little Mix.
Q. Steve, you’ve been putting out solo albums since 2014, is that correct? As well working as part of Fila Brazilia you have also been involved in some other interesting andn unusual collaborations. What draws you to working with other people?
A. My first solo LP was ‘ How About Some Ether’ released in 1996 under The Solid Doctor moniker, and then ‘Beats Means Highs’ the following year. Then Fila Brazillia took off and it made sense to focus on that so the solo stuff took a back seat. I didn’t think I would release another solo record as I do love collaborating with other artists and how that energises the writing process. But without going into the boring details, I had an epiphany around late 2013 and decided I had to go it alone. I left the label I’d help to set up (again, I did the same thing with Pork recordings in 99) and started my own imprint, Déclassé, with the sole intention of releasing only my own material. I should have done it a lot earlier to be honest as I haven’t looked back since. I do still collaborate from time to time but that is secondary to my solo career now.
Q. How did the collaboration with Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire come about? You’ve collaborated with both members of the Cabs at different times.
A. I’ve known Steve and Richard for nearly 30 years. I was massive fan as a youth and then got to know them when I worked at FON studios in Sheffield in the mid eighties. Mal moved to Australia for about ten years so when he returned we decided to get together and see what we could come up with. But as he lives in Brighton and I’m 6 hours north it was tricky sorting it. The Hey Rube LP was the fruits of those sessions.
The EP with Kirky came about partly due to his wife Lynn suggesting we should do something together as she loved the stuff I did with Ashley & Jackson and wanted to hear something come out of Richard’s studio that she actually liked. We were seeing a lot of each other at the time as our 23 records HQ was based there.
Q. And how did you and David get involved in The Twilight Singers, your collaboration with Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs?
A. I had no idea who he was or what the Whigs sounded like when his manager got in touch asking if we would be up for working with him. All I could recall was seeing them on the cover of the NME in drag and saying they met in prison. He came up to our studio in Hull and laid out his ideas. He’d recorded his debut solo outing as The Twilight Singers in New Orleans but it had been bootlegged before release and he wanted to re do it from the bottom up. He told us the reason he wanted to work with us is because we saved his life! He’d got into a bad place in his life with the narcs and was in a bad downward spiral when he had this mad epiphany at a party. Someone had put Subtle Body by Fila Brazillia on in the early hours and he insisted on hearing it over and over again apparently. At that point he said he’d decided he had to find us and work with us.
Q. Would you describe your music now as Balearic, a term which has always implied an eclectic approach, or do you find that the term itself has over time lost its meaning and now brings a specific type of club music to mind?
A. Anything with a nylon Spanish guitar on seems to get called it these days…and a lot of wishy washy bland shit…. I’m not a fan of labelling or trying to foist material into genres. I know folk need reference points but it all gets a bit too constricting for me, so I would never describe myself as particularly settled in any one field. Pigeon holes tend to be packed with pigeon shit as Winston Hazel once said.
Q. Was Fila Brazillia always a Balearic project? Did you view it as such did you view in a generic way at all?
A. See above. We didn’t think of ourselves as married to any one camp. We just tried to make good music.
Q. One of the differences I’ve noticed now between downtempo music of the ‘90s and 2000s and now is that the hip-hop influence of the earlier stuff has been replaced by a Cosmic influence. Is that something you ever consider?
A. Not really aware of that Chris. But then I’m the last person to analyse the sonic zeitgeist. I’m too busy doing my own thing.
Q. After this solo record what’s next for Steve Cobby, more collaborations or are you going to continue as a solo artist from here on?
A. Occasional collabs but mainly just me, myself and I for the foreseeable future.