From The Shedio, his Kingston-Upon-Hull home studio, Steve Cobby runs a cottage industry that, via his own Declassé imprint, pings near-perfect musical salvos into the world with a very pleasing regularity
“I must have made over a hundred remixes, with around 600 releases in total,” says Steve Cobby. “It is a lot, but I always thought that if you owned the means of production, you didn’t really have an excuse to not work.”
It’s possible that Hull-based Cobby, as part of revered acts such as Fila Brazillia, JSTAR*S, Heights Of Abraham, and as a solo artist with innumerable pseudonyms, is one of electronic music’s most prolific artists.
“It’s occupational therapy,” he admits. “If I wasn’t earning a living from music, I’d still be doing it. It’s something that defines me I suppose. It’s lovely the way it compresses time.”
As Heights of Abraham with Jake Harries and Sim Lister, he created beatific acid and horizontal chill out, while one his own as Solid Doctor he compressed panoramic synths, crisp rhythms and jazzy samples into a somnolent odyssey. But it was alongside Dave McSherry as Fila Brazillia that Cobby was responsible for a multitude of the most memorable electronic records of the 1990s, traversing downtempo beats, blissful ambient melodies and soundtrack funk.
“Fila was a full-time day job,” says Cobby. “We did a four-day week and thought of ourselves like plumbers in some respects. You don’t get plumber’s block, which was the approach we took, and ended up being prodigious with the output and that’s why I’ve got such a large body of work now.”
Though his releases may have appeared to dwindle in recent years, with Fila Brazillia releasing their last EP in 2009, Cobby has continued to emit long-players with a regularity most would find impossible.
“I’ve pretty much released an album a year since I started putting music out in the 80s,” says Cobby. “I haven’t stopped putting stuff out, it’s just they were released on labels that were mismanaged and as a result I disappeared off innumerable radars.”
Lately though, Cobby has returned to the fore. Since 2014, he’s increased his output, releasing on hip dance labels Futureboogie, International Feel and Throne of Blood (the latter a collaboration with Wrangler’s Stephen Mallinder). This renewed vitality is thanks to a couple of important decisions. First, he decided to ditch the pseudonyms, and start putting out records under his own name.
“One of the reasons I started using different pseudonyms,” he says, “was because it afforded you that luxury of not having people turn round and go, ‘Fucking hell, not another Steve Cobby record!’. The problem was, the projects were consistently collaborative and each one had to have a new name so nobody joined the dots between all these things. I made the decision to stop all that and just concentrate on my own stuff.”
Second, and most importantly, Cobby launched his own label, Declassé, through which he could control every aspect of the process. Using Bandcamp as a shop window, in a manner that has become a lifeline to independent labels, Cobby records, mixes, masters, and mails out his own records to an appreciative group of fans in what he says is a satisfying business model.
“For me, once I set up Bandcamp and started pressing up little boutique runs of CDs and vinyl, all of a sudden it became incredibly worthwhile financially instead of tearing my hair out wondering where the next quid was going to come from.
“I’ve got about 1,000 people following me on Bandcamp, of which there’s about 300 or 400 that solidly buy everything I do. I’m just mail ordering it out directly to them, so I’m no longer paying all those people – the distributors, labels, record shops – who historically took a slice of the pie, leaving you with 50p from your CD that was selling for £12. Now I get most of the money.”
Though he enjoyed working with Dave “Porky” Brennand at Pork Recordings, who released much of Fila Brazillia’s material (“He never knocked anything back. It was the perfect home for an artist”), Cobby was forever scarred by his experience of being on a major label. Working as Ashley & Jackson with Workforce’s Paul Wheatcroft, their ‘Solid Gold’ album was released by Big Life in 1991. For him, the new self-run label ideal runs counter to everything he saw back then.
“When I was signed to Big Life I realised it was just commerce and you were a commodity, a tin of baked beans, to them,” says Cobby. “There aren’t a lot of music fans in the music business, funnily enough. There’s a lot of number crunchers and a lot of accountants and a lot of copyists, but not a lot of people who have the heart and soul for it. That was super demoralising.
“They were like, ‘Can you make that song 30 seconds shorter, the hi-hats are a bit loud in the verse, we need to get some backing vocals in there’. I was thinking, ‘If you’ve got so many opinions about the things we’re presenting to you, then why did you sign us in the first place?’. They just needed some stooges. There are plenty of people who are happy to do that, the kind of people who have a ring in their nose to be tugged in the direction of their superior’s liking. But I’m too bolshy and too single-minded for that.”
Instead, Cobby loves the freedom running his own label affords him, and would encourage others to do the same.
“I love being self-employed and not being answerable to anyone else,” he says. “The advice I’d give would be, go it alone, you’ve got your Bandcamps and SoundClouds out there, and social media. I think it is essential to have control over your work, then you’ve not got that element of compromise that always leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
One thing he is bemused by is the importance of vinyl to his current operation. With streaming earning a pittance for all but the biggest artists, and downloads out the window, vinyl and CDs have become the renewed conduits through which an independent label makes its living.
“If you decide to run an independent label digitally, it would be much more of a struggle,” he explains. “I don’t buy vinyl personally, I don’t like the crackles. I’m a 24-bit kind of guy, but I’m happy to produce vinyl for people who love it. My kids don’t give a toss. They’re like, ‘Why are people still buying records, dad?’. All I know is that all of the money from that record after manufacturing comes straight to me, which makes it absolutely worthwhile. I know the people in the post office on first name terms too, bless ’em.”
Cobby’s new album, ‘Hemidemisemiquaver’, is another musical evolution from a restless creative mind. Ranging from the languid, Pat Metheny-like jazz guitar and subtle electronic bass of ‘Fixing The Shadows’ (“I love Pat Metheny. ‘As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls’ is one of my favourite albums,” he enthuses), to the mellow dub house/riotous drum ’n’ bass switch-up of ‘Rick James Dwells In The Abyss’, it’s a diverse set full of exquisite micro detail. The album title, a reference to the 64th note, one of the most technically tricky for a musician to play, came about after a series of inspirational trips to Japan which, he explains, utterly changed his way of making music.
“I thought, ‘What is it about this place that I love so much?’,” he says. “There’s an eye for detail in Japan that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Everything from your bento box where there will be a cucumber that looks like a spring blossom, to the way the trains run, the architecture, the art, the way samurai armour was made. When I found out it’s all because of Buddhism and the worship of nature, a light bulb went off in my head.
“I used to have this 7/10 theory for finishing music, the idea that you should never try to achieve perfection, because in your eyes it’s unattainable. You will always find something wrong with it. But when I got back from Japan I thought, ‘What happens if I try 9/10?’. It’s that Japanese thing, don’t let anything through that you think is wrong.
“Somewhere in the back of my mind I went, ‘Hemidemisemiquaver’, a 64th note. A really tiny thing. That was the echo of my attitude. There was this idea of the small detail, the intricate, leaving no stone unturned. From the initial responses to the album, maybe this is the approach I’m going to have to take from now on.”
It’s not just Cobby’s tireless creative drive that keeps him moving forward, but a desire to continue to improve, make a new record that’s better than the last one.
“You’ve still got to come up with quality ideas,” he says. “You never want to just go into autopilot, you want to keep your standards high and you owe it to yourself as an artist to not rest on your laurels. To fashion something individual, make a noise you can call your own, is the most important thing, and that outweighs whether it sells or not. Creativity is innate in all humans I think, it’s not just the chosen ones, I don’t buy into that. You either dig that opportunity out for yourself or you don’t.
“You just have to look at kids and how much they like painting and drawing and how much they like hitting pots with a wooden spoon. They love making things. Humans love making things, but the way we’re set up with a capitalist economy you’re not allowed to make things if they’re of no use to other people, which is a pitiful state of affairs. The making of the thing is the joy, and sharing it is a joy too, because it’s lovely when you get the feedback from other people. But trying to monetise it, that’s the sticky bit. It has to be done, you’ve got to grasp the nettle, but I can’t say I enjoy that anywhere near as much as bringing these things into being.”
‘Hemidemisemiquaver’ is released by Déclassé