THEY know how to do band names in Hull. The Housemartins were named after the tuneful domestic songbird. Everything But The Girl were named after the ladies boutique on Beverley Road.
And Fila Brazillia are named after a huge South American fighting dog which is now banned in this country, thanks to the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act.
The name is nothing to do with trainers then?
“I think we confuse the hell out of most people.”
Steve Cobby and David ‘Man’ McSherry have been making quirky electronic music together for almost a decade now. Stubbornly defying categorisation, the affable duo have produced a string of albums for Pork Recordings, the label they started with Dave ‘Porky’ Brennand, as well as a large number of remixes for the likes of Bjork and Radiohead.
Each album is a progression from the last, with their smooth, dreamy grooves tempered only by a fierce determination not to let business get in the way of music.
This refusal to play the game translated as no promotion, no photographs and absolutely no interviews, thanks very much – believe me, I tried. Nothing. No compromise, no surrender.
Having, as they see it, outgrown the label, Cobby and McSherry have amicably split with Pork and set up their own Tritone imprint. The first release, their seventh album, is out next week. The album is called A Touch Of Cloth.
They’re even about to embark on a short tour of the North, supplemented by a drummer, percussionist, keyboard player and flautist. This seems like a very different kind of Fila Brazillia to the one we had before. They’re even doing interviews.
So I get to travel over to Hull on a blustery midweek afternoon to meet them at their rehearsal studio, which is above a builders yard on an industrial estate close to the city centre.
They’re a bit blunt and abrupt. There’s not much in the way of airs and graces. They’re clearly a self-reliant bunch and none-too-trusting of outsiders. I like them immediately.
“When we DJed, we only ever used to play our own stuff, so it was almost like a gig anyway,” remembers Cobby. “We’d play mixes that hadn’t been released, works-in-progress and that. We were trying to get more gig-like, but it was still boring.”
“We did PAs as well, where a DAT would be rumbling along and we’d be pottering around on a couple of synths. It just felt stupid,” says McSherry.
“Bogus,” adds Cobby.
“It fucked us off,” says McSherry, “just twiddling knobs and moving sliders around, cos we know we can play anyway. It was bit frustrating really.”
“So we just wondered how many of our songs would translate to a live group,” continues Cobby. “But it takes so much time and costs so much money that we just kept putting it off.”
Unlike many of their studio-based contemporaries, the duo are competant and experienced live musicians – Cobby, for example, was half of soulful funk act Ashley & Jackson, playing venues as big as the GMex in Manchester. But you get impression that if they’re going to do something, they’re going to do it properly.
“It’s just correct, innit?” he says. “Most of our stuff is looped and chopped-up and we needed really good players. We needed to be at a certain level before we could even think about doing it. And there needed to be enough people out there to enable us to pay all the musicians who are involved. It was a question of ratcheting up to that.
“I think we’ve done it earlier than we should have done. We’re busy getting the label sorted and what have you, and we probably ought to have done this in the middle of next year, but you know, we’ve got it sorted and it’s right and it’ll push the next album.”
“If we’d only had two albums out, we’d have had a job on,” he adds. “But we’ve had six albums out on Pork over the years. We had about 80 songs to choose from and we only needed about an hour of live material, so it was a case of picking the tunes that would translate to this six-piece. We had to shoe-horn a few of them in ..”
“I think it’s got its own momentum now, anyway,” says McSherry. “Plus, they’re really good players, this lot.”
“They’re like fucking machines,” nods Cobby. “We had to think to ourselves, do we get like a bunch of keen amateurs together and rehearse for fucking ever, or do we do it pro? We’ve done a bit of both.”
It was never going to be easy to play this stuff live.
“We tend to do a lot of random sourcing,” says Cobby. “We’ll jam and record, mess about with it, record a bit more, mess about with that and not really worry about writing.”
This way of working may have produced results in the past but it wasn’t through choice.
“We couldn’t afford the equipment,” admits Cobby. “It’s like that bedroom musician thing. We didn’t have a multi-track or anything. So just by the nature of the technology we were using, a lot of it was cut up and re-triggered. If we could’ve afforded to record in a decent studio, the stuff we came up with would’ve been completely different.
“We love the idea of living in two worlds. There’s the playing and performing side and in the studio, the joy of sequencing and sampling, and bringing all that together is what we’re about, I suppose. It’s not like we set out to do a particular sound. In fact, I think that’d be the death of us.”
Together with the three young guns – drummer Matt Swindells, keyboard player Joe Ward, percussionist Aaron Gammon – they’ve hired for live work, and not-so-young gun flautist and longterm collaborator Bernard Moss (who released his own excellent debut album on Pork last week), the duo create a soulful, loose-limbed funk of a kind you might not necessarily expect to come from a bunch of white blokes in Hull.
“The tunes work, you know,” says Cobby. “I don’t know whether people will be waiting for the singer. How many instrumental bands are out playing now?”
We all draw a blank.
“You’ve got to get into a state of mind,” decides Cobby. “It’s a different kind of listening. Hopefully there’s enough to listen to and you’ll get taken along with it instead of thinking that there’s anyone in particular you have to watch. There’s no particular focus – it’s the whole thing.”
Is that why you don’t use singers then?
“The only reason we don’t use singers is because we’ve never come across any that we like,” says Cobby with a shrug. “Everything up to now has been waiting for people to come to us and nobody has. I suppose we work with singers on the remixes. It’s not that we’re anti-vocals. It’s just that Fila is what me and Man do.”
“We are fussy with vocals though, aren’t we?” says McSherry. “There’s not many we like.”
“And lyrics are such a bug-bear,” adds Cobby. “What do you write about? Everyone goes, you should have a singer. Well, why? It’s a commercial decision in a lot of respects. You get someone to wail over one of your tracks – to me, that’s not a sonic decision.
“When we’re in the studio, we’ve never said, right, we’d better get a singer in. They’re all finished. What we’ve got to offer is just a bit different to what anybody else can do. It’s what’s missing that gives it the edge.
“We don’t do backing tracks. There’s lots of top-line melodies and shit in there in the place where the singer would be. You know what people’s attention spans are like. It’s not like we say, here’s a four-bar loop, let’s just run that for 10 minutes. There’s none of that. Everything’s pretty slick.”
Just how slick becomes clear as they work through the live set, making subtle adjustments here and there, patiently nailing down each of the songs until they’re absolutely happy with the results.
Forget all that trip hop, downtempo stuff. There’s something of the space of dub reggae in Man’s basslines, and a definite jazz tinge to Cobby’s sparkling guitar. The whole band have got the funk. And despite the instrumental nature of their music, Fila Brazillia have a wonderfully expressive and soulful sound.
Getting to hear this amazing music in what’s essentially a private performance by Fila Brazillia, well, I’m a lucky lad.
Lulled into a false sense of security by the beatific vibes coming out of the speakers, I make what turns out to be an ill-advised comment about how mellow everything seems. Bad move.
“Mellow?” asks McSherry, glaring at me. “I think a lot of our stuff is quite challenging. I’d hate to think that we made background music. Some of our stuff is pretty frantic”.
“Since we started, we’ve been put in these boxes,” growls Cobby. “That trip hop thing was the first one, then it’s like chill-out, mellow, laid-back, downtempo, leftfield .. Can we have the death of fucking labels, please? Because it’s killed us, people constantly trying to box things up.”
“In a way, it spurs you on not to repeat yourself, because as soon as someone can categorise something then it’s time to change,” continues Cobby. “It’s like trying to categorise David Bowie – Low, Heroes, Lodger, whatever, when he was he was doing decent stuff, they were all very different albums. You couldn’t say, they’re all X. It’s only now that journalists are obsessed with getting things into a marketing bracket.
“But fuck it. As long as people like it, I don’t care what they call it. It’s getting people to hear it that’s the toughie.”
McSherry talks about seeing their last album in the ‘downbeat’ section of one of the local record shops. He was so annoyed he went to the counter to put them right.
“I said to them, just put it in the music section – if there is one.”
I mentioned I was doing this interview to friends in Manchester who care about such things and they were seriously impressed. I mentioned it to someone who used to know you from Hull and she just said, oh, could you ask them to say hello to Beige for me. The name Fila Brazillia is known all over the world, but to people in Hull you’re just someone else trying to get to the bar at the Adelphi. I get the impression you quite like that.
“It’s not like we’re exotic to Lancastrians,” says Cobby with a grin. “It’s like American music is interesting to us because it’s so different and otherworldly. You can never be perceived in your hometown in the way that you’re going to be percieved by strangers. That cult of personality can’t take root because people would be like, what the fucking hell? The further away you get, you know, the more of an enigma you are.”
“Hull isn’t too big that you get lost, but it’s not too small that you’re bored out of your mind,” says McSherry.
“It could do to be a bit bigger,” says Cobby. “Well, not bigger, it could just do to have a few more .. things.”
“Not poncey bars. Poncey bars aren’t the answer. I don’t know what is ..”
So you’ve remixed Bjork and Radiohead – what popstar would you like to work with?
“Popstar?” says Cobby, like someone else would say ‘syphillis’.
Alright, what serious artistes would you like to work with?
“Timbaland. I love anything he does. He’s like a breath of fresh air. A popstar that we’d like to work with?” he muses. “It’s a new fucking question, that one. I don’t think I’ve heard that one before.”
McSherry suggests Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs.
“There’s that melancholy twist there, and we do like a bit of melancholy.”
“We do,” agrees Cobby.
For some reason – I may have been a bit flustered by them blatantly taking the piss out of my more uninspired questions – the talk turns to the titles of their songs.
“Obrigado is Portuguese for thank you,” says Cobby, helpfully. “I went to Portugal on holiday.”
“There’s a different story for every title,” he continues. “Most of them are trite and uninteresting. The titles themselves are more interesting than the stories, nine times out of 10.”
“A Z And Two Ls came about because people kept spelling the name of the band wrong. And it was like A Z And Two Noughts, the film. See?”
“It’s very clever that,” says McSherry, sagely.
“Look out! Funny kid’s coming!” exclaims Cobby. “People still spell it wrong though ..”
[This interview is an longer version of a piece which first appeared in the Big Issue in the North in October 1999. More info on Fila Brazillia here)