Why the Fila Brazillia and Pork Recordings main man is revitalising his mid-90s alter ego
Following the demise of his long-running Fila Brazillia studio partnership with Dave ‘Man' McSherry in the mid 2000s, Steve Cobby felt "about as popular as a fart in a cave".
"I couldn't have been any less appealing!" laughs the veteran producer and multi-instrumentalist. "The 2000s was a terrible decade for me - nothing stuck, plus I was a house husband trying to bring up kids as well. I'd also got sick of the music business. Making music had just become occupational therapy again."
Cobby had been here before. When his first significant band, the Big Life-signed Ashley & Jackson, fell to bits around 1991, he decided to just keep writing and recording for his own pleasure. "I remembered Bill Nelson saying that Jean Cocteau saw art as a tree, and that he felt quite happy bouncing from branch to branch, writing poetry, painting and making sculptures," he says. "I liked that idea. I thought I could become a producer and work on different projects, or be in different bands at the same time."
It was an approach that eventually paid dividends. Fila Brazillia went on to become one of the pivotal outfits of the late 90s downtempo/chill out scene (despite beginning life as makers of colourful deep house), and he earned praise for his solo productions as The Solid Doctor. But by the mid-00s, Fila Brazillia had run out of steam. They were finding it increasingly difficult to get press coverage, their releases weren't selling in big numbers, and the strain of touring - something they came to late, having originally sworn they never would - eventually killed off the band for good.
"It was hard for us to deal with the friction and the fractures that came with being in each other's pockets 24/7 for weeks on end," Cobby says. "We'd already worked in the studio for 10 years together and were over-familiar. [2002 album] Jump Leads was a critical success but a commercial flop. After that point we shrugged our shoulders and thought: 'Let's start looking at other road maps out of it'."
Over the years that followed, Cobby tried all sorts to re-energise his career, but for the most part his ventures failed. As someone who had made a living from music for so long, it was hard adapting to the harsh new realities. "When the arse fell out of the industry and the Internet took over, it meant that there was no security any more," he says. "People were never more than two clicks away from downloading your entire back catalogue. I don't think I've ever recovered from that. I think I'm still clinging on by my fingernails."
Cobby, though, is a survivor. "In about 2012/13, I had an epiphany," he says. "I realised that if anything was going to change, I had to do it all myself. That's when I started Déclassé Records as a Bandcamp digital portal."
Since then, Cobby's career has been re-ignited. He's released a slew of acclaimed solo albums under his given name, a handful of killer collaborations, and had music signed to such hyped 21st Century labels as International Feel, Aficionado and Throne of Blood (the latter alongside old pal and former Cabaret Voltaire man Steve Mallinder). He's also found himself more in demand as a DJ, a pursuit he'd all but abandoned years earlier, after having been a regular in clubs during the Pork Recordings era.
"It's been fantastic," he says of his creative rebirth, and the effect of Bandcamp on his career. "The connection that you make with listeners when you deal direct with customers is really rewarding. I love the idea that I'm more closely connected to the people who are supporting my work. I feel like I owe it to them to deliver. Plus, I know all the ladies in the Post Office on first name terms now!"
In some ways, it seems fitting that Cobby's latest project looks back at the word the solo material he recorded in the first half of the 1990s, during his first great career crisis. This month, he released an expanded, six-disc edition of How About Some Ether, his 1995 debut album as The Solid Doctor. Originally intended to be a simple re-master of the original two-disc set, the project soon took on a life of its own.
"During the process of looking for the originals, I came across unreleased tracks on DATs that I'd forgotten about in the intervening decades," he says. "I'm not going to blow my own trumpet and say, 'What a fucking great body of work', but quite a few tracks had stood the test of time really well. I thought it would be perfect bonus material." Consequently, the expanded edition of How About Some Ether boasts two discs of unreleased tracks recorded between 1990 and 1995, rediscovered full-length versions of cuts originally edited down for the Pork Recordings edution, and 12-inch mixes that were previously unavailable digitally.
It's a fine collection, all told, and includes a surprising amount of club-ready material. While many tend to associate Cobby's output with the 'stoner funk' that became Pork Recordings' trademark, How About Some Ether contains as many tracks influenced by Larry Heard and Italian dream house as it does smoky trip-hop, effervescent ambient and dub-influenced downtempo grooves.
"In the early 90s, when I made something I wanted to be able to play it out, it's as simple as that," he says. "When I was making a lot of this, it was at the height of the Pork residency at The Room in Hull. People thought of what I did, and what Fila did, as trip-hop, but we put a few bangers out. Well, I say bangers… more like mid-tempo chuggers really. We never went happy hardcore or anything."
With How About Some Ether now out, the Hull producer is now concentrating on finishing his next solo full length, due for release towards the end of the year. Given the heartening upsurge in interest in his work in recent years, it's likely to cause quite a stir when it finally appears.
"I feel like I've moved out of the cave and back onto the foreshore," he says of his current situation. "I definitely feel like I'm out of that period of isolation and people are more familiar with ‘brand Cobby'. That's a fucking appalling way to look at it, but those are the sensibilities of the modern age."
Words: Matt Anniss
How About Some Ether by The Solid Doctor is out now on Déclassé Records