Interview and words: Mike Robbo
An hour with Steve Cobby and Russ Litten is like ten hours with any other person. Such is the breadth of topics covered.
Where do we start?
It’s been a whirlwind year for the Bard and the Don of electronica. Both have been ploughing their unique furrows successfully for a couple of decades, but there seems to have been something about their collaboration that’s really gelled with people. Their fierce refusal to compromise their integrity has paid massive dividends. Arguably the high-point for the ferociously political duo was being invited to warm up for Jeremy Corbyn on his recent, massive rally in Zebedee’s Yard. After Russ’ sinewy call-to-arms rap, backed by Steve’s dub-infused composition, they asked JC if he liked new single, For The Many. His response was priceless:
‘Oh, I love it.’ He proceeded to get his phone out. ‘It’s my ringtone. Do you mind if I use it at future rallies?’
Yes, It’s Fucking Political!
We meet for coffee in Pave on the Monday morning of election week. We cover everything from Hull City, The Allams, Premiership vs Championship football, poetry, mispronunciation of words inherited from parents, Chesney’s fish & chip shop (whose existence I’d argued to a whole pub – it transpires it’s no more – I was wrong), horse hair being used to remove warts on arses, the literary world, the music business, music our kids like, Hull City of Culture, integrity, Liam Gallagher’s orange parka and a whole lot more. We’re only here an hour, the thoughts come at a million miles an hour, the pair are uber intelligent and uber articulate, but above all, uber passionate. About Hull. About their artistry. About staying true to beliefs. About politics.
When I say politics, it doesn’t necessarily mean party politics. The politics of everything. Everything we talk about is infused with politics. The politics of the worlds they operate in artistically is discussed at great length. Both of them possess an acute awareness of how to be commercial. Both of them have zero interest in deploying this knowledge to water down their creations for financial gain, there is no desire to reach the masses by blanding down their work. There is a resolute refusal to move backwards or play the marketing game; it’s both refreshing and obstinate, bordering on self-sabotage. It’s infectious. It’s ‘Ull.
Everything is political they counter when I ask if they plan to capitalise on the success of For The Many. They have no interest in sermonising and prefer their politics to be inferred rather than overtly stated. Russ responds with, ‘the line “there’s a fella in Kirkella with blood on his hands” is more political than “vote Labour.”’ He’s right. The stories they weave, with the abrasive electronic wrapping, look at the politics of everyday life, trusting the listener to read between the lines. Steve rightly rejects ramming political beliefs down people’s throats, stating it can cause extreme reactions, positive and negative. He uses Aesop’s The Wind and The Sun fable as an analogy, to illustrate that gently coercing rather than putting people off by using brute force gets points across more implicitly.
‘Anti-establishment rants are just copying those from the past. If it didn’t change anything, you’re copying a failed formula,’ Steve astutely observes, rejecting any interest to make a political record with a big ‘P’. ‘It’s the politics of the personal that wins hearts and minds.’
‘We’re more Ken Loach than Billy Bragg,’ Russ succinctly observes. Not that they want to be likened to anyone else.
Despite not wanting to become an overtly political act, they rightly swelled with pride when Jeremy Corbyn asked if he could use their track. The forthcoming election which looms large elicits some impassioned commentary.
‘Even if he loses, which I think he may, it’ll be like losing in the semis, but the groundwork has been laid and we’ll win the next World Cup,’ Russ opines.
‘He’s won, even if he doesn’t get in,’ declares Steve. ‘Look at the U-turns he’s forced. He’s exposed Westminster for what it is. He’s shown the establishment the power that can be gained from grass-roots support. The people have seen a glimpse of real democracy, something that’s been lacking in politics for 40 years. He terrifies the establishment.’
‘He asked if he could use the track for future rallies. It’s mad, ‘cos it didn’t even fuckin’ exist three days previously,’ they both laugh at the ‘happy accident,’ but remain resolutely steadfast in their assertion not to push forward with an overtly political agenda.
Corbyn, exasperated after a life on the backbenches, seemed like he’d had enough, so pushed himself to the fore because no other damn person was brave enough. it was a righteous move, born out of frustration. Perhaps it’s what precipitated For The Many. No fucker else is saying it, so they stepped forward.
‘This election, and Trump winning, has exposed a bogeyman, or woman, and it is causing rightful critique,’ Steve suggests. ‘The people in the London-based media pay lip-service to socialism, but ultimately reject it; the reality makes them run a mile.’
‘The media hates Corbyn,’ clarifies Russ. ‘Why? Because they can’t admit to themselves that they want to vote Tory. People are greedy and selfish, and they’ll all be quietly scuttling off to vote Tory at the election. Society has become a huge pissing competition, where an individual doesn’t need more money, but they want more than their peers. It’s like a mental illness. The social democracy offered up by Corbyn offers a real change to this mindset that’s become normal.’ He almost spits out the last word, making no attempt to hide his contempt.
The Music then…
As one half of Fila Brazillia, Steve Cobby is a hugely respected producer, musician and DJ. Russ is an accomplished novelist, with an impeccable eye for detail, a modern-day Dickens, chronicling society and its injustices, whilst celebrating the heroes that remain out of view. They’ve created something impossible. Something new. Russ’ spoken-word prose is set against Steve’s stark, digital soundscapes to thrilling effect. Both are masters of their respective oeuvres, but together they are like dynamite, lighting a fire up the mainstream’s behind.
The mainstream is behind.
Spending time with Steve and Russ, you’d think they’d been childhood best mates. They rattle off diatribes like machine-gun rounds, finish each other’s sentences, and have an almost brotherly telepathy pulsing through their constantly active brains. Always asking questions. Always keen to push things forward. Never satisfied with living even a millisecond in the past. That’s over. Onto the next topic. And how they can change and evolve. Not only themselves, but in a wider context. It’s exhausting. And refreshing. And when you find out that they’ve only known each other for a couple of years, despite their social orbits being the same, it’s all the more remarkable. It all began when a refreshed Russ jumped onstage to rasp some impromptu thoughts during one of Steve’s Sheißegeld gigs. The band, comprised of some of Hull’s premier musicians, has four rules:
- Never play the same song twice
- Record everything
- One take, no dubs
- No rehearsals
This was perfect for the two artists and cemented a meeting of minds that resulted in their collaborative project which refuses to stand still. Always progressing, never looking back
The new album, buoyed by the momentum gathered, is a return to the more abrasive sound of the first album. Named Boothferry, it’s unmistakably Hull and eschews the warmer, more live sound of their interim Polar EP.
‘With hindsight, I think Russ’ prose sounds better set against a harsher, more digital noise, I like the way it rubs together,’ explains Steve. ‘It’s not easy to label. I’ve had that all my career, people ask me what it is. I dunno. People are obsessed with labelling things, if they can’t pin it down, it’s hard to market. I prefer to think of it as musical Tapas.’
‘The commodification of music is tragic really,’ continues Russ. ‘It’s all marketing over substance. If you do something that’s you, no-one will buy it because no one understands it, that’s the attitude of the music industry. When I was in my band, Looking For Adam, the label said: “can you sound more like Nirvana?” No can we fuck? Why?’
I ask if Hull artists wilfully lack the desire to play the game out of sheer stubbornness to bow down to the London-based industry.
‘I wouldn’t say we lack ambition here, but we put a lot of left-field out-of-town acts on, be it music, poets or comedians, and it’s all very polished and rehearsed,’ says Russ. ‘They have the ability to turn rebellion into money. I think, wow, you’ve worked so hard to look that fucking sloppy. Here, it’s more organic, more authentic, we have no interest in churning out popular stuff for the sake of it. I think a lot of people here do stuff to amuse themselves. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.’
‘We can do it,’ continues Steve. ‘But we choose not to. If we write a pop tune, it’s purely by accident, not intention. Also, I’m not interested in repeating what I’ve done before, or what anyone’s done before. What I’m most excited about is the next record. Always. With this new record, we returned to the harsher sound, as it melds better with Russ’ gritty prose. The electronica sets up the narrative, which is equally severe.’
I ask why this medium seems to have resonated so much.
‘Spoken word stuff always thrives in times of austerity,’ replies Russ. ‘It’s lo-fi. All you need is a voice, but we’re lucky enough to have each other to bounce off. Now I feel like I never want to do spoken-word unless it’s under the Cobby & Litten moniker. It’s exciting, and not sloppy, like I felt some of it was before.’
‘We just get together, Russ’ll have notebooks of stuff scribbled down,’ continues Steve. ‘But really we’ll just sit round gassing most of the night, and record whatever amuses us or challenges us on that particular night, depending on our state of mind.’
‘Yeah, I’ll get to the end of my bit,’ laughs Russ, ‘and the music’ll stop, so I’ll just carry on talking about burgers or summat. We’re both naturally drawn to that improvised spontaneity.’
It’s heartening that there’s music out there like this. it could only have been made in Hull, yet speaks to people globally. At the risk of sounding clichéd, it’s by the people for the people. Despite huge success in their respective fields, they are two of the most likeable, most generous people in the city. There’s no attitude on display, just an innate need to communicate, and a deep, mutual respect that comes across in the music. They share the same outlook on the world, an anger at the state of things and a desire to put things right. If you see them out, they’ll always come over and have a chat, and your evening will always be the better for it. Both possess an almost Bowie-esque charm and ability to talk about anything, be it Jürgen Klopp’s jaw when he’s going mental, Keith Richards’ eyewear in the 70s or the geology of certain regions being metaphors for romantic love. They are uniquely Hull. Their music and writing is uniquely Hull. Their thick accents are uniquely Hull. And Hull is uniquely them. They have given Hull a voice.
About fookin’ tarm.
Listen and download the track ‘For the Many’. All proceeds donated to The Labour Party…