Nestled on the northeast coast of England, the sullen community of Hull is the last place from which one would expect the electronica hipsters behind Fila Brazillia to spring. The fishing port smells so bad that an urban legend suggests the telephone booths are white instead of the standard red, because the acrid stench of fish guts strips the paint clear off. The skies are gray and the tea is too. But the real question is, how does a pair of trippy, down-tempo musicians with a well-publicized love of Mary Jane find good pot in England's answer to Siberia? "Come to Kingston-upon-Hull," said Steve Cobby, one half of Fila Brazillia, "and you'll be offered a wealth of the finest hydroponically grown weed this side of the North Sea ... from a Norwegian." Aha.
Fila Brazillia -- an intentionally flubbed pronunciation of a so-called "dangerous" breed of dog, the Fila Brasileiro -- is the duo of Steve Cobby and Dave McSherry. While the rest of us were being spoon-fed grunge in the early '90s, these blokes were churning out record after record, each different from the last, but all in the vein of post-Depeche Mode electronic music that would eventually give birth to trip-hop, down-tempo, and nu-fusion. Usually, Fila Brazillia gets lumped into the acid jazz camp, probably for its jazzily abstract roots.
In the beginning, the musicians' sole interest was in being experimental, holing up in the studio for eight-hour days. Old Codes New Chaos -- a trippy indictment of corporate culture -- was a collection of previously released singles influenced by house and re-released in the mid-'90s. As the duo progressed, it began layering more and more contemplative organic and electronic samples over electro beats and ambient synths. In true stoner form, much of the duo's music is a product of dub reggae. "Dub was and is a massive influence on me," Cobby said. "Using the mixer as another instrument and making versions of songs as you 'drive' the deck; lots of sub bass ... minimalism ... that's why I love it."
By incorporating what they call "natural sounds" with synthetic ones, as well as juxtaposing wit with sincerity, Fila Brazillia also is attempting to inject some humanity into so-called dance music. "We don't want to mine just one single emotional vein," Cobby said. "Humor has as much a right to be included in the compositions as melancholy or angst, so that the music is more of a reflection of the whole rather than a shard."
Cobby and McSherry met at a gig, much like their down-tempo counterparts Kruder & Dorfmeister, the genre's most-noted practioners. Originally they were involved in other musical projects and simply goofed around with one another in the studio, playing on the staid "verse-chorus-verse" style of songwriting. They never planned on putting anything out, but then they stumbled upon the right guy at the right time. Porky from the now-well-known UK label Pork Recordings wanted to release some of their stuff. Eventually they took over the top of an old Druid hall, transforming it into a recording studio and home that served as an incubator for the future of down-tempo.
By the fifth album, Luck Be a Weirdo Tonight, Fila Brazillia was knee-deep in the goo-goo muck of the electronica elite. It helped elevate Pork and encouraged imitators. But in keeping with the group's self-described 'experimental' bent, the next two albums spun off into a different direction, alienating some fans but keeping the diehard headphoners happy. The sound was fusion-based and experimental, and mirrored the direction that electronica was going in.
This schizophrenia, combined with a self-imposed low public profile, only boosted the band's trip-hop cred. Most of its success came from word-of-mouth, and nary a stitch of print could be found about it, which of course only helped increase its underground buzz even more. But Cobby scoffed at the idea that he and his partner are geeky, press-shy introverts, or ambient music's answer to Phil Spector. "We rarely turned down interviews in the early days," he said. "But we did refuse to have any glossy pictures done, as we wanted the tunes to be judged independently."
Now that Fila Brazillia has spent a decade somewhat behind the scenes, the two believe their reputation is well-defined enough to venture out into the light a bit more. "When we left Pork to start our own label, we decided to see if 'coming out of the bunker' would make any difference." The jury's still out as to whether the newfound exposure will have an effect, but the duo is embarking on its first US tour as a band (instead of as DJs), and its latest effort, Jump Leads, has received lots of press.
The response to Jump Leads has been mixed, though. While magazines such as Mojo see it as a pleasure, others find the female vocal additions overdone, and the soothing jazz-lite elevator aspects of it to be a throwback to what gave acid jazz its bad rep. "You can't please everyone," said Cobby, matter-of-factly. "We felt it a logical step to add more colors to our ever-increasing palette ... And as the human voice is without a doubt the one sound everyone relates to, we guess it was time to rope some singers in."
Acid jazz does indeed get a bad rap for the simple fact that most of it flat-out sucks. The same British DJs who glommed onto any obscure Motown cut, B-side, or '60s cutout they could find and dubbed it Northern Soul also dredged up some of the worst jazz-funk black sheep and pushed them into the forefront. Dubbed "rare groove," a lot of it was simply cheesy keyboards, bad funk bass, and horndog, bachelor-pad soul crap layered over sampled beats. "It's really a way to repackage jazz for the DJ culture," observed Marty Dowers, a dance-record buyer for Amoeba Records. "If you've got some DJ's name on it, it sells." Understandably, most artists now shy away from the "acid jazz" label, especially since it is now outdated, replaced by whatever euphemism is popular this week. That's not to say that all of it was bad, though. The roots of the genre were Miles Davis' electric period, Donald Byrd's Black Byrd, and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. Rebirth of the Cool in 1993 took Blue Note samples and revamped them in contemporary hip-hop terms, and was a panacea for people who liked beats without the gangster shtick. Guru's Jazzmatazz also was influential, melding East Coast hip-hop with loungy jazz.
Cobby associates the term acid jazz with London marketing men. "It was concocted off the back of acid house to resell jazz to the kids," he said. "There was more acid in one mushroom than in that entire scene put together."
These days the music has branched off into dozens of directions, some of it good, some of it bad. Fila Brazillia was there for all of it, landing most comfortably under the heading of "trip-hop." But just as the die-hard trip-hoppers seemed to bemoan the band's fusion output, the fusion lovers seem to be decrying what they see as the more commercial approach that the latest album has taken. Maybe them's the breaks in dance music, that ever-changing genre that never really changes at all. "Dance music is such an abstract term now," Cobby says. "When most people refer to dance music they invariably mean anything above 120 BPM with a 'four on the floor' kick drum. But as Massive Attack, Portishead, and Gorillaz are all picking up 'dance' awards, then it's safe to say that the term is getting pretty redundant. We try to fly a flag for a broader swath of tempos and rhythms."
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