Hull is Other People: an interview with Cobby & Litten about My People Come From the Sea, music and the City of Vultures
HULL IS OTHER PEOPLE
an interview with Cobby & Litten
‘My People Come From The Sea’ is a collaboration of words and music by two fifty year old blokes from Hull.
Ged Babey thinks it is the single most remarkable and important album of the year, and one that could be seen as the first real Post-Sleaford Mods album, and which almost creates a new genre.
It is semi improvised prose, poetry and story-telling set to downtempo beats and minimalist music. Some are tales of Austerity Britain and others fragmented memories of Hull in the 1980’s. They are gritty, compassionate, bizarre and funny. There is not a convenient pigeon-hole; Short-Story Techno. Improv-prose/poetry Downtempo…. so Ged spoke to Steve Cobby and Russ Litten to find out more and ending up discovering that Hull is the City of Vultures as well as the City of Culture 2017.
Steve is an absolute inspiration to me in loads of ways – musically, politically, just how he carries himself, really.
Steve Cobby (producer, DJ, musician) has a long CV including Fila Brazilia, remixing Radiohead among many others and starting labels Pork and Declasse as well as numerous collaborations. A respected musician who downplays his genius as the ‘Don of Downtempo’. I am not the first person to say he reminds them of a techno James Robertson Justice in some photographs.
Russ is definitely as great as he sounds. I’ve no doubt you’d be thoroughly entertained in his company. He’s a genuine raconteur and he’s very wordly wise.
Russ Litten is an acclaimed author,(Scream If You Want To Go Faster, …) and writer in residence at a prison in the North of England. Calling him ‘Hull’s answer to Irvine Welsh’ does him a massive disservice. He is a scruff, “I’m not, I’m rakishly inelegant!” and on the one occasion he was pictured in a suit, a friend remarked, ‘You wear a suit like an escapologist wears a straitjacket’.
Cobby provided the music for Hull’s promo video for its successful City of Culture 2017 bid. His offer to put on some events featuring the musician friends he has made over the past thirty years met with a tentative, lukewarm reception, so he is setting up his own City of Vultures night. A report in the local paper stated that Hull City of Culture had 650 applications for funding from local artist/creatives and 590 were rejected . A CoC suit attempted to explain on local radio here. I asked Russ Litten about it and he had this to say;
I think their total lack of engagement with the local artistic community reinforces the suspicion that Hull is merely the venue for the 2017 celebrations. As far as I can tell, it will have little to do with the culture that won the city the title in the first place. It’s like they’re having a party at our house but they didn’t invite us.
Sod them. Steve Cobby’s City of Vultures night, “bi-monthly at the Welly” sound like more fun than imported culture in a basket. Cobby;
After listening to the lame excuses trotted out by the organizers we came to the conclusion it was much better for all parties that we didn’t work together. They would want too much compromise. We’ll be fine without their sponsorship. We’ve managed for this long without any.
I wanted to talk about the album, half of which is specifically located in Hull past and present as far as the lyrical content is concerned. Iceland, Arthur and Tinder Surprise are also very political pieces in that they document the lives of those who find themselves at rock bottom having fallen through the gaping holes in the safety-net of social services due to funding cuts. Very few artists write about these people; Young Mother Hubbard -out shop-lifting since the six-foot two bastard left her at the first heady-whiff of shite and Arthur -3000 days at HMP and now free, with a head full of ideas and a bag full of dirty-washing and the loner with the Noonday Demon on his shoulder…
I asked Steve Cobby why he thought there seems to be a real lack of young people making music with real political content, leaving it up to older folk…
I’ve no idea why there is a paucity of critical voices in music currently. We’re not flag bearers in that respect, but in being as honest as possible with the work it’s easy to see why it’s perceived as such. I think it’s a little subtler than direct protest. Cinema Verite as opposed to fists in the air. More Ken Loach than Billy Bragg. I’d like to think it invites the listener in rather than knocking them over the head.
The Sleaford Mods comparison (albeit at a slower tempo and less shouty/sweary) I wanted to get out of the way, knowing that there was really no question of them being ‘Sleafords-influenced’, but merely coincidental or superficial similarities.
I’d not considered it massively as I thought we had a more experimental approach to the music and Russ doesn’t exactly employ ‘machine gun’ delivery. We certainly both share political outlooks which is reflected in the choice of subject matter. I’m not a massive fan of them but Russ is. I totally get that were in the same ball park ….
Russ Litten elaborated.
There was no grand plan or template while we were recording the tracks, it was more an exercise in living in the moment. A lot of the words were improvised. I suppose the Sleaford’s comparison is to be expected because it’s the obvious one – middle aged northern voice doing spoken word over minimalist beats. I think SM are great, but in terms of my actual writing I’m more influenced by Underworld and The Fall. But whatever comparisons people make are fine by me. We haven’t attempted to sound like anyone but ourselves, so I can die with a clear conscience. Really, all that matters to me is the process of writing and recording, the actual act of creation. What happens to it after it gets out into the world, the critical thing and comparisons or meaning (or lack of), is down to other people – and I stopped worrying about what other people think years ago. You can’t get too concerned with all of that, you’d send yourself crackers.
Tell me about your musical influences Russ, you were in a band decades back I hear.
My old band were called Looking For Adam. We split in 93 after releasing an album and three singles on Abstract Records. I played bass.
I had cousins who were massively into punk and reggae when I was about ten or eleven. After that it was Northern Soul, I had another cousin who went to the all-nighters at Wigan and Stoke, but I was a bit too young for that as well. The first records I remember were Neil Diamond’s 12 Greatest Hits and The Big Wheels Of Motown. They were the records my Mam used to put on when she cleaned the house on a Sunday. To this day I can’t hear “Sweet Caroline” without the heady scent of Mr Sheen invading my nostrils. And country music as well – proper country I mean, like Hank Williams. That always seemed to be big among the fishing community I grew up in.
I think The Clash and The Specials were the first two bands I really fell in love with. And The Fall, yeah, totally. I think most writers are fascinated by The Fall, he’s such a good lyricist. Also Lou Reed, The Stooges, bits of Mile Davis, Can, Talk Talk’s “Spirit Of Eden” album, Native American War chants, Tom Waits, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Sigur Ros, I like them too. Underworld, LCD Sound System, The Pogues, Bowie … basically, I like anything that’s got a bit of heart and soul involved. And good lyrics.
Turning back to Steve Cobby Tell me about your formative tastes in music – from childhood (and no lying to make yourself appear ‘cool”!)
Formative Years, LP’s: Motown Chartbusters Vol 3, Best of Glenn Campbell, 20 Golden Greats by The Beach Boys, Best Of Frank Sinatra, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, oh, and the Sunday Times History of Rock triple LP.
Early Teens: Zeppelin, Sabbath, Pink Floyd and all the other proggy stuff my elder brother brought home
Late Teens, finding my own feet. Magazine, Bill Nelson, Comsat Angels, New Order, Cabaret Voltaire
I bought my records from Bolders in Gypsyville. Trevor’s dads shop. (Trevor Bolder was bassist in the Spiders From Mars) The walls were full of rare Bowie covers, didn’t realise at the time. Diamond Dogs with Bowie half man half dog, so it looked like his cock, made an impression on my 9 year old mind.
(I googled Gipsyville, according to Wikipedia “Gipsyville was established at the beginning of the 20th century as a housing and factory development and derives its name from a black lead product “Gipsy Black Metal Polish” that was produced locally at the Hargreaves & Bros company works.)
I told Steve I could actually hear a bit of Magazine in his Everliving solo album. He was pleased.
Wa-hey, Ace. Can’t underestimate Howard and chums influence on me.
I ended up working for McGeoch when he went on to form the Armoury Show, A truly wonderful man. Sadly missed. Superb guitarist. I followed them round in fan boy mode and he fenagled a job for me as lighting assistant so I got to do a UK tour with them, 1985.
They sounded great live but Peter Mensch was their manager and he was pushing to break them in the states so they went for uber glossy production. Big mistake. He was also doing Def Leppard at the time. Yeah, he’s Louise Mensch’s hubby – #spit
There is a great line on the album where Russ says; “Musicians are just like builders, only with trumpets and pianna’s instead of lathes and hammers”. Don’t you actually make a lot more? What sort of money have you made over the years? (I know it’s an impertinent question but some DJ’s earn a fortune…)
Working man’s income. From Plumber to Van driver levels… was on the dole from 82 onwards. Postman for a couple of years…Had a couple of years on Big Life records with a duo I was in called Ashley & Jackson. Pork Records started in 1990 but I didn’t sign off until 1995. Not signed on since then.
Had a couple of years late nineties pulling in solicitors’ level salary. ever decreasing circles since then until I did the two self released LPs, back to brickies wage. Partner kept me afloat with the income from her clothes shop.
When Big Life signed us I got an advance and insisted on a small demo studio, nothing fancy. sampler, mixing desk, bit of outboard and some monitors. but once I got that I had ‘the means of production’. I realized the record label route wasn’t going to work. Pork was the beginning of my independence. And with it a better slice of all pies. means of production, but that has allowed me to earn enough to not become a wage slave.
I also wasn’t bothered about material gain and the holidays / car thing so it wasn’t like I was trying to sustain an extravagant life. ‘Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work again’ that Chinese proverb hit home early on.
I was also re-reading this Hunter S Thompson letter earlier and realized how much it resonated with my outlook as a youth
Cobby had sent me some of his solo work on Declasse; Revolutions I particularly liked and Everliving is a graceful journey through genres and styles of electronic dance music that I’ve come to really appreciate (despite being a guitar-music-fanatic generally speaking).
It would be a massive stretch to label it all as ‘dance’ music. It’s just tunes made in the studio with no preference for organic or digital. They’re all valid ingredients to me. Mostly instrumental stuff.
It’s always rewarding to know when my work is pushing buttons. As far as ‘My People’ is concerned, I didn’t think anyone else would really get it. I’ve been as surprised by the reactions as Russ has. I had it down as a little side road that we’d enjoy travelling down but not a view most folks would care for. I’ve always been conscious of how much more appealing a track is with a human voice on compared to straight up instrumental stuff. But I still figured spoken word/ poetry to be a hard sell.
Had you read Russ’s books prior to meeting him?
I’d not read any of his books before meeting. I was aware of their presence and the kudos they’d gleaned but I rarely read fiction. He is definitely as great as he sounds. I’ve no doubt you’d be thoroughly entertained in his company. He’s a genuine raconteur. And he’s very wordly wise and well travelled so I consider him to have a very good broad general view of things.
Turning to Russ Litten -these interviews were conducted separately but I’ve spliced them together – I wanted to find out more about specific songs on the album. ‘A Good Hiding’ seems to stand out as a perfect combination of words and music – there are noticeable gaps where there should be more ‘text’ but the music carries it and edits the story down to a palatable length. It’s almost a short story in-dub , with a great backbeat.
A Good Hiding was a mad one, all remembered/improvised on the spot. I wrote summat else, but it wasn’t working, so I just dragged that story up. It’s a true story. Seemed to suit that lurking menacing throb Steve slipped in behind the beat. It was the last one to be put on the album. I think we did it the night before the masters went off.
(Like I said in the review) Short stories on radio for example sound so fake and contrived and read-by-an-actor that they are an immediate turn-off, but this album is the opposite -real, honest, full of character, humour, sadness and desperation.
I agree that the spoken word / anecdotal way of telling a story is much better than an actor reading it off a script. I’ve always been a bit nonplussed about doing novel readings. To me, reading a book is a unique relationship between your eyes and your mind, a private party, if you like. Spoken word works a lot better when it reproduces the rhythm and inflections of natural speech. Plus, if you’re working to beats and a limited time frame it forces you to distill it into vivid images … a bit like “flash fiction”, I suppose.
Another high point is Arthur, the story of an ex-con readjusting to life on the outside. Was ‘Arthur’ a real person? ( Those last few lines are so sad/beautiful/killer…)
Arthur was a combination portrait of stacks of fellas I know from working in prisons, fellas who can’t cope on release. They bounce out of the big house with a bag of dirty washing and forty two quid in their back pocket and then have to live in bail hostels that are targeted by dealers. Most re-offending occurs within the first couple of months, when they are waiting for their benefits to kick in. Most repeat offenders have drug / drink problems so it gets double tricky for them, apart from having no money. I was doing some poetry workshops in Hull nick the other day and this lad said to me, “when you get out, that’s when the real sentence begins” That line about the cutlery feeling heavy in your hands, that came from talking to lads who had just been released and were used to plastic knives and forks.
The track Tongue concerns an incident from childhood where a kid accidentally bit off his tongue “He went off like a car alarm”. There’s no way that is fiction or a flight of imagination….. tell me more about it …
Tongue was a funny one. I was doing these writing prompt exercises and I came across the phrase “breathing underwater” and it reminded me of that incident. I never saw it, but I was at my Nana’s on Boothferry (an estate in Hull) when all my cousins ran into the back kitchen and said that a lad called Paul B had jumped off a swing and bitten down on his tongue, spat it out onto the concrete. My cousin said it had flapped about like a landed fish. He picked it up, put it into his pocket and ran home. I was dead jealous that I hadn’t seen it. I must have been about eight years old. That thing with the teapot, that happened in the same kitchen. I became hypnotised by the steam curling out of the spout and before I knew what I was doing I had fastened my mouth around the spout and sucked. Burnt all my mouth out. I had to suck about five Lemonade Sparkles, one after the other. The rest of it is stream of consciousness word association, the deaf and dumb kid that lived up the road from us, he was always scrapping with everyone. He was short tongued as well as deaf and dumb. My cousin, our Kerry, she learnt sign language so she could talk to him. He calmed down a bit after that.
Most of the words on the album are improvised around a few key lines or images. A lot of it is stuff me and Steve talk about before we start the tape rolling. I think there’s only Under The Flyover where I used poems and prose that had already been written out in full. Everything else was cooked up in the Shedio. The title track, My People Come From the Sea, that came about after watching a Youtube clip of Harry Dean Stanton singing this old song “My People Come From The Mountains” (I think it was called that). Steve sampled a lap steel and some banjo, fucked about with it and put that stuttering broken beat underneath, and I improvised all the words in one take, nothing written down.
Despite living in the same city since birth, Cobby and Litten only got to know each other comparatively recently. Steve;
We’ve been in each others orbits for decades without actually convening. Our Mams are good mates and we were both in local Hull bands as youths that checked each other out. I was very familiar with his face
Me and Cobby moved in the same social circles for years without ever actually meeting properly. I knew Man, who was the other half of Fila Brazillia. I was a fan of Fila, had a few of their albums. I first hooked up with Steve when I heard he had a new experimental improvisational band called Scheissegeld. The poster said they played psychedelic funk Krautrock, which intrigued me no end. So I went down and watched them, and I was blown away. They just made it all up on the spot and it was glorious. I went up to him afterwards and said I thought his band was ace. We started going out for a beer and found we had a lot of the same influences and a similar outlook on life. He invited me to get up and do some spoken word stuff at the next Scheissegeld gig, which I duly did, but to join in with the spirit of the band I vowed to improvise it all on the spot. I was pretty terrified and ended up getting wrecked, jumping up on the stage and ranting on about Nectar Loyalty Cards and God knows what else.
Anyway, Steve liked it and invited me down to the Shedio to see if we could do something. The first session was an eye-opener. Steve sampled something off Youtube, I think it was a rowing machine that had been rigged up to a drum machine – or maybe it was the other way round? – anyway, he sampled this loop and to me it just sounded like a cacophonous mess, but he kept slowing it down and adding EQ and generally fucking about with it, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what he was hearing in this racket, or what he was trying to do … then suddenly a groove emerged, and it was like I was stood in the middle of a Brazilian carnival, this groovy little samba rhythm going. That’s when I realised what an absolute musical genius he is. He’s got such an ear for groove and structure and arrangements. He kept this loop going and set the mic up and wandered off to make a cup of tea. I dug out a few poems and recited them over the top of the groove and that became ‘Under The Flyover”. That was the first thing we did. After that we’d meet up every week or so and break bread and record some stuff.
Most sessions followed a similar format. Russ tipped up around 8pm bearing libations…. We then proceed to put the world to rights, watch various clips, listen to tunes, chat, fart and generally break bread for a couple of hours until I feel compelled to make some kind of noise for him to work with. I obviously seek his approval so it’s something he can chime with. He makes the odd suggestion but mostly leaves it to me.. I’ll have something for him to rant over within a half hour or so. He then lays down two or three takes. Rarely any more. I’m a very firm believer in the three strike rule. If it isn’t in the can by then it’s time to move on to something else. Nine times out of ten the good stuff is when you’re fresh. He has lots of poems and stories in various notebooks that he can draw on but he also likes doing things off the cuff based on what the evenings discussions centered around. I may suggest tangents or hold up a card with something written on as he’s doing a pass just to get him in curveball mode, but its mostly off the top of his dome that night. We then finish off the perishables and bid goodnight to one another. At a later date I’d edit the takes, do some minimal tweaking and bounce it off.
I asked Steve Cobby if there were any plans for a follow up album ?
We planned to carry on but I keep thinking maybe we shouldn’t bother and leave that LP as a singular work unsullied by comparative work
A few weeks on and they have already recorded more material and a Cobby & Litten live debut is planned.
Following them both on social media, like most right-thinking, compassionate people, they are both big supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. I asked how they saw things panning out for him and Labour over the next six months? Steve first,
I wouldn’t be foolish enough to try and make prediction in these most turbulent times. All I know is that the white water rapids that lay ahead are best navigated by a principled socialist leader that refuses to bow to mud slinging and spin. I imagine there will be casualties but better to sort the wheat from the chaff and build on solid foundations than pander to floating voters with pissy thin versions of all the neo liberal guff that has gone before
One of the more intriguing if not downright worrying aspects of the emergence of Corbyn is the transparently savage bias at work in the mainstream media. The one positive form this is that their spin and bullshit does not seem to be making one iota of a difference to the man’s popularity. Me and Steve were stood in a crowd of 2,000 people yesterday in Hull listening to Corbyn, and I was heartened at the broad range of people present and attentive; young, old, families etc, not the usual suspects who attend these sort of rallies. People are definitely sick to death of X Factor politics and are yearning for something with a little more substance, which is brilliant. I can’t see anything ahead but a split in the Labour Party, which is regrettable but maybe it will be for the best in the long-term.
One of the coolest comments about ‘My People…’ came from Steve Mason band bassist Steve Duffield, after I flagged up the album for him. Tinder Surprise he found particularly affecting. He wrote;
“I still write to my kids” – that’s heartbreaking. I feel uncomfortable listening to these songs – I think it’s because seeing into the thoughts of the bloke on the bus with the can of strong cider at 10 in the morning feels voyeuristic …I’m happy to have escaped these scenarios. Feeling uncomfortable is good – great stuff!
Russ Litten was very happy with the assessment.
Cobby and Litten are great ambassadors for their city and proud of their heritage and roots and their artistic achievements, although you wouldn’t catch them boasting about them. Cobby, talking about Hull and the “never get ill; you can’t have a tablet unless your head’s hanging off” attitude of the older fishing generation
Stoic roots. Makes for a pragmatic outlook. Keeps you humble.
The words to the albums title track are on Russ Litten’s website here, in full. Part of them say;
People you come from,
the people you’re drawn to;
broken, human, dispossessed,
frantically gathered fragments
of the selves they had left behind as kids,
But him feeling himself getting over-analytical, arty-farty and above himself, incurring the displeasure of the ghosts of Hull Past, the next line is;
Fuck off, with your self indulgent (navel) gazing.
Before he argues back…
I’ve got a pad full of certificates pal …
So, here’s to Hull and two of it’s finest sons. Circling round the City of Vultures. Let us Prey.
Buy ‘My People Come From The Sea’ here – Limited edition CD or Download
Steve Cobbys website is here
Russ Littens website is here
Russ Litten hosts a four day event at Hull Central Library called LYRICULL where he is In Conversation with the following lyricists; 22nd Sept Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods, 23rd Sept Shaun Ryder , 24th Sept Viv Albertine, 25th Sept Pauline Black (plus surprise artist, also playing live)
Details and tickets here.
CITY OF VULTURES has a brand new Facebook page here and artists booked so far for 2017 are ; Richard Dorfmeister March 4th, Ashley Beedle May 13th, Darren Emerson September 23rd, Mr Scruff July 15th , Daddy G 11th November, Steve Mallinder December 9th 2017.
All words by Ged Babey