When Steve Cobby and Russ Litten met back in 2014, something seemed to click.
Music producer and DJ Steve (off of Fila Brazilia, J*S*T*A*R*S, plus a ton of other projects over the past 30 years) and writer Russ (Scream If You Want To Go Faster, Swear Down, and other ventures into poetry and spoken word) are both Hull cultural stalwarts.
Now performing together as a duo, they bring Steve’s sounds together with Russ’ spoken word to create richly textured choons. Hand-picked by John Grant to join the line-up of North Atlantic Flux: Sounds from Smoky Bay (across Hull this weekend) the pair will debut a brand new piece: RIME. Specially-commissioned for the festival, is an electronic story inspired by the triple trawler tragedy of 1968. It tells the tale of a man who goes deep water fishing in Icelandic waters, and is haunted by a psychic vision he has heard about back home.
In addition to their live performance, the duo will be part of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, a collaborative session recorded for Radio 3 at the festival, celebrating live, spontaneous, hybrid music.
We met with Steve and Russ to chat about their work, collaborating together, and Sounds from Smoky Bay.
How did the two of you come together to collab?
Russ: I first got to know Steve through Fila Brazillia. I followed what he did through that world and met him through an improv band, at which point Steve had started releasing records through his own name. I’d seen a poster in The Adelphi and it was like cosmic krautrock, punk, freak out – it was like all my favourite music in one. Up to that point I hadn’t realised what a great musician Steve is, I knew he’d made down-tempo dance music and I just thought, I wanted to do something with him, with spoken word. He’s one of the greatest producers in the world.
Steve: Oh stop it. It’s mutual admiration, Russ was on my radar because our mums are really tight, so we should’ve met a lot sooner to be honest, but our Venn diagrams never overlapped. I knew of this renowned local author and when he came to the gig, I knew who he was, and I was hoping he’d get in touch because I’d wanted to hook up with him. But I didn’t think we’d collaborate, it was Russ’ suggestion and I was like “yeah, just for shits and giggles” – I didn’t think anything was going to come of it. And then once we cracked on, the chemistry was evident, so we carried on doing it but we didn’t think it was something we were going to put out, it was just something to do on a Friday night every month, and then we ended up with this body of work that Russ thought we should put out.
And how did it develop from there?
Steve: We got a deal with this American label – we thought, ‘Even people in England struggle to understand us outside of the north, so what’s it going to be like in America?’ You’d think it would be falling on deaf ears, but the response has been phenomenal.
Russ: I think the reason it did connect is because there was this lack of intent towards success of commerciality from either of us, it was purely a laugh. And when you work like that it’s purely from the heart. I think that’s what’s connected with people wherever in the world they have been with it. And so the idea of it is to keep it semi-spontaneous and don’t overthink it too much.
In modern music a lot of it is just gloss, it has no surface or substance, so that’s possibly the thing that makes people connect with it too. It’s warts and all. It’s almost like the punk attitude, not in terms of music, but in terms of disregarding what’s gone before.
– Steve Cobby
So how do you work together, do you do your stuff separately or sit down and produce together from the start?
Russ: We’ve normally got a vague idea of what we’re doing, then Steve will just lay it all down and then I’ll change the words or improvise. I think that’s the joy of it, it’s a relief for me from writing, you know, you’re just flying solo when you’re writing, it’s boring half the time. I like cooking something up there and then.
Steve: It has to be off the cuff, we just do it there and then. It’s unfettered creativity when me and him get together, it’s like an atomic explosion which you just buzz off.
Russ: Steve does all the work; I just turn up and shout.
Tell us more about the inspiration for RIME…
Russ: I recorded an interview with my uncle Jack Nelson a few years ago when I did an article on bravery (he steered between two icebergs in his slippers). We’ve taken a bit of that monologue and put it under one of the tracks Sing Our Souls to Sleep and it tells his story. Then there’s some psychic stuff that’s taken from an account my Mam gave me of when she attended a spiritualist meeting in Hull in the Christmas of 1967 where a woman shared this vision that “three black clouds are going to cover this city” – she kept saying it, not one, not two, but three.
Can you explain the title?
Russ: It’s ice that forms particles in the air when it’s really cold.
So it’s not also a pun?
Steve: Well I like the nod to spoken word and poetry too.
Russ: When it’s written down it sounds, or it looks like an Icelandic word doesn’t it?
What can we expect from Cobby & Litten at North Atlantic Flux?
Steve: The business of show, we couldn’t be further from it really. We’re not going to turn up in silver capes, although… never say never!
Russ: We just approach it as if the audience isn’t there, pretending we were back in the shed. There’s an element of improv when we do it live, because Steve f**ks about with the sounds of my vocals, so I can all of a sudden hear myself saying something I said 30 seconds ago, but three octaves higher.
Steve: I’d like to say ‘treatment and manipulation’ – not f**ks about.
Russ: But you know, nicely f**ks about.
Don’t miss Cobby & Litten on Saturday 29 April at John Grant’s North Atlantic Flux: Sounds of Smoky Bay. Tickets available now.
You can also check out Steve’s bi-monthly City of Vultures night at Fruit.