Steel Tiger - Pork

Pork Recordings, Mixmag article - 1997

WE'LL take some speed on Sunday night," muses Porky, "cane it and take the next day to chill out and do a really mellow set all day long in the park." Porky is this affable bloke, real name Dave, somewhere in his mid to late 30s who runs Hull's hippest independent record label, Pork Records. Right now he's sitting with a few of his artists by Hull's marina, soaking up some rare English sunshine (and for this moment Hull's yachts and waterside bars carry a faint taste of Cannes), toking on a crafty joint and planning next Monday's gig. The Pork crew have been invited to run a tent at a local festival. And I suppose the speed scheme makes sense: Pork Records are famous for making what people call downtempo or chill out music, so if they're gigging they may as well be descending at the same time.

Hull, as Porky explains when I visit the town-centre office and studio that used to be his flat (and still looks like it could be), doesn't offer much to its youth: they either leave town, breed or turn junkie. It's not renowned as a creative centre but Pork live here and so do their artists - Fila Brazillia, The Solid Doctor, Bullitnuts and Baby Mammoth - between them releasing 15 long-players and 31 singles since they started six years ago. They're busy enough to be a kind of underground hit factory, never charting but sending ripples out across the planet with their gently experimental and faintly stoned afterhours music. They don't do photographs, they hardly ever interview but people do know about them. Even supersonic superstars Radiohead contacted them a few weeks ago: Thom's a fan and would Pork artist Fila Brazillia like to do a remix? Sure, they said, although they told INXS to piss off.

A couple of days in Hull begins at Porky's old flat, surrounded by Technics, piles of CDs, endless cups of tea, roll-ups and a sign nicked from a club warning that anyone found in possesssion of drugs will be handed over to the police. The label was born in 1991, explains Porky, when he was working in a record shop and his mate, Steve Cobby, was signed to Big Life as part of the soul band Ashley & Jackson. But Cobby was making tracks that Big Life would never understand, like 'Mermaids' (eventually Pork's second release) with its opera samples glued to a slow house beat. So Pork Recordings was launched around the time Cobby was kicked off Big Life and the two of them joined forces. Cobby will tell you Porky used to manage Ashley & Jackson when the band first started, so it was a kind of homecoming as well as a fresh start.

But before Cobby speaks, a word of warning: he's not your average underground music star. He is a star of sorts, the sonic lifeblood of Pork, their first artist as The Solid Doctor, half of Fila Brazillia and a third of Heights Of Abraham. The sound designed by Steve Cobby is the music that, like Bukem's, managed to combine the sweet flow of the chill-out space with the drive and heat of the dancefloor. But face-to-face, Steve Cobby is angry, opiniated, visionary and has a touch of Ken Loach or Mark E Smith's working class intellectual about him. And he hates pop music. "I hate this idea that pop music reflects popular mass tastes," declares Cobby. "It's got nothing to with what people really listen to. It's just a TV-friendly fucking faction of music. And it's that the media loves, so it gets over-represented, over-sensationalised but if you actually go and ask people what they like you'll find they love just anything, they're open for most things. And I don't want to make pop music, I want to make good music popular. Pop music is just this lowest-common-denominator-nursery-rhyme-type fucking stuff."

You see, Steve Cobby has this vision about music, that music is there for his therapy, your soul, his life, your life, your heart, his sanity and maybe even yours. And this, he reckons, has got nothing to do with three minute catchy songs and disposable heroes we gawp at on videos. And then, he explains, there's the whole money-making machine that demands musicians play the pop game and write those catchy little songs and act like stars. "Which is why pop is inhabited with such a freaky bunch of people," he explains. "It's like Bono said, the stage is just a big platform shoe for a bunch of show-offs. It's just people with a really bad case of the 'look at me nows'. And I don't think that's conducive to writing good music. It's conducive to playing the game. You've got to be malleable, you've got to be putty in the record company's hands otherwise it doesn't work. And I was there, I had a good look inside the door that has got fucking hell bubbling away inside it. It's just a money machine, they run it like ICI and you're a commodity, you're Weetabix. And a lot of people are happy with that, they go, 'Fucking hell, I'm not a panel beater any more, this is fucking great.' But if you offer too much resistance you end up with fucking egg on your face and no fucking career, which I did."

Still, when he left Big Life he took his studio with him and spent two years in Hull living on tomato puree on toast and working on Pork. And he must've worked hard, releasing solo LPs as The Solid Doctor, collaborating with Man - a best mate from teenage years - as Fila Brazillia and making a threesome with former Chakk members Sim and Jake as Heights Of Abraham. Chakk, in case you've never heard of them, were a meant-to-be huge mid-80s funk band who were part of a loose scene that included early Human League, Hula and Cabaret Voltaire: genuine indie, pre-Suede and Britpop, just tiny bands on tiny labels with huge ideas. And for Cobby this scene's spirited independence from the corporate record industry remains an important example and influence.

"People don't think there are any alternatives," says Steve, "because, like, fuck me, that's the end of capitalism. Surely that won't work? But it does. We run our label like a cottage industry, we're like weavers on the Isle Of Arran. When we set up Pork we said, 'Right, what's the main objective? To carry on making a living out of making music.' That's it. And how do we do that? Keep the costs right down so we don't have to sell many records to survive. And it works. It really works. And nobody tells you that it does. You don't need to be signed to a major label to support yourself as a musician. And then you can forget what pop games you're supposed to play or what rulebooks you're supposed to follow. You only have to be yourself. If at the end of the day you've only got to sell a few thousand records to survive, that's like ten records in every city in the world and you're minted. And you can do that."

All right, Steve Cobby, it worked, but it also worked because your records were so very, very good. Sure the samples were cool, comedian Bill Hicks tearing into the advertising industry or voices from documentaries about involuntary LSD-tests on US troops but there's more. How about Fila Brazillia's 'A Zed And Two L's', recorded on a bleary New Year's Day morning with its gentle African vocals curling around synthetic but pretty jazz and cool breakbeats. Or Fila's classic album 'Old Codes, New Chaos' which remade bits of techno, house, dub and ambience into an advanced new music aimed somewhere between the dancefloor and the sex-soaked duvet? "It's instrumental music, man," he declares. "It's a special language and it should be international and able to connect with anybody without it being contrived. It's like this sub-language you're using so that you can make somebody cry in Japan with a couple of chords but you could never have a vocal conversation with them." But if Pork is the 'end of capitalism' it doesn't sound like a revolution. There are no sirens, alarms, riot beats, slogans or shouts. It's hard to imagine a more inoffensive political music than Cobby's - listening to Fila is more like being awake in a daydream than marching on Trafalgar Square. And mabye this is the real dream music, not the epic fluff of Robert Miles, but something hyper-subtle that flickers between dance beats and jazz breaks, zonked-out electronics and tight instrumental solos and continually shifts and morphs between whole worlds of sound. So no Cobby isn't stoking the fires of revolution, he's giving you music to send you travelling inside your own head, music to make you smile or for as long as the record lasts, music to help you forget about the pain. "Musicians have always been like jesters," he explains. "Our medieval counterparts were troubadors on a pittance just doing it because they had to fucking to do it. It's that gypsy blood." And hours pass as Cobby lectures, talks, rages and tokes. He likes Miles Davis, John Peel, Captain Beefheart and Magazine, he hates radio because all it plays is pop music and he thinks it would be cool, if he had the cash, to hire a helicopter and fly over Las Vegas. "Wouldn't it be great?" he enthuses. "It would be just beautiful from above, you'd look down and think, like, wow, mankind you crazy bastard."

EVENTUALLY we shift from Porky's HQ to another flat in Hull, crack open some beers, sit on battered sofas and nod happily while Bullitnuts' Andrew Burdell and Baby Mammoth's Murray Clark spin the Technics. It's only when Porky grabs a mic to send out a dedication to "Ollie, Digs and Smell" that I realise all is not what it seems. "We're doing a radio broadcast," grins Porky. Welcome to Radio Pork, arch-enemies of the licensing authorities and feisty beamers of smooth grooves, hard funk and 90s dub to the switched-on people of Hull. "Porky once phoned in anonymously with a request," reminisces Burdell. "He asked if we'd play some speed garage." Burdell lives in Hull and was once signed to Deconstruction as Opik. Now he's half of The Bullitnuts, making perhaps the smoothest version of the Pork sound with a nod to digital roots music. Clark is half of Baby Mammoth with Bliss, the latter a former DIY DJ and currently AWOL. The dole forced them into action, explains Clark. They were about to reach that situation where you have to take any job you're offered. So they signed off and made the band their job, releasing two well-received albums on Pork. "But we don't make any more money through music than we did through signing on," muses Clark. Still, he doesn't seem to mind, rent is low in Hull, he's got his own studio and he's making a living making music. What could be better?

DEEP night-time. Lashed. From pirate radio to the dancefloor as everyone shifts across town to a club called The Room where local crew Orange Street Sound System are residents alongside Pork. Younger than Pork's gang, they feel like the next generation: a potent system whose DJs can all scratch, get four decks rolling at once and have the additional ammo of skilled MCs and a lung-ripping soul diva. It might not be New York but it's the right vibe: hard kids in a shit town who don't mess around. Fila play with them tonight, Man and Cobby on two CD-players each, knocking out CD dubplates while Orange Street scratch and cut from the decks. Afterwards about half the crew slink home with the drummer from Hull's most famous residents The Beautiful South to get even more lashed.

The following day takes us back to where we started, chilled-out, a touch hungover and staring into Hull's marina as the warm sunshine gives it a touch of Cannes. It's hard to recall everything Fila played last night but perhaps the most striking song was their remix of Radiohead's 'Climbing Up The Walls'. In fact they played two or three different versions of the track, pitching them around each other to suspend Thom Yorke's voice in dub-soaked waves of lonely, timeless and perfect sound. "There's something about that Radiohead that's really spine-tingling," ponders Fila's Man, "their version is very good but ours is..."

Go on. Say it. In the end it's something he only dares whisper: "Better." Or maybe it's a draw. Fila Brazillia and Radiohead. Each as good as the other. Get used to the idea. And then the sun shines brighter still, making Hull's marina, for a few seconds anyway, look like the South Of France.

Writer: Tony Marcus

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