One day while driving the English countryside, Steve Cobby heard on the radio a report about the U.K. ban of a dangerous canine breed named the Fila Brasileiro: a “killer dog frenzy” was consuming the public, sparking hysteria in the kingdom. “It’s actually spelled with an ‘s,’ the dog, but on the radio, I had no idea,” Cobby explained years later to XLR8R‘s Clare Kleinedler. “It just sounded like ‘Fila Brazillia’ so I was like, ‘We’ll anglicize that.’ And yeah, again, more history made, but just off the cuff, really.”
Off the cuff. Loose and lucky. It’s that serendipity, that eclectic sparkle in the eye that it is at the heart of Fila Brazillia‘s charm. Their music can sound random. It’s a hodge-podge. But there’s a magic method to the madness. That they took their name from an illegal dog breed gets at their rebel instinct; “Fila Brasileiro” also translates roughly from Portuguese to “Brazillian line,” and so it fits Fila Brazillia’s internationalist approach, including their fidelity to jazz, dub reggae, bossa nova and samba.
In 1990, Cobby met David ‘Man’ McSherry and the two instrumentalists decided to give their individual respective bands a pause. Teaming up and experimenting with the new DIY computer-powered paradigm at their own Poisson Ville studio, they set their creative fires burning. After a successful single release on the downtempo label Pork Recordings, Fila turned to their debut album, a seamless mix of acid jazz, trip hop and far-out dubby metronomes. 1994’s Old Codes : New Chaos was in many ways the first record of its kind: while others pursued a purely electronic sound, Cobby and McSherry brought livelier funk girded with hypnotic grooves. (The image of a lighthouse on the Spurn east of Fila’s hometown, Kingston upon Hull, orients watercoloring of shores and storms, trading in poetic edge and calm.)
From the watery chords of intro ‘Old Codes,’ with its voice samples about society and semi-automatic handguns, to the recitation of Brazilian music forms at the beginning of ‘Mermaids’ — a dreamy yet provocative template is set. In this wide welcome, an aquatic house beat rolls in with playful bass notes and fish-scale melodies in a sea chorus of female longing. Not simply imaginative, the journey on offer was deeply intellectual, beginning with ‘Whose Money,’ slicing gentle electric guitar to erudite voices discussing the pitfalls of modern capitalism.
“The economists seem to think that the whole of the problem can be solved by money,” one man complains. “Whose money? What money? Where is it coming from?” In the spirit of hybridization, a bureaucrat points out a more fundamental problem of human nature facing all of humanity: “I don’t think we can change the world. It’s not something we can do. Certainly we insolvency specialists can’t. Our job is sweeping up or trying to prevent. Now as far as I can see, the best way is to see if we can do something about stopping people being greedy, stopping people being over-ambitious, and I don’t think you ever will do that!”
It’s a wicked mix: the employ of irresistible booty music and sharp musings on philosophical riddles. Taking it in, Fila Brazillia kick it up a notch with ‘Brazilification,’ a deep grooving house number with a badass bass line that dips the hips, its guitar licks teasing the mind while the soul trips to a horizon of dimensional waves, as the stakes rise with ‘Serratia Marcescens,’ which samples a science documentary about secret U.S. military experiments in the 1950s that recount dangerous tests of LSD and the bacterium serratia marcescens on live subjects. The facts within this New Chaos, including a soldier describing his bad acid trip, set to eerie ambience, make Fila’s maiden voyage more than worth the price of admission alone.
It’s absolutely arresting and trippy as hell. “Two hours later, the squad all except the drill sergeant, now drugged with LSD, again was ordered to fall in,” says an American narrator from a documentary about the CIA’s illegal MKUltra program. “The response was not the same. Notice the volunteer who salutes several times. Five minutes later, his severe depression caused the medical officers to end his participation in the test. But in marching, the drugged squad, though starting fairly well, gave a sluggish and ragged performance. After a few minutes, the men found it difficult to obey orders. And soon the results were chaotic.”
Ambient burbles and minor-key synth pads sweep over Fila’s exploration of the psychedelic frontier, calling to mind its dangers as well as its powers. Drums start to percolate as a sense of breakthrough arises. “There was much laughter as the group tried to give expression to inner emotions,” continues the narrator. “This elation was group supported, and an individual who separated from the group would show severe disturbance.” The song then transfers to a higher register, amid laughter, as a British narrator comes in with a different set of stories. “Volunteers were given doses of LSD between three and ten times higher than the normal acid trip. Army records show in one case a man received a dose 100 times higher.”
What Fila were boldly establishing was the power of electronic music as a new kind of boundless storytelling. Most received it as an unbroken yet varying journey of records mixed by DJs, tying and winding rhythms and melodies in new forms, creating grand symphonies of the spirit both on the dance floor, but in time, in chill rooms and in the domestic unknowns of the home and automobile. What was it that people were going to do with this newfound knowledge? — the revelation that with the machine, social, financial and bureaucratic calculations were just the beginning of the computer’s psychic wheel and whirlwind. What would happen now that it was in the hands of everyone, just as it was in the hands of more and more musicians?
Old Codes meet New Chaos, thrilling as it may be, was just as scary as it was exhilarating. For Fila was there, like many others, from Orbital to the Future Sound of London, who as artists were conscious enough to express fear as much as hope in a techno-cultural tidal wave that was just starting to alter and reshape our worlds. “It’s like looking upwards and seeing spirals of glittering colors coming down, unwinding,” says one of the test subjects sampled in ‘Serratia Marcescens,’ poetically echoing the macro transformations experienced in the rave scene. “Vivid colors, different colors, colors that are really indescribable,” he says. “I had never seen colors like that.”
That’s the wonder in the wonderland of the new chaos. But then a voice comes in that describes in many ways how old codes and new fears would darken our wonderlands with social media algorithms and conspiracy theories. “I could not control my mind,” says one voice. In this, Cobby and McSherry, intentionally or not, put their fingers on the pulse of the future. Like any great artists, they were connecting dots, notes, ideas, musics. “I lost all time,” says another voice, haunted by his bad trip. “I didn’t know if it was daylight or dark,” losing his inward circadian and compass. “Things started to get very, very bad. And I went back, I started going back in time, and I remember instances, just flashes of different things I had done in my life, and all at once everything went black.” Thankfully, Fila don’t leave us lost in the dark.
Chopper blades graze the scalp as we step right into ‘The Sheriff,’ its deep riffs bumping under bursts of xylophonic light. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, it slides confidently through a psychedelic haze of graffiti-style shapes and colors. It sounds like Style Wars by way of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Next comes ‘Feinman,’ which samples the last line of physicist Richard Feynman‘s testimony on the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
From the darkly ironic to the cheeky to the sober, Fila take us next to the evangelical American South, where the stuttering echoes of dub meet a Christian minister talking in tongues. With the lightning of a guitar twisting into the sky, a serpentine bass line winds under the exaltation of “the light of Jesus!” ‘Fila Funk’ follows on with a more uplifting vibe, an 18-minute ride through a sunny Bronx neighborhood, popping and locking to a rainbow beat that twists and turns in an upward path of spiritual praise.
But Fila save the best for last. ‘Pots & Pans’ is a devastating mash up of Jorge Ben‘s samba rock classic ‘Ponta De Lança Africano (Umbabarauma)’ and Larry Graham & Graham Central Station‘s vocoder funk hit ‘Now Do-U-Wanta Dance.’ But what makes it work is Cobby and McSherry’s deft hands, along with a rhythmic guitar stroke that perfectly inflects the album’s last leap of faith. If doubts and waves are rocking our inner compass, whether on the floor of a warehouse in a mind-bending rave, or in shockwaves of the technologically explosive, Fila put confidence at our backs.
They do this not just with music, but with musings. They combine strains from across the globe and even time, giving a masterclass in the very best that rave music had to offer — a music sensitive to all people and all worlds. At the outset of ‘Pots & Pans,’ Fila give us the words of a convict who gives a compunctious account of his run-ins with the law, the old codes so-to-speak. He’s gone in and out of the penitentiary. He has cut up and shot up a fella. “Whacking and whacking.” He speaks of stealing and living on the run, the police coming after him, how he “kept on doing wrong.” And elastic like a rubber band, the twanging blues funk of Fila comes in. Yes, we will experience despair, collectively, individually. But the groove, in the hands of the righteous and even the little crazy, can do no wrong.
Inspired by the words of Charles Bukowski, Douglas Coupland, Robert Pirsig, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, Old Codes : New Chaos is a sonic exploration of Pirsig’s declaration, “Rigel’s interpretation of recent moral history is probably a pretty simple one: old codes vs. new chaos.” From music to science to finance to warfare, the computer upended the old codes. Rave culture was literally the pulse of this tectonic change, a Morse code tapping steely morals into the future.
“It’s instrumental music, man,” Cobby told Mixmag in 1997, reconnecting it all back to the human. “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.”
“Musicians have always been like jesters,” Cobby continued, winding up to Fila Brasileiro’s animal rebel instincts and their psychic traveler ethos, from bards to buskers to electronic wizards. “Our medieval counterparts were troubadors on a pittance just doing it because they had to fucking do it. It’s that gypsy blood.”
With his words and Fila’s music, he was speaking for a whole new generation of artists, who were drawing new maps for the future. Like the children of the Amazon rainforests and the stormy coasts from England to Japan, gypsies and jesters, a revolution in power would have its rulers, but also its poets.
1. Old Codes
3. Whose Money
4. Serratia Marcescens
5. The Sheriff
7. The Light of Jesus
8. Strange Thoughts
9. Fila Funk
10. Pots & Pans
11. New Chaos