Coby Sey was born in Lewisham, South East London. Growing up listening to music ranging from lovers rock to shoegaze, he has developed a practice that defies categorisation and is rooted instead in the atmospheres, connections and relationships of his immediate surroundings.
A prolific collaborator with Tirzah and Mica Levi and a founding member of the CURL collective, Coby released his debut album, Conduit, in September 2022. Like his earlier EP, Transport For Lewisham, the album betrays his fascination with words, context and language - or as he describes it, “rhythm and poetry”.
Sensitive to his versatility as a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and performer, I began by asking Coby about the relationship between the recorded and live iterations of his work.
I made Conduit with the intention of it existing beyond the record, knowing that it's going to take on a life of its own through the live shows. I've left the live show as open as possible. I'm definitely someone who embraces performing recorded songs and seeing what form and shape they can take, so I’m excited to see how playing these shows with my band Continue [Alpha Maid, Ben Vince, MettaShiba and Charlie Hope] will help to inform the next bits of music that I plan to work on.
I remember listening to an interview with Gwilym Gold, at least 10 years ago, and he said something along the lines of recorded music being a much newer format than performing music live. In the grander scheme of history, it's actually a newer thing to be recording music and releasing it as an artefact, because before then people would interact and communicate with music through playing in front of each other. I definitely understand and connect to that.
So the record is the beginning of a process rather than setting ideas in stone?
Yeah exactly. And you know, the album definitely started to mould itself as a result of playing live too. There's a track called ‘Response’ that's about 10 minutes long and came from a live performance that I did with Ben Vince, CJ Calderwood and Biu Rainey in the summer of 2017. That track alone informed the direction that I wanted to take this record. That was the catalyst.
Initially I thought that it might not constitute an album, but then as I kept on working, it became clearer to me there were different moods, feelings and shades, different tones and palettes that I wanted to uncover, as well as themes and subjects. I wanted to do it in a way that was in keeping with the overall feel of the album, and where there's room for both words that are overt as well as more implied and more nuanced.
I like having that balance, and I would like people to find a way to connect to it in their own way if possible, so that they can find meaning within it. Music for me is my way of connecting to people and having a conversation with people.
Having seen you perform at EARTH in London, it feels like the live iteration of the record also plays with this idea of shade. You spend much of the performance almost completely obscured on the stage. How did you go about realising those elements in a live setting?
That was done in collaboration with Charlie Hope, who just really understands the album and the perspective that I've come across. There's a sensitivity which I think Charlie taps into, which I feel connected to. In terms of manifesting that, we're quite visual with how we approach things and how we talk about our work, and I think that really helps. One of the things that I really love about working in music is establishing those languages and contexts so that we can make work that is not only moving but also really reflective.
I studied drama in my teens and there's definitely stuff that I learnt then that I reference, not in terms of theatrics, but more in terms of the mood of the space. I definitely think it's important to understand the space in the places that I perform. We do as much as we can to approach each show in a case-by-case way, instead of building a show and just establishing it and touring with it. It has to be very well considered.
Alongside drama, what was your early relationship with words and language like?
My interest with words runs deep. In my school days I'd pick up anthologies and learn the anthologies that I'd have to study, but I found myself really being into it, and I’ve still got really old books of my poems and raps, so it's definitely been with me from an early age. I've always been interested in the origins of words and that's probably really obvious from the opening track on Conduit, given that its title is 'Etym', which I got from the word etymology.
Language is a big part of what I do, and stems from my interest in words and contexts and seeing how different words and different combinations of words and sentences could - spoken or written - change or affect the understanding or the movement of interactions between one another.
It's interesting to hear you talk about delivery, because it often feels like you’re exploring the sonic properties of words through repetition or emphasis. With lyrics like ‘Marking The Past’, ‘Permeate’ or ‘Confront’, it’s as if you’re almost playing with the word in your mouth, asking what it can do and how far it can go.
Yeah totally and also I think a big part of my approach is also understanding space and knowing that the absence of certain words could add to the presence of the existent words and where those words sit. But my approach is very instinctive. It's not something that I would calculate in a mathematical way. There is a method to it but it's one of those things that I haven’t sat down to figure out how I would be able to describe it to be able to communicate it to others.
The words come to you quite spontaneously?
Yeah, and I love being able to write and figure out how to say something. There are so many ways of saying something, both in an overt way and also in a more poetic way that can provide doors or provide windows to other words that can be used, and other imaginaries that can be associated with those words.
In what way has your experience as a drummer and bassist fed into your lyrical approach?
It's a combination of all of it really. It's all of that consolidated. I have been playing drums more often in the past few years, especially since 2018 with Tirzah, but with Tirzah it's more electronic drums, whereas with my live show MettaShiba is on the drums. Sometimes I fill in on acoustic drums.
Drums were the first acoustic instrument that I spent an extended time teaching myself. My old secondary school had a drum kit that I would occasionally practise on during lunch time. By the time I turned 18 I saved up some money from my part time job at a sports shop to get myself a drum kit. It was either spending that money on driving lessons or getting a musical instrument. I chose the latter.
And then during uni in Leeds I joined a couple of punk bands. Those were really formative years for me. I definitely see that as a massive time of character building in terms of playing in front of people. It was a different way to learning drama but it was no less in terms of character building and understanding the usage of space as well as just getting to grips with rhythm and multi-tasking and all of that.
And understanding volume as well?
I’ve read you talk about dub as an important through line.
Yeah I got really conscious of it by the time I turned 18. Before then, I appreciated it and enjoyed it but it was one of those things that I connected more with my parents’ generation because growing up in South East London lovers rock and ragga were a huge thing for them in the 1980s. Sound system culture was a thing then as well, so I'd always hear it. People like Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Bovell. Fela Kuti and Tony Allen's 1970s afrobeat are important inspirations for me, which I got into through my parents' record collection. It makes sense that drums were the first acoustic instruments I learnt. Also '90s highlife like Daddy Lumba, jazz pioneers such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, singer-songwriters like Prince, D’Angelo, Angie Stone, George Michael. And a lot of '90s rap from my aunty.
Dub later became a bigger thing in my late teens after a coursemate at university told me about a regular dub reggae night in Leeds. I’d go to this night called Subdub at the West Indian Centre, I’d say kind of religiously. Almost every month I'd go to Subdub and just immerse myself in dub and heavy, low - but at the same time really soothing - frequencies and sounds. I think it connects with my appreciation for bass and the rhythm section of music. Same with my parents' afrobeat collection of Fela Kuti and Tony Allen. It all amplified my interest in low frequencies, sounds, rhythms within rhythms, and interest in sound to communicate deeper feelings in a meditative way. After moving back to London, I eventually started to go to the sound system events like Channel One and then later Jah Shaka. To me they aren’t just dances. They’re something more.
That idea of something being heavy and soothing at the same time is interesting.
Yeah It's got such a meditative aspect to it, I think. It’s not something that is just viewed as entertainment for me, it's more. I know it's a word that gets bandied around but I think it's an alright word - it's spiritual. In my late teens I started to really understand the likes of King Tubby and Big Youth, Keith Hudson, Augustus Pablo. As well as opening my appreciation for low end frequencies, I also found that a lot of the stuff that they were making was psychedelic in its own way and I felt a huge resonance in that. It felt like it was very transportative in its approach, and that's something I always look for within music. I think that also leads to me really being into the stuff that gets categorised as shoegaze, because I also find that really transportative and meditative. The obvious ones like My Bloody Valentine, a lot of the early 4AD stuff, that's all a big thing for me.
You mentioned that connection to lovers rock in South East London. What kind of impact does the environment you find yourself in have on the way you express yourself?
I've always felt like an in-betweener because there was the lovers rock thing, and then for the ‘90s and the early 2000s, maybe not so specifically south east, but south London generally, there was Roots Manuva and Ty and then the 2000s come and you’ve got those sounds that were not quite garage and not quite grime. Some of it was classified as dark garage, the likes of El-B and stuff like that. That was always just a couple of frequencies away on the radio. In Lewisham there was also a record shop called Morps Music that I used to frequent for hip hop albums imported from North America.
But for my music, growing up in South East London, I definitely continue to feel more inclined to tap into just being there physically and allowing the atmosphere to help inform where I want to go with the music. That way it kind of helps me think not just visually but also about how I can try and distil that into sound. I do a lot of found sound recording as well, which I incorporate into the music.
On ‘Eve (Anwummerɛ)’ you can hear the sound of falling rain.
Yeah there's that and literally throughout the album. For ‘Etym’ all the cacophony of sounds are from recordings that I picked up using my Zoom H4 recorder. Sometimes I record stuff with my iPhone as well. I'm really into the sound and seeing how I can sculpt new instruments through the software of choice that I use. And seeing how to craft a feeling for each song.
Does knowing that you’re working with sounds from specific places help give that song a conceptual rooting for that song in that environment?
Yeah, definitely. That's something that I've always been interested in. I want listeners to feel like they've been transported from one place to another. And it doesn’t always have to be specifically spaces that I've defined, but somewhere that has atmosphere.
You’ve also travelled quite a bit to make music. I saw you were in Iceland in 2020.
That's something I really enjoy. I chose to go to Iceland just out of curiosity for the place as well as really needing some time to just get myself together after spending almost two years between working full time and touring. I wanted to have a bit of stillness and allow that stillness to inform some sort of direction. Literally every day I spent several hours just recording music, playing on my keyboards, taking in the atmosphere, taking pictures, recording the sounds there. Even though I did work on my own stuff, I also took part in a group residency, so I got to communicate with other people and understand their practices and hopefully vice versa as well.
Collaboration feels like a really important part of your work.
I think it's because I feel like I'm able to talk better and communicate better when working on music with people. Working on my own, I often just tinker a lot. I think also when I'm working with other people I'm more conscious of everyone else’s time and energy, and I think that's also a part of it too.
There's a culture of collectives in South East London. How influential has the crew around CURL, Mica and Tirzah been for you?
Naming ourselves CURL was just a formalisation, we'd been doing our thing way before 2016. We all connected in some way or another as far back as Myspace and all got involved in each other’s music in the studio or live.
Mica founded the Cluster Collective in 2006, which was a little before my time. Kwes, my older brother, was a member, as were Tirzah, Kit Downes, Ghostpoet, Brother May. After the Cluster, came the Shapes, with Raisa Khan and Marc Pell, which later became Good Sad Happy Bad with CJ Calderwood. Kwes also conceptualised a loose group named Loners around 2006 or 2007, which consisted of Mica, Dels, Ghostpoet, Sampha, Rahel [of Hejira], Gwilym Gold, Elan Tamara, Tobi Okandi, Georgia Barnes, me, and few others. Then there’s Speakers Corner Quartet with founding members Kwake Bass and Biscuit, who were later joined by Raven Bush and Peter Bennie. Then there’s the crew known as Bo Khat crew, which the Hype Williams duo is linked to, which is also linked to other people and crews linked to Plastic People and NTS Radio. DIG is another collective that was Lewisham-based. For me, Curl is another branch of this mostly South and East London network.
In 2016, Mica contacted me to ask what options were available to release May’s first EP that they both worked on. I mentioned that I had decided to set up a label named ‘CURL’ after helping out with Kwes’ label Bokkle and asked Mica if they and May would be up for joining forces with me to release this EP and to co-run CURL with me. One of the intentions I mentioned was to learn how to release and try things ourselves with no pressure in terms of expectations. The name CURL comes from me remembering Mica buying a Curly-Wurly chocolate at a shop near their old studio in East India Quay in 2013. After speaking with Tirzah about whether to go for the name “Curly” or “Curl”, Tirzah suggested “Curl”.
It wasn’t until later that I realised the significance that word has to our practices and what that word can mean philosophically and in relation to identity and humanity – even human anatomy. Most if not every single bone in every human body is curved.
Music is so embedded in our lives, it is definitely coming from a place of the love of it, and being able to connect to each other through it. It’s a way for us to communicate as well, not just through words but also through just getting into a room together and just making some songs, being there and enjoying that moment.
Music as a conduit for relationships and connection.
Working with such a broad range of artists like TYSON, the LCO, and then CURL - you seem quite comfortable moving between these musical spaces?
In all honesty, it's just been a natural thing. It's only when I think about it in hindsight and I've had conversations with someone and it's mentioned to me, then I'm like ‘Oh yeah’. I can hear the compositional elements in pop or post-punk or rap or folk songs. I’ve always listened to music that way and I think that's helped me to understand all kinds of music. I think listening to Prince at such an early age helped with that. One of the earliest records I listened to was the Batman soundtrack when I was between the ages of 3 and 5, and there's so many different sounds and so many different modes that Prince goes into for each track, or even within one track and I definitely credit that record for helping me to understand that. The nearest term that I think fits the music I make is ‘post-genre’.
It's funny, even having conversations with Liz Harris [Grouper], it affirmed to me that I can definitely hear she's into singers Mary J. Blige and Nina Simone, because there's something within her singing. She has a particular sensitivity and ears for certain harmonies. And also being into Basic Channel, The Cure, as well as just having her own thing. For me it's just about being really tapped in and open hearted to all of these sounds and contexts and not seeing anything as a guilty pleasure. It all seeps in. All of these sounds, all of these strands of music that to some might seem disparate, for me are all part of the same thing. It’s all connected.