In Conversation: Coby Sey

Crate-digging, South London identity, and searching for the unexpected...

Measured, thoughtful and simultaneously inward and outward looking, Lewisham native Coby Sey picks up the phone on a rainy Thursday night to speak with Clash about his debut album, ‘Conduit’, which was released on AD-93 in September. 

Channelling the history and essence of locality, rallying crys against injustice and set to the backdrop of a government failing to serve itself people post-crisis – with a certain lettuce outlasting a certain Tory Prime Minister‘Conduit’ exists as a conversation about South London and beyond; the introduction of a live show meaning that this conversation and body of work is seemingly infinite, inviting listeners in to gain energy and subjective application for the day-to-day culture. 

Clash caught up with Coby Sey to talk about the intangible and tangible in community, feeling connected and we get the low-down on his favourite London and Leeds record digging spots. 

Clash: Community is at the forefront of the album, with rallying calls of coming together to marginalised communities. Where does the sense of community come from, what was it like growing up in Lewisham? There is a strong history of community in Lewisham, from The Battle of Lewisham in 1977 – which you spoke about in your interview with tQ – to Novelist becoming borough’s ninth deputy young mayor back in 2012, how important is that heritage to you?

Coby: Even before I knew that history of Lewisham, growing up as a kid I could sense that it was quite a unique place. I mean London itself is unique, but I definitely think there’s something else that’s very specific to Lewisham. In terms of the make up of people and various kinds of identities and what have you. That’s not to say it’s perfect, it’s not a utopia, it’s something else. The word utopia feels like there’s no imperfections, but I think those imperfections make it a unique experience. 

I’m saying all of this as someone who has resided in Lewisham for most of my life. I’ve been to other parts of London, but there’s something else here. I like to think people feel it when they are here. 

Clash: I guess community spawns from those imperfections, it’s almost a response to things that aren’t as they should be, people rally together to instigate some sort of change.

Coby: Yeah, absolutely. That’s one thing that will remain in Lewisham amidst these high rises that are being built, that I can’t help but feel a bit of concern about. The people here, we’ve always found a way to work with what we’ve got, and with each other. 

Without going to deep into, it’s definitely informed by music. All those historical moments, and the moments that are not perceived as historical – the day to day stuff – it’s helped everything. Sometimes it’ll show itself not necessarily from sounds or recordings of the atmosphere, but in terms of a feeling that can’t quite be described it can just be felt.

In Conversation: Coby Sey

Clash: That’s what I guess you mean by ‘transcending the tangible’. The album flirts with post-grime, experimental jazz and post-punk. I’ve also read you speaking about bands like The Clash and artists like Miles Davis in previous interviews. Where does this multi-genre admiration come from, was yours a musical household growing up?

Coby: That stems from a curiosity of music as well as growing up in a family that are enthusiasts of music. My dad, uncle and auntie collect a lot of records and I’d have a listen to them to keep myself occupied. My older brother (Kwes, who has worked with Loyle Carner, Damon Albarn) and I, we really got into it. He picked up the piano at age five and taught himself how to play. Fast forward ten years and I picked up the drums and taught myself. In between that we messed about on music software.

To this day I’m still a record store person too. 

Clash: Where’s your favourite spot in London to go for a dig?

Coby: There’s quite a few. There’s a place in Lewisham called Records, that’s literally what it’s called. I go there occasionally. Also, Rye Wax was a place I really enjoyed but it hasn’t been open since 2020. It’s in a basement so I think they were having issues with mould and dampness. Sound Of The Universe, Phonica in Soho, Eldica Records in Dalston. 

I went to university in Leeds so I would also be hitting up Tribe Records, Jumbo Records, Crash Records. They’ve got some good stores up there, each one has their own little flavour too.

Even in my teenage years, there were many more record shops around Lewisham. There was a place called Morps Music that was based on the outside of the Model Market. It was at the very back end, far corner of Lewisham Shopping Centre. There was a market stall that used to sell a lot of imported records.

In Conversation: Coby Sey

Clash: Some of your verses on the album are quite lengthy, spoken almost as one consistent stream of consciousness and delivered in a poetic manner. Where does this poetic approach to writing come from, and when writing does it all come out as one? Or are you going back and fixing things as you go?

Coby: During a live show there are moments where I will change things, but the style comes from me trying and wanting to work on a style that is an amalgamation of all the musicians that work within MCing and rapping in a way that I feel that works for how I am as a person. Along the way of doing it, interestingly enough I discovered people who have been doing it similarly to me and for way longer than I have. 

I know Massive Attack and I’ve known of them for years, and I’d heard of Tricky but I didn’t really listen until around 2009. I’ve been working on poetry and rhymes since my early teens, so when I heard Tricky and realised he was in Massive Attack I was like, that’s cool!

For me, it felt necessary to find a way to speak words in a way that feels in tandem with who I am and why I am. During the live shows it can go other places, there’s glimpses of that in songs like ‘Response’, depending on the energy of the room, where my headspace is at that moment and the energy that I’m harbouring within myself. 

Clash: I was reading your interview with Loud & Quiet and it happened right in the midst of the UK government’s first collapse during summer. Here we are, just a matter of months later, and another prime minister is gone, the people again being replaced with an extremely wealthy Tory that they never voted for. You said in that interview you saw a way back for ordinary people in the UK, is that still the case?

Coby: We have to, it has to be. I haven’t felt persuaded by those in power, that haven’t even been voted into those positions, for me it’s about finding a way to be as self-sufficient as possible. It’s more important than ever to speak up, and to take action if it helps to aid the process. 

Clash: Now that the album has been out for nearly two months, and you have had a chance to reflect on its commentary, what do you hope people take from it? 

Coby: I hope that I think people can take the fact that they do have some sort of agency, there’s something they can tap into to not only speak up about things but take action. Hopefully it provides a source of energy in the sense of finding a way to respond in reality but also to realise that through things like music and the arts we can feel connected in a way that we can sometimes take for granted. It’s good to realise we have that to gain energy and realise and imagine, without being too idealistic, that we can find magic in the world around us. 

I can’t wait to hear from others, from the album and from the live show, to find out what it’s meant to them. It’s a whole subjective thing, there are so many ways that people can find meaning within a piece of work.

Clash: I also read in your interview with Loud & Quiet that you call yourself a bit of a weirdo, how you were really happy when NTS started as there was an outlet for people that were just curious about music. Your work so far has been quite niche in the experimental space that it operates in, but you have also worked with artists like Tirzah and Kelly Lee Owens – can you ever see yourself venturing towards – what is being described as – a ‘pop’ realm?

Coby: I can definitely see music taking me to places I wouldn’t expect. As long as I’m able to continue making work that doesn’t involve me having to dilute what I’m creating then I’m totally open to it. There are differences between the pop sphere and the experimental sphere but at the same time the interconnection between the two worlds has never felt so strong. Sometimes I wonder whether that connection has always been there, but it changed in how it happened.

Coby: I’ll be keeping a keen ear out for that Coby x Charli XCX link-up.

Coby: Yeah, that would be interesting. I met A. G. Cook, we know each other through a friend called Lil Data who is on PC Music. I dig the stuff on there, I’m definitely interested in those cross-pollinations and intersections, you never know what the results are gonna be. As long as there’s a mutual respect then other things can follow, for sure.

‘Conduit’ is out now.

Words: Andrew Moore
Photo Credit: Ksenia Burnasheva

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