interview : Orbital

by Curt K.

It’s been eight years since you’ve released an album, Blue in 2004, now eight years later you’ve got Wonky coming out, welcome back and I loved it… but why such a long hiatus between releases?
Phil Hartnoll : Well thank you, very much! Well we said we thought that that was the end it was the end of us, it was a culmination of things, with a lot of things going on, personally, creatively. We thought we came up against a brick wall. And we started questioning everything. I think if you took the last two Orbital albums of that period, that you’d get one good one out of it, you know what I mean. And it was like I wasn’t comfortable releasing stuff that I wasn’t into. I mean you’re forever changing in your music, nothing ever finished, but when you have to commit it to a record, we just weren’t feeling it, we kinda lost our mojo. We sort of lost our connection with each other. We could of continued and done it cus of our position, but it didn’t feel right, it wasn’t right and when we said we were splitting up we kinda meant it. And we thought that was it, and we’re never going to go back to that again, because you never wanna visit a dark cloud as dark as that again. And that was it we were gonna do a few farewell gigs and that was it, that was the end of it.

I went off and did some DJ gigs and got back into DJing and thought right I’ve got to get my mojo back, get my feedback and what a better thing to do than to really feel and search for the music and it was really the best thing for me. I did a lil project in Brighton called Long-range, and that was really enjoyable. Working with some fantastic musicians. And Paul always had this ambition with working with an orchestra and string arrangements, and he could only do that on his own. So he went of and did that, we went and did our own things, so it was like five years of things on our own separate. But the Big Chill approached us to do a reunion gig. Enough time had been spent away, and I had gotten my mojo back, in our own ways and had no master plan of getting back together or  putting together and album or anything like that. I was very skeptical about that, we have no new music and do people really want that. But let’s try, we felt nothing ventured nothing gained, and the warmth and welcome we got back from the audience blew my mind to be honest, and was really encouraging. That one reunion gig turned into two years of touring festivals, and after one year and half we came to a point and we can’t just be doing just this anymore, we need some new music, or we stop it and that’s it and we really mean it. Or we need to inject some new music into the live set and create some new tracks to put into the live set cus that what it all about. What gaps do we need to fill in. We started to write again and we started to write again live, all the enjoyment of working together live, moved us into writing live and back into the studio and thought about, let’s write some new material. Cus we’re in a different time period now. It was fun again being back with my brother again. It was like when we first started. There was no record company restraints on you anymore cus there weren’t any new albums. We were more focused on the live set, we love playing live, and we wanna perpetuate that and we need to write some new material. And maybe the way of doing that was the old fashioned way of getting out an old LP and get it out there and then play those tracks live and what we did and it was really positive and really good.

How did this time away affect your producing and change your outlook on writing Wonky?
PH : Well it’s completely worked. To get away from it and think that you’re never go back to it, you sort of believe in that. It’s different if we were thinking that we’ll put it off for a bit have a rest do our own thing and then come back it is a different mindset. When  I really thought that was the end for us I thought I really meant it. And so I went off in DJing and it was really enjoyable experience in DJing. There’s nothing more inspirational then playing other people’s music, do you know what I mean? You find that one track to find that one juicy connection, it’s like aw yeah I can’t wait to play this! So I think that that was very good. Paul exercised his ambition of playing with and working with an orchestra and he sort of realized that Orbital as what we are and what we are separately when we create music with other people, and he was missing it and so was I we both sort of missed working together. It was upsetting to have so much good fortune within our career, that to end like that on a down note or a dark cloud and to be like how did it get to that? We are boys ya know and lack awareness in that sort of thing and sad that it got the that point and I’m really ecstatic now and  we’re making that right now and things really have gone so well, that we were enjoying in the writing of this album.

Can you talk about some of the influences that drove you in the creation of this album?
PH : The most influence is about the ‘live’ element of the album, and what we did in retrospect I think was fear of, oh what to do?  I’ve lost my mojo, what are we gonna do. So we drew a bit of a diagram, as sort of a way an album could flow,  like a funnel, so we started with a big bang. It was a lil sketch thing and noise bubbles down underneath  and what sort of flavors of tracks we would want, like a Adrain Sherwood heavy beat, slower tempo, or industrial beat then from that would fall into a time vortex and go back in time cus we had this track that we never released but we wanted to revisit cus it was a track we loved and wanted to revamp that track. Then move forward to new track, but it was a  flow diagram with flavors underneath of what we wanted. And if ever we were in a  sticky situation of what we didn’t know what to do, we didn’t follow it religiously but it was good reference point for us to keep us in check from fear of  being in the same place we were the last time we were in the studio together, which was grim. But we’ve moved on from then, we’re different people now.

So things have obviously changed since 1989. Can you speak about your view of the  evolution of the scene since “Chime”, “Lush”, “Halcyon”, and beyond?
PH : Oh wow, well I really love it all. I and have an analogy of an electronic tree from music starting from the 60s with its roots then branching out to the 70s with disco music  and high energy music coming up thru the 80s and the New Romanics period. And all of a sudden the Americans are getting involved with house music from like Chicago and Detroit, then acid house and it splinters all off from there with jungle and happy hardcore and all these other genres from this electronic music tree. I love it and find it real interesting and it gets even more interesting, cus I’m old. [laughs]

Well I’m not too far behind you.
PH : Well you know what I mean, cus we’re both talking about gigs and some history of music here. With all the experience and love for the music and history here behind you, you can hear things now like a trendy lil label here called Night Slugs, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of them before? It’s a brilliant name for a label really. They’re doing this sort of Detroit, 909 basic style of music, bless em and they’re like only twenty year olds. Their really cool, really funky and I could go meh… this has been done before… but they were like born when this stuff was coming around, but it’s their own style on it.

If you could change the current EDM scene, what would you change if there was anything you would change?
PH : Well I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t be so bold really…

You’d just enjoy the EDM rollercoaster ride?
PH : Yeah, no I can’t really think of anything really!

How can you help to influence and educate new electronic musicians to perpetuate the growth of the “global” scene today? What words of wisdom do you have? What nuggets of knowledge does Orbital have to bestow upon us, like to the newer generation, or new producers out there?
PH : Well that’s a mega question. I make electronic music because it’s a selfish point of view, really it’s a selfish thing I’m doing, I’m expressing myself, I’m doing it for myself. I can’t deny that cus I’m not musically based I’m a plinky plonker, I’m not classically trained or play a traditional instrument, but it’s the expression and I do it for the creative enjoyment. You have to do it cus you love it, and enjoy it, cus you have to do it, cus you can’t help yourself. And you get in the position of making records and you put something out, you hope for the best and cross your fingers, like making a connection with somebody out there, it’s the best thing really, making that connection.

Exactly! Even if you don’t speak literally the same language.
PH : Which is why I like the instrumental music, it turns end language. Japan is a great example, they really like us over there, and I mean I can’t think of a more extreme difference of culture. It’s great, it’s fantastic, I mean it’s really all about moods and emotions rather than being specific with words.

I EDM as a constantly evolving art form… with this evolution comes change, and it’s been almost a decade since your last release… could you speak to how you kept up with the evolution of this internationally morphing scene while maintaining the signature Orbital sound in Wonky?
PH : Well I’ve always been influenced by what’s been around me, around Orbital. We did make a very early stand, in our early start that what me put out there will be under the Orbital banner, from more of and indie punk stance. I mean some people will put out an ambient track, or a techno track under different names, which is understandable when their under a different moniker doing a different style, which is a good communicational stance. But what you get is us, when you get Orbital. So we do get influenced with current trends and things around us and draw from things around us and don’t get bogged down with having to do this or having to do that following current trends or anything really. I mean in like 1990 we played in acid house clubs because of “Chime” thing which escalated us with promoters then into doing club PAs, and then doing “Satan” and then clearing the dance floor. But I was I’m not going to stop playing this track, you’ve got to listen to it, but it didn’t go down to well in the early 1990s over here. But the Americans were actually more up for it because of the more industrial, Meat Beat Manifesto style of crowd. They were more in tune with it here in the States, but then you’d play “Chime” and they didn’t have a fuckin clue, it was like huh? What’s that?

I see that Lady Leshurr and Zola Jesus are on board for this release… and doing an exquisite job at being part of the team.  What, specifically, made them sonically appeal to you?
PH : Well with “New France” with Zola Jesus, we wrote that we felt that we really needed something. We tend to sway towards the female vocals really, and I really blame the Cocteau Twins for that really.

Well Liz Fraiser’s voice certainly is heavenly.
PH : Yeah well I used to be so tight, and in love with that band, with Liz’s voice and all. I used to follow them and their magical sounds. I was thinking about this recently, I’m sort of bit dyslexic and I don’t really listen to words too much too clearly and maybe that’s my downfall for certain things. It’s more about the intonations and tones and the human connection. Liz Fraiser’s is perfect. “Pearly Dew Drops” is one of my favorite tracks by Liz and the Cocteau Twins, and I wrote that down as a track for a playlist and all, I was like what are the lyrics, as opposed to what I thought the lyrics were. And I was like I don’t know, so I looked it up and there are proper lyrics, but I had made up my own lyrics, which is my I like the ambiguity of the spoken word really. But yeah “New France” with Zola Jesus, we were looking for this wailing banshee type voice, and I had never heard of her, but somebody pointed her out to me when we said what we were after. As soon as I put on one of here tracks I was like she is incredible. So I Skyped her up, she was like I got a week off, and we’ll get stuff back and forth, but then I don’t know what happened exactly, but I found out she was in England in London for a couple of dates, so I pulled her into the studio, we hung out and we were off, doing our own thing and she ad-libbed and she made some stuff up on the spot, and it was great. She’ s fantastic, she’s such a great character.

Well with the lack of words and lyrics and more about tonal intonations, I could see you guys doing more work with the likes of Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance.
PH : Oh yes! Totally. We got the chance to do a track with her for a film, I not sure if you’re aware or not. But it was like going to heaven and back. We had just gotten a bunch of tapes of her wailing and stuff and we kinda built up this track around it that for this movie. It was great little Australian film about a deaf kid not being able to go to rave and not being able to feel the music, so he’s feeling the music through these vibrations. Yeah great film, Lisa Gerrard my god brilliant!

Yeah actually Lisa and Dead Can Dance are touring again and coming to the States and I can’t wait to see them. But you know I’d love to see Orbital come back and tour the States.
PH : I’m working on that Curt, it’s all about distribution now. So we’ve just done a deal with a label in NYC called Downtown records I do believe a distribution company. And that’s just been inked signed done and delivered, so I think the Wonky album comes out like a week later over there in the States. And now that’s like done, with layers and all, and that like takes ages, now we can get on with it and talk to our agent Sam and see what’s going on now. But obviously the phones aren’t ringing, cus we haven’t done anything in quite a bit so we kinda got to build ourselves up again, or something. I don’t know how we’re gonna get over there but we gonna get over there by hook or by crook, I tell ya!

Hopefully sooner than later!
PH : I completely agree!

Could you talk a little about the experience of working with producer Mark “Flood” Ellis, who’s worked with so many electronic acts, such as Depeche Mode, NIN, Cabaret Voltaire, Renegade SoundWave, and many more.
PH : Well my brother as I mentioned before had kinda worked with him and they co-produced a band, and they kinda had time off from one another. So my brother had worked with him before so with this album we got it to a certain point, we hired him to program it. But we figured fuck it, it’s now or never, we wanted to get into a bigger studio, and see what happens and put it through a bigger mix desk and sort of break out and see where it goes. But we were like I don’t know where would we go and tried a few studios, and blah blah blah and I was like wait a minute Paul you worked with Flood didn’t you? And well my brother’s kinda slow on the uptake, so I was like let’s ring him up. And he was like he’s probably booked up for like two years. So I kinda kicked him the ass and was like for god’s sake phone him up, so we did and coincidentally Flood had just turned down a job that he wasn’t really into, that he wasn’t quite sure why he turned it down himself. But it was one of those sort of little lovely happenings. And then my brother phoned him up and he jumped at the opportunity cus he hadn’t worked with an electronic band recently. He’s a fantastic guy. He’s got like a museum of synthesizers.

Like a knob twiddlers paradise huh?
PH : Oh yeah totally. Flood, he’s got all these favorite lil toys out and there was Rob Kerwin a mix engineer that he works with all the time, it just kept it all fun. It was a bit extravagant but it was like ah fuck it but if it doesn’t work then I’m gonna have great fun doing this adventure, it was great working with him.

Being with all the gear, and being into that, I’m sure it didn’t take much but if you want to get on his good side, what kind of gifts should you show up to the studio with? Maybe your fav bottle of wine?
PH : If I had to get on his good side, actually it was a bacon sandwich, ya know pork products! He was like I need pork products!

Let’s talk tech for a minute, your favorite piece of tech?
PH : Ah wow, that’s a difficult one, it’s like asking which one is your favorite child. Well we love keeping it analogue. My brother is more of the techy nerd, and I get this great benefit of playing with all these great toys, cus he buys all these wonderful synthesizers. He just got one of our favorites a big synth, a MacBeth M5N from this eccentric guy in Scotland who’s making them. It’s a giant analogue synthesizer with like three oscillators like type thing really old school. It’s a really massive modular synth, but it’s all new. We love the Moog Voyager, a lot of Roland stuff that we’ve grown up with like the Jupiter 6 and I’ve treated myself to a lil toy, a Roland SH2. It’s like a Roland SH 09 but with another oscillator. I tracked one of those down inJapan. So yeah we love the analogue gear and that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to record in a studio but I do love a lot of soft synths as well! Because you write music on laptops and things like that. It’s convenient, cus you have a studio in your pocket and then you write stuff on your soft synths and then try and translate they to an analogue synth when you get to the studio and sometimes that just doesn’t work. Massive from Native Instruments is a particular favorite of my and Rob Pappen’s Albino, they have a quality about them frequency wise, that they fit in there. Sometimes it’s not always good being so fat! With the sound. Another is Razor which is another Native Instruments soft synth which has stuff that you could never be able to do with some analogue synths. It’s gone to another dimension with the stuff you can do, which is why I like some of the soft synths more than the emulators. The emulators are great but I’ve got the hindsight to do A vs B, cus I’ve got the ImpOSCar, cus I’ve got an original OScar, but I’m impressed with what you can do cus it’s a soft synth that you can go further with different things you can do unless I’m comparing them with the original piece of gear next to me. Ya know we’re talking minuscule nuances and amounts and there are quirkiness to analogues cus they go out of tune!

You were talking about Moog, you know that Moog music was actually based in Buffalo, where Auxiliary Magazine is based out of, going way back, in the 70s for a period of time before they moved down to the Carolinas!
PH : Really! Actually I got to meet Dr. Bob Moog. I had a position of opportunity to meet him, he made up a show with a new Theremin that he was trying to shop over here to some shops, and they promised to give us a copy of a Theremin for showing up and checking it out and showing up. And I was like we get to meet Bob Moog and all this, it was like Happy Christmas, that was enough for me, just to meet him. But it turned out that we couldn’t have the Theremin cus it turned out that the airplane, aviation industry used the similar or same frequencies, so it would interfere with them so it didn’t get permission to be released here.

Well with your talk of software, I saw that recently you did a show on BBC 6 doing a  live set and I think that you were using some iPads linked or something and using the Lemur apps or plug ins?
PH : Well when we first started we had a little studio and saved. We didn’t even have a  computer, then we linked some Alesis MMT8’s sequencers, we would set them up in studio and then set to studio all out on stage and link them all up and well now with all the technology you can do so much now.  And basically with all the advancements in technology now, we’re using Ableton and that’s taking the place of our sampler really. With the iPad and with the Grid software people which Plastikman and some software people from Germany are involved with, which is basically a remote controller for the Ableton, it’s become more of a complex Alesis MMT8, with a multitude of knobs and buttons. When we went out live with the Lemurs which is fantastic, but there’s so much programming within them it’s so much easier now that the Grid system came onboard.  This is Paul’s department more but we had to get to Grid programmers to get involved to get three iPads working in conjunction with each other.  We got them all writing, working with us together cus no one’s wanna go do that commercially. But we got that working, it’s been a bit on edge, cus we’re trying out this new technology and new software and we don’t know if it’s going to work. We got a set amount of time to figure it all out and do your live gigs, and you’re taking risks and it’s been a challenge, but we’ve gotten there in the end. We sort of managed to sort it out in the end. We’ve got three iPads that can see the Ableton that can trigger samples and audio files and can send out midi messages to our synths and mixing it thru our mixer desk and run it thru a pattern play, and improvise on the structures as we play live.

So you’re using Ableton as you DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] and what are you using as your hardware mixer desk? Any offbeat weird circuit bent tools of devices or secret weapons?
PH : Well like I said we’ve got the MacBeth analogue modular and a lot of other older analogue like a Roland 303, 909, and Sunsyn a quirky mental thing which is good for certain things. But with the modular stuff, you sent a midi message from one track to another, you’ve got to change things, you’ve got to alter things cus it’s not all presets, from one to two etc.  There’s none of that shit. It all changes from one night to another, and audience changes from one night to the next, and that changes how we play. Like they’re really loving this, let’s give em more of this! Or let’s pull back a bit cus they’re not liking it, it’s all about the energy and atmosphere of where you are! And the people play a larger role than they may think, in how we play. In like rehearsing, we’re playing the same songs, we’re feeling out the songs I our set it’s like two and half hours, but now we’ve gotten it down to like one and half hours. It’s the same songs but ya try jamming them out and get a lil prog rock about it, and that makes it quite enjoyable. It’s like you said playing to crowd and it’s never really finished when you’re making records, like for most people who produce stuff. Like there’s certain tracks that I’m looking forward to playing live, cus I feel like I’ve never quite ‘got’ it, but I wanna nail it, and the freedom of playing live and playing to the audience, and see where we can go, and see where the audience goes with us. I’ve always wanted to create some tracks and play em live and get into that groove and  then go and record them, ya know kinda work them out on the dance floor or at the festival and get a feeling for them that way.

Moving away from the gear talk… what’s your favorite musical artist or DJ of all time?
PH : Oh boy that’s a very tough one, with no constraints. Hmmm… I’ll tell ya what I will tell you who has made and impression on me was Adrian Sherwood when he made his On U Sounds and his On U Soundsystem. I grew up, my older cousins in the 70s were DJs and one was a Motown DJ and the other was a Trojan reggae DJ and there was a lot of this influence in me and then the On U Sound was kinda reggae and dub based. And when I went to go see Adrian Sherwood behind a mixing desk and it was like my god I first realized the way he was using the mix desk can be such an instrument and you can incorporate in such a live setting that you can be so creative with it and there so many things that can be applied to it. Yeah I’d say Adrian Sherwood, yeah he’s pretty good.

How about fav movie or TV series?
PH : My fav TV series, well it depends how far back you go, but I can say from way back in the early days, definitely Star Trek got me. Some from the early days definitely, and Hammer House Horror films, Roal Dahl, Tales of the Unexpected, those were all early influences on me, but like up to date I like stuff like Breaking Bad.

Who are you currently enjoying listening to as far as artists or DJs?
PH : That’s a funny one cus this is where my dyslexia start kicking in cus I don’t always remember their names. When it was with vinyl it was like I like the one with this color cover like the blue to gray one as opposed to the name cus I don’t always retain all that info. I mean I’ve been around for a few years so, but I can say I like The Knife, they really got me for a while and there were a bunch of one offs and white DJ labels. But yeah Claude von Stroke, Bill Vega, and Lee Coombs.

As far as DJs, I feel like John Digweed can do no wrong.
PH : John Digweed, he lives down here in the same town as me, Brighton, but I’ve crossed paths with Sasha a lot, and they team up a bit. Back in the early days at a warehouse where he was doing a party in Leeds. He took us upstairs to his mums place once and well ya know I’ve known him from the early 90s, like when “Chime” was starting to hit the clubs, he was like come and play my club, and I’ll put you up and we’re like at his mum’s house with like six of us. It was great fun, but that’s what it was all about. It’s come a long way since then though eh?

What is your phone’s ringtone?
PH : Well I usually leave the ringer off and have it on vibrate or a basic boring one, but my brother Paul has one, let’s see if I can remember… He has the Douglas Adams, the ring tone from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, yeah that’s the one!

If you could do a cover or reinterpret a film score soundtrack what would it be?
PH : Oh another tough one, I don’t know, the only one that springs to mind was Ennio Morricone, but I don’t dare tread the path. But … I dunno it might be fun to do a cover of Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, or something like that. It’s my dad’s fault really, he was totally into film scores, soundtracks, and Ennio Morricone saddled with these spaghetti western movies, with Clint Eastwood and everything was really appealing and really blew me away at the time. So I guess it’d have to be that, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I mean you can’t beat that!

Oh no doubt, Ennio Morricone is classic, but I thought maybe more sci fi classic like maybe Vangelis’s Blade Runner score?
PH : Yeah Blade Runner, it’s funny but you know we’ve dabbled a lil bit with covers with you know, Doctor Who and The Saint and all and those were all kinds of fun.

Speaking of Doctor Who, who’s your favorite Doctor?
PH : Actually to be honest I really like Matt Smith. He’s sort of everything you’d expect and imagine to be in a Doctor in Doctor Who. And after we met him as well, we got involved, actually after Coachella event, at an after hours party at someone’s house we met him. It’s a funny story my brother actually was at the fridge, open, and a eureka moment with the light coming from the fridge and we’re like isn’t that Matt Smith, Doctor Who? They got along like a house on fire. And he was like yes I am, and I’d love to introduce you guys sometime, you guys do that Doctor Who cover song? So they talked aboutGlastonburyand Matt Smith had never been toGlastonburybefore and we persisted and it was great fun having Matt Smith on stage there with us, oh I laugh, I laugh…

“Dream team” lineup for a show, any other four artists and yourselves?
PH : I’d pick The Knife, Grandmaster Flash, The Clash, and I’d pick Bjork, that would be a nice show!

I’d like to extend my sincerest thanks for the interview today. I’ve been a longtime fan and it’s been an honor. Is there anything else that you’d like to add which hasn’t been previously covered?
PH : Only wanted to sum it up and it’s been really enjoyable and I didn’t think we’d be getting back together, I didn’t think we would get back together and there was no master plan with this album or getting back together, but the way it’s all progressed it’s been really enjoyable and I’m really happy about that. I really want to come over and play some shows in America, I do miss it and it’s changed there so much since we’ve been there so much, since we’ve toured there in the 90s. And all the pocket areas of ravers and scenes cus your country’s so huge and EDM is more mainstream and more national now. Where as over here it’s a small island and something happens and then it’s a subculture. In America it seems more mainstream and more people are into it and well we’ve done Coachella and Miami, LA, and San Francisco. But yeah I want to see more of it from the Americans and see how it’s over all over there. …It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Write a good review, and maybe that will spark some interest and get some people more interested in getting back into us over there!

Okay! Thank You!

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