- Wed, 2012-04-11 16:57
For a brief period in the late eighties and early nineties acid house and the rave scene were the biggest things in British music. Weekend after weekend warehouses up and down the country were packed with fervent dance music acolytes. It was in the midst of this musical revolution that two brothers – Phil and Paul Hartnoll – cut their teeth, taking their first steps towards becoming one of Britain’s most successful and significant dance acts: Orbital.
In 2004, a decade and a half later, the duo called it a day having helped to complete dance music’s journey into the mainstream. But it didn’t take long for the Hartnoll brothers to get the itch, and in 2009 they were back with reunion shows and an anniversary tour. There was only one logical next step: a new album. Wonky, Orbital’s eighth studio album, has arrived.
I Like Music caught up with Phil and Paul after their set for BBC 6Music’s tenth birthday, and chatted with the duo about their new live show, the glory days of rave, the decision to reform, and the various charms of analogue and digital synths.
“I Like Music because...it moves me.” Phil, Orbital
“I Like Music because...it’s my hobby.” Paul, Orbital
ILM: How are you both?
Paul: Really good! I feel like I’ve done a really good day’s work already, having done the 6Music session. That was brilliant! It’s nice doing a gig a twelve o’clock. It’s like going to the cinema in the daytime: you come out and it’s still light, you’re like “wow! I can go to the pub and do loads of stuff now!”
Phil: I feel a bit sort of floaty. All the adrenaline’s pumping after coming off stage. I feel like... like I’ve been drinking!
ILM: What is it about 6Music that you feel makes it an important radio station?
Paul: I always think of it as John Peel radio. The legacy that he had at Radio 1 of just playing whatever he wanted to play. Eclectic. That’s what 6Music is. Anything goes. We’ve done the 6Mix occasionally, and no-one ever says “you can’t play that!” It’s just whatever you want to do. And it’s brilliant to get the chance to do that on the radio. Any of the DJs that we’ve ever met have all said the same.
Phil: They mix it up a lot.
Paul: They pick people that want to play interesting stuff. Nerdy DJs! Which is great! That’s why I like it. It’s where we fit in. John Peel always used to play our stuff from early on, which was amazing. So it’s a real honour now to be involved with 6Music and their week of gigs. You know, there were only five gigs, and they picked us! It’s brilliant!
ILM: It's great to have Orbital back with a new record and a new live show. We thought you'd left us forever! What made you put Orbital to bed in 2004?
Paul: We were just tired and creatively at a stopping point. It didn’t seem exciting. We had to do something. With creativity you sometimes have to break the mould to get back into doing it again. From my perspective I wasn’t fed up with doing music, but there was no excitement about doing more Orbital, so we thought “okay, we won’t do it then.”
Phil: We could have done. We were in the fortunate position of having got where we were, and it would have been very easy to have continued... But our heart wasn’t in it. When your heart isn’t in it you can’t do it anymore. We genuinely thought that was the end. Well, it was the end at that point.
Paul: It wasn’t like “oh, we’ll stop for a few years.” You make a decision to stop doing something and that’s that. The fact that we’ve decided to get back and do it again is neither here nor there.
Phil: We really meant it at the time when we said “this is the end.”
ILM: What was it that changed your minds?
Phil: The Big Chill. They asked us to do a reunion gig, and at the time we’d gone off and done our own projects and got a lot of spark and enthusiasm back. Time had elapsed, so we met up and said “okay, it might be fun to do that...” That one gig turned into two years! There was no “let’s get back together and do an album,” it was literally a few reunion gigs, and as that went on it came to a point where we didn’t want to keep harking back to all the old tracks. We didn’t have any new stuff, so there came a decision: shall we do some more music and take it a step further, or shall we stop this? We took it a step further, and it was great.
Paul: We just wanted to write some music that we wanted to play live, basically. Hence the album was born from that.
ILM: I've read stories of people crying at your final shows in 2004. The news of your new album has been met with a big sigh of relief from fans.
Phil: They led us to do it. When we were playing live we were thinking “I dunno, do people really wanna hear these tracks?” But the warmth that we got back, and the feedback and everything boosted us and encouraged us to continue.
Paul: It’s interesting though, cos we were playing at places like festivals in Prague, Bucharest and Budapest, and I didn’t get the impression that these people knew our stuff. And yet, there they were, young crowds of people in their twenties, absolutely loving it. It was like a whole new lease of life. It was starting again.
ILM: How have you prepared the Orbital live show for the new set of dates on the way?
Paul: It’s all totally refreshed. We’ve gone for a whole new set of visuals. They’ve always been updated, changed and developed, but some of our visuals actually dated back to the mid-90s. We’ve got the same guys doing it, so it’s still going to have our feel, or their feel. And we’ve been working on the actual set since January. Half of it will be stuff from the new album, then old favourites, but we’re updating them again. Then we’re going to throw in some other old tunes that we’d like to hear as well. So it’s a totally refreshed set from what we were doing with our reformation, greatest hits set.
ILM: What's your live set-up, gear wise?
Paul: We’re running Ableton live on the laptop, but I refuse to look at a laptop when I’m playing live – which is why we used to use MMT8 sequencers all the time: it felt properly live – but now I’m able to control Ableton from iPads. It still feels like MMT8s, but it’s a lot more flexible. Anything I want to change in the daytime; we can mess with the set and think “I’m gonna try this tonight,” and then it’s all there available to me. We have five iPads all stretched out in front of us, all showing the same big spread of Ableton and effects. I can arrange the whole thing as I go. It’s brilliant: really flexible. The modern twist to it all has made it much easier to jam with.
Phil: We’ve got a studio up on stage basically. We’ve got a mixing desk, all of our synths...
Paul: Big old analogue synths.
Phil: For each track every individual part is broken down into individual buttons: bass drum, high-hat... They’re sending out MIDI messages to the drum machine or synthesizer, so when the synthesizer gets the MIDI sequence you can change the sound as it’s going. Then that goes into your mixing desk and you’ve got all the levels and effects you can mix it up with as well. But there’s no arrangement. We’re improvising with the arrangement of the song, so we can make a track last a minute or an hour.
Paul: We’ve never done it. We always say that, but we’ve never made it last an hour!
Phil: The first time we played without rehearsing it was a two and a half hour set.
Paul: It was in Exeter wasn’t it? Two and a half hour set and there were people going “we have to send people home!” So we had to cut the set.
Phil: On that tour we whittled it down to ninety minutes. The same songs, but only an hour and a half. So it does vary. And the audience play a large part in how we perform as well. It’s the interaction and vibe that you get off the audience that makes you do this and do that.
ILM: What sound system do you use for Orbital live?
Paul: We always go around with a company called Scan, who have been doing our soundsystem for years. They’re always on top of the new technology.
Phil: But what speakers do they have? Is it Funktion-Ones...?
Paul: I think so... Small but deadly.
ILM: Festivals are an intrinsic part of Orbital. Your Glastonbury sets are legendary! What it is about festivals that you love?
Paul: I love the open air, I love the summer and I love preaching to the non-converted. The audience are people that don’t know you, and they’ve decided to check us out. That’s great. And I love the eclectic-ness of the crowd as well. It’s not a dance crowd, it’s not a rock crowd, it’s just a festival crowd. They’ve got a holiday atmosphere to them. It’s just a brilliant environment to play in.
ILM: I saw your surprise set at Arcadia last year [at Glastonbury]... what an amazing stage to play on!
Phil: Yeah, that was incredible! On a normal stage you’ve got one group of people at the front, but with a rotating stage you’ve got lots more.
Paul: Every time you look up from doing something you’ve got a whole different bunch of people! “Oh, there’s the crazy guy in the hat! There’s the funny girl who’s off her face!”
ILM: You've been playing your music a long time now. You were playing sets at the start of the rave scene. Looking back, it seems there was such a strong sense of community and one-ness around dance music then. Do you still feel that? Do you think that has been lost in the intervening years?
Paul: I don’t know... To be fair, I don’t go out clubbing on a Monday night like I used to back in the early ‘90s. A Tonker party felt like a big family. You’d all pile down to Brighton beach on the first Monday of the month, hearing about this Tonker party through word of mouth, and you’d all be there waiting to see who got in and who didn’t. There was always twice as many people trying to get in, and if we didn’t get in we’d hang around outside chatting and having a good time on the beach anyway. But I’m sure that kind of thing must still go on...
Phil: I DJ quite a lot still, so I get out there amongst it. It is still there. I think a lot of it has to do with the drugs as well, with Ecstasy not being what it used to be like. But I think that also helped with the sub-culture anyway, breaking down a lot of barriers and macho-ism. It certainly sorted out the terraces on the football field!
Paul: Before acid house and dance music we used to go to a disco at the end of our village and say “let’s leave ten minutes early to avoid the fighting bit at the end.” Discos were synonymous with fighting. “You looking at my girlfriend,” you know what I mean? I’m assuming nightclubs aren’t fighty still. I dunno...
ILM: Out of all the sets you've played, is there one you feel epitomises that early development of rave culture?
Paul: There were a few things... Glastonbury ’94, but that’s quite late compared to what you’re talking about. Although that was the beginning of dance music hitting the big festival stages: that hadn’t really happened much. You had The Shamen, The Orb – who always went down well at Glastonbury – but the year we played we took acid house and techno to Glastonbury and it just went crazy!
Phil: What about David Holmes?
Paul: I was going to say that. In the Belfast Art College. That was amazing.
Phil: That sort of epitomises what you’re talking about.
Paul: The friendliness and the openness. Belfast was still quite a troubled city at that point; 1990. It was still pretty rough. Back then it was all run by amateurs, so we got a phone call from David Holmes saying “so-and-so’s given me your number, we want you to come to Belfast and play at our club.”
Phil: We stayed as his mum’s house! They were beautiful people. At our age, during the ‘70s all you got bombarded with was the IRA and the troubles, the bombings, no bins in London...
Paul: You felt ashamed to go there, being English. I asked “is it alright for us to come there?” He just laughed and said “course it is, we’ll look after you!”
Phil: We saw the other side of Belfast, which was great. That epitomised that sort of rave feeling.
ILM: You mentioned playing Glasto for the first time, and how that opened the door to bring dance music to the mainstream, but I still don’t think that there are many dance acts who can command the big festival crowds. The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Leftfield, Orbital... Why do you think that list is so short?
Paul: Deadmau5 is making a good go of it. He’s been doing some big gigs.
Phil: Maybe it’s the history. We’ve got the history and the following behind us.
Paul: Lots of people are big though, aren’t they? Deadmau5 is massive!
Phil: I know, but he’s got a few albums out. Once you’ve done three or four albums you’ve got the longevity and the following. Underworld is another one...
ILM: Which of your peers would you like to see come back?
Phil: A Guy Called Gerald!
Paul: He’s still going! I thought LFO always had a lot of potential to do more. A lot of them are still out there, to be fair. I’ve always had the greatest respect for how Underworld play live. Richie Hawtin’s out there with Plastikman. Anyone else...? No. LFO. They were such a powerful, odd band that it would be good to see them up there on a big stage.
ILM: When it comes to creating new material, when do you work best?
Paul: You’re gonna get two different answers! I’m a morning person. If I didn’t have three little children needing the school run I’d get up at seven and be in at eight. I like 9-5. I’ve always liked sociable, working hours because I’ve always liked going to the pub in the evening. We used to do a lot of evenings as well, but not anymore.
Phil: I’m totally the other way around. But we do go into the studio on a daily routine.
ILM: How would you describe your working relationship?
Paul: We do everything by committee of two, and if we don’t both agree it doesn’t happen. “What do you think of that?” “That’s good.” It’s in there. “What about that?” “Don’t like that.” Doesn’t go in. “Shall we try something like this?” “Don’t wanna.” You know, we navigate a path by mutual agreement, like two people reading a map in a car who don’t know where they’re going.
ILM: When you’re making music, who do you make it for?
Paul: Oooh, that’s funny. I try to make music for myself. If I’m feeling it emotionally – and a little bit in the head – then I think “that’s working.” Once it’s working on me, from there it becomes “I wanna play this to other people now!” But if it’s not working for me then it’s almost embarrassing. I don’t want anyone to walk in the room!
Phil: As selfish as it sounds, you can’t second-guess other people. I suppose you’re trying to make an emotional connection.
Paul: You’re trying to convey emotion through music aren’t you? So it has to be from you. If you start trying to make music for other people it falls apart. Although, you can do sometimes, like with film scores. But no, actually it still has to move you. It’s got to say what the actors can’t. So you’re still doing it for yourself, to enhance the scenes. Yeah. It’s always from the self I think.
ILM: What tends to be the typical starting point for a track?
Paul: It starts in different places. Something like Never just came about from noodling on a nice sound and going “oh, that’s good,” and just going with it, building layer on layer. Distractions came from building a drumbeat first and thinking “what do I want to put on that?” Sometimes I’ll be listening to a CD and think “that would be a great sample!” So you find a little loop or a sample or a sound and you go from there.
Phil: It could also be a mood. You might go into the studio in a particular type of mood and just instinctively go to something and start.
ILM: What are the biggest changes about how you make music now compared to when you began?
Paul: I think originally - when you’ve got three synthesizers, two drums machines and a four track – the track’s finished when you’ve got three synthesizers doing something, two drum machines doing something, and you’ve run out of tracks! That’s that! You’re totally limited by the technology. Even on our first album we only had 16 channels on the mixing desk: “well that’s 16 channels done, everything’s doing something and the sampler’s nearly run out of memory...sounds good!” But now it’s completely open. There’s no limit. We’ve got ridiculous amounts of synthesizers and computers are so powerful. You’ve got to be disciplined in knowing when to stop. I always think that’s a skill that we’ve got good at. We work fast and we move on. Don’t spend two months tweaking and fiddling with something and then break it.
ILM: Is the temptation to do that always there?
Paul: Course it is. But you can move on and if you want to tweak it in a couple of months you can. Nothing’s ever finished if you don’t want it to be.
ILM: How many synths have you got now?
Phil: You’ve got loads more than me... But I’ve got a nice mixing desk.
Paul: [Long pause as Paul counts them up....] Erm....more than twenty.
Phil: It’s totally more than twenty!
Paul: We’re talking big old analogue synths as well.
ILM: Are there any that you are yet to add to your collection?
Together: DON'T! [Laughing]
Paul: Oh....I’m toying with buying the most expensive synthesizer that I’ve ever bought....
Phil: It was touched by Delia Derbyshire.
Paul: She didn’t like it!
Phil: Yeah, but she still touched it!
Paul: The Radiophonic Workshop had one. Actual Daleks spoke through it. It’s the earliest British synthesizer, called an EMS VCS3. It’s a big silver thing. Famous for the Radiophonic Workshop, Brian Eno, Hawkwind, people like that. I’ve always wanted one, but they go for in excess of £10,000. Someone’s offered me one and I’m trying to NOT buy it. I’d love one. We were playing with one this morning down at the BBC... So...that’s what I’ve yet to add to my collection.
ILM: There’s a lot of software these days that’s built to emulate analogue synths. Do you think they can ever achieve that?
Phil: It’s a funny thing isn’t it, because you’re synthesizing a synthesizer!
Paul: They’re good, but because there are so many permutations to something like that, it’s never going to sound the same. Doesn’t mean they’re not good. We’ve got software synths. I don’t not use them; I love them. The software synthesizer revolution has changed my life immeasurably. I can now write an album on aeroplanes and tour buses on a laptop. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened. Then I can take those tracks into the studio and farm all of those sequences out to real synthesizers if I want to. What I find is that it’s 50-50 as to whether I replace them or not. Sometimes it’s the best thing that you do, sometimes once you’ve got a few real synths replacing some of the software the rest of the software sounds really good in the mix. They work really well together. It’s a good mixture. The emulations can be a bit dull.
Phil: But they’re good for people who can’t pick up the actual synthesizer. The Oscar one is good...
Paul: Of course they are; they’re all brilliant! The Oscar one doesn’t really emulate the Oscar though. It sounds as if the people who made the Oscar made it polyphonic. It’s completely different, I think. It just sounds like something from the same family group, but bigger and bolder.
Phil: But they’ve got the characteristics.
Paul: They do, and they are very close, but to nerds like us who’ve been doing it for so long...
Phil: But there are software synthesizers that are their own thing, and are fantastic. Native Instruments do tons of great ones.
Paul: But also, on top of that, no two Jupiter 6 synths sound alike, for example. I’ve had two 909 drum machines that sounded completely different to me!
ILM: Do you guys have record collections? Do you collect vinyl or anything?
Paul: I don’t collect vinyl anymore. I have a wall of vinyl in my house, and another wall of CDs. I still buy CDs, but I don’t buy vinyl anymore. I would if there was something that was only on vinyl and that was what I wanted. I do trawl through second hand record shops still. So I’ll buy old vinyl.
ILM: What have you been listening to recently?
Paul: I listen to a lot of modern folk music. I know Joanna Newsom isn’t folk, but I like her. I like The Unthanks, Emily Portman. Because I write music all day, when I want to listen to something I tend to listen to something completely different. That’s my current thing: modern folk music.
Phil: I’m listening to dance music, 'cos I DJ a lot. I don’t really remember names. I go for colours... It was the same when I used to do it with vinyl: the blue cover, the red cover. So I can’t really quote a lot of names because I don’t retain that information. It’s just one-off dance tracks that I still listen to a lot.
Paul: I listen to The Knife, Fever Ray.
Phil: I love The Knife!
ILM: What is it that’s always kept you tied to electronic music?
Phil: It’s the sound of the synthesizer.
Paul: Yeah. My instrument is the synthesizer. And the sampler as well. Just electronics. I love tinkering. I actually do sit around listening to Radiophonic Workshop CDs a lot. And I still listen to Tangerine Dream in the car. I can’t help it.
Phil: It’s the sound...
Paul: And the emotion of it as well.
ILM: Looking back over what you’ve achieved as Orbital, what have been the biggest moments?
Paul: First time at Glastonbury was a big moment, because it’s such a jump up from anything you’ve done before. You might have played in front of 5000 people at a rave, but then going to something like 20-40,000 – however much it is – is pretty intense. Shocking. And just being around for 22 years.
Phil: And just the way things have worked out. Now we’re going out again, and I love all the work with video designers for the new show, and light and design being choreographed for each individual track... I love all that side. It’s still exciting. And what we did this morning. And then we get opportunities like remixing Madonna. The fact that we’re still here now is mind-blowing for me.
ILM: What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
Phil: Enjoy yourself. Persistence.
Paul: That thing of being true to yourself. “Do your thing” is what I would say. Don’t be worried about current flavours and trends, and don’t be worried about the tools of the trade. There are people – especially in electronic music – who have all the latest technology, but they make such crap music. The people who make the best music are the ones who have a few of bits of crap software on a laptop.
Phil: Never think “I must have that, 'cos that would help me make a good tune.” You can get caught up in that stuff.
Paul: I love synthesizers, and I have a lot of them, but that doesn’t make my music any better. It’s just something I personally enjoy, and I can do it, so that’s great.
Phil: A tune’s a tune. Wherever it came from. If it hits the right buttons, that’s it really.
ILM: What are your future plans? Will there be a follow-up to Wonky?
Paul: I’m gonna get cracking writing new stuff on the laptop while we’re touring round! We’ve got an awful lot of long-haul flights and things like that; you can get quite a lot of music from that. That’s the joy of what I was saying: you sit down with hardly any software on your laptop, and you think “right, I’ve got to push this now.” Sometimes going into a room with too many synths can be overwhelming. You don’t know where to start. Just having Ableton Live on your laptop and having to do something is good. You get innovative with it.
Phil: Because you’re restricted you don’t get option paralysis. You try to get the best out of what you’ve got, which is actually a good learning curve as well.