Orbital is one of those duos that has the set the bar for other musical acts across the globe. They are world renowned for their live performances, as well as their music productions. Not only that, but they are considered as the grandfathers of techno, and have helped defined the genre, even in the early stages. We are very pleased to present a full interview with these legendary artists, as well as a few recent tracks from them, and a brief video of their performance from Decibel Festival last month in Seattle. Enjoy!
Interview with Phil Hartnoll of Orbital at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, for Decibel Festival. 9.27.12
It is widely known that you guys are extremely influential to the techno music world and play a big part in what electronic music has become today. I am interested to hear what has influenced you; specifically, what inspired you two to start making music in the first place?
Well, we’ve got an older brother we don’t talk about much *laughs*. He’s the white sheep of the family; he’s a doctor and chief consultant at Chelsea-Westminster Hospital, no less. He had Autobahn by Kraftwerk, some Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple; he sort of introduced us to a lot of that prog-rock stuff at the time. Also when I was really young, a few of my mom’s cousins were DJ’s: one was a Tamla Motown sort of DJ, and the other was a Trojan reggae DJ; my mom would have lots of parties and we were exposed to a lot of the music of that era. My dad was really into film soundtracks; you know, Ennio Morricone, Shaft blasting out on a Sunday morning. That’s what was in our environment when we were really young; I’d say that we had a good stable diet of really decent music growing up.
Then we started venturing into Cabaret Voltaire and other art-school-type, English electronic music. Also, for me, Giorgio Moroder was a big influence; it was the sound of the synthesizer that made me go, “Woah! What is that? What makes that sound?” Synthesizers got a bad reputation at first, as people were using it to sound like trumpets, horns, violins, and such but then they started making it whatever they wanted — making totally new sounds. We were listening to a lot of gay disco, high-energy music, and then we went into some early electro music, hip-hop from America, and some English guys like New Order. Really anything with synths in it is was what attracted us to make music.
What about along the way? Have you guys found yourselves being inspired by newer music that maybe you have influenced in some way?
Yeah, well it is hard so say who, specifically, but I’m definitely sure that is true. Music goes round and round, regurgitating itself. We have this track called “Beelzedub”, which is sort of a bastardization of a track we made up called “Satan”, which we have been playing in our live sets for a while. And over the years it has developed and developed: it sped up and sped up into half-tempo drum-and-bass music when that was going on, and then dub-step came along, and we heard this fat, wobbling bass, and we were like “Oh, yeah, let’s have some of that in “Satan’”, and that became the track “Beelzedub” on Wonky.
Yeah, “Beelzedub” was actually the track that made me think about your influences along the way.
Yeah, and that’s just one example of how through playing live shows, things just grow and grow, and turn into something else.
So, you guys are just as famous for your fantastic live performances as you are for your recordings. How much has your on-stage reputation influenced you two to get back together and start recording and performing as Orbital?
Well it has completely done it, really. When we split up, it was because we just weren’t feeling it in the studio any more; we weren’t coming up with tracks that we loved, and so we sort of chucked the baby out with the bathwater and said we were done. Paul went off and did his own thing; I got back into DJing because I was a bit disheartened and mixing other people’s music ended up being good for me. I then made another band called Long Range and we made an album, but then that broke up for other reasons.
The reason Paul and I got back together was because the Big Chill Festival asked us if we would do a reunion gig, and we thought “this could actually be quite good fun.” We didn’t think “let’s get back together as Orbital” — it was purely for that one gig. But then that gig turned into another gig, and another gig, and suddenly it was a year and a half of reunion gigs. The enthusiasm and welcome we got from our fans blew our minds and we were enjoying the shows so much that we thought “we can’t just go the rest of our lives doing reunion gigs”. Because we were really getting along and enjoying the live energy so much, we decided to make up some new tracks to inject into the live set, and that’s how Wonky was born.
I saw that you guys performed in the opening ceremonies for the Paralympics in London this summer with Steven Hawking on stage; what was that like?
That was mental! I thought I’d gone to heaven and back. They approached us asking if we would do a track for the opening ceremonies, we though “Eh…” Then they said “We’ve got Steven Hawking and we want you to put some music under his speech.” We thought, “This is something we would normally do illegally!” *laughs*. And he’s talking about the Hadron Collider; could it get any better? That was so fun, being able to work with his voice; it’s so perfect for our music. I mean, you can make an Apple Mac sound like that, but it’s not Steven Hawking. He was such a laugh, too; he wore our torch glasses, and was so up for it. Afterwards, I sent him a copy of an edited version of the track with his voice on it and he keeps asking me, “When is it going to be released?” He so wants to be a pop star!
For that show we performed our track “Where Is It Going?” because we were playing for a very dramatic part of the ceremony, when the giant inflatable replica of the pregnant Alison Lapper sculpture is being blown-up; so it’s this big reveal moment and that track worked really well.
At that performance, I noticed you had a very unique set-up using several iPads. Is that what you are touring with now? And can you explain how the set-up works?
Well we are using Ableton for our MIDI and audio triggers, and the iPads are using a system called Grid and basically serve as remote controls for the Ableton Live. We got some developers to work on making it work on three iPads, and we have every individual part of the song broken up on separate tracks so we can improvise with each sound during the live performance; we can make any song last a minute or an hour. It is how we’ve always done it using basic sequencers; the iPads just make it a little more fluid. We have it whittled down a bit for this tour. We used to bring huge analog synths, but there is a lot of hassle and cost lugging them along with us; some of them weigh a half a ton! We wouldn’t have been able to do such an extensive tour if we brought all our stuff, so we’ve converted some of the huge synthesizers to soft synths and are using controllers to manipulate them; and it’s all working really well so far.
In regards to Wonky, which is one of my favorite records of the year, you have some great collaborations on it, including one with Zola Jesus. What’s amazing about that track to me is that it sounds just as much a Zola Jesus song as it does an Orbital track. Was there collaboration in the song-making process, or did you guys just write the perfect Zola Jesus track?
There wasn’t a lot of collaboration when we were making the music for that song, actually; it just worked like a dream, really. We wrote a track as an instrumental, and we felt it wasn’t cutting it and needed a vocal in it. We do tend to sway toward female vocalists with our music – I blame Cocteau Twins and Liz Fraser for that *laughs*. So we were asking about and someone mentioned Zola Jesus. We had never heard of her before, so we checked her out on Spotify and we thought she was right up our street. So we got contact with her and she seemed interested, and when she was doing a couple of gigs in London we called her up and finally got her in the studio. As soon as we met we started working really well together and she gave us loads of material to fit into that track.
It was the same thing with Lady Leshurr. She is really young and is from a different genre – that sort of grime style. She was really shy at first, but we learned from Zola that just getting her in the studio would get us working well together. So once we had her working with us she really caught on to what we were trying to do and started writing down lyrics in her iPhone. She actually read the lyrics of her phone when we were recording and needed to have the lights out in order to read them.
You mentioned the piece “Where Is It Going?” which is the last track on Wonky, and you performed at the opening ceremonies. That serves as my next question, where is it going for Orbital? Are you focusing on touring at the moment, or can we expect some more studio work in the future?
Oh yeah, I’m on a roll myself. I guess I can’t speak for my brother, but I’m sure he’s enjoying it as well. We are writing music as we are going along, really. I’m not ready for this to stop at the moment. We’re on bonus time; we never thought this would happen. And it’s really great to be back in America, we really love it here. We have found that the pockets of electronic fans that we used to meet in individual cities have started to merge and it seems to have gone national. As the younger generations come through, they are more aware of electronic music, because it has been around for a while and with the internet and all.
That’s an interesting point. How have you seen your audience change through the years?
I don’t think it’s changed much. At our shows they are the same: happy, smiling people, jumping around. The actual vibe is not any different. What’s different are the generations of people who are at the shows. We are now seeing people my age who listened to our early music bringing their teenage kids to our shows, and I think that’s just great. We are reaching multiple generations, and even facilitating parent-to-child memories – I think that’s just brilliant.
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