The UK’s original dance duo tread fresh ground on comeback offering Wonky
Paul Hartnoll realised a decision needed to be made. He was clear in his thinking when Crack sat down with him and his brother for a discussion on Orbital past and present.
“We didn’t want to become some kind of heritage act. We felt there were some holes in the set we’d like to plug with different ideas, so we just got cracking.”
After reforming in 2009 and playing what was only intended to be a handful of gigs, the natural lure of an extended jaunt subsequently took brothers Paul and Phil to three continents, placing them firmly back in the public consciousnesses. Thus the dilemma: continue to peddle the older material, which is still likely to sell out venues and bring in the denari, but in turn risk being left burned-out on the slagheap of credibility, or … to make a new record? The second option is fraught with similar hazards, namely the timeless stumbling block for artists having passed a certain age: ‘if it’s shit, you’ll look a bit out of touch’. Thank God then, Wonky, Orbital’s ninth studio album, isn’t.
Drawing on the acid-house building blocks that makes them such an easily identifiable act, Wonky acts as an updated accompaniment to their earlier material without sounding in any way dated in the climate of modern electronic music. On the savage Beelzedub the dubstep staple is utilised without straying into Skrillex territory, before collapsing into a brutal onslaught of techno infused D’n’B lunacy. Stringy Acid’s warped, squelchy synths are combined with a techno plod to give the track a distinctly early 90s feel (the clue was in the title), and the same can also be said of album closer Where Is It Going?, a moment which could be lifted from any of their early works. It’s a cohesive effort that is likely to remind those that needed telling what an important act they are, as well as garnering a fair few new fans.
With their roots in bohemian rave and illegal party culture as opposed to the more pretentious strains of house music, their brand of no-nonsense techno, acid house and breaks went hand in hand with notorious festival appearances and a live show that outstripped most others in terms of magnitude, constructing much of their studio set-up onstage. Along with Underworld and The Chemical Brothers, their live exploits placed them firmly in the A-league of electronic experimentalists, often improvising parts no matter the occasion, all under the illumination of their famous headlights.
While too abrasive for some, Orbital’s relationship with the slightly leftfield festivals, especially Glastonbury, has continued, with their choice of events across the summer as considered and on-point as one could imagine.
If only they could resist a bit of Belinda Carlisle.
What were the inspirations for you guys getting back together and recording again?
Phil: It all stemmed from the Big Chill reunion gig in 2009. There was no masterplan to get back together and do an album or anything. It was never like that. It was just the couple of comeback gigs went so well and they turned into about 30 over a two year course. We were enjoying it again and enjoying each other’s company. We’ve all moved on from back then, so it became a case of either rocking around the world like Status Quo and playing all the old tracks, or do a new album. It was either do that, or stop and call it quits.
In terms of your relationship together have you re-kindled your fire for working together as brothers?
Phil: I think we definitely have. We had both got to the point where we were like, ‘what are we doing this for’. We lost our way and wondered why we were doing it in the first place. It became too much like a job. We got set in our ways and it wasn’t good. After being away and playing together first, we’re more free now. It’s like when we first started doing music back in Mum and Dad’s house, it’s got that similar sort of feeling – us brothers working together.
With the new record did you try and integrate a more contemporary sound into your work? Did you feel there was a need to make something that still sounded like Orbital?
Phil: Stuff influences us of course, but we weren’t like ‘oh, let’s get a bit of dubstep in there’. There was no conscious need though, it’s just what we enjoy. We did draw a map and a bit of a plan because we had a couple of tracks from way back that never saw the light of day. We never consciously think ‘we’ve got to get a bit of Orbital in there’, that’s just the way we sound.
Paul: There is always going to be that urge when someone’s got a new toy, you’re going to want to play with it. That’s how it was with dubstep, but you do it in your own way. There are parts of dubstep that I like and then there are parts I don’t that just annoy me. There’s a lot of cheesy stuff out there.
There are still some of those classic Orbital synth sounds on the new record though. Especially on the final track on the albumWhere Is It Going? which is easily identifiable as Orbital.
Paul: I don’t think you can do anything else really. We’ve changed, but we’re still fundamentally the same people. Things that move us are still the same. It’s all about repetition and slow changes over time.
Why did you call the new album Wonky?
Paul: The album didn’t have an overbearing title. Then when we finished the album, Wonky was the last track we completed, so we had a little party in the studio and decided to call the album that.
So what on have you been doing since the Blue Album in 2004?
Phil: Paul went off and worked with an orchestra which is something he always wanted to do and I went out DJing a lot more and re-kindled my enthusiasm for music. It was a kick up my arse and got me really inspired by other people’s music. I did a film score in between as well.
Orbital’s origins are quite an interesting story, with some of those really early live shows and parties you put on. You have a very strong heritage. For the uneducated, how did it all begin for you?
Paul: We started out when Factory Records and industrial music was all the rage. Then house music came along and we got into it via a few mates of ours who worked in Croydon. They used to know pirate radio DJs and they hooked me up. Then Chime (Orbital’s first single) got put out and it went mental. We sold 3,000 white labels and had six record companies chasing us, but we went with Pete Tong and his FFRR label and did a proper album deal. It was different back then. Can you name a decent or successful electro album recently? Good electronic albums were the staple in the 80s with the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Severed Heads and then later New Order. We took that band heritage on board and tried to make good electronic dance albums and that seemed to be a recipe that worked for us. We were always a square peg in a round hole. We went to clubs and all people wanted was handbag house and we’d clear dancefloors up and down the country. Then we’d play more arty places like David Holmes’s club in Belfast and they fucking loved it. Then we linked up with the Megadog people and that was a lot more hippy, crusty selection of clubbers. That was when we found an audience that wasn’t afraid to get a bit rocky. Then we met people like Underworld and hit home at Glastonbury in 1994 when we were like ‘yeah, this is our audience’. I don’t think we’ve worked well in an environment with purist dance heads.
Phil: As soon as I heard a synth in some way I was interested. That turned into electro and I used to go to early warehouse parties. Anything synthesised really. I used to also go to lots of acid house raves in warehouses, especially a night called Acid House Train around 88/89.
Paul: So called cheesy house music was massive in the early 90s. A lot of acts would show up and do a PA in a club where they’d come along and mime. Because Chime had done so well, club owners thought they’d get us in and do a PA and we’d show up with our studio onstage playing live. We’d play a track like Satan and it would totally clear the floor. We didn’t care really. We ended up playing all sorts of tracks in these clubs as there was never a vein we felt akin to. Some early gigs were out of the back of a car or just in the corner of a club or big warehouse.
You were prominent fixtures in illegal rave culture weren’t you?
Paul: We only played a few of them, but we used to go to a lot of them. Brilliant parties and travellers’ raves on the likes of Bodmin Moor and massive raves in east-end warehouses.
Initially you were very involved with the acid house and rave scene and that was very politicised. Do you still think politics and dance music can run hand in hand, or do you think it has all become a bit watered down now from the days when you were wearing anti- Poll Tax t-shirts?
Phil: It’s watered down because they’ve more or less stopped you doing anything. I know there are still free parties that happen in rural Wales, or in the back of beyond, but the authorities made it so ridiculously impossible to host any free parties as the police would come along and confiscate your PA that was worth about 20 grand, so it wasn’t worth it. I do feel quite strongly about those times. I’m from the punk world which is very out and out anti-establishment, saying ‘fuck you!’ and ‘fuck this!’ and ‘fuck the Queen!’ and nothing particularly got done about it. And then you’ve got the rave thing, which is a load of people loved up on E running around the woods not bothering anyone and the government goes all Orwellian and starts passing laws where they can confiscate equipment . Then you’ve got the Suspicion Law where a copper can suspect you are going to an illegal rave they suspect is happening down the road and arrest you. The fact that the category of beat music is written into law is quite astonishing really when they did nothing about punk whatsoever.
Paul: Dance music isn’t really political by definition, it’s designed to be danced to by people who are happy and want to meet people. It isn’t really overtly political. People like Underworld and us brought that kind of element to it. All the electronic music I used to listen to was a bit more politicised anyway, but my main background was punk and listening to the likes of Crass and The Dead Kennedys and things like that. So when we sampled things I thought I’d sample all these punk bands screaming and shouting. One of the things we always pick on is religion. I don’t like to tell people what to do, but I like to pose questions. I prefer to stimulate than dominate.
You incorporate power rock samples into your sets quite frequently. What’s the thinking behind that?
Paul: It’s because I can’t do it myself. It’s just good fun. Dance music is so stuffed up its own ass, hence why we brought in Belinda Carlisle. We felt like it would be a good laugh. One of my biggest influences is Kraftwerk. They are one of the funniest bands around. I like twisting people’s heads.
Where did the lights on the head thing come from?
Phil: Because we were playing in a lot of these tiny little clubs that just had smoke machines and strobes, we couldn’t see what we were doing, so a DJ mate showed us a pair of these glasses and said “that’s exactly what you need”. They were only these little cheap space age specs we found in New York and they were just the frames. I customised them by cutting all the lights out and strapping mag lights to the side of them and putting straps round our heads so they didn’t fall off. It meant the lighting guy could use as many strobes and as much smoke as he liked, but we could still see the LEDs on our synths.
How special has Glastonbury been to you as an act over the years. You obviously have a large affiliation with the festival.
Phil: It’s just the great festival. To be able to play there is always such a laugh. It was a coup when we played there and it went so well and it helped the organisers realise they should take more notice of this dance music movement as it’s quite rock’n’roll. Now they’ve got a whole field devoted to it. It’s all about the connection to the audience and at Glastonbury it’s overwhelming because it’s so much bigger.
In terms of gigs coming up, are you being selective with Secret Garden, Bestival, BLOC and The Royal Albert Hall all on your list? Have you cherry picked where you are going to play this summer?
Phil: We’ve had a lot of good offers this summer. These good festivals have taken over from the free parties. Secret Garden looks great and we haven’t ever done Bestival and we love what they do. All these guys are from the scene anyway and there is a genuine vibe from the people who organise the festivals we’re playing. Where the organisers come from and their attitude is important. It makes a lot of difference.
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Wonky is out now on ACP Recordings
Words: Thomas Frost