Joy Orbison: Outside looking in
It’s always hard to tell whether Peter O’Grady is joking. “I’ve never felt like I’m that popular,” he tells me, somehow blending sarcasm with humility. “I just feel I have a name that people remember.”
Even so, you get the feeling that the man best known as Joy Orbison has been genuinely surprised by the reception to his long-awaited mixtape, still slipping vol. 1 – his debut full-length. He recounts his pop-up record launch held on Brick Lane a couple of weeks prior to our meeting on an overcast weekday in August: O’Grady had been expecting a handful of fans to be hanging out in the store, most of whom – he presumed – would have come for the Cav Empt merch collaboration anyway. When he turned up a little late, there was a queue of the eager Joy O faithful stretching down the road. “That was mad. I had to sign shit!”
Shirt: Studio Second Best
Though charmingly down-to-earth in real life, as Joy Orbison, O’Grady has cultivated an elusiveness over the course of his 12-year career. In the early days, alongside his first releases, he dropped a run of tantalisingly out-of-reach dubplates that sent online message boards into a frenzy. Then came the highly-sought after, vinyl-only output of his labels Hinge Finger and SunkLo. To compound it all, he is also historically press shy. It’s only now, with still slipping, that O’Grady is breaking with tradition. Not only does the record have little regard for the dancefloors where he made his name, but it pushes the limits of artistic intimacy through numerous family cameos. “I am an indulgent person,” he says unapologetically, “but it took me a while to get this indulgent with my music.”
O’Grady is in good spirits, having just cycled to XL Recordings’ west London HQ from his home in Walworth while proudly sporting a Hinge Finger 81b t-shirt. We take a seat upstairs where, surrounded by three decades of music memorabilia and opposite a wall-sized Gil Scott-Heron quote, O’Grady fondly recalls a childhood spent following his dad’s engineering job around the UK. During this formative period, he absorbed the distinct regional dialects of British dance music, getting history lessons in drum’n’bass and garage from his cousin Leighann as well as his uncle, veteran jungle DJ Ray Keith. At age 21, after finally settling in south London, O’Grady made his first record on his friend Kavsrave’s laptop. In a moment of unexpected inspiration, he landed on the colourful UKG hybrid Hyph Mngo. Released via Hotflush in 2009, the track created a flashpoint around which the UK scene, then splintering by the week, could unite. When Hyph went global, Joy Orbison’s status as post-dubstep’s golden boy was secured.
Jacket: Junya Watanabe
Trousers: Cav Empt
“I don’t want anyone to think about a computer screen when they listen to my music, it should exist outside of that”
A string of era-defining tracks followed, like the infectious piano-house of Ellipsis and the whodunnit banger Sicko Cell (which O’Grady casually knocked up when his ex-girlfriend told him to make himself useful while she walked the dog). A few years collaborating with Al Green – AKA techno artist and keeper of the notorious Zoo studio, Boddika – sharpened O’Grady’s production skills and led to some fiercely unique, peak-time gear. He was soon sharing bills with the biggest names in house and techno, adapting his UK-centric sound to main stages worldwide. Though he never went full-tilt, big-room DJ, the incessant festival grind led O’Grady to question his path. “I was listening to certain music on the plane,” he says, “but thinking on different terms when I got to the club.”
Pragmatic as he is, O’Grady needed to shift his focus. “In that big-stage world, if what you are trying to communicate is what your crowd wants and there’s a really clear conversation, you will be successful. If there’s any sort of miscommunication, then it doesn’t work.” With this in mind, O’Grady began to collaborate with artists like saxophonist Ben Vince and produced behind-the-scenes for a select crop of musicians. He also threw his own parties with local heroes like Cõvco and Shannen SP in lieu of jetsetting with the world’s top DJs. “You get afforded a lot of luxury as a somewhat successful musician,” he admits, “so you wanna feel like you’re giving something back.”
Jacket: CP Company
“As an artist you often want to be this abstract thing but the reality is, we’re not. We’re normal people. My mum and dad aren’t artists but they have every right to be on the record”
Inspired by outsider pop records like King Krule’s A New Place 2 Drown and Solange’s When I Get Home, O’Grady asked himself, “Why haven’t I got anything like this? Something you can listen to on a night bus and feel like you’re going into my world.” One night, during this period of transition, he spent the hours before a gig in Ukraine jotting down the concept for a mixtape-style release. He’d subconsciously flirted with the idea on 81b, his first EP without an out-and-out club track, but it was Slipping that signalled a new chapter. Released in 2019, and featuring south London musicians Mansur Brown and KEYAH/BLU, it was the first time Joy Orbison fans were invited to explore O’Grady’s taste beyond the club. In parallel, O’Grady opened up: his music appeared on Spotify and he let his personal life out of the shadows on social media.
If Slipping lurked on the edge of the dancefloor, still slipping is out in the smoking area having a chat. Unpredictable and a little eccentric, you can see why O’Grady has chosen to anoint the full-length a mixtape rather than an album (although he accidentally uses the ‘a’ word a couple of times during this interview). Tracks are kept short and snappy, bleeding into one another in one unbroken flow. As he puts it, “it should feel like you get to the end and want to listen again”. In his mum’s words, which appear on froth sipping, “there’s something in it you can latch onto. It’s not melody but it’s got something you can almost hum to… very good.” By the time you reach born slipping, the discrete closing tribute to O’Grady’s late uncle, you’ve taken a whistlestop tour through the last two decades of UK electronic music. swag w/ kav is a nod to UK garage; runnersz is straight out of the post-dubstep days; bernard? deploys a laid-back drill beat; and layer 6, the first time O’Grady has sung on his music, is Autonomic-style drum’n’bass.
Jacket: Stone Island
Trousers: Cav Empt
The only thing missing is another ubiquitous, festival-ready Joy O anthem. The deep house, Léa Sen-assisted better might challenge that, but there’s nothing on the scale of, say, Swims. “I could have done ten tracks like better or swag,” O’Grady replies when probed about the lack of any clear singles. “But I’m trying to make sense of all these other influences.”
As O’Grady casually puts me onto Mick Jagger movies and left-field pop, post-punk and drill releases without breaking stride, it’s clear how broad those influences are. For example, he’s more interested in a Sawtooth slipmat dedicated to Jonny L’s 1997 drum’n’bass classic than any of the A-list celebrity memorabilia surrounding us. When we go downstairs to have lunch, he and Doom, a veteran XL employee, go deep on the price of rare Godflesh t-shirts. All these strands of his musical identity are distilled into the mixtape’s “little nuggets of tracks” as O’Grady affectionately calls them. He starts with a simple melody, then thinks, ‘Where can I take this?’ The result is living, breathing and decisively analogue. “I don’t want anyone to think about a computer screen when they listen to my music,” he tells me, “it should exist outside of that.”
Nothing communicates this human quality more than the voice itself. “In an ideal world, I would be a singer,” O’Grady confesses bashfully. The next best option is sampling, though he reveals his days of repurposing vocals into infectious hooks are over: “I don’t want to be this geeky white kid stealing other people’s shit, I’d rather just stick my mum on the track.” It’s an approach he took literally on still slipping.
Jacket: CP Company
O’Grady had been experimenting with using voice notes since 2017’s Fuerza, but on still slipping they become an essential part of the album’s texture. Indeed, recordings of family exchanges that happened during lockdown – mundane, funny, sometimes profound – take up as much space as the record’s many studio collaborations. Explaining why he opted to include moments like his cousin rambling about space cakes and pornstar martinis or his dad and uncle killing time in the pub, O’Grady is candid. “The vocals give it an identity and trigger something in me,” he explains, noting his family’s unmistakably Essex accents that root still slipping in a particular space (when I describe it as a London record, he corrects me: “suburban”). They also mean the “weirder bits of the record don’t seem too wanky”.
Using voice notes in electronic music seems to be in fashion, as poignant lockdown releases emerge from likeminded artists such as Space Afrika, MCDE or Boomkat’s Documenting Sound series. In contrast to some of these more serious applications, O’Grady is having a laugh and celebrating everyday life. “It’s about dragging the things that mean a lot to me into my world. As an artist you often want to be this abstract thing but the reality is, we’re not. We’re normal people. My mum and dad aren’t artists and scholars but they have every right to be on the record.” O’Grady is also quick to point out that this dialogue between his music and his family is two-way. “Putting my nan on the cover of Slipping with a fag and drink on the go celebrated her. It has reignited conversation. You might not always communicate that well with your family, but if you include them in the things you do, you show acknowledgement.” On still slipping, it’s his cousin Leighann on the cover, smoking and hanging laundry at home in Harlow.
Shirt: Studio Second Best
Putting your nan on a record cover is a bold move for any artist, let alone for an artist who spent most of his career on the outside looking in, allowing a carefully-curated mythology of anonymous radio rips and obscured press shots to do the talking. It wasn’t intended as a hype strategy, but as a method of self-preservation. “When I made Hyph, I was a 21-year-old post boy at a music publisher,” says O’Grady. “I spent every day in a basement. I had no idea where I was going in life. Six months later, I was playing to 10,000 people at Sónar.” It’s through this lens that O’Grady rejected the theatre of celebrity, choosing instead to retreat from the spotlight – and the inextricable expectations that come with it. He feels differently now. “Part of my way of dealing with that pressure was keeping myself quite hidden, because I wasn’t ready. Now I’m more comfortable – I’ve earned it. Hopefully I’ve added to the landscape.”
As we finish up and head outside, walking past cousin Leighann’s image plastered partly over a Dizzee Rascal Boy in Da Corner poster, O’Grady tells me about the day still slipping came out. He drops his shoulders, as if he’s finally relaxing into his cult hero status. “It was like one of those days at school when there’s a flood and they send all kids home,” he explains, playing down the day’s significance with a smile. “What do we do now?”