Orbital talk live shows, sibling bickering and sending a message through music
After almost 30 years — minus a couple of splits — operating as Orbital, Paul and Phil Hartnoll are back with their first studio album in six years (and ninth in total), ‘Monsters Exist’. DJ Mag tracks the brothers down in their beloved Brighton to chat their new LP, sibling bickering and sending a message through music...
Orbital are back. Hooray! One of the most important electronic bands of the last 30 years have split a couple of times over the years, but the Hartnoll brothers have put their differences aside to reunite once again. And now they’re rocking the Racecourse in Brighton on a windy summer evening, running through some of their amazing back-cat such as the sunshine positivity of the Opus III-sampling ‘Halcyon’, the achingly soulful ‘Belfast’ and their breakthrough track nearly three decades ago, ‘Chime’ — interspersed with bits from their new album, ‘Monsters Exist’.
It’s great to have them back in the saddle again — trademark head-mounted torches, thought-provoking visuals and all. Your hack has seen Orbital play live countless times over the years, but has never had privileged backstage access that lets you see what they’re doing from behind. It’s quite an education — a bit akin to seeing behind the Wizard Of Oz’s curtain. Paul, the younger brother, is super-active on the controls, while Phil messes with FX and sample triggers. While some electronic acts don’t physically appear to be doing very much when they play live, Orbital are definitely working those machines. Their hometown gig is a triumph.
Meeting up with the brothers a few days later in their fave Brighton caff — Presuming Ed’s on London Road — DJ Mag immediately asks them what exactly it is that they do live…
“OK, so we’ve got everything broken down into millions of pieces on Ableton,” Paul begins. “You construct an album — or a career of songs or whatever — and then break it down into all its little pieces, get all granular with it. Little loops and pieces. Then I have them all ready to go on Ableton, which by the time we’re ready to go is about 500 tracks wide by about 500 clips down. There’s no arrangement, no pre-planned… how do we know what they all are? You name them [laughs].”
As Phil goes off to get some water, Paul continues explaining why he doesn't like looking at a computer when he plays live. “My old way of playing live was to do exactly the same thing but on little hardware sequencers, which is what we started off with,” he says. “Eight buttons, and you could change patterns. And essentially I’ve rebuilt them on iPads — two iPads now, one for each hand, that are identical, so that if one goes down you’ve got the other one.
“So, I create a series of buttons and map those to buttons on the computer,” he continues. “And there’s a page for each song. Some of them are busier than others — like ‘Chime’ isn’t that busy at all, cos it’s old skool — whereas some of the new ones are quite complicated. So you build one for each song, but then you can flip to the next song and start bringing in bits from the next song as you take bits out of the other song. It’s not like DJing, but it kinda is in a way. Getting back to that granular word, you’re making up the arrangements — nothing would change if you don’t do something.
“You might think ‘I need the chorus now’, so you punch those three in, take those three out. I have the odd button like ‘all drums out’, but mostly I’ll bring them in and bring them out. Then on top of that you’ve got three little mixers which have the volume and mutes, and the method changes as you go through the set, depending on the age of the track. Then on top of that you’ve got all this Midi and sampling information pouring out into seven analogue synths — some old, some new — and then you’re manipulating the sounds as well in a good old-fashioned Tangerine Dream or acid house way, depending on the track. On the little mixers you’ve got three channels of FX as well — and that’s essentially it. So you’re doing a live mix, a live arrangement and a live synth performance.”
Phew! Paul is a good explainer who makes it sound quite easy, but it's a way of properly doing the electronic thing live that Orbital have developed over nearly three decades. Paul says that they always have a setlist worked out before the gig so the guys doing the video — who are kinda jamming too — know vaguely what's coming next. “So you have a setlist but you just don’t know how you’re gonna play the tracks. It depends — you vibe off the audience. If they’re jumping up and down for one track, you might extend it or you might wanna tease them. A Sunday night audience might be more mellow and laid-back, so you might play to that.”
Phil returns from the other room with his water just as we start asking about the visuals at their shows. “We tell the visuals guys what we want, basically,” Paul says. “Or discuss with them, at least.”
DJ Mag asks about this one bit in the show featuring 'Lie detectors in the House Of Commons'. “The fake news that runs alongside ‘P.H.U.K’?” asks Phil. It transpires that Phil asked Orbital fans on social media for some 'fake news' stories, and they sent a load in to run along the bottom of the screen during recent bleepy single ‘P.H.U.K’ — an acronym for 'Please Help UK' — like a stock exchange ticker-tape. “It's an ongoing thing,” says Phil.
Phil and Paul's relationship has been an ongoing thing since, well, they were born. Like most siblings they've had their ups and downs. DJ Mag wants to know what Phil was like when he was a teenager. “He had a reputation as the hardest man in school,” says Paul.
“For defending myself,” adds Phil, defensively. “When you say that, it gives off the wrong impression.”
Paul talks about Batman being the hardest in Gotham City, and how it's not a diss to say that — then says that Phil looked more like The Joker when he had his red henna’d hair and white shoes and was leading a sea of skinheads with West Ham scarfs and donkey jackets.
“I wasn’t a hard-nut, when I went to school I was a little punk,” Phil protests. “I hardly had any mates and when I was in the first year, the third year skinheads were fucking menacing. They used to have proper knives and things like that. They picked on me cos I was an individual who had a punky hairstyle and they’d make up stories to try to take me down a peg or two, and I’d hold them back and convince them not to fight me. I’d fight back against this bullying — I didn’t win — and because I stuck up for myself…” He carries on talking about his dyslexia tendencies, which weren’t recognised back then, and how although he was inquisitive with the teachers it didn’t go too well for him at school.
Four years younger than Phil, Paul got into rudimentary music making when he was 13. The brothers didn't really communicate much after Phil left school for a few years, then when Paul was 16 and Phil was 20 they made friends again. “My mum and dad went away for three weeks to Florida, and we had a party house,” Paul recalls. “We started sharing music, and having a good time like that. I’d been in punk bands up until then — drum-kit, bass and guitar. Penal Code was my band, we had the great local classic of ‘Strapped Down’. He roars for emphasis.
Phil starts talking about Paul’s mohican, and how he corrupted his younger brother by buying him his first drink at a gig by New Zealand new-wave band Split Enz. “Vodka and bitter lemon — classic.”
We're trying to get to the root of their bond, the nub of their partnership, to find out just what makes Orbital tick as a unit. DJ Mag starts talking about how a lot of duos are made up of one guy who’s more of a DJ and maybe brings in a few samples and ideas, while the other one is the engineer with the skills. “I’m the one with the skills,” says Paul.
“I just come in and go ‘Nah, you’re doing that wrong’,” says Phil.
“What does Phil bring to the table? It depends, he might come in and say ‘Don’t like that, don’t like that’, which can annoy me sometimes but it makes me think ‘I’ll fucking show you’,” says Paul.
Does Phil have more of a dancefloor sensibility? “I’m more artistically led, in the sense that I don’t give a fuck about what people think about what I do — I just do what I do,” says Paul. “I just kinda finish it and look around and go ‘Wow, I like that, I wonder what other people will think’. Phil thinks more about what other people will like.”
“No I don’t,” says Phil. They bicker for a second before Phil does admit to an element of people-pleasing when it comes to his DJ sets.
DJ Mag continues with the gentle probing — has there had to be an element of compromise for you both over the years?
“We split up three times!” exclaims Phil, animatedly.
“I thought it was twice?” queries Paul. “Fuck off, then!”
We ask what happens when Paul has an off-the-wall idea, such as bringing a bit of Belinda Carlisle's 'Heaven Is A Place On Earth' into an extended 'Halcyon + On + On'.
“I’ll let it go,” says Phil. “I never say don’t try it.”
“Quite often I’ll persuade him by saying ‘Well let’s just try it once’,” says Paul. “We did that with ‘P.H.U.K’, didn’t we? We weren’t sure about it, my attitude was ‘I think there’s something there but I’m not sure about it. I wanna play it live at Hammersmith Odeon to find out’. And he was unsure about that, which is where I think his more crowd-pleasing sensibilities comes into it.”
“No, I wasn’t sure about the track,” says Phil, curtly. “It was nothing to do with the crowd, it’s how I feel about it. And I think ‘P.H.U.K’ has improved much much more since we’ve been playing it live.”
Initially together 15 years from 1989, Orbital split for five years after they got fed-up of being in the same room as each other. They regrouped in 2009, only to split again five years later. Now that they've been back together a year, are they going to split later today, we ask cheekily?
“We’ve decided to say that whatever happens, we’re not allowed to split up,” says Paul. “No matter what we disagree on we will find a solution to the problem, no matter how crazy — and we won’t stop talking. That’s the key — you can’t solve anything if you stop talking.”
“It’d be ridiculous to say we’ve split up again,” thinks Phil.
“Find a solution,” says Paul. “It was different reasons both times in the past. If I talk about them now, we might be on the verge of splitting up again, so, y’know… it’s personal things, it’s brothers in bands, isn’t it? It’s not easy.”
Paul starts talking about a BBC documentary about brothers in bands, and how the only ones who got on were the Mael brothers from Sparks. “The Knopfler brothers from Dire Straits and the UB40 brothers — oh my god!” he says. “It’s just awful what people do to each other. The Gallagher brothers as well...”
If you’re the electronic music equivalent of the Gallagher brothers, which one of you is Liam?
“I guess I’m grumpy Noel, he’s stroppy Liam.,” says Paul.
Is blood thicker than water? “Nah, I don’t give a fuck about phrases like that,” Paul retorts. “You don’t pick your relatives, do you? You grow up with them — and time is thicker than water, I think. The more you spend with people, the more you know them — that's the bond, not blood. If we weren’t blood-related and we spent 50 years together, we’d still be in the same boat. So time, time is thicker than water.”
“Falling out affects you more when you’ve got children, then you’re bringing your shit to them, which is pretty out of order in my opinion,” says Phil. “It’s really selfish — it’s not totally about you. There is the family thing whether you like it or not, and it’s nice to watch little nieces and nephews grow up.”
“When we weren’t talking to each other, it wasn’t enjoyable,” Phil continues. “Now it’s like when we first started out — it’s really fun when I’m playing with Paul. If I make a mistake, instead of 'the glare' he takes it in a jovial way. I feel like mine and Paul’s relationship in the Orbital thing now is the best it’s ever been. It’s going really really well. I’m now all about hanging onto it and giving it some oomph.”
Vaguely peppered throughout some of the Orbital back-catalogue has been stuff to do with environmental concerns — how come? “Aren’t you concerned about the environment as well?” Paul asks. “For me it comes from my moral background, coming from [punk bands] like Crass. People were concerned in the '80s with the environment, but it was all quite new to me at the time.”
“My environmental concerns didn’t come from anyone, they just came naturally to me and I don’t like the fact that the whole oil industry is fucking bamboozling everyone when it says that it doesn’t affect the environment,” says Phil. “All this plastic in the sea — so why don’t you stop fucking making plastic? We sometimes express how we feel about stuff in some of the songs.”
What about those people who say ‘You should keep politics out of music?’, asks DJ Mag. “Well, they can fuck off,” says Phil, animatedly. “Loads of people say it, and I think ‘Do you know Orbital?’ We’re not just making music for dancing. If it was just all about grooves, it would be very very different.”
“When I first started making dance music, it was in retaliation to my friends playing me some house music and thinking ’Yeah alright, that’s electro and hi-energy disco mixed together — it’s alright’,” says Paul. “I would listen to it. At the time I was listening to a lot of industrial music — Front 242 and things like that — and I thought house music was all a bit weak. It wasn’t really saying anything, it was kinda boring soul music vibes, and for me it was like ‘Why don’t we bring a bit of ourselves into it?’”
Paul starts talking about Orbital filling “a great big gaping hole” and how they've made people feel uncomfortable all over the world with ‘Satan’ — their 1996 top three hit that offset a cutesy homespun yarn with the sudden interjection of a devilishly-loud “SATAN-SATAN-SATAN” exaltation. “People on ecstasy suddenly seeing all these guns and bombs and tanks [in the visuals] and going ‘They can’t do this – AAAARRRGH!’” smirks Paul.
“The best one was in Poland, we had this Christian women's group marching outside the gig saying we were devil worshippers,” remembers Phil.
“They were like militant handmaids… it was a proud moment,” adds Paul.
It got to No.3 in the UK charts at Christmas, didn’t it?
“Yeah, ‘Santa’ — it was a play on words,” says Phil. “Santa lives.”
“Britain buys the wrong record — ha ha ha!” chuckles Paul. “But that’s the thing: we’re a dance band, an electronic band, and we found our spiritual home more when we found Megadog — psychedelic, punky in attitude, and full of electronic headz — and then later Glastonbury, and realised that our audience isn’t a pure dance audience. As time has gone on we’ve annoyed them less, but I remember playing in Shelley’s disco in Stoke and they hated it.”
Orbital's new album — out this month — is called 'Monsters Exist'. So do they? “Fucking right they do,” says Phil.
“Humans,” says Paul. “Lots of humans — not all humans, though. Is every human a monster? No, you have to take everything on an individual basis.”
Am I a monster?, asks your DJ Mag hack.
“I don’t think so,” says Paul. “Am I one? I feel like one sometimes. Deep down I have some guilt — always. I use plastic… we’ve all seen the David Attenborough programmes, but do we stop?”
“Pharmaceutical companies, oil companies and bankers are the biggest monsters,” believes Phil. “A hell of a lot of politicians, too.”
“For me, the monsters are the people with the power at the moment, because as we know they’re all self-serving,” Paul continues. “There’s people making money out of oil, and clearly we shouldn’t be doing that, we should be looking for alternatives because it’s gonna run out — and what are you gonna do then?”
He starts talking about solar power, and the conversation turns to Brexit, kids film Monsters Inc (“Not all monsters are nasty,” says Paul), feminism, the Tory government and shadowy illuminati types. “The monsters are the people driving the world into destruction,” states Paul, emphatically. “People are only looking as long as their own personal life expectancy, which is horrible because they don’t even give a fuck about their own kids. If you don’t care about your own kids, you’re a monster, in my opinion.”
“Their kids are gonna be alright…” says Phil.
“No they’re not, they’re gonna live on a polluted planet that’s overheated,” snaps-back Paul. “They’re destroying the planet, and don’t give a fuck about their kids — saying, ‘Well, you sort it out when I’m gone’.”
“If we destroy the Earth, we’re fucking ourselves up — it’s obvious,” says Phil. “Now’s the time to start reflecting back on it. You can not give a shit, or you can have a bit of concern and try to make it a better place — and try to make other people more aware.”
’Monsters’ begins in a typical Orbital fashion before ‘Hoo Hoo Ha Ha’ eases in, a kind of oompah medieval electro-jig. DJ Mag asks if this irony-laden track is a tribute to Paul’s newfound love of morris dancing… “I'm out and proud about my morris dancing, I'm not ashamed,” Paul admits, launching into an impassioned speech about morris dancing. “I love folklore — I’m a bit of a hobbit at heart,” he concludes.
Is Phil tempted to join a morris dancing troupe? “Nah, you’re alright,” he says, deadpan. “I’ll hold his beer.”
The album rounds off with a lengthy downtempo piece featuring the familiar vox of physicist, TV presenter and former member of ‘90s pop-dance act D:Ream, Brian Cox. “I love the way he approaches science — physics, mostly,” says Paul, telling how he hit the scientist up on Twitter. “Time, space, gravity, from a position of explaining it to everybody in an interesting and fascinating way. He's brilliant.”
Cox isn’t the first scientist or TV presenter that Orbital have collaborated with. Former Play School presenter Brian Cant appeared in their video for ’Waving Not Drowning’, while at the 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony the late, great Professor Stephen Hawking joined them onstage for a performance of the ‘Where Is It Going?’ single from their ‘Wonky’ album. The cosmologist even wore a pair of Orbital’s trademark torch glasses for the occasion.
“Ah, that was a pleasure, one of my Orbital highlights — we made Stephen Hawking sing,” says Phil.
“Where do we go next? It’ll have to be Derren Brown or Mary Beard,” quips Paul.
The guys start explaining how the recording went with Brian Cox, who talks hypnotically about mortality, the vastness of the universe and living in the moment in this poignant monologue — a great album-closer. “He developed it from various thoughts and conclusions that he's had at the end of series or books — things that he thought were poignant — and framed it in a way that would work within our Orbital world, which he knew and was into,” says Paul. “He's one of us — he's just smarter than us.”
We start talking about big, live, genre-traversing ‘90s electronic acts and how everything is more fragmented today. “I think times have changed and things are different,” says Paul. “We rode a wave of the last big youth culture — I challenge anyone from this part of the world to show me a youth culture that’s been as big as the rave generation. Punk, then rave. I totally discount Britpop — that was a retro thing. Some good stuff came out of it, but it wasn’t a big youth movement.
“So we were riding that initial wave,” he continues. “You had the Detroit techno guys and their next generation and the Chicago house thing, but the rave thing came out of Britain really. Those five bands [Orbital, Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, Underworld]… we had such a great time in the ‘90s, switching and swapping on the Other Stage at Glastonbury. You’d get there on Friday night and it’d be ‘Ah, it’s The Chems!’ and then it’s us on the Saturday. Next year it’s Prodigy on Saturday and us on Friday — fucking brilliant, it was so much fun. We all dipped onto the Main Stage now and then — it was brilliant.
“So who are the next people? Well they’re not riding on top of a big fucking wave like we were, but there are other people out there doing good stuff. It’s a dissipated wave along the beach now, there’s lots of good people surfing along but there’s not a big surge. We were part of a big surge.”
He name-checks Justice, Deadmau5 and Jon Hopkins, then DJ Mag starts talking about Doctor Who — the Hartnolls are celebrated Whovians, and even have virtually the same surname as the very first Doctor, William Hartnell. Paul tells an amusing story of how they persuaded recent Doctor, Matt Smith, to join them onstage at Glastonbury and how funny it was walking around the festival site with him and seeing slightly ‘refreshed’ punters freaking out…
Ah, Glasto… Orbital’s televised 1994 Glasto show is widely credited with converting a whole new generation to the wonders of electronic music, and it’s the 25th anniversary next year — so is the gig locked yet?
“They haven't decided yet,” says Paul.
“It's a no-brainer for us,” adds Phil. “Other Stage, Friday night would be perfect for me.”
“Saturday for me, although I'll take any night,” says Paul. “It's 30 years of Orbital next year too…”
To mark this milestone they’re going to be re-recording some of their fave tracks that have been changed out of all recognition by the improvising live process (“’Impact' and 'Lush’, for instance, have completely changed in their arrangements and how they're organised and some of the sounds, so we’re gonna be recording them the way that we've ended up developing them over 30 years — some of them are that old”), and also bringing out an Orbital book (“The trials and tribulations of two brothers, and a view of rave culture from the trenches”).
It’s great to have Orbital back. They can move you both mentally and physically, but how do they continue to get soul out of their machines?
“The soul doesn't come out of the machines,” says Paul “A lot of people don't get it cos they're shit musicians, shit composers – I think a lot of dance music is a pile of shite. Emotionless crap. And when you get good stuff, it's fucking brilliant. That's what happened to me when I first heard Detroit techno — fucking hell, these guys know what they're doing, that's fucking great. They had some fucking soul, and they were getting it out of some of the shittiest equipment — and I know cos I had the same equipment.
“’It ain't the instrument, baby' – as Ray Charles said,” he continues. “It's my favourite musician's quote. It's these.” He waves his fingers and hands about, and Phil starts making crude jokes about organs.
A great British institution, Orbital are just gonna keep going on and on, then, like the Rolling Stones or someone. “Yes, we're absolutely just gonna go on and on,” says Paul. “It's a competition now between us, The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers...
“Who can stay alive the longest,” blurts out Phil.
“Last man standing. Who's gonna still be here? Let's keep going — the Rolling Stones beat The Beatles. I wanna be the Status Quo of techno. They were good.
Why haven't we brought a Quo sample into our live sets yet? Give it time…”
* ‘Monsters Exist’ is out 14th September on ACP Recordings.
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