Beats of daring
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1999 Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
Browsing through the electronica section of urban record stores is a trying task lately. The flood of obtusely-named artists, just-add-breakbeat insta-genres and hear today, delete tomorrow releases is staggering. Despite the seeming variety of music out there, there's very little featuring memorable melodic content. The most notable exception is Britain's Orbital.
The impossibly-addictive 1990 single "Chime" first introduced the sibling duo comprised of Paul and Phil Hartnoll to the world. The track became an unlikely top-20 U.K. hit and served as a formative moment in the history of what’s termed the IDM or "Intelligent Dance Movement." Ten years and five albums later, they’re still delivering finely-crafted electronic music infused with passion.
To say Orbital has hit some lofty heights is an understatement. They regularly headline famed music festivals including Glastonbury, Roskilde and Lollapalooza. They’ve contributed soundtrack music to movies such as The Saint, Spawn and Event Horizon. And they’ve been responsible for award-winning, groundbreaking videos like "The Box" from their 1996 In Sides release. Acts as diverse as Madonna, Meat Beat Manifesto, Queen Latifah and Yellow Magic Orchestra have also commissioned remixes from them.
Their latest disc, The Middle of Nowhere, takes Orbital’s trademark sound and combines it with an array of live instrumentation including drums, bass, guitar, trumpet and the occasional vocal. The result is one of the most organic-sounding electronica albums of recent years. Each piece is a miniature journey with a discernable beginning, middle and end that unfolds like an aural storybook. And although the album doesn’t hide Orbital’s dance roots, The Middle of Nowhere is more about a total listening experience. Like the best singer-songwriter albums, the disc encourages listeners to layer their own emotions and experiences atop of its distinct moods and atmospheres.
Sitting in his home studio with Leftfield playing in the background, a very humble and soft-spoken Phil Hartnoll sat down to chat with Innerviews about Orbital’s current sphere of activity.
There’s a pretty dramatic progression from In Sides to The Middle of Nowhere in terms of composition and vision.
We don’t really think about things like direction in an conscious way. The music is more reflective of things going on in our lives. That’s how we write music. It just depends on what mood we’re in. It’s a day-to-day thing. When we were doing In Sides, a couple of our really good friends died and something else was going on around us. Plus we made it in this tiny little room with no daylight which has an effect too. This time, we changed places and were working somewhere that was all sunny and had a window. Everyone was quite healthy too and I think that sort of reflects itself in the music. As to a progression, I don’t know if I can see it in those terms. It’s just different. Some of the tracks have flavors from previous albums. But there’s no process behind any of it. Right now, I’m just looking back in retrospect, so I think it’s a bit of a waffle, really. Me and Paul just make music for ourselves, you know? Not everybody does. Some people go "Right! I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that." But I can’t. It is nice when people enjoy it and get something out of it. It’s a bit of a relief when they do. [laughs]
Is "composition" an appropriate word for Orbital’s creative process?
No, not really, but it is the best one available, isn’t it? I wouldn’t call myself a musician really. I think Paul could more. I couldn’t get onto a piano and play you a tune at any high standard that you’d think somebody with a career in music might be able to. I had ten lessons with the vicar’s son when I was 11 and that’s it. [laughs] Paul was sort of self-taught at guitar. I can read music and have a basic understanding of musical notation and technology. So, it’s definitely more of a building, constructing kind of composition. We obviously play things, but we have these huge sampled riffs, and we play other things one hand at a time and build them up.
Do you have a way of sketching out pieces prior to recording them?
Not really. There are all sorts of ways a track can start. It’s almost option paralysis sometimes. For instance, the track "Style" was a bit like that. Paul wrote that. He came down one Friday—he says he had that "Friday feeling" he’s always talking about. I don’t know what it means—just that it’s near the weekend I suppose. He wanted to carry on with a different mood than what we did the day before, so he quickly whipped something up by sampling this little Stylaphone thing, a little fad machine that’s a pocket, electronic buzzing thing. It was quite big in the ‘70s. So, he restricted himself to the Stylaphone, fiddled about with it and that was "Style." But on other tracks, you can spend bloody months on it if it’s not doing it for you. It’s gotta touch you somewhere within. I think that’s the key point really. I dunno. It’s a difficult thing to talk about—arranging and things like that. I feel like I’m still learning it all. There are so many different choices that I can see. There are so many exciting ways of doing it and it’s great. I’d be fiddling around whether or not I was making records as a career.
Why do you think the world at large takes electronic music far less seriously than music created for acoustic instruments?
That comes from a lot of different angles in my experience. First and foremost, it can be from defensiveness. Some people think "Oh, let’s suppress the new music. The old music is the greatest." They feel threatened or challenged by it and I don’t know why. Then there are people who don’t understand the actual technology and therefore are quite ignorant of how it’s made up. There are also other people who think you’re trying to imitate a real band or sound that came before with a sampler, do you know what I mean? But we’re not trying to pretend that we are a band or that a guitar sound is supposed to sound like a real guitar playing. There’s a lot of misunderstanding going on. Music shouldn’t be taken so seriously.
Describe the balance between feeling and technology when you make music.
I’d say that even though I’m not a musician, I do play the stuff. A fundamental way of talking about it is to say the computer replaces the 24-track tape machine. If I’m playing the guitar, I’ll play it until I get it right on one track. I’ll play the part over and over again until I do. On a computer, you play a part on a keyboard and you can use the computer to record your movements, including velocity. So, I can’t see the difference between putting something down on a traditional tape machine as opposed to the computer. There’s no distinction between the two.
Bill Laswell recently told Innerviews that "notation exists to respect or fulfil memory, but tape can fulfil memory too." You’re extending that to say a sequencer or hard drive recorder can do the same.
That’s exactly it, isn’t it? The problem is people look at things in traditional terms. But people shouldn’t be comparing things in this way. Working with a synth is a different way of producing a sound. I think synthesizers made a bad name for themselves when people started using them to try and imitate real instruments. That shouldn’t have happened because people went "Oh God. That doesn’t sound like a piano. That doesn’t sound like this or that." But people can accept a sound source on its own. The frequencies you can get out of a synth, you could never get out of an acoustic instrument. So, it should be championed for what it can do in those terms. This also gets into what the emotional connection to music is and also into asking "What is sound?" or "What is music?" It’s a real can of worms.
When people look at electronic music and say it’s not emotional or very sterile, I can agree in some cases. Some techno music is very sterile and you can almost see the stainless steel glimmer off the sounds, but that’s what’s good about it too. [laughs] The penny just hasn’t dropped with a lot of skeptics really. There’s nothing to be skeptical about. I mean, I’ve listened to loads of pots and pans being crashed and smashed and stuff and if it produces a response from me, who’s to say that's not music? Where's the defining line? Who gets to say what is worthy and what isn’t? So, either you take the whole thing seriously or you don’t. The fact that we’re sitting here even talking about it means we are. There should just be a natural acceptance of music period.
On the flip side, it’s very interesting that you have a lot more live instrumentation on Middle of Nowhere than on previous albums.
[breaks out into laughter] Yeah, that's true, isn’t it?
Why are you moving further and further in that direction given what you just said?
It’s just what turns up very casually. There’s no conscious decision. We have a friend who’s a drummer and we just went over to a big recording studio across the road to record him doing loads of drumming to things we’ve done—bits and bobs and playing to a metronome. We can use his stuff as breakbeats or just chop them up and use just one note. You’ve got a whole source of drums when you do that. It’s just great fun. For instance, we were writing the first track "Way Out" and felt it needed a trumpet in there. I don’t want to get a trumpet sound on my synthesizer. It would sound awful in my opinion. We wanted to hear a real trumpet,. So, we knew a friend of a friend who’s a trumpet player and asked him if he wanted to pop in. That’s when we got our notators out and used them to see what we’ve written as a musical score so he could read it for his trumpet playing. We also wrote his part with a sound that was similar to a trumpet and he popped in and re-did it for us. Again, great fun.
What does a live drummer offer you that a machine can’t?
When you’ve got a real drummer doing a drumming part, you can record it and then loop the whole rhythm into a four bar loop or four-beat rhythm. You can put something in place so that so if you’ve got that loop, you can hit a key on a keyboard and it restarts the loop and restarts the loop and you can place the restart wherever you want. So, you’re able to come up with all these intricate things where you make a rhythm on top of the rhythm with the rhythm. With a drum machine, you can also create a rhythm and sample it to do the same thing, but we knew these drummers and they’ve got these really nice sounds. We end up using samples from their real sounds. It’s just about having your own sort of sounds.
Unlike a lot of what falls under the techno umbrella, Orbital’s music possesses a very discernable melodic element.
Essentially, a lot of that is down to Paul really—not that I don’t enjoy that side of things. But he works hard to define the melody. He’s much more into that side, but we both change and tweak it. It’s hard to define the part you play in the process really. Again, it’s not intellectual in terms of musical theory. We have a basic knowledge of keys, but we don’t follow that. It’s all done by ear. It’s what sounds right and it doesn’t matter if it’s musically right or not.
Describe the working relationship with your brother.
We just sit in a little room and just lock into the work. Sometimes we don’t say anything to each other for a good hour or so and just tweak around and fiddle about. It depends at what stage you’re at in the work. It’s a very different process from beginning to end. Sometimes we just sit there talking about what we’re doing and how to form things. That’s obviously got some benefit because we know each other and have very similar musical tastes. We give each other a lot of space musically. If Paul’s working on something and I don’t like it, I say it. But if he genuinely likes something he’s done, who am I to say something’s wrong? So, we talk about things in little bits and pieces, rather than whole songs or tracks. It’s a hard one to talk about because neither of us have done anything with anyone else really.
What about the collaborations with Kirk Hammett on the remake of "Satan" or Michael Kamen on the Event Horizon soundtrack?
We never even met Kirk Hammett. [laughs] We did tape swapping across the Atlantic. It was good fun, but it was more like remixing really. With Michael Kamen, we were never in the same room at the same time. What we did was sample the orchestra that he jammed with for an afternoon. He made up all these tapes of different cellos, strings, oboes and things. He also had a basic idea of the notes and keys he wanted to follow. We took back the tapes and sampled the sounds. We weren’t even writing to the film. We saw bits of the film and it was a basic horror movie, so we went and made scary music. That’s what we were doing. He was doing the same thing but writing more of the score. We were doing bits and pieces really. We were gonna get together to join and blend our ideas but we missed the third stage because we came to the States and did Lollapalooza that year. It was a shame really. But I saw how real score writing is done. He’s traditionally trained and I was very interested in the same sort of the questions you’re asking me today. [laughs] It was very interesting to see how he actually works. His approach was so relaxed, even when he was jamming with an orchestra! It was brilliant. It was a really great approach. He was like "Yeah, it’s fun. C’mon, let’s do this and that" and that was really encouraging. That taught me to be more relaxed about things too. But the final product? The music? I wasn’t that interested in it. The main thing was the experience and meeting him. The music went beyond our control, really.
A lot of your press refers to Orbital as "pioneers of electronic music." Do you agree with that?
Of course I do! [laughs] No, not really, no. The only thing I can see is that we’ve tried to push the performance side by really playing live. I wouldn’t say that’s pioneering at all either. We only did it after seeing Cabaret Voltaire and the other art-school, avant-garde experimentalists. It’s been a natural thing for us to put a studio onstage and play our music. That’s how we’re able to do it in a way that traditional bands do.
To me, Orbital is much more of an extension of Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre than it is of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s house and techno movements.
Yeah, that’s exactly the thing. We got sort of lumped into the acid house movement. We’re obviously influenced by it and like it, but I couldn’t understand it when people said "Listen to this new music! It’s called ‘house’ from America!" It’s all the same sequenced stuff I’ve heard in tons of other stuff before. It reminded me of ‘70s disco because of the constant snare, bass drum and hi-hat thing going on. There was high energy music before that. So, I have enthusiasm for the movement, and I’m glad it made a stir, but the idea that it was new is confusing. Kraftwerk was very much a big influence. My elder brother had Autobahn and that was the first record I had heard that had all these strange noises and sounds. It was like, "Wow!"—the whole idea of it being a conceptual piece broken up into five perfect songs that were essentially instrumental. I’d say that was major and it all started from there. [laughs] There’s Rick Wakeman too. That was one of the first concerts I went to see. Whoa! I got my older brother to take me to his show because I was too young. Blimey, it was the tour for Journey to the Center of the Earth with the squoggy album cover with the foil. That was sort of soundtrack music and that’s a heavy influence more than dance music is really. But you have all aspects. The Dead Kennedys and the punky idea is there too. Like yourself, we have a wide range of musical influences and you’ve got these things called samplers and electronics that let you bundle it all in. That’s what we do to express ourselves. It’s whatever’s going on. You might hear a track and go "Cor, that’s really good!" I just got a new disc called New Skool Breaks and it’s all modern electro music and it’s "Wow! Yeah, it’s done proper." It’s the ‘90s sort of electro music. Everything I’d heard before wasn’t quite doing it for one reason or another but I got fired up by that. Or you can get really pissed off about something and you go moody. That’s where some of our more melancholy stuff comes from.
Orbital has evolved far beyond what’s conventionally termed as "dance music." So, how do you approach the obligation to make people dance in the live context?
I don’t feel obligated at all really. Some of our tracks are four-to-the-floor and there is a lot of dance music influence in the live gigs. It’s a bit more raw. My perfect thing is when you play in these old theaters where they’ve taken the seats out downstairs so people can choose if they want to sit down and enjoy it or jig around and get into it that way. I don’t mind if people just stand there and watch it. It doesn’t freak me out. I don’t go "Oh my God! They’re not dancing!" What we tend to do live is play some of the old favorites—we do give into that. I know what it’s like when you go see a band. You want to hear the older ones and the favorites. You have to decide if you’re just going to do that or play the whole album and do a more conceptual show. I’ve thought about doing that before, but we haven’t quite gone over to that yet. Maybe we’ll do a special one-off thing that I’ve been thinking about.
Snivlisation  remains the most incongruous record Orbital has done. It’s the darkest, least dance-oriented record to date and it included some overtly political material too.
Yeah, it does stick out from the other records. It came from us being fed up with the way the world is and having the weight of it on your shoulders. It was a time when we were sitting down and we wanted to incorporate the irony of it all. It kept popping up as a theme running through it. It’s a mood, not a concept. It was moody and reflective. That’s why we ended up calling it Snivilisation and putting a sort of grey cover on it. Doing an album and tour, album and tour gets to be a habit. I’m getting itchy to just do more writing. I’m up for a bit more change. I don’t think there is a balance yet. The new album is quite uptempo and I want to do some more reflective stuff. I’m looking forward to the tour, but I want to get back to the Snivilisation sort of stuff every now and then.
When Snivilisation came out, you and Paul were thrust into the British media spotlight as political commentators. Did that surprise you?
It wasn’t a surprise because we do hint at politics every now and then. It’s more of an opinion rather than dictating what people should do. There are slight hints and amusing things. It’s more of a flavor. Snivilsation came out around the time of political bickering with the Poll Tax. It was an awful tax imposed on people and the only other riot we’ve had was in the early U.K. when they tried to introduce it in 1417 or something like that. Basically, the Poll Tax was a political carve-up. It was also around the time of the Criminal Justice Bill. They were grey times really. Politically, I think the journalists wanted to talk about it anyway. We had little pointers and they picked up on it.
The "Criminal Justice Bill" Snivilisation b-side was a particularly strong statement in that it was four minutes of pure silence.
Yeah, it was ridiculous really! It’s very Orwellian. Bloody burn your books? Fascist! They tried to put a bill in law to actually point the finger at repetitive beat music! Repetitive beats? [laughs] That holds to rock too, doesn’t it? Repetitive beats? Most songs have a repetitive beat, don’t they?
Even non-threatening, "acceptable" music like country, swing and even some classical stuff could have fallen under it.
Yeah! The fact they did it was outrageous really. There’s justice for you. I was outraged by it. It was a civil liberty thing. Rather than look at the broader thing, they were picking on the music, trying to outlaw it. It’s the sort of thing they do in America really—down in the South. The devil music, you know? Rock and roll was the devil music at one time. It’s almost that type of very fascist idea.
Titles such as "Satan," "Nothing’s Left" and "Philosophy by Numbers" seem to further reflect and confirm Orbital’s dark, realist outlook.
[laughs] Yeah, it does look a bit bleak doesn’t it? Don’t you feel like that sometimes? Honestly, really, let’s face it, you know? I do myself in thinking about it too much. You can’t really though, can you? That’s why I talk about balance and tried to do something a bit more up on the new album. It’s just a shame that we have to do things in such chunks as albums. It’s not the whole picture of what I’m trying to express. I may not know what I’m trying to express, but I like to have a balance and communicate. You can forget about it all and get into hedonism. It’s nice to escape it all sometimes, but there’s a reality that has to be told as well.
Does your pessimism extend to engaging in the interview process as well?
Hey man, they’re not all like Innerviews, you know? [laughs] I don’t find interviews very comfortable at all, to tell you the truth. I don’t have an agenda that I want printed. Everything is on retrospect, really. Talking about music is like intellectualizing over a piece of artwork once it’s done and the artist is dead. Sometimes it can be quite interesting because a lot of people come into it as a result. But doing interviews is like going to the dentist. You dread it, but once you’re there, it’s not too bad. You might have a minor poke that hurts when you get a journalist you don’t get on with. Really, I don’t feel like I have much to say. That’s my major problem really. What have I got to say? I feel they should be talking to someone else. I also worry because I don’t know what the latest record is necessarily. You know, there’s bloody Top-Notch DJ magazine or whatever and I might not know as obsessively what’s going on as they do.
At least you’re not going around beating up pokey journalists, unlike some of your contemporaries.
Yeah, I know. Goldie’s had a go, hasn’t he? I’ve seen him in a few fights. God, I just don’t know honestly. They just tuck into it, don’t they? It’s what they like. It’s their choice to take that role upon themselves. They just love the whole scene—the journalistic, media side of things. When a journalist writes something bad about a record, he takes it onboard so seriously that he ends up in the extreme situation of kicking the shit out of somebody. It’s a serious matter really, isn’t it? Just for somebody writing their opinion? Goldie’s a rile swinger and good luck to him if that’s what he wants to do. I’m not commenting on that. It’s a funny old world.
Perhaps the lack of Hartnoll hysterics contributes to why Orbital has been able to concentrate on music and quietly carve out an enduring, evolving legacy.
I look back and points and go "God, this is great." It brings a smile to your face to think you’ve produced five albums when you thought "God, one and that’s gonna be it." It’s brilliant and great, but I don’t see it as grand as a legacy. That’s a great, grand thing like the Holy Grail or some questing thing, isn’t it? [laughs] But it’s nice to know that it’s going to last longer than me—hopefully. That’s what justifies the career side and record business stuff—putting it into a product. It’s quite comforting to think there will be a few copies around when I’m gone and that somebody might still be listening.