ORBITAL A chat while they were in town…

As one of the most important electronic acts of all time – sitting alongside fellow 90s British luminaries The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Underworld and Leftfield – Orbital have been there since the beginning, born out of the early rave scene, but have gone on to become much more. Over the last 30 years, the duo of Phil and Paul Hartnoll have carved out an enviable reputation, but in that whole time, they’d never played live in Perth – that was until last week – where their set at Chevron Gardens was one for the ages. The afternoon before their gig ALFRED GORMAN caught up with the brothers for an extended chat on the rooftop of the QT Hotel to talk about their career, break-ups, working with Professor Brian Cox and how things change, but also stay the same.

There’s really no one like Orbital, and there never will be. Their new album Monsters Exist is up there with their greatest work, and has been their most successful in years. In September, they will be releasing an album of classic tracks – new studio versions and reworkings of some of their best tunes that have evolved over the years, as well as remixes and unreleased cuts from the vault.

Having just flown in from Melbourne where they dazzled the Forum, the two legends were taking it fairly easy, sitting back, sipping sparkling water – though they were friendly and chatty, asking what they should check out in our fair city before they get ready for the gig that night. They liked the sound of a walk up to King’s Park, and hoped to make it down to Cottesloe, where Phil (he of the shaved head, big sunnies and handlebar moustache) had been many years ago, after a DJ set he played here, which he remembers fondly, though vaguely. He looks more the rock star, seeming happy to lounge back in his chair, occasionally interjecting with a comment or joke, while Paul is sharp and serious, and does most of the talking – attentively listening and giving intelligent, considerate answers that often go off on interesting tangents.

Welcome to Perth, for your first live show, finally! It’s very exciting. Doing this for such a long time must give you amazing perspective… Now that you’re back touring again, seeing the evolution of dance music culture around the world, what do you think about the current state of the scene?

Paul: Well we’re doing gigs mostly these days… When we started off we were doing raves, clubs and parties, and then kinda started on the gig circuit – we supported Meat Beat Manifesto in America, and forged an alliance with a few other people… We were the first ones to do these big gig tours in these rock ‘n’ roll venues in the UK actually – so we’ve always kinda been out of the ‘dance music’ scene by doing that. Of course these days, we do the festival circuit, which is really good. I love doing festivals. You get a proper random selection of what’s currently going on. There’s so many more festivals than there used to be when we started off. It’s not a gig, it’s not a rave – it’s just a big collection of people having a good time with real party vibes. So yeah, really I don’t think things have changed that much – people relaxing and partying is as old as the hills.

Congrats on the new album – it’s a great comeback and one of my faves of last year. It’s just classic Orbital, but still fresh. Did you have an idea of what you wanted going into it?

Paul: I tell you what, it had that kind of process that first albums have, in the sense that… with any band, their first album is like their greatest hits up to that point. So that’s why first albums are often so good. This was a collection of stuff like that – half formed ideas and demos, all coming together. And some newly composed stuff as well.

It’s your ninth studio album – obviously you’re playing a selection of tunes from it, but no doubt a bunch of others from your long career. Is it more enjoyable putting together a live set, the more albums you put out, or does it get harder because you have such a massive back catalogue to choose from?

Paul: Nah, that’s kind of a luxury problem. There are songs we feel like we should be playing. I don’t dislike playing any of them, but there’s certain ones that you feel people expect. Then there’s certain ones that are kind of interchangeable that you move around.

Phil: We have like a festival set, for when you get 60-90 mins, and that’s more like, just ‘the classics’. When it’s just our own tour, we get a bit longer and play more of the latest album.

I think you have an hour and a half tonight, so I hope we get to hear a bunch of the new stuff, but also some of the classics… Belfast maybe…

Paul: Maybe… maybe…

Do you still enjoy playing those old songs after all these years?

Paul: Oh definitely – they’re kinda like old friends. The thing is, you gotta mix it up a bit, or it would get annoying.

Well that’s the great thing about you guys – is you actually play live, improvise and change it up a bit…

Paul: Especially when we play five nights on the trot like this, it would get boring if you don’t mix it up a bit – it would feel just like treading water.

Phil: I kinda like it, playing a bunch of shows in a row like this, because you get tighter and tighter.

Paul: Yeah, you get more familiar, and that’s how you end up experimenting. You don’t lose rhythm. You get braver as well, at taking chances.

Phil: Yeah, you did something last night. I liked that, it worked really well. I can’t remember what it was – you took the drums out or something…

Orbital with our interviewer Alfred in the middle

So this is the second time you’ve reformed – after breaking up in 2004, you reformed in 2008 and released Wonky, then disbanded again in 2014. But then got back together in 2017. Was the reformation a reaction to your own personal situations, or a reaction to external factors and the state of the world?

Paul: It was more personal reasons. We had a break for a while, now it’s time to get back in the saddle.

Phil: Just the realisation that we’ve got a good thing going. There were a few festivals that started sniffing around and asking “Do you think Orbital will get back together?”

Paul: That’s often the catalyst, when someone else asks you about it, and you kinda think, well why not? We’re very lucky with our fans. They’re very patient, very tolerant.

Even though it’s instrumental, your music and songs have always had a subtle political and environmental element. Was the name of the new album Monsters Exist, perhaps a little politically motivated?

Paul: Yeah absolutely. I mean, the political landscape at the moment is so ridiculous, it’s like one of those 80s parody programs. Or like, you’ve got programs like House Of Cards, with Kevin Spacey, who obviously destroyed his own career by being a bit of a monster, but his program had become quite dull compared the Trump Administration! And then of course, there’s the whole Brexit debacle…

Yeah, it’s all become a bit surreal… It’s a bit sad after the old rave days, which seemed to be this time of love and unity, with a real positivity about the future, and now people seem to have become so divided…

Phil: Yeah it’s sad. Our leaders… You’re not allowed to do anything anymore. It’s like a nanny state.

When you were in Sydney, did you hear anything about the festival and lockout laws going on over there?

Phil: Oh my god, yeah! It’s just like Britain! It’s ridiculous, because it’s just gonna destroy that place, and turn it into just like, grandmas going on cruise ships!

Paul: I remember going to Sydney in the 90s and it was amazing – you could party whenever you wanted. Some kids died at some festivals I heard, which is tragic, but how many people die of smoking and alcohol? They don’t shut that down do they?

You guys seem to have embraced the online world, sharing stuff, interacting with fans, and your album was your most successful in years. Do you feel it’s a good time to be Orbital right now?

Paul: Do you know what? The content is the same, it’s just the medium that’s changed. We’ve gone from ink, paper, print, which is a bit slower to manifest, to things being a bit more instant on the internet. But it’s the same thing – somebody sat down, looking at a rectangle, being entertained by text or video.

With your creative process, writing tunes, do you have a technique or is it always evolving?

Paul: I think it’s really the same. You just kinda learn your art as you go along. I’d just say I feel more like Obi-Wan Kenobi that Luke Skywalker now. But even Obi-Wan would say there’s a long way to go. Even Yoda would say that. It’s an adventure being an artist – the more you know, the more you’ve got to keep pushing forwards.

One track I really like off the new album – Hoo Hoo Ha Ha – did you come up with that twisted horn bit first and build around that, or come up with the basic beat and melody?

Paul: Well this is an interesting answer actually. The original chords at the start – that was done on a laptop keyboard on a train going to London. And then, it actually came from an idea from David Gray (we’re managed by the same people), he was saying how our chords usually go all over the place, but that track was more structured, so I thought OK, we’ll try to do that. So then I added the horns with that kinda short, repetitive loop. But it took me 10 years to finalise that lead part. Originally it was an analog synth, but I was never quite happy with it. And then it was Flood, who produced our Wonky album, I was playing it to him and he said, “You should do it with a really cheesy kinda 80s saxophone,” and it just kinda worked!

And the final track There Will Come A Time featuring Professor Brian Cox – how did that come about? Did you have the concept in mind and approach him?

Paul: I’ve always watched the Brian Cox science programs with my kids and thought – that would be a great sample with some ambient, washy music in the background. Then it occurred to me, I’m on Twitter…

He’s actually a keyboard player too right?

Paul: Yeah – he’s a better keyboard player than me! He played with D:Ream and Dare – check out Dare, they’re a mental band. So yeah, we contacted him and said, “Hey do you wanna do a spoken word thing?” and he just had all these ideas. The first time we met him, he had all these books of his and was like “Something like this… and then could put that with this”. He just straight away gets it. I knew he’d be on point. He was a pleasure to work with.

You guys are masters of the slow build, just layering it on over 10 minute epic tracks. Do you think that style is getting a bit lost, and a lot of electronic music kind of rushes it these days? Now it’s all about, “Where’s the drop?”

Phil: Yeah I think that kind of music is just specifically for the dancefloor, but we’re not.

Paul: I just think now there’s a bit of a formula and it’s not as open as it used to be. There’s a formula for club music, there’s a formula for drum ‘n’ bass, there’s a formula for this and that.

And I think that’s why you guys, and other older acts like maybe Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers, still sound different and more original, because you make your own sounds from scratch, whereas a lot of modern producers use lots of samples…

Paul: Yeah I love it. Leave them at it. They’re always gonna sound shit. Or they’re all gonna sound like each other. I’m sample-based too, but I do my own samples! Whereas they buy sample packs. I mean, I think it’s not too bad if it’s drum samples, because that’s like what an old drum machine was. It’s more when you buy a sample pack for ‘ambient techno’. It’s like, what the fuck does that even mean?

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