With their new album Abolition of the Royal Familia proving that The Orb are still at the peak of their powers, Sun 13’s Banjo talks to main man Alex Paterson.
It is taken as read that The Orb have become something of an institution is the world of electronic music.
Their first record was released back in 1989 and their latest album, Abolition of the Royal Familia was released last month. That’s over 30 years of Orb music.
No other of their peers from the early days when the acid house boom again made all things seem possible have gone the distance without splitting up. The lineup of The Orb has changed dramatically over the years, but mainstay Alex Paterson has forged ahead with whoever he thought was able to continue help bring his visions to life.
They redefined ambient music, first playing the newly invented chill out room at Paul Oakenfold’s club nights and then did the unthinkable and took it overground. First album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld is still a high water mark for electronic music and such was their popularity that 2nd album UFOrb made it to the number one spot.
Since then there have been many albums. Officially their latest is their 16th, but it is hard to say for certain as there have been so many remix albums, compilations and other projects that, in our Orb top ten, we were given to wondering whether even The Orb themselves were able to offer a definitive count.
Whatever the real tally is, The Orb have taken their listeners on one hell of a journey.
With their new album again gathering positive reviews, Getintothis sat Alex Paterson down and asked him about his new album, old punks and listening to Chic.
He is an amiable and chatty interviewee, often going off at conversational tangents, as the things he tells us take him down other paths of thought, sparking off other stories.
Our conversation took place before the coronavirus played such havoc with the world, if you can remember such a time. Brexit and the country’s political situation were still foremost in out minds and made their way into our conversation.
Politics seems to be the main thing on Alex Paterson’s mind and he reveals himself as being genuinely bothered by what he sees around him.
But just what has he seen during his 30-plus years as the head of one of dance music’s great maverick institutions?
Getintothis: So how are things with The Orb at the moment?
Alex Paterson: “Good, we’re in a very good place. The album’s out and it’s been getting some good reviews, which is odd [laughs]. Maybe we’ve turned a cycle and we’re back in fashion again.
What we’ve done with the album is we’ve made our intentions clear, with the front cover being an old Cromwellian market place hanging scene and I’ll leave it at that. It’s called Abolition of the Royal Familia and I think that says it all really.”
Getintothis: So is this The Orb getting overtly political?
Alex Paterson: “Kind of. I’m 60 now and I’ve had to bite my lip for quite a long time, I didn’t want The Orb to be political. But I think it’s only right The Orb should show its views. It doesn’t have to be apolitical, The Orb is a sphere that circumnavigates the planet and takes an overview. And it’s pretty messy isn’t it?
It’s carnage at the moment. Things like Universal Credit, seven years in the making of how to destroy people.
And they’re in the middle of now trying to dismantle one source of information that is unbiased, the BBC. Some people would say that it is quite biased in it’s take on news, and they blackout some things, like what’s going on in Kashmir.
But it all came to a head when Trump came up in India and suddenly everyone’s talking about Muslims in a Hindu country. And that’s been going on for some time in Kashmir, I won’t even say how long. And it’s been a complete news blackout.”
Getintothis: I suppose to our generation, the BBC has always kind of been the establishment.
Alex Paterson: “Well, it’s unbiased with what it does cover. Being in places like America or Russia, when you get the BBC it’s like a breath of fresh air, in its choice of programs as well.”
Getintothis: Tell us about the new album.
Alex Paterson: “It’s all the things I wanted to do on the last album and more.
I love Youth to bits, we’ve known each other for donkey’s years. One of the best gigs of my life was Killing Joke and Bauhaus playing at Eric’s, that was in 1980, I was roadying for them and that’s just one little fraction of my relationship with this man, today we’re still just as good friends.
There was a sample on the last album that Youth and I fell out over, which basically kick started the idea for this new album. It was a sample from an Australian TV show with Prince Charles and some bloke phoned up and told him to stick a carrot up his arse. And I thought it was brilliant.
And Youth said “you can’t put that on the album, it’s offensive”. I said “No it’s not, it’s funny.” It’s like how you can play Towers of Dub to Jamaicans and they’ll fall over laughing, and it’s Haile Selassie here.
So I thought maybe I should just put on my producer’s hat and do it myself with Michael [Rendall], who we did the last album with. So he stepped in as co-producer, I’ve been on tour with him now for the last 18 months.
We did an American Tour, we did a British tour, the last six months went on forever and it was like building the roots up again for this album.
And then I did what I did on Ultraworld, which is brought in lots of friends. Not just a few people, but loads. It was really good fun.
I booked a studio out in West London for two weeks, a lot of people I was working with lived in that area, so that was quite handy. Happy accidents aren’t always a mistake.
There was a moment on the first night, when we were setting up in the studio and Miquette from System 7 was around the corner anyway, so she came round to get the vibe, see what the studio was like because they were coming in the next day, and we were just playing around with the tunes.
She started playing a little tune on her phone and then Steve [Hillage] turned up and started talking about this fishing trip, and he didn’t know it was being recorded, which all became…
There are a couple of tunes on the album that I would pinpoint as peaks, one of them being The Weekend It Rained Forever, and he was talking about fishing and we always associate fishing with water, and this track is something that stands out with people I’ve played it to.
We’ve got Roger Eno to come in and play, we’ve got a young lady called Violeta Vicci, who did a solo album on Youth’s label last year, Gaudi the Italian maestro, Andy Cain who did vocals for Basic Channel stuff back in the day.
We didn’t really go near any female vocals this time round, but I’ve got some ideas there for the next album. But that’s another story.”
Getintothis: Just looking back for a moment, how did it feel when UFOrb went to number one and you were headlining the second stage at Glastonbury, all while your music wasn’t compromised or commercial in any way. How did it feel to hit this high level?
Alex Paterson: “I felt like “I’ve done it!” and I knew that I could embark on whatever I wanted to do. And that’s how Pomme Fritz came about. It was like “We’ve done that, we want to be an album band, we don’t want to make singles.
Have you heard the single Daze off the new album? That runs at under three minutes, but we did that quite naturally. We kind of pre-programmed the tune and then did a vocal over it in under half an hour and it became an under three minute Orb single, which is totally unheard of. And that’s freaking people out a bit, we’re getting radio 6 plays at the moment.
And that’s where the money is unfortunately, in singles. And touring.”
Getintothis: I remember talking to Mixmaster Morris back in the day, at the Phoenix Festival, and he was telling me that he had a poster on his wall of a pile of guitars that had been set on fire and that that image summed up his attitude towards guitar music at the time. Did you ever feel like that, did you feel that evangelical about dance music?
Alex Paterson: “It wasn’t about guitars, I can get that one. There was a band I formed called Bloodsport, back in 1979, when I was roadying for Killing Joke, and they nicked the name of our band and called a track on their first album Bloodsport, which was kind of a heads up that I could actually come up with good names [laughs]
But Bloodsport was formed by myself and the original bass player for the Sex Pistols, called Wally [Nightingale]. We never really did anything, we went into the studio to record for Killing Joke’s label, but we didn’t pay for the tapes, so they got wiped over and used in another session.
Jaz said he’d play some keyboards for us and Big Paul offered to play drums, but I told him I didn’t want drums, I wanted smashed glasses and he could come and help to break loads of glass if he wanted.
It was kind of a mashed up reggae tune, and I was very much into Pinky and Perky, so I wanted to pitch the vocals up so it sounded like Pinky and Perky singing.”
Getintothis: I’d like to hear that!
Alex Paterson: “I’ve managed to find pretty much everything apart from that, but I’m sure that it’s somewhere on cassette.”
Getintothis: In the early days of dance music, there was a lot of punks, a lot of the Killing Joke crowd, who got really involved in dance music while some of the other punks sort of stayed with what they were already doing.
Alex Paterson: “Well they were the ones that weren’t listening to Chic. It’s an open secret now, those old punks that listened to Chic’s music. Those records are good, they had an attitude about them. Chic and Kraftwerk, put them together and wow.”
Getintothis: What music do you listen to these days?
Alex Paterson: “Well, I’ve got a radio station. It’s wnbc.london – Wake And Bake Club. Or West London Broadcasting Corporation. I prefer Wake and Bake Club.”
Getintothis: And what do you play on there?
Alex Paterson: “There’s a reggae show once a month, there’s an ambient show, Youth does a show, Gaudi comes in once a month and the locals do their own radio show at weekends, because we might get called out to do gigs at weekends, so I do Wednesdays and Thursdays.
We do The Orb show, Radio Orb, when I play stuff for people who are quite interested in out stuff. That’s when I tend to play unreleased mixes, live shows, and believe me I’ve got plenty of that.
But it’s all up on Mixcloud so you can check that out.”
Getintothis: I was going to ask you about playing live. It seems to me that every time I see The Orb, you play new versions of your songs. Is this you improvising on stage or is it a constant cycle of pre-production and you reworking your songs?
Alex Paterson: “It’s a constant cycle of reworking, but that’s not my intention, my intention is to get everyone going and using the tools that are handy. As a DJ it’s perfect, and given the minuteness of BPMs and being in sync with the rest of the world it’s brilliant.
We’ve moved to a different area of visuals as well. But it’s yet to set off and it needs budgeting.”
Getintothis: Most people would content themselves with writing new songs, and you obviously do a lot of that and a lot of collaborative work, such as your last album with Youth. You must have no time left to do anything else, to just kick back and watch Eastenders. What is it that drives you to make music like this?
Alex Paterson: “My love of music and my love of making music and putting those together it works very well when you do it properly. And I think that’s all been 30 years in the making for the new album, but it all works.
And we’ve done a dub album as well that accompanies it, called Abolition In Dub. And we’ve worked that properly, we’ve tried to do what Mad Professor did with Massive Attack, we’ve tried to do that with ourselves.”
Getintothis: Finally, how do you feel about Dance music these days, do you feel it still exists and that you are still as involved in it these days as you were when it all kicked off?
Alex Paterson: “I didn’t portray myself as a Dance Music artist in the first place, I did the ambient thing before ambient became mainstream in dance clubs.
Of course, we lost a major force in Andrew Weatherall and things will never really be quite the same again. And I think that’s a good place to stop.”
So do we. Things have come a long way over the years thanks to the likes of Andrew Weatherall and The Orb and anyone with even a passing interest in dance music owes them a great deal.
Whether they are shaping the music we listen to, keeping us on the dance floor or giving their time, energy and commitment to the world, we need people like this now as much as we ever have.
Long live The Orb and long live their singular vision. Royal Familia indeed.