Orbital’s Phil Hartnoll talks to Banjo. And talks. And then talks some more.
Orbital are dance music pioneers – one of the first of a new generation of musicians to play electronic music live, they soon earned a reputation for consistently excellent and innovative records and for legendary live shows.
Their latest album, Monsters Exist, is yet another top quality slice of electronica, quite clearly Orbital in peak form. We spoke to one half of Orbital, Phil Hartnoll, about the state of the nation, playing dance music live and being, erm, gentlemen of a certain age.
Phil Hartnoll can talk. A lot. At the start of our interview I break the ice by telling him that I love Orbital and have been a huge fan for years, since I bought debut single Chime on 12”. Hartnoll is delighted at talking to an original fan and someone in his own age bracket. He goes on to talk about this and other unrelated topics for some time. A full ten minutes later, I get to ask him my first question.
It is easy to form the opinion that an interviewer could simply open an Argos catalogue, point at a picture at random, say ‘What do you think of that then’ and then just sit back and hit record.
As an interviewer, this is a real result and makes my job here a joy. But, as the person who transcribes interviews such as these, my hands are already aching at the thought of what might lay ahead. But his enthusiasm and obvious joy is contagious and soon we are chatting like we are sat off after a particularly good night out. His conversation is peppered with laughter and, despite a heavy promotional schedule, he clearly still loves doing all this.
Before we begin, I’d just like to say that I’m a huge fan of Orbital’s work and have been since the early days.
‘Mate, I appreciate that, I appreciate it. From Liverpool are you? Fucking brilliant, I appreciate that, it’s what I live for. And here you are interviewing me. [Laughs] Trailblazers we are mate, our generation. People drop away though don’t they, they get into that mode, but you and I obviously haven’t [Laughs]. If you look at pop culture, nothing shocks me anymore, but that’s just because of my age.
‘I’ve got to say this, because you’ll appreciate it, I’ve just been interviewed by another guy from Sheffield, and I said ‘how old are you if you don’t mind me asking’ and he said he was 26. I said ‘sorry mate, I’ve got a 30 year old son, a 35 year old step daughter and a 28 year old son’ [Laughs]
‘I’ve got a penchant for Sheffield, there’s a good scene there you know. You’ve got Warp Records there, you’ve got Fon Studios, you’ve got Cabaret Voltaire. And Sheffield only has like 550,000 people and it’s very, very creative. I was trying to pinpoint what it is about Sheffield music and then I realised, you’ve got the steelworks there. And what I think is, because we’re old enough to have lived through the miner’s strike and that shit, and there’s a predominantly working class city that’s been built up from the steelworks and stuff like that, a bit like Pittsburgh where my wife’s from, and then it all goes. And the workforce managed to be creative and got into their arts. You’ve got warehouses there full of artists.
‘And Liverpool is like that. I don’t really know a lot about Liverpool to be honest, we’ve played there a few times, we played Creamfields and we played in an old theatre there [the Royal Court], and it was fucking bonkers! You know what they’re like there, I bloody love it, they don’t disappoint. And we played Cream in the early days. James Barton got us up there in the early 90s. And you’ve got to hand it to him, he’s lasted and he loves the music, he genuinely does.
‘And we played there and there was about 20 of his mates watching us [Laughs]. It was that early on, no one had heard of us. We had about 45 minutes of a set back then and all his mates were loving it, and then we said ‘ok that’s it, we’re done’ and he said ‘no you’re not’. So we said ‘well we’ve got nothing else’ and because we can improvise, we just jammed. We did about 20 minutes of Chime [Laughs]. And that was a moment, that was brilliant.’
At this point, I am reminded of one of the questions I had wanted to ask and, although it goes against the interviewer’s code, I guessed that if I actually wanted to ask any questions at all, I should actually interrupt him! Ordinarily I wouldn’t dream of such a thing, but as asking questions seems to be the basis of interviews, and we were already ten minutes in to my allotted half hour, I pushed ahead.
Well actually, that was something I wanted to ask you, and I’ve long been intrigued by this. We’ve heard about Orbital being this legendary live band, but what is it you actually do when you’re on stage and how can you improvise?
‘Well basically, we’ve got every part of the song broken down. So you got one channel for the bass drum, one for the high hat, one for the snare and so on and so forth. All of these used to be on a sequencer, and each had sixteen buttons. We ended up with three of those. And so the ability to improvise comes from deciding to stop or start the bass drum or bring a high hat in, that kind of stuff.
‘And these buttons send MIDI messages out to your synthesisers that you’ve got lined up around you. And at the end of the synthesisers you’ve got modulation units squelching about, and you can take the noises that come out of the synthesisers and you can change them [Does passable impersonation of synth noises] and you can just fuck about with it. People like guitarists, every night they play it it’s going to sound the same, where we can completely change the sound every time we play it.
‘And so you’ve got the sound coming out of the synthesiser going into a mixing desk. Now on the mixing desk I’ve got levels, EQ control and other auxiliaries, such as delay, reverb, so I can mix it.
‘Now that was the old school way, but now we have a computer that takes the place of a sampler and does all the MIDI bits, and you can use that to trigger samples. And you’re still sending MIDI from that into your synthesisers. The thing I’m not really comfortable with is that they’ve got rid of the mixing desk and it’s now become a virtual mixing desk running Ableton, so you’ve still got all the sliders and buttons running the effects and stuff like that, but it ain’t a fucking mixing desk.
‘But we had to do that because we had to ship it all over in a case, and that costs. The computer does the same things, but I do miss having a mixing desk. In theory it’s the same as what we ever did, but it’s not the same. When we first start playing live we thought ‘how are we going to do this’, so we just set the recording studio up on stage and play the same as how we used to record.
‘We never used to work everything out on the sequencers, we just used have a jam. So Paul [Hartnoll – brother and other half of Orbital] would jam it and I’d mix it, and loads of our early stuff was written like that. It was a bit like remixes from back in the day, when everything was on reel to reel and they’d just chuck it through the mixing desk and somebody would do a different mix by muting this part or that part, putting a delay on, you know. Does that make sense?’
It does, and it all sounds about as far removed from traditional rock n roll as it’s possible to get.
“Yeah, it does, because we’re not restricted to a traditional set up. We don’t have a singer, we’re not stuck to a verse/chorus format. You could say we have a little, but if we want to go off piste, if people are loving it, we can take it away from them and build it back up. There are tracks that develop live this way before we record them.’
Did you ever feel like you were taking on the traditional rock bands, they you were the future and they were the past?
‘No, not at all. That’s the way people like the NME treated electronic music. That’s why we were so fucking good, I mean we come from a punk background and we didn’t want to be restricted to making music for the dancefloor.’
I think that comes across quite strongly on your new album, it’s not obsessed with the dancefloor and is perhaps aimed as much at the head as the feet.
Yeah, this one is. This one is a bit like Snivilisation in a way. This one is a reflection of the times we live in, it’s a bit dark really. It’s not our comeback cheery thing, it’s our comeback moany thing. [Laughs] That’s Paul really more than me, I’m more like ‘can’t we do something a bit more cheery?’ I’m more of a DJ and I love all that shit. We’re chalk and cheese really. If I’ve got something to say about it the next one will be more cheery.[Laughs]’
Why do you think it is that a lot of the early dance music pioneers came from punk?
‘Well we weren’t just punks. I had my New Romantic phase, I had my reggae phase, you know. But no it’s not so segregated is it? Like, with punk you could shock people by wearing drainpipe trousers, plimsolls and a pair of braces. People would stop in the street to stare at you! And now it’s not shocking anymore.
‘You can have piercings and tattoos all over the place and no one bothers. And beards have come back! Who would have thought that, beards are trendy! But dance music was a big social game changer too. Ecstasy came along and changed it all, people didn’t want to fight anymore.
‘Before Ecstasy, if you went to a disco and said hello to a girl you’d get a fucking glass in your face. You weren’t even trying to hit on them. ‘After you darling’ and whack! [Laughs]’
One last question. Each time Orbital split up and get back together, you come out with a brilliant record. Do you think having that time apart does you good?
‘This is an unanswerable question really, to be honest, because you don’t know what would have happened. But maybe. I think no. But I didn’t want to split up in the first place. But Paul’s his own man and he did what he had to do, you know, get it out of his system. Didn’t really work though [Laughs].
‘I said to him ‘Don’t tell anyone we were splitting up again, for fuck’s sake. We did that once before and then we came back. Just leave it’ And then the next thing I’d heard, we’d split up again! [Laughs] People came up to me and said ‘I came to your last ever gig, then I came to the reunion and now I’m still coming to your gigs.’
‘But I’m loving it now. And Paul’s enjoying it, he’s relaxed a lot. We wouldn’t do it otherwise, we’ve done all that before. So I’m really enjoying it and I want to make the most of it. Maybe when we start doing shit albums we’ll split up again [Laughs].’
Well you keep making albums like Monsters Exist and we’ll keep buying them.
PH: ‘Bless ya, I love it. Come on, let’s do this, we’re doing it together, we’re trailblazers for the next generation! [Laughs]
And with that, one half of one of the best electronic bands takes his leave. Or tries to. He still has some talking to do and tells me of Orbital’s working hours, their routine, his hopes for the future, how today’s kids are overloaded with entertainment choices and the problems with Brexit.
I have no doubt that he is still talking somewhere to somebody. But it is this boundless energy that has led to some of the greatest dance music recorded, so long may it continue. Especially when they are still capable of making such incredible music as Monsters Exist.