Reaching the highest level – Orbital interviewed
Oct 2018 22

We spoke to Paul Hartnoll, one half of the legendary electronica group Orbital. Now they say you should never meet your heroes, but we can tell you that doesn’t apply here. So sit back and follow us through some interesting tales about everything from the new album to Brexit to the 90:s, including a couple exclusives. 

The Obi-Wan Kenobi of electronica?

First of all, congratulations on your new album, I’ve reviewed it, and to be honest I think it is one of the best you’ve done.

- Oh, brilliant! (mimics me) To be honest I’ve only given it a two out of ten, haha!

I thought it was amazing and I like the variety of the tracks, the range of different tracks on there. So can I ask you about it, how do you feel about this album?

- I kind of agree actually. Going on gut instinct it was really easy to put together, and really enjoyable to put together and I felt very sure about it at all points, I didn’t ever feel “Oh, is this the right thing to do, is this the wrong thing to do”. There was still a bit of wrangling, as you can see by the strength of the bonus album, there was a lot of stuff that could have gone on the album as well. It was actually great when they said two weeks before the album was finished: “Oh, we’re gonna need a bonus album!”. I thought “Brilliant!”. We had two weeks of madness getting all of these demos ready! Oh I had a real fun two weeks doing that.

Although I know there are some darker moments on the album, to me it was quite bouncy and fun. I think you enjoyed making it!

- Yeah. Oh I enjoyed making the darker moments as well you know, that’s an outpouring of your passion. As an artist there’s nothing more enjoyable than that really, you know it’s lovely that even when you’re really dark, that’s you, you’re painting your picture or whatever you want to call it. But it’s enjoyable to do that, get stuff off your chest. Writing a piece of dark music is like having a good conversation with a mate in the pub, going on about something that annoys you, you know? So yeah, it was a really easy album to make, and it was one of those ones were you know you’ve nailed it when you’re excited to put it out. You don’t know what people are going to think about it, but you don’t mind either. You feel strong about your art, you’re like “I can’t wait to see what people think of this”, kind of exciting! Yeah, this is the most excited I’ve felt about a record for a long time.

It seemed that running through the album is a strong rave kind of feel, which seems to hark back to your origins, of course the name Orbital for a start, do you feel like it’s gone full circle?

- OK, in a funny kind of way, but from a different perspective, if that makes sense. It’s like when you start you’ve got this open-eyed fascination and acceptance of everything and enjoyment of everything. It’s like being Luke Skywalker who’s just been told the force is strong within him, and you’re like “wow!” and then you go through the struggle of becoming a Jedi, which isn’t very much fun sometimes, and then when you’ve become the Yoda or Obi-Wan, then you’re kind of relaxed within your powers, still learning but I feel like I’ve accomplished something, and that’s where I feel like I’ve ended up, if you know what I mean! But yeah, no longer the Luke Skywalker, more Obi-Wan Kenobi. That’s what we’ve found, some kind of freedom – ”Yeah, I know what I’m doing!”. When you’re younger, as an artist, it can happen to anybody, a level of insecurity comes, younger people come up after you and your popularity wanes, people become self-conscious – all art, visual artists, film makers, book writers, anything… I think when you get over that then freedom comes, and that’s where I feel I’m at now.

Track talk

If I can refer to a couple of favourite tracks now, I’m going to be very careful about this one – “P.H.U.K.”, because I found this track reminded me of the days of ‘88 – ‘89. Did you have any influences yourself when you made the album?

- Well, with that track I can definitely highlight influences, I was thinking about exactly that kind of era. The sort of post-acid house bleep era, the sort of origins of Warp Records, I was thinking about Dextrous – Nightmares on Wax, I was thinking “Test Tone”, I was thinking about, oh god what was the track – “Hardcore Uproar”! Oh, they had a fantastic track “Take Me Back” on Nettwerk Records back then, brilliant! I was thinking about all of those kinds of tracks.

In my notes I wrote down “Bleep Techno”…

- Yeah, yeah very much that kind of British sound as well, which goes with the title of the track, which is of course “Please Help UK”. It was very much that kind of thing, that kind of style as well a bit fun, rather than being very serious and po-faced. Definitely a hark back to that time.

You can tell when you’ve got a good track – when you get to the end you just want to play it from the beginning again.

- For me, one of the tests I like to try out is playing tracks live when people haven’t heard it, because I was a bit unsure about that track in certain ways, partly because I thought “Is that it? Is there enough going on? Is this enough?” We were discussing it, and I wanted to play it live to find out. That was last Christmas and Phil was freaking out: “I don’t want to play it! Oh my god! You’re not sure about the track, how can we play it live, if you don’t even know if you like it!”. That’s exactly why I wanted to play it live. I want to find out! I want to play it… what’s the worst that could happen, it’s like four minutes of some people being like “meh” and that’s fine! I’m an artist, I wanted to find out and that’s the trick, if people kind of take to it you know. Elbows jumping around the dance floor, and you can hear it. Great, brilliant, that works.

If I can now refer to your end track, “There Will Come a Time” with Professor Brian Cox, again it’s brilliant, but for a completely different reason. About the collaborations you’ve had – I’ve had a little look through the people you’ve worked with, and it has been everyone from Brian Cox to Vince Clark, Kirk Hammett, so many… How many other people would you like to get on an Orbital track?

- Kate Bush. I’d love to have Kate Bush. Scott Walker… What about younger people, no fuck ‘em! Someone else train them up! I’ve got my Obi Won Kenobi hat on! I’m trying to think of who else. I think its working with your heroes is so much fun, you kind of learn things from them, but really for me it’s singers who I like which is ideal, because that is something I don’t do. I have worked with some of them on my solo album, I got to work with The Unthanks, which is brilliant for me, I love The Unthanks. So yeah, my favourites would be Kate Bush and Scott Walker, I’d love to work with those two.

I’d love to hear an Orbital/Kate Bush combo…

- Yeah, it would be good.

Please help UK

I know that some of the best music that came from the original era of rave seemed to come about because of the Criminal Justice Bill, now we have Brexit. Do you think this will start off a surge in a new kind of creative music movement?

- Well look, life is kind of reflected in art – life gets big, art gets big, you know what I mean? Yeah of course, our track “Please Help UK” is a reflection of Brexit. That’s our take on it, it switches between melancholy and utter hysteria, that’s what I feel like the country is divided into, those two things – hysterically running towards the cliff blindly without knowing where you are going, and then also being very melancholy and we should all be thinking “Fuck! I’m going to have to move to mainland Europe to avoid being in a country of racist bastards”. Those are the two extremes, there’s a lot of grey in between as well…

On a lighter note, you were one of the original creators of rave, going out and dancing and having a good time. What do you think of the way things are these days?

- Well to be fair I think people have been going out dancing ever since they could bash on a rock. That’s the fundamental thing about dance music and dancing isn’t it? It’s something that human beings like sort of inventing gods, we go out and dance. It’s fundamentally across the globe even when people don’t have any contact with anyone else, they invent gods and they dance. You know, just to feel relaxed, basically. Dancing is something people do, some of the animalistic sort of mating rituals, it’s like an erotic thing, it’s as old as the hills that kind of thing.

I don’t think it’s changed at all. I think it’s exactly the same. I think, rave came about that was the last big youth culture movement that happened as far as I can tell. Coming from teddy boys and rock’n’roll, jazz people and beatnicks, right through mods, skinheads and all of that kind of thing, and punk, and then you had rave… and now there hasn’t really been a youth culture movement based on music or fashion. Everything kind of dissipated and spread over so much TV channel culture it’s like what smaller pockets you know, It’s like that was the last big, big wave of youth movement since the birth of rock’n’roll and recorded music. I think that kind of youth movement has declined with recorded mediums, but we’re moving on to something else now. Let’s see what happens, we’re going on to the streaming world now, we’re all lucky enough to have the entire history of recorded music in our pocket. It’s amazing, so I don’t know what is going to happen, it’s kind of fascinating. Young people going out dancing to find a mate is fundamental, it’s never going to stop, and it’s always going to be pretty much the same. Long may it live! If we stop doing it, we’ll stop mating then everything will fall apart!

Hero talk

You are on of my electronic music heroes…

- Thank you very much!

I would put you up there – you and Kraftwerk, there you go…

- I’ll sleep soundly tonight, Yoda and Obi Wan together, there you go! (laughs)

Do you have any heroes yourself, anybody you would say has been an influence on your music, or just an inspiration?

- Yeah, lots of people. Kraftwerk are massive to me. Tom Ellard from the Severed Heads, Australian electronic band, I’d say he had as much on what I do as Kraftwerk, if you’ve never listened to the Severed Heads you’ve go to listen to “Since the Accident” and “City Slab Horror”, those two albums are brilliant. Whenever I say that to loads of people they listen to it and go “I don’t get it”. I think “you had to be there at the time mate!”. Who else, Scott Walker and Kate Bush for their artistic sense of melancholy and storytelling. Currently I’ve been influenced by a big wave of young British folk music, people like the Unthanks, Lisa Knapp and Sam Lee, Bella Hardy… Emily Portman as well. All these people that are making folk music sound modern again, yet they are playing traditional songs, and writing their own as well. It’s just magical. For me I guess it’s something so different from what I do, it’s how I relax, you know.

Other influences?

- Other… punk had a big influence, second generation more hardcore punk like Crass and the Dead Kennedys they were a big influence on me for attitude and Do It Yourself and Crass gave me a lot of my moral compass growing up in a small Kentish village I didn’t have many to talk to about sexism and feminism and that kind of thing, and their album “Penis Envy” was a massive eye-opener. I couldn’t believe what I was listening to, it made me think about women, men, sexism, feminism in a whole different way that nobody had shown me before but you know that’s where music has a deeper meaning than just sound, I guess that’s lyrics isn’t it?

So you’ve just done this new album, are there plans for more, after all, you’re back together again now, so…?

- Already planning for next year, yeah. Yeah, I’ve got two things on the go in my head for next year. One is a celebration of thirty years of Orbital, potentially a sort of soundtrack to our lives. What will happen or come of that, that’s the fun though, you know what I mean? Roll your sleeves up and get creative, all can happen. Mind you I have got at least two albums on the go, and another one that he’d like to do, you know? So, it will all come together… into just more stuff.

Oh, I think you should get that Kate Bush thing sorted as well…

- …I did meet her once, she’s lovely. One day maybe..