A different electronic beat – the Orb’s Alex Paterson interviewed
Jun 2020 09

It’s not often, if ever, you get a chance to meet your heroes. So when Alex Paterson, the only ever-present in the collective known as the Orb, pioneer of ambient electronic music, and the creator of the iconic tracks “Little Fluffy Clouds”, and “Blue Room” appears on your radar – even during times of lockdown – it’s time to give him a call. Mike Whyte has an inspired conversation with Mr Paterson in this Release Magazine exclusive.

Meet your hero

First of all, congratulations on your new album “Abolition of the Royal Familia”.

- Yeah, it’s come about at the wrong time, but yeah it’s good, it’s a good album and I’m happy with it.

We move on to talk about the single “Daze”.

I think it’s probably one of the most eye-catching videos I’ve seen in recent years, it’s a very different one.

- We were pushing the boat out in every single way just to get some attention, and it seems to be working. I’m not a hip hop band, I don’t have girls in bikinis on the front cover, we don’t try to sell our music that way. It’s silly dogs with psychedelic eyes.

I guess in a way then you must be happy with the resurgence of vinyl, so you can have those big vinyl covers again?

- It’s like so many people my age, even kids, even my daughter she’s like “I don’t understand why this is meant to be in fashion it should be just there, it’s really good”. You get all your information, you don’t have to get your glasses out, you don’t have to get Google out, you can read it all on the back of the album, then skin up on it, and then listen to some music, brilliant! The simple things in life.

I miss the days of the huge gatefold albums.

- Yeah!

The fan boy in me suddenly, unexpectedly, comes out.

Actually, I have to tell you I’ve been a massive fan of you since the early 90’s, in fact one of my first gigs actually going out was going to Hull University in 1993 to see the Orb.

- Oh wow! That’s quite a long time ago. What were you doing in Hull?

I’m from Hull originally (on the North East coast of England).

- Oh bless, I’ve been meaning to go up there actually because one of my best friends is from Hull. A lifelong friend we used to roadie together with Killing Joke. He’s been on stage many times with the Orb, he’s been a part of the Orb for a long time, we’ve been doing our own little project now called O.S.S., which is reverting back to our industrial roots on that project – Northern industrial music which is… things ahead.

About the album then, how do you feel about the album itself especially with this new anything goes kind of approach you’ve started?

- I feel so well. When we finished it we wanted to do a new one straight away, so that’s how good it was. Because I think we can even do, not better, but we can go more variety. There’s lots of varieties we didn’t do so much of. There’s not one hip hop tune on there. We’ve got two hip hop tunes on the last album and yet there’s elements of hip hop and soul in the reggae tunes, but they’re not there but they’re there. And they’re not reggae but they are reggae and that’s where we’re working within the tunes themselves, they’re complex little monsters. It was quite a funny moment when I said to Roger Eno “Do you want to play some harmonica on a reggae tune?” He said, “I don’t do reggae!” I said “Well just come into the studio and play some harmonica and we’ll place it on there later” and he goes “yeah, that’s fine”. We went in there and the fucking noise that came out – he was only singing through the harmonica!

No way!

- Yeah, really! The track is “Ital Orb”, which is an anagram of Orbital, actually – I thought I’d use that before anyone else did.

The Orb a few years ago.

A big garden and a big dog

We moved on to the situation we were in and how he is coping with staying inside.

- I’ve got a big garden, I’m lucky. I’ve also got a big dog so I can take him for walks. There’s a record shop down the road, in the basement we’ve got a radio station, I can go down there and do live broadcasting. We did that at the weekend – a 24-hour show to the masses. Chill out world basically, just like one of the other albums we did “Chill out, World” – C.O.W. for short. I’m coping all right but ask me in 10 days time! No but, the ying the yang, zone out a bit really, otherwise you will go mad, and pick up that book you’ve always promised you would read one day, now’s that day.

Going back to another stand-out track. I love the samples on “Hawk Kings”, I love the fact it’s got a lot of the old school stuff on it like “Assassins”.

- Yeah sure, yeah sure, forget the “Hawkings” samples, that’s what we were trying to do. Something that was an impact, because the four minute 7-inch version of “Assassins” you won’t get much harder techno or more intricate and clever. That’s because we actually used the right people when we made it, people who knew what they were doing. Back in the day you instantly knew what they were doing or what they weren’t doing. But anyway, I’m not going to get bitchy because… it’s another shot in the arm and I’ve always said, when I first started doing the Orb, I don’t believe I’ll really be that successful while I’m alive. I think the Orb’s music will live on way after I’m gone and people will start understanding it a lot more. And I said that when I was 28, and now when I’m 60 people are just catching up. Maybe I was just a little bit too sort of liberal with my time extension, because that’s the thing with the first album and this album, they could still be played together. There’s no distinct difference, but yet there is.

- Technology has moved on and we’ve embraced the technology even more. But the technology we were using at the very beginning was going to be the template for the 90:s anyway. Well, there you go, it’s something that I’m kind of proud of, but it’s something that my family, my kids do and they’ll reap the benefits of all that when I’m gone.

Related to that, when I first went out to see the Orb, also I went to the 25th anniversary at Brixton Academy – that was just something else.

- Oh yeah, that was cool, Paul Cook playing drums, from the Sex Pistols, come on!

I also went to the Roundhouse when you did the Orb festival there for the 30th, so what do you think about the way music is these days?

- I don’t think about any of that, I just get on with doing what I’m doing really. I’m in a very happy place, you know I could do a radio station, as in I’ve always wanted to have a radio station, ever since I was a kid. I grew up in a boarding school listening to music after lights out all the time. One little ear piece going into my ear listening to Luxembourg or occasionally John Peel, but Luxembourg was kind of more for me, Luxembourg and Caroline, where Peel came from anyway before he joined Radio One. Again I’m showing my age, this was early 70:s…

I remember listening to John Peel as well.

- When we were teenagers I was working with Killing Joke and they got a John Peel session in ’79 and I thought we’d made it. I’d made it because I was with a crew that were doing really well, I was part of Killing Joke, and always will be in that sense, the early days especially… Then the Orb started in ’88 and we did a Peel session in ’89 as well, exactly 10 years later, and he still had that force about him. The right people listened to his station to get your point across and that’s something I would try to thrive to do as a radio station but it’s nigh on impossible as he was on a national radio station. I haven’t got a national radio station, I’ve got an internet one, which just caters for my mates. We play our own music and we get on quite well. And the isolation bit, I was meant to do two shows this week.

The Orb 2020.
Photo by: John Hollingsworth

”It could be your lucky day if you bump into me sort of thing”

I’ve not touched on your new partner, Michael Rendell, yet, what has he brought to the table?

- A whole new dimension. Well, I think this is one of the reasons why this album is so popular, for sure. He’s one of the few people, and I’ve worked with many people in the Orb for many years and we tend to analyse each other when you’re on the road and stuff. And he just went “you know what nobody’s ever done?”, “What’s that then, Michael?” “Nobody’s ever tried to replicate what you listen to”, “that’s a good point!”, and that’s what “Daze” is all about. The first track on the album, which to me is a big breath of fresh air, for us as an old-time band that have been doing the circuit for a while, that suddenly pops up into our repertoire – “Helloooo!”-

- The other thing is with a few other people within the Orb they’ve tended not to want to work with other people. Whereas the first album was full of people I knew and I went the whole hog again with this album, and rather than use samples I got a musician to come in, a lady to come in and play viola or violin, I found out she could sing so I got her to do some vocals as well. I met a mate at the radio station, he brought his son along, really bored “What do you do?”, “I play trumpet”, “I said “Do you want to come along and do a session for the Orb then?” He’s playing on the album! Getting my dog to howl on one of the tunes. It could be your lucky day if you bump into me sort of thing…

And have you got 5 minutes kind of thing?

- Let’s go make a record! And then you’ve got the top prize like Roger Eno, Gaudi, Youth… sorry if I’ve forgot you, because there’s so many people there and they’re all really good friends. Andy Cain doing vocals on “Daze” was just something that was… we nearly got it… so right on “Soul Planet” on the last album I thought “come on, let’s just shorten that down and do a little” and there we are with this.

One interesting thing with the Orb: you could do a three-minute long pop track or a 40-minute epic as in “Blue Room”. How do you know how long these tracks are going to go on for? When do you know when to stop?

- It just finishes when it finishes. The biggest track seems to be the one which is everybody’s favourite and your favourite as well you said: “The Weekend It Rained”, and that was “What are we doing naming this tune when it’s raining a lot?” Every weekend it was raining as well, like cor, blimey… I hope it’s not raining at weekends by the time this comes out! No, we’ve got martial law instead! Oops! Bugger!

You’ve collaborated with so many people. Is there anybody left you’d really like to collaborate with, if you could?

- Brian Eno. I’m working my way there, don’t worry. There’s not an ulterior motive working with Roger, but I’ve known Brian Eno from my days at E.G. Records, we just got off on the wrong foot, that’s all. E.G. Records put me in a bad position regarding me doing music and how Brian perceived me doing music… that’s water under the bridge. I asked him about a year ago actually (Brian Eno) if he’d be interested. “Call me in a couple of years”, so well, that’s one year down.

One final quick question. Because you do both of them so well, which do you prefer: playing live or being in the studio?

- Hmmm? I’ve got to say playing live, because there’s no feeling quite like that. It’s when you get back to the hotel, or where you’re staying after the gig and you wonder, “What the fuck just happened?” That’s such a mad feeling, but… the feeling is also connecting with the crowd, connecting with the music, connecting with the people, it all becomes one – it’s a bit shamanist but that’s the truth of it, isn’t it? Humans have been doing it for decades, millennia, it’s just a different type of electronic beat, that’s all!

And there our interview ends. Some people say you should never meet your heroes – you will only be disappointed. Well Alex Paterson, you didn’t disappoint at all.