Orbital: The '90s Revival Is On (And On) : The Record Half the British dance-music duo on their new songs and the last time sounding old school was cool.
NPR logo Orbital: The '90s Revival Is On (And On)

Orbital: The '90s Revival Is On (And On)

Orbital is, from left to right, Paul and Phil Hartnoll. Courtesy of Magnum PR hide caption

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Courtesy of Magnum PR

Orbital is, from left to right, Paul and Phil Hartnoll.

Courtesy of Magnum PR

When brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll began making their own version of the American house music and techno sweeping through English pop in the late 1980s, they took their name from the motorway that circles London's suburbs and, back then, linked the new rave scene together. The two were from Sevenoaks, a southeastern exit on the Orbital, the moniker they've recorded and performed under ever since.

Right from the start, with their 1990 debut "Chime," Orbital specialized in big, warm riffs that were equally effective at moving masses of bodies in a field or causing outbreaks of air-keyboard among those listening on the radio. When they performed, the pair almost always played live. Most acts that don't just DJ on stage sound harder, techier. But the Hartnolls wrote tunes whose repetitiveness seemed integral to their melodic structure, not incidental to it — one of their big live favorites was titled "Lush," and that's a canny self-description.


Orbital became one of the premier festival groups of the '90s, not just at big dance-music events in the U.K. like Tribal Gathering but at the rock-oriented Glastonbury too. That extended, partly, to the U.S., where the brothers frequently got over with tracks like the guitar-shredding "Satan" and "The Box," featuring a dulcimer. But Chemical Brothers-style chart crossover eluded them, and in 2004, after seven albums and endless tours, the Hartnolls decided to part ways professionally.

It wasn't too surprising when Phil and Paul began performing their classics again in 2009 — the lag time between "retirement" and getting back in the game is growing smaller by the year. But while most reunion albums sound like the uninspired, profit-taking ventures they are, Orbital's eighth non-soundtrack album, Wonky, sounds refreshed, as if the duo's time off together had rejuvenated them creatively.

As Phil Hartnoll told me — in two separate Q&A sessions conducted for The Record in August 2011 and March 2012 — some of that can be put down to the fact that much of the music was written for them to play out, injected in between their hits, like "Halcyon And On And On" and "Impact (The Earth Is Burning)."

You had a ringside seat to the American record biz trying to sell electronic dance music to America in the '90s. What was your impression of the music's popularity in America at first?

PHIL HARTNOLL: We came over with Meat Beat Manifesto in 1992. That was our first proper tour of America. We had people — little ravers — following us around from gig to gig. The geographical size of England is so small it's a breeding ground for subcultures. When we went over to America, with the huge enormity of it, you [had] little pockets of ravers and rave culture in every little town and every city that we played. But it was never on a national scale at that point. It was represented quite a lot, in each little city, but the only way of talking from city to city was via the Web. The ravers had uniforms: the big baggy trousers, the Dayglo, pacifiers. They pretty much stayed uniform in that. It was the same nationally. They had their own little dress code.

We went back and forth through America doing tours. We did another tour that was us, Moby, Aphex Twin and Vapourspace. We did the Community Tour, with the Crystal Method and the Lo-Fidelity Allstars. Putting together a package like that was indicative of the rave scene in America, having these bigger people tour [together]. Otherwise, it was pretty difficult to do a little tour, individually, and with all the other bands as well at the time.

Perry Farrell saw us in L.A. and decided to have us on Lollapalooza [in 1997, with] Korn and Snoop Dogg — and then they had us. We played after Tool, which was the main act. We sold ourselves as the disco bit at the end, as a way to explain to people how it could work as actual fact. And it did sort of work in places. Which is the beauty of a festival: you're preaching to the non-converted. You as an audience might not listen to Orbital, but at a festival, you might check them out.

I did get the feeling, when we went into the meetings on how we were going to market this, there wasn't really much of an idea: "Oh, it would be so much better if you could get some vocals on your instrumental music." Lots of pop conveyor-belt techniques, trying to push us in that direction. [We were] comfortable ignoring them — we just did what we did and that was it. So it was down to touring and touring and touring.


Have you guys always played live with the miner's hats with the flashlights?

The torch glasses! That came about from a practical point of view. We were used to playing in acid house clubs, which had strobes and smoke machines. We needed to see what were doing, because we're running all the instruments live. We found these in a gift shop in New York opposite what used to be Tower Records — a shop called Space Age Gifts, a novelty shop, definitely not there anymore. It must have been '92. We found novelty glasses and cut them up and put Maglites in them. That became our trademark.

Soundtracks became a big way that America started to understand electronic dance music a little. How did you end up doing The Saint theme in 1997?

Graeme Revell was an English guy that did the soundtrack. He hated the original theme tune to The Saint, so he farmed it out to us. He knew we liked old '60s soundtracks. He did [the soundtrack for] Spawn as well, [in] which we had a track called "Satan" [originally from 1991]. He really loved that track and had the great idea of getting [Metallica's] Kirk Hammett to do some guitar over it. That was a typical example.

There was a lot of backlash against dance music in the early '00s. When Eminem put out "Without Me" and rapped, "Nobody listens to techno," people believed it. What was your sense of the retraction, the backlash to that music in the U.S.?

We did a tour, directly after 9/11, in October — just us on our own. It was really interesting, being interviewed all across the country about terrorism. The overall sort of thing was, "Oh, you're so brave to come over here." Because it was real wake-up call for everybody realizing that they are [vulnerable]. Whereas me, little London boy who grew up where there were threats of bombs going off around the corner from the IRA, I've been brought up with terrorism. They don't have rubbish bins in England because that's the typical place of dumping a bomb. I'm used to this. I'm used to looking out for bags left alone on the tube. That's just second nature to me. It was no big deal for us to go over there.

The New York gig was about six weeks after 9/11. It was just enough time for people to get over it enough to come out. We were thinking, "Well, what's going to go on here?" You know, we're playing things like "Satan," and our visuals are all these things that we would call Satanic: bombs and horrible things that people do to other people. We didn't want to be insensitive. [And] the gig blew my mind. It's one that will stick out in my head forever. The people coming up to us: "We really needed to explode and let our hair down." It was very moving.

Was 2004's Blue Album planned as your farewell?

That time felt like we were stuck in a rut. At the time it felt like we couldn't move on creatively. It was like those vultures in [The] Jungle Book: "What we are going to do now?" "Dunno ... what are we going to do now?"


Did you feel, maybe even in retrospect, that Orbital's way of working and the rave scene as a whole had both kind of exhausted themselves?

I never really thought about that, but now that you say that I think I could possibly agree with that. It was a bit of a lull — banging your head against the wall. We [got] set in our ways. Our heart wasn't in it. We both questioned what we were doing. That's why we stopped.

Did having a few years of not being Orbital make it easier for you and Paul to just hang out and be family again?

At the beginning we did family things and stuff like that, but we kept our distance, really. We'd been in each others' pockets for so long, we needed a break.

Did things cool off between you two beyond just wanting to just stay away for a while?

Yeah, they did. Paul always wanted to work with an orchestra, which he did; I DJed a lot more, which really brought back my love of music. I had another little project going on working with some musicians down in Brighton and that was really good. Paul had been in a couple of bands before, but really, we hadn't done anything apart from each other.

When you DJ, what kind of stuff are you playing?

I really mix it up. Obviously, being Phil from Orbital, certain people in the audience expect a couple of Orbital classics, which I shove in there. But I normally take a live version or something like that. The emphasis is on the partying, the enjoyment, and the fun. I play anything from house to electro, like Kraftwerk. I don't stick in one genre — just like Orbital, really.


How did you end up reforming Orbital?

Somebody suggested for the [U.K. festival] Big Chill that we do a reunion gig [in 2009]. We said, "Yeah, that would be great. Let's do that." That snowballed into two years of touring, which was a surprise to us. We built our working relationship back up and got to a place where we thought we'd start making some music to inject into the live set. There was no master plan to do all these gigs. It developed slowly.

We ended up writing a bit of music together. That snowballed into an album. It was really, really enjoyable doing that. We had all the extra bits and bobs when we got Flood involved. Paul had worked with Flood, and he's fantastic. We went to record it in a nice studio just for the fun of it. I think we were a bit worried that we would've ended up where we left off, in a dark place, don't know what to do — it wasn't like that at all.

Obviously, Flood knows the studio really well. Does it become more of a playground in that way?

Totally. Especially with him — he's a vintage-synth collector. It's like going into a museum of old analog synthesizers. We didn't actually use a lot, but it was great fun playing with them, for sure.


Recording in a nice studio is a change from how you started—your first single, "Chime," was made in your bedrooms. Did you always make stuff at home, or were you making some of the earlier records in bigger studios?

It varied from album to album. We were a bit spoiled because we had to pay for [Wonky] ourselves. It was a business decision that we wanted to do for enjoyment, really. And I suppose, through retrospect, there was the fear of us losing our fire again.

How do you guys divide the work when you make music?

I take more of a role of a producer and he takes more of the role of the writer. But it's a very grey area. Paul sits at the computer. I make musical suggestions that I can play [on keyboards], but it's faster on the computer.

Did you set any kind of parameters when you were making the album?

No. What we did do, though, is we drew a diagram. We were thinking about, "What would be good live?" If we were in this place that we had ever got going on and don't know what to do, we'd refer to this diagram. Not that we followed it to the letter, but it was really good to go on with. We did this flow chart starting with the big bang, if you like — the introduction.


We went into a time vortex, which then led us back to this old track that had never seen the light of day, dragged [it] from the vaults, and brought that up to date. It's called "Stringy Acid." With the advent of dubstep, we wanted to do a similar sort of track. [On the diagram] it's mostly squiggly symbols and squares. ["Beelzedub" is] the dubstep take on "Satan." That was developing live over the two years before.

That's like James Brown, who would rearrange his songs live and then cut them with new lyrics.

Right. The way we play live, we set up our studio onstage, our instruments around us. We use Ableton as our sampler, if you like. We've got no set patterns. Obviously, set patterns in arrangements do end up falling into place, because they sound better that way. But basically, we're improvising with the structure of the song, so we can make the song last a minute or an hour if we like. When you're sending that many messages to the synthesizer, you've got all the frequencies that you can change. That's all going into my mix index, where you've got effects and levels.

The audience really do play a large part in the way we play. If you can see them really enjoying a piece, you sustain it — or you take it away from them if they're not liking it. We're improvising within the structure of the song, really. In rehearsals, our first run-through was two-and-a-half hours long, and it was bad. Now we've whittled it down to 90 minutes. And we still play just the same songs. It's us finding our way, or going off on a tangent, and trying things out — sort of getting ProLogic about it.


"Where Is It Going?" — Wonky's final song — could have been on the first album. It could be on any of your albums, really. Obviously if you're crafting things to fit between your earlier music, it makes sense. But I'm curious if you have been paying any attention in the last few years to a number of young dance producers, such as Lone, who deliberately go for that early-'90s sound?

I do pay attention to it. I don't necessarily get as excited about it as I would have done back then, but I still get excited about it. I don't know if it's had an effect, because once you've been there, you've heard it. But there's a guy called L-Vis 1990 ...

He owns the label Night Slugs.

Yeah. Night Slugs, they've got an old school feel about them, particularly him: very basic 909, a few bits and bobs, very minimal — early house music, really.

It isn't just a couple of people — it's happening all over. It's starting to be like how a '70s rock band would put a reggae song on their album — a lot of younger electronic dance music musicians have to have an "old school" track on their album now.

Right, I know — it's funny, isn't it? I just put it down to their age, really. I don't know how old they must have been in the '90s. God, they might not even been born. [laughs] Just being born, really. There was an '80s vibe going a couple of years ago, wasn't there? It's a phenomenon that does happen quite a lot with house music.