Orbital: "It’s embarrassing to be called 'icons' but at least it's better than being called 'wankers'"
Straight off the back of their 10th studio album, the Hartnoll brothers talk working with Stephen Hawking, raving in the ‘90s and how they keep their live sets fresh
In the midst of lockdown in 2020, Paul Hartnoll was sitting in his Brighton home listening to records. Despite having spent over three decades before the pandemic creating music as one half of Orbital - along with his brother Phil - Hartnol was finding his productions had a new quality — they were disparate and disjointed. “It was all over the place,” he says. “Not in a bad way, but the pandemic made me settle.”
While cooped up, Paul found himself attracted to the sounds of “90s Californian rave” – in particular the West Coast breaks sounds the likes of Hardkiss pioneered in San Francisco over three decades ago. “It’s a softer kind of sound [to UK rave music],” he says. “How far that went into the album? I don’t know. But the pandemic made me want it to be cozy – like that Californian vibe and part of that for me was ethereal vocals.”
Now nearly three years later, following more lockdowns and society’s gradual re-acclimatisation to social and human contact, Orbital have just released their 10th studio album ‘Optical Delusion’. The pandemic is a theme of the album, with single ‘Ringa Ringa (The Pandemic Folk Song)’ perhaps the most prescient example of its influence, and Paul’s subsequent attraction to floaty vocals is evident. Featuring singing from The Mediaeval Babes, it reinterprets the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’, which is believed to have originated from The Great Plague of the 17th Century. Other collaborations with the likes of Anna B. Savage on ‘Home’ and Penelope Isles on ‘Are You Alive’ also drip with dreaminess.
But the pandemic is by no means definitive on the album. ‘Optical Delusion’ marks the first time that the brothers have worked almost exclusively separately, with Phil spending most of the recording process shielding, and the first time he has released tracks that he made on his own. For him, the pandemic barely crossed his mind. “I was thinking more hedonistic[ally],” Phil says. “The three tracks on the album I did had no pandemic ideas at all.” And what a stormer number 10 is, ranging from the otherworldly ‘The New Abnormal’ to the confrontational ‘Dirty Rat ft. Sleaford Mods’, to even glitchy hyperpop ‘You Are the Frequency’. Fans also agree, with the album hitting number six in the charts – the first time in nearly a quarter of a century that Phil and Paul have found themselves in the top 10, since their 1999 LP ‘The Middle of Nowhere’.
Read this next: 10 startling photos from The Arcadia Spider’s incendiary Glastonbury return
Paul and Phil are calling in from their studio in Brighton, with synthesisers, drum machines and all manner of analogue hardware lining every edge and corner of the room. The brothers are fine-tuning their iconic live set for an upcoming tour across the UK – a nine-date jaunt across the country in March and April taking them from Glasgow to Bristol.
To celebrate the new album we caught up with Phil and Paul to chat about collaborating with Stephen Hawking, Glastonbury, and what keeps them excited about music after so long in the industry.
What was the process like for making the album, given that you were recording separately?
Phil: Well, Paul wrote things in his place and I wrote things in mine!
Paul: We didn’t bounce things backwards and forwards. We tried it but it didn’t work.
Phil: Most of the time they were almost finished tracks by the time we bounced things off each other. I wrote ‘You Are the Frequency’, ‘Moon Princess (ft. Coppé)’ and ‘What a Surprise (ft. The Little Pest)’. ‘You Are the Frequency’ is about getting absorbed by the frequency. ‘What a Surprise’ was basically a play around on an idea that I had where The Little Pest’s vocals come in and out. The lyrics were meant to be: “What a surprise, I’ve been radicalised, started when I was baptised” – but he forgot to sing the “when I was baptised” bit. ‘Moon Princess’ was a collaboration with a Japanese girl called Coppé, who has this record label Mango + Sweetrice. She’s a performance artist who’s an amazing pianist and singer, performs as a jellyfish from outer space – I love her. I played her that track and she loved it and turned that into ‘Moon Princess’, I’m quite nocturnal so that appealed to my sentiment. They were the three tracks on this album that I did and there were basically no pandemic ideas at all. Paul and I collaborated on the Sleaford Mods track. I did the bit at the beginning, then Jason [Williamson, Sleaford Mods vocalist] sang over it and then Paul finished it off. It was interesting because Orbital is usually a bit more suggestive, but Jason came back with some brilliant lyrics, which were really in your face and appealed to our punk backgrounds as well – and it came out on the day Liz Truss ungracefully left office.
You guys have had a few hiatuses, what keeps you coming back to Orbital?
Paul: Because it’s fun. Who doesn’t like wielding an articulated lorry of lights and synthesisers around the country and getting to play it loud? Why wouldn’t you? Basically these tracks [on the studio album], what you’re hearing is their composition and how it is now, but then you take them on the road and then you test I and then they develop a life of their own. Tracks like ‘Chime’ – for me it has never died because although it came out on a 12-inch, that’s not how we play it now. We’ve been playing it for 30-odd years, and it develops and changes all the time. It might stay the same, but sometimes it will reset and go back to how it was originally and you rediscover it – and that’s nice.
Phil: There’s no backing tracks or anything like that, so with the structure of the songs we’re not restricted by anything. When you want a bass drum, Paul presses the bass drum button, it’s as simple as that.
How much of it is improvised on the spot?
Paul: The arrangement is improvised. The sequences are all ready to go as clips, but there’s no [set] length of song, so it can be stretched out. I’ve just been playing around this morning with ‘Ringa Ringa’, and it’s really nice pulling all the drums apart – I’ve got four layers of drums but it’s really nice playing just two of them. It sounds different – almost like a disco beat – which makes you play stuff on the top differently. I don’t play keyboards live, because of the nature of repetitive, synchronised techno sounds – it’s all about sequences and MIDIs and you build the sounds as you go along.
Have you ever been completely out of sync?
Paul: There’s been a couple of times in the past where I’ve gone: “I’m going to drop it down to the drums,” right at the same time that Phil decides to mute the drums, and then there’s silence. Then you’ve got your mental clock in your head and you think: “I think I can bring the bass back in… Now.” Generally speaking, that just makes you laugh – you know you’re going to make mistakes but that’s the point, you’re making an adventure of it. You’re looking at the audience and thinking: “What can I do to you now? How can I play you this new track? Oh this doesn’t seem to be working, how can I make it work then?”
Phil: We go and see many electronic live acts, and sometimes you go there and it [sounds] just like the CD. Like great, I like this track, but it sounds exactly like they’ve tried to replicate the studio version. I want it to sound a bit different – we are a bit rough and ready and raw – even though people sometimes don’t know what we’re doing up there, I think they feel it and they know that it’s really rough and ready and live sounding.
Sounds like that ‘90s analogue attitude.
Phil: Yeah, well that’s exactly what it is. Nothing’s changed, apart from the sequencer.
Paul: Instead of using Alesis MMT-8 sequencers, now I use an iPad with my own custom buttons on it and I punch them in and out instead of punching the buttons on that in and out. The methodology is the same, so it’s nice – I don’t have to think about computers.
What are the most memorable times you’ve had playing out?
Paul: Glastonbury ’94 was big, because that was the biggest gig we’d ever done. And I have to say Glastonbury ’95 was pretty shocking as well – playing in front of those sized audiences doesn’t happen very often. We play a lot of 5,000 to 10,000 capacity festival stages, but at Glastonbury apparently there were apparently 40,000 at the first one and then about 95,000 at the second one, it was mental. I’m not going to say they were all waiting for Pulp to come on afterwards – they may have all been there because they’d just seen Björk! At Glastonbury they didn’t really have any dance music back then, so to be able to take all this to the main stages was brilliant.
Phil: ‘94 was the pinnacle in the sense that even though they’d had people like The Orb and acts who were a bit electronic, it wasn’t like us. And then Michael Eavis got the fact that two people twiddling knobs and pushing buttons could actually work, and the audience reaction was like “woah” – there’s something here. Now they’ve got a huge dance field, it was trailblazing – Michael Eavis said himself that it was the “pinnacle” into switching them onto electronic music. Also, at the time a lot of indie kids didn’t get dance music, and there was a lot of anti-dance music coming out of publications like NME and Melody Maker. I had loads of people coming up to me and saying: “Ah yeah, my mate took me there and I dragged my heels kicking and screaming – and when I saw you then it really switched me on to electronic sounds.” Because we sampled guitars and whatnot, we seemed a bit of a crossover band at the time with introducing indie kids into [dance music]. But the other big one is the opening ceremony at the Paralympics with Stephen Hawking. He sent us his speech, we vocoded it and essentially made him sing. He was so fucking brilliant – we got him to wear some torch glasses, and he had to take his off and he couldn’t see jack shit. I made an edit with Steve Mac and sent it off to Stephen, and the next day I get an email back from him and he was like: “I love it, we should release it.” Sadly he didn’t get to see the release, but it came out on the ‘30-Something’ compilation album.
Paul: Apparently there were was something like 10 million people watching it, which is insane.
Phil: When he came off I said to him: “I bet you didn’t think you had such a good singing voice did you?” But his sense of humour was amazing – he was amazing.
Do you have any surprises in store for your tour in terms of how you’re going to present your live set?
Paul: Well it’s a very different live set to ones that we have been doing. We’ve still got the old favourite tracks – we look at it and always debate whether we can kick certain old classics out and normally we don’t. We don’t get bored of them because you change it up it you get bored. I used to do a thing on ‘Belfast’ because I got bored of it where it would go to a four-to-the-floor kind of thing, then I got bored of that and went back to playing it in a trad kind of way and that’s really nice.
Phil: ‘Satan’ has had all sorts of guises – he would do though wouldn’t he?
Paul: The many faces of Satan.
How do you feel about playing DJ sets, compared to your live sets?
Paul: I haven’t done that for ages, we went through periods of doing that but currently not a big fan, but these things change and develop.
Phil: I’d go out on my own, I love it. But I haven’t had any gigs since the pandemic. In the current climate, it seems like everyone – all the promoters and festivals are getting oppressed and squashed with the finances.
Is the cost of living crisis affecting you guys?
Phil: We’re trying to keep the ticket prices down, but it’s had a knock-on effect on our production. We’ve chosen to have cheaper tickets and have fewer lights.
Paul: But our lighting guy said he wanted a more stripped back kind of vibe for this one, because he listened to the set and said: “I feel like this is more of a rock ‘n’ roll type of set,” because it is a bit more in-your-face, go for it [than before]. So he suggested lots of white lights – like Queen.
There seems to be a bit of a revival in ‘90s influenced dance music right now, is that something you’ve noticed?
Phil: Yeah definitely, my youngest son is 23 and he’s well into it. He keeps playing me stuff that is a bit like early electro, but faster, and I love it and it feels really familiar. It’s almost like nothing much really changes, but it just drifts with underground trends and stuff like that.
Why do you think people are looking back to look forwards?
Paul: I think people always do. In my life I’ve noticed it happen many times, things like punk trying to go back to more of a rock ‘n’ roll sound, two-tone trying to get back to an old ska sound. There’s been fads of trying to sound like the ‘70s, people trying to sound like the ‘80s in the last 10 years, and now we’ve moved onto the ‘90s.
Phil: I’m glad – this is our period. We’re actually going to re-release on vinyl some of our back-catalogue. Warner Music, who owned all of our back catalogue sold London Records – which we were on where Pete Tong worked – to Because Music, and they have got ideas to re-release all of the back catalogue. So to hear that this ‘90s revival is coming round is perfect timing.
So the name Orbital is a reference to rave culture in the ‘90s around the M25, do you have any particular favourite anecdotes or parties from the early days of raving?
Paul: Not that I can remember. But they were really good. Just in general, the feel was really new, fresh and invigorating. If you wanted to go nightclubbing, it would be the sort of place that people would fight afterwards and things like that, and you’d hear shit music all night. You’d be really lucky if you got The Cure or Talking Heads.
Then all of a sudden dance music was a thing, and it was set up in all sorts of different places, like funny warehouses, abandoned buildings, fields and things like that – and it was a [kind of] freedom. Some of them worked better than others – I went to some that were shite, but I went to a lot that were really good as well.
Phil: The best ones I would say were in warehouse squats in King’s Cross, which you wouldn’t even recognise it now. It was squatted by an art company, whose children now run [Glastonbury stage] Arcadia. You’d go over this rope bridge and there was a big weeping willow made out of metal shards, it was like raw punk rock – like Mad Max.
Paul: It was totally like Mad Max, they would drive vehicles around, which looked like they had nuclear rockets on the back of them. They’d hang off the back of them and bang oil drums and stuff like that.
Phil: It was brilliant. You wouldn’t get away with it now, but you would be going around these big warehouses all night – in one corner there would be big smileys, smoke and acid house – and in the other corner there would be a punk rock band. They weren’t ‘free’ raves or around the M25, but they were some of the best ones. With the free raves there was always this cat and mouse thing you had to go through first, it was before mobile phones. Also with Thatcher’s hell-bent mind, she was paying all this money to try and get the police to follow you and close them down – you’d run the risk of going to a field and the police turning up and you’d get your head kicked in.
Did that ever happen to you?
Paul: It happened to me.
Phil: On the ’30-something’ album there’s a brilliant music video for the track ‘Smiley’, and it’s all about that scene when Paul got beaten.
Paul: It’s got a sample from 1989 of me [aged 20] talking about being beaten up by the police on [ITV documentrary] World in Action.
You guys obviously both wore those iconic anti-poll tax t-shirts on Top of the Pops in 1990. What would you wear if you were going on it now?
Paul: Fuck off Saville. I don’t know, you’d have to wear something anti-Brexit or anti-Tory now wouldn’t you.
Phil: The thing is, it’s on their protocols that you’re not allowed to wear anything political on the BBC.
How does it make you feel when people describe you as icons or legendary?
Phil: Well it’s nicer than being called a wanker like usual.
Paul: I don’t know, I always think “surely not” or “thanks”. But you’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt.
Phil: If you believe that you’ve got to believe it when people say you’re shit as well. Like when DJ Mag [printed]: “My two week old baby can mix better than Phil Hartnoll.”
Read this next: How the original rave spirit is still driving youth culture today
What happened there?
Phil: When we first split up, I had two kids and no money coming in, so I thought I’d try and do this DJ thing. I wasn’t a DJ because I was a producer first, so I got myself some decks and learnt how to beatmatch. It was the early ‘00s, there was a lot of breakbeat stuff [coming out] – like Rennie Pilgrem, and little underground clubs going around the country – and I loved it so I jumped in on that. I was getting a couple gigs a month, and Pete Tong said to me: “Phil, why don’t you do one of my Essential Mixes on Radio 1?” And I thought: “Yeah this will be good for my DJ career.” So I got there, and I was just about to go on when someone said to me: “Oi, do you want a line?” And I go “Yeah!” thinking it was coke, and it was fucking ketamine. I never even knew about ketamine and I didn’t know what I was or who I was, and I was there trying to play. It’s all well and good when you’re there, but it didn’t really translate to radio. And some guy wrote into DJ Mag saying: “My two-week old baby can mix better than Phil Hartnoll.”
What does ‘Optical Delusion’ mean to you both personally?
Paul: I’m still here. It’s nice to get into double figures – I wasn’t even counting, someone else pointed that out to me. It’s nice to still be doing things, doing records that you’re still proud of, that you think: “Yeah, I like that album.” But what’s interesting for me though, is what it means next – road testing some of this stuff and seeing what sticks in the set and what doesn’t. I know some of it is not going to work – there’s always tracks from a new album you think: “Ah, next time I won’t play that,” but then certain tracks just sit in the set and go down a storm. You just live and breathe this stuff and see what happens.
Phil: For my own confidence I suppose it proves that I can write tracks on my own. Normally, I will go and play with my cats rather than start working on my own. I love making tracks with other people, but I’ve been really encouraged by dropping some of those barriers I put in front of myself.
Orbital's ‘Optical Delusion’ is out now.
Isaac Muk is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow him on Twitter