Orbiting the Altogether: An Interview with Orbital

Posted: November 5, 2001 by Sean Flinn in Interviews, Music
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Orbital

With the release of their sixth full-length LP, the brothers Hartnoll have solidified their status as Britain's most successful dance music export.

Despite its multi-national impact, electronic dance music has proffered only a few widely recognizable faces from out of the great bumping masses of DJs, producers and performers – and a pair of those faces belong to the brothers Hartnoll — Paul and Phil. Actually, “faces” is probably a poor word choice there; with the exception of Moby and the model-gorgeous Sandra Collins, you could line up the world’s top deck rockers in a police station, and even the hardest of hardcore ravers would have a tough time picking out the DJ that saved their life last night. The Hartnolls are really no exception — but the name “Orbital” has just about become shorthand for a certain brand of British dance music.

Of course, that’s just about what the Hartnoll’s had in mind when they appropriated the name from the London-encircling M25 highway, along whose paved expanses the first British massives took place. This was back in the heyday of acid house, the late ’80s — early ’90s — when raves first began moving out of the warehouses and into the countryside, their promotion supported by a burgeoning pirate radio network and their future always uncertain. The Hartnolls, weaned on second wave hardcore punk and tweaked-out electronic pop music, gently lobbed their first contributions to the scene (a pair of anonymously produced electro tracks) through Full Frequency range recordings (FFrr), the British dance label that they still call home. In late 1989, they dubbed themselves Orbital and released their first proper single, the now-classic “Chime,” a home-recorded effort that sold out its initial — and all subsequent — pressings.

In the twelve years since “Chime’s” unveiling, the Hartnolls’ career has yielded 5 chart-cracking albums, countless top 20 singles, several headlining slots at the Glastonbury Festival, a main stage appearance at Tribal Gathering and the headlining gig at Woodstock 2 — making Paul and Phil, arguably, Britain’s most successful dance music export. And they’re still going strong. They released their sixth full-length album, The Altogether, in October, 2001, and have embarked on an extensive tour of the US and Europe (forging ahead with international travel despite an ongoing climate of trepidation in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington DC and the growing war in Afghanistan). Additionally, they’ve produced a full-length DVD to accompany the Altogether that features a full 5.1 digital surround sound audio mix of the album and several specially commissioned visual works set to the album’s standout tracks.

Choler caught up with one half of the dynamic duo – Phil Hartnoll — via phone to England shortly before the release of The Altogether to chat about the new album, the impending tour, and the sort of music that keeps the Hartnolls in the air despite the persistent efforts of gravity and other forces to keep the whole world hugging the dirt.

Sean Flinn: A lot of the media surrounding your new album, The Altogether, has been focused on its “lighthearted” and “playful” vibe, relative to your previous albums. What’s your take on all of that? Have people got that right?

Phil Hartnoll: Yeah, I would say so. The only criteria we set out, really, was to try and do shorter tracks – to see if we could say what we wanted to say within about five minutes. But we said that for the last album [1999's The Middle of Nowhere] and it just didn’t work. But this album, the first set of tracks ended up coming in at that time. The albums we’ve produced do sort of reflect the vibe that we’re feeling at the time, and I would say that things were in quite a carefree sort of mood [for The Altogether's recording]. But I think, because of the shorter tracks, we stopped going into these longer pieces, which can end up having their moody bits and going up and down. So, as we did a couple of those, it did set up the vibe of the album. And I would agree that it is quite fun. It’s not “deep,” rather than it’s “lighthearted.” I think that, because of the nature of some of the tracks – you know, we ended up putting the cover version of the Dr. Who theme song that we do on there, and things like that – all those things contributed to it being that type of album.

What motivated you guys to start doing shorter tracks?

Just as a little exercise, really. We just said, “Oh God. This time, let’s try and do something different.” And it’s not criteria that we would stick to if we found ourselves going down a path where we’d end up with a twenty-minute track or something like that — or fifteen, or even ten. A track to us just has to feel right. But we ended up doing what we set out to do, and keeping them short.

And how did you guys go about assembling the album? Where and when did this all begin? How far back do the sessions go?

Cor, blimey.

Yes, he actually said that.

[Thinks hard for a few seconds before confessing the truth.] You’ve got me there. Let me think. I can’t remember. It was probably about two year ago when we started it, and we spent a year making it. It’s been a long time coming out really.

And I know you guys did a DVD to be released in conjunction with the album. Did you guys conceive of doing that at the same time you started doing the album, or did that come later on?

It came along sort of in between. I’ve always wanted to do a DVD, just because of the surround sound aspect of it. It was the audio, really, and the DVD format allows that. Nowadays, people are much more tuned into it – it’s much more accessible than it ever was. Certainly it’s becoming more of a video format, and the people selling the machines – since you can’t record your favorite TV show on a DVD – they’re really pushing the surround sound home theater vibe. Which is perfect for us, because we’ve always loved that; we’ve always been trying to get into surround sound.

So it wasn’t really at the beginning [of The Altogether's recording] when we decided to do it. It went along more with the idea that we wanted to try this, if we could. When we recorded it, we went into a studio that enabled us to do the surround sound mix, just in case our record company allowed us to do the DVD release. And when we brought down the managers and directors and all that to listen to it, they were blown away by it. So they said, “Oh yeah, OK, let’s do it!” Then it escalated from there. I thought, “Oh God. I’ve got to come up with some visuals now.” Which wasn’t a problem – it was actually really, really good. It turned out about a thousand times better than I ever thought it would, because of the audio and because we’ve got a lot of directors that we know and visual people that really, really wanted to get involved with it. Also, on the visual side, you can be a lot more experimental with it, really. You can have many different angles, different cuts, you know. You can also put some dialogue in, and have audio on / audio off. It doesn’t have to be MTV-friendly. So they just jumped at the chance. And because we were on quite a conservative budget for the video side of things, it worked out really well.

Can you describe what some of the visuals are like, for those of us who haven’t had a chance to see the DVD yet?

Oh it’s a real mixture of stuff, really. A bit like the album, I suppose, in styles. A couple of tracks are videos that we generated for our live shows. And we got the guy, John Thacker, who does all of our live video stuff, to do some re-edits so it worked with the DVD. There’s a full animation, which is really good, for the track “Oi,” which this big, big company actually donated because they wanted to push their animator. I loved the idea that he came up with, and we kept going, “Oh go on, go on. Do it. Do it.” And they did, in the end, because they were so enthusiastic about it, which was really reassuring on a creative level.

So we’ve got this whole animation that was generated for it which would have cost a fortune if they hadn’t given it to us. And there’s this conceptual artist that we know who’d just gone to firework night over here and – do you know what “sparklers” are? Where you just sort of hold them in your hand and sort of turn circles? Anyway, he just went to this big fireworks display, and basically the idea is really, really simple: he just played the tune to loads of people walking past, handed them a sparkler, and got them to dance around. And the way he’s edited it, you can hardly see the people – it’s just that sparkling, tracing sort of thing. So you’ve got something as complex as animation and then something so simple. But because he’s a conceptual artist, it was more of the idea of getting just anybody, spontaneously, doing their own thing.

There’s a hidden track on there, called “Monorail” and it’s just film of all form of monorail in Tokyo. And because you’ve got the two angles [the multiple angel viewing that DVD makes possible], you’ve got that juxtaposed with some sort of American pageant – you know, those guys who wear the fezzes and drive around in little cars -

The Shriners.

Yeah. That’s it. Things like that. That’s pretty funny actually. And then there’s another track that we did [with the song] “Waving, Not Drowning” that has a sort of naïve feel about it. There’s used to be this program, when we were really small kids, called “Playschool,” and it ad a bit like a “Sesame Street” type vibe, a pre-school sort of things. And on “Playschool,” about halfway through the show, they’d go, “Oh, let’s go look at the windows!” And you had a choice of [which windows to go through], and you’d pick a window, go through the arch window, and then you’d go to like a milk bottle factory or something like that and see this little documentary of a milk bottle factory. So, because we’re doing the DVD, we thought, “OK, at that point, we can go through either window and have alternative endings.” So we really sort of messed around with it. One [ending] goes to the CD factory, one goes off on a different tangent. So there’s a lot to play around with.

But essentially it was for the audio side. In my opinion, you can watch a video maybe 10 times and you pretty much know it, whereas with your favorite tune, you can play that about 30 times. So, I do think that the important side was the audio.

So the video was something that you wanted to do, but it was really just to enhance what people were getting with the audio and the 5.1 sound.

Yeah, when DVD-A comes in, I won’t feel pressured. But trying to fill a DVD without visuals is not really in the public domain yet.

I think Bjork may have just done that with her new album, Vespertine. But she’s the first and only person I’ve seen to do that.

Well, the visuals that we’ve done are fantastic, but I didn’t want it to look like “ambient TV,” that you got many moons ago, where it was just like fractals and “Hey – this is the new thing.” This is a bit more interactive. We have had fun with the media on the visual side, but like I say, you can only truly watch something so many times, whereas with the audio side … It will be good when more artists do do that, because then it opens it up to many more bands. It becomes not much more expensive to do the 5.1 surround sound mix, whereas if you’ve got them to accompany it with some sort of visual because that’s what’s expected, it’s an added pressure that would stop some bands from doing it, really.

Yeah. It will probably take more accessible devices being able to read the format before it takes off. While we’re talking about visuals – I know that when Orbital is on tour, your work is accompanied by some pretty extravagant video presentations. That led me to wonder how visual your music is — when you go into the studio, do you ever form sort of a mental visual image of what it is that you want to put together? Is there an inner cinema that you’re crafting a soundtrack for?

>Not really, no. I mean, there are some personal things that sort of conjure up with certain tracks or when you’re making music, it can spark off your visual imagination, if you like. But when it comes to [Orbital's] live [shows], we work closely with this guy called Giles, and we sit down together and chat about things and moods and stuff, and he goes off and ignores us and does his own thing.

[Laughs.]

No he doesn’t really. But we sit around and chat about the vibe of stuff, and the atmospheres, and things like that, which is fantastic. It’s a lovely creative extension that we really, really enjoy doing for live [performances]. The same with the lighting design. That’s all sort of mood enhancing, really. I just like taking it one step further and putting a lot behind it, even Giles coming up with some wacky screen configurations and making it more theatrical. It’s an enjoyable process, but it’s definitely a collaboration with other people – the same person all the time. He’s worked with us for ages, so he knows where we’re all coming from, and it works well.

And we can pretty much expect that from the tour that you guys are about to embark on here?

Yeah, we’re bringing all of the video projection with us.

Now – speaking of the tour and travel – you guys are basically going to be flying over here from England. Are you nervous at all about getting on a plane right now?
[Note: we conducted this interview about 2 weeks after the World Trade Center / Pentagon tragedy, which was still very fresh in everyone's mind at the time.]

No. When the World Trade Center towers went down, I was actually in Turkey, which is, essentially, a huge Muslim country. And it [the terrorist attacks] is not a Muslim thing – that’s what everybody’s talking about now, anyway. But I was over there with my family, and even the day before, actually, some 300 hundred yards down the road, a suicide terrorist bomber let himself off in a bank – and that was just 300 yards down the road from my hotel – and killed three policemen and an Australian tourist. Also, growing up in London and having bombs go off all over the place and the threat of bombs, I’ve been brought up that way, really. And you can’t help it. I’ve been on many planes since, because we’ve been to Spain, and we’ve been to Athens. We’ve been all over the place. I’ve probably been on about 10 different plane journeys since that awful thing. What has happened, is that the security is so, so high now. It’s probably the safest time to travel, really – but then again, you can’t help just sitting there thinking. I get nervous anyway, thinking that the thing is going to crash, let alone have anything else happen to it. But it does cross your mind, obviously.

There was a sort of, “Are we going, or are we not? Are we going to America?” moment. I think some people were a bit more nervous – because there are about 12 of us in our crew – some people were a bit more nervous than others. But it never occurred to me not to come or anything like that. It’s just a matter of, “Are people up for it?” And I think in situations like that, you need to be up for it. You can sit there worrying to death. And it is good to be aware and it is good to have a handle on it and be realistic about it, but it’s also good in times like this to go out and just go mad and have a bit of a blow out – forget your troubles. And that’s what we’re providing.

Well, I know a lot of people here really appreciate the fact that most of the acts that were going on tour here haven’t cancelled their shows.

But a lot of them have, haven’t they? A few have. A lot of English bands.

Yeah, I know Nick Cave cancelled his. [Note: He has since re-scheduled the full tour.]

And I hear Coldplay as well. They cancelled. And I think the Manic Street Preachers said that they’re not going. I can understand [doing that] out of respect or something but not … you’d end up not doing anything at all [if you let it get to you too much]. It’s like I said: when I was in Turkey, that happened, and you just don’t know. Wherever you are. It can be in London. It can be anywhere.

Exactly. That kind of leads me to wonder too – a lot of people turn to music, obviously, in times like this for some sort of uplift or catharsis. What kind of music do you listen to when you need to be lifted up or when you need to get something out?

Well, in times of madness, really, it’s quite thrashy, hard music. And there’s these guys over here called Plump DJs who make dance sort of stuff, but it’s hard and chunky. That’s what I would [listen to]. I wouldn’t go off into this nihilist film soundtracky world or anything like that. I tend to have a bit more uplift to get me going and make me a bit more energetic. And I’ve been listening to them not consciously thinking that I need something like that, but it’s quite uplifting to me. They’re on a record label called “The Whole Nine Yards” that’s got a good compilation out at the moment, which is really sort of chunky beats and rhythms. So that’s what I’ve been listening to recently, over the last week.

I wanted to finish this off by asking one last question about the new album. I noticed that a lot of the material on there [the whole second disc, for starters] is stuff that you guys have been playing live for a while or different versions of songs that have appeared on previous albums. “An Fromhair” appeared on The Middle of Nowhere in a different form as Otoño, for example. All of which leads me to wonder how you guys view your body of work as a whole. Do you conceive of each album as a single entity, or are you building something that’s more of a continuum that’s moving from album to album?

I see it more like snapshots of time, really. They’re like photographs, I suppose. If you go further back, to albums like Snivilization, that was almost bordering on a concept – you know: “How crap is this world? Everybody thinks they’re so good, and they’re really crap.” Or the situation we find ourselves in now – “You call this civilized? It’s hardly civilized.” That’s the kind of angle we were going off on there. And you get In Sides, which was much more Jon Barry-esque film soundtracky, because that’s what we were listening to, and we got inspired by that. And some weird things were going on in our lives at that time as well. A couple of mates died and things like that, and so it’s all very melancholy. So that was a bit more of a “body of work,” I suppose, in itself. The Middle of Nowhere was a bit like that as well, really. This one [The Altogether] just seems like sort of snapshots. I don’t know where we’re going next – neither of us knows where we’re going next. And before any of these albums, we didn’t really know until we sat down and started going, “Oh, all right, a new album. Let’s see what we can come up with.”

But we’ve got these laptops now, and we can actually do music wherever we want. The technology has evolved so much that you can have a studio in your pocket, as it were. So it’s very exciting for us, this next period, but we haven’t got any ideas like, “Oh let’s write an album like this,” or, “Let’s write an album like that.” I think Snivilization was the only one where we sat down [and said that]. Whereas with these, I think we’re going to find a lot more similar maybe to The Altogether, but a bit more driving, really. Or a bit more dance-y. I don’t know – that’s the idea I’ve got, but you never know until you actually do it.

So you guys plan to write on the road now that you’ve got more portable technology?

Yeah. Totally. We’re really gearing up for that. Whether it will happen or not, I don’t know, but we’ve got the equipment to – and it really is just a laptop now, which is fantastic.

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