The Hartnoll brothers, AKA Orbital, are back – and in Bristol next month as part of The Downs’ all-star festival line-up. Having spent three decades making music, the veteran dance duo have been on quite the journey since those Halcyon days…
Named after the M25, for many the route to illegal raves in those late 1980s, early 1990s years when dance music emerged from the shadows in a burst of love and technicolour, Orbital are approaching 30 years of amazing live shows.
The fact they’re in their third decade, and have a new album in the works, is a testament to the band’s love of their craft in the face of family feuds (the brothers spent years apart after one row) and the passage of time.
But dance music fans can rejoice that Orbital will be playing at The Downs Bristol on Saturday 1 September and are still as hungry to perform as they were back in the days when tracks like Chime and Halcyon had them dancing from Dundee down to Dorking. The Bristol Magazine grabbed the chance to talk to Paul Hartnoll, one half of the band, about their love for Bristol, fear over the current state of the world, Star Wars and…morris dancing.
What can you tell us about the new album and its theme?
It came about quite quickly on the technical side. It started around October 2017, pulling in ideas and tracks that I’d had hanging around. As soon as you start thinking about making an album you have all these bits and pieces that you feel belong on it. I’ve always got loads of tracks, loads of half written things and so on. The album came together under its title Monsters Exist and things started falling into place after that. As far as an instrumental album can have a theme, that’s it – monsters exist.
Rather than preaching to people about what the monsters are, it’s more of a road sign, do you know what I mean? “Warning – monsters ahead!” just to remind people because I think at this moment in time, especially politically, we are living in a world of monsters. Whether that’s Brexiteering idiots like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage or Victorian lunatics like Jacob Rees-Mogg, we’re in a funny place. Then you’ve got Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un like two schoolboys having a pissing competition over nuclear weapons. How futile is that?
So there you are, Monsters Exist. Now I’m telling you who I think the monsters are but I’d rather not do that because everyone has their own monsters don’t they?
When Orbital started in the late 1980s it felt like something was changing for good, with green politics entering the mainstream and things like the Berlin Wall coming down. It feels like we’ve suddenly gone backwards, is that how it feels to you?
One thing I have noticed, having been on this planet for 50 years, is that things go in cycles, they do come around again. Sadly that means facism and right wing-ism comes into fashion again and then disappears again. Misogyny comes and goes – well, mostly it goes, hopefully. All of a sudden in England it seems okay to be racist – what? When did that become acceptable again? It’s ridiculous.
There was an element of fighting against that sort of thing in the 1980s as the rave generation appeared. Not that we were having much influence, aged 18 to 19, but it was part of a wider movement of tolerance and alternative thinking which I think is still there and I still have faith in it. I still see a twinkle in peoples’ eyes, people who I call the ‘post-rave people’. It must be like being in California and seeing post-hippy people, they’re still living a slightly alternative lifestyle. So if there’s one good thing that came out of that late 1980s/early 1990s then it’s the legacy of those people.
Do you still get nervous when you’ve made an album and you’re in the period between finishing it and it going on sale?
No, it’s exciting. If I’m nervous then I know the album’s bad! I really like it and I’m interested to see what people think of it. To be honest, if everyone hated it I wouldn’t mind because I like it and I’m happy in my own skin that I like it. That’s the key, you’ve got to be happy in yourself. It’s the book that was written – that’s what we’ve got.
After a while apart, does it feel different being back in the studio?
It feels different regarding the brothers dynamic, the human side of it. We’re working with other people in ways that we never have before, which is really nice. We’ve never had studio assistants but now we’ve got a guy who comes in and you think ‘ah, brilliant, someone else can do that bit’. As brothers we’ve decided that whatever happens over the next few years, if we clash or fall out, the one thing that can’t be allowed to happen is the band being dissolved. Even if we’re travelling around in separate cars and never talking, we’ll still carry on.
Do you know what it is; after having five years off from Orbital I realised that I’d trained and learned to do one thing really well, so why wasn’t I doing it? With Orbital I’ve got this amazing situation where I can do whatever I want and I can do it in these lovely, great big forums like The Downs. Why wouldn’t you do that? Why stop using the name and struggle to start again? The only thing that was stopping that joyous explosion of art was falling out with my brother so it was time to get back on it again. And so far, so good!The live show is developing well; the duo constantly add new elements. Image by Gavin Batty
Technology has evolved as the band’s career has progressed, has that changed the sound or any other element of the band?
I think instruments evolve and it always helps what you’re doing, that’s what happened in the late 1980s/early 1990s. We could suddenly afford to buy all this equipment that before was only for the likes of Kraftwerk or Jean-Michel Jarre and Yellow. Normal kids could afford it so it hit the streets, basically, and that’s where this big explosion came from, starting with electro and then house music was the big change.
Technology is still progressing but it’s a slow process. We’re at the point where you can pretty much do anything but it’s often when people find cracks in the system, where something does something it wasn’t intended for, that interesting stuff happens. Acid house, for example, came out of what was essentially a crap bassline machine.
I think the biggest problem now, because the door is so wide open as regards technology, is knowing when to stop, when not to overcrowd a song or album. Back in the day you’d have five synths and a drum machine or two, 16 channels on the desk and when all those things were full that was it, you’d finished because you couldn’t do anything else and that limitation was a good thing. Now it’s important to listen to the composition and not obsess about technology, it’s about making the right piece of music and knowing when it’s done. It’s a really big skill for people who write and produce music – knowing when to stop. People who are good at that are normally prolific.
What are your impressions of Bristol?
It’s one of those cities that’s always been really vibrant and good for Orbital. I don’t know why it is but we can go on tour around the country and do some really good gigs elsewhere but you can guarantee Bristol will be sold out and they just ‘go up to 11’ here a bit more than in other places. It’s always a good gig and the last time we came, to the O2 Academy, was just stunning. It was full and that’s a really interesting venue because it feels like everybody is completely surrounding you. I think the only time we haven’t sold out was in the early days when we played the Thekla but it would have been around 1990 and people were still trying to wake up to dance music.
Can you give us any hints about what we can expect at The Downs?
I can guarantee we’ll play everybody’s favourite tunes and three tracks from the new album. We want to tease the new material but what I don’t want to do is turn up to a festival and play all the new songs.
The live show is developing well and by the time we come to Bristol we’ll be gearing up for our own shows later in the year so it’s likely there will be some new things that I haven’t even thought about. We’re constantly working on the show, adding new elements.
…Morris dancing has become a ritual now; if anyone sees me looking like I’m picking up a bucket with my foot, that’s what it is…
Do you have any pre-show habits or rituals?
For an hour before the gig I can’t talk to anyone. Well I can, but I’m not listening to what they’re saying or what I’m saying. I just nod. I’ll go and watch a band if I can, I like that mirror thing of feeling what it’s like to be in the audience, to get a real feeling of the other side. I also nearly always go on stage when the crew are doing the changeover because I like to get a feel for the stage so I’ll sneak on, minding my own business and maybe tune a synth or something.
The other thing I’ve started doing recently, because I’ve always liked to stretch a bit or run on the spot before a gig, is morris dancing. So I practice my Bledington morris dancing, and that has become a ritual now; I feel a bit weird if I haven’t managed to do it. So if anyone sees me doing something slightly strange that makes me look like I’m picking up a bucket with my foot then that’s what it is.
We assume you don’t put the full outfit on?
No, but the guys tell me it’s not quite right if I’m not wearing it, that’s what my fellow dancers tell me.
Do you have a preference between working in the studio or playing live or are they just two parts of the same job?
It’s variety, it’s nice to do different things. If we’ve been doing loads of live shows I can’t wait to get back into the studio. If we’ve been in the studio for a while I can’t wait to go on the road again. How good is that? We’ve just finished working on our DJ set for later this year; I’d done the live set and the album had been finished and mastered. I’m now trying to stay out of the studio and rest my ears for the summer. As we talk now I’m standing in my garden, soaking up the sun.
…These days I feel like Yoda, sat in his little hut on a funny planet, rather than Luke Skywalker trying to find his place in the universe. I’ve made my peace with that…
That’s my intention, to have a break, but I know that after a few days I’ll start obsessing about tracks I can remix or something else. We’ve just done a track with Professor Brian Cox which is almost like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, background music with Brian delivering this epic speech about the state of the world and the universe and everything. I kept listening to it and thinking “ooh, you could make a great house track out of that”. I can’t keep myself away sometimes. But for 30 years I haven’t had to ‘work’ a single day. It’s been brilliant. I’m doing what I love. If you give me two weeks off I’ll spend it writing music.
Is there anything you’re listening to in your spare time right now or any collaborations you’d like to make happen?
We’re planning on doing some re-recordings of old tracks next year to mark 30 years of Orbital. There will be a celebratory album with new material as well. Because we play certain tracks live they become different over time in the live arena compared to how they are on the record. So we’re planning for the album to be a mixture of the original version and the live version. It won’t be like Kraftwerk’s The Mix where they really changed everything but there will be new versions of the greatest hits, if you like.
What I’d really like to do is get some top-drawer remixes done, from our peers and people that were heroes of ours. Mobilising people into that sort of thing is like herding cats however, so we’ll see.
Where do you think Orbital’s place is in the dance music sphere now?
I feel like Yoda rather than Luke Skywalker these days, and I’ve made my peace with that. For most of the time I’ve felt like Luke Skywalker, the bloke bumbling around trying to find his place in the universe, knowing there’s something good out there but not quite grasping it. Now I feel like Yoda, sat in his little hut on a funny planet with not that many people paying attention but anyone who does maybe finding some gold there. When I walk onto stage now I’m still nervous – you’d be mad not to be – but I feel comfortable, I know how to do this.
• Orbital play The Downs Bristol on Saturday 1 September with Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Paul Weller, Goldie, Basement Jaxx and many more. For tickets and more information see thedownsbristol.com