“We can make a song last an hour or a minute, if we want.”
If there is anything that Orbital can fall back on, it’s history. The brotherly English duo, entering the electronic music galaxy formally in 1990, slowly became a pillar to the country’s electronic music scene. Their evolution from acid house mainstay to electronica stalwart exemplified their adaptability and the overall growth of the music field in general. Eight years after their last album, Blue Album, and the split that came with it, the duo returned to the studio after a successful series of reunion tours, with a focus on recapturing the spirit from their early days and fitting it into a contemporary context. The result, Wonky, exemplifies this in many ways, from the callback “Stringy Acid” to the reworking of a classic, “Beelzedub.”
Talking transcontinentally over Skype with Phil Hartnoll, we discussed this aspect of history at length, from the gear and the technique to the scene itself. We also talked at length about working with collaborators Flood and Zola Jesus, and becoming paranoid through cats.
Let’s start with the development of Wonky: What drove you back to the studio?
Basically, we decided a couple years ago, when we did the reunion gig for the Big Chill, that it was for fun. And that was what got us together. There was no grand master plan to actually then go on [to record] an album and blah blah blah. So that one reunion gig led to many, kept us going for a year-and-a-half; reunion gigs all around the world. Then, when we got to the end of that, we thought, “Well, you know, we got to stop properly, or we got to carry on, do some more music.” Because we couldn’t just ride around, playing off the back of what we’ve done in our history. And everything goes so well, and the love and the warmth we got back from the audiences and the stuff like that was really encouraging. I and my brother were having fun. So, we decided to try and make some more music. And that’s where Wonky started, really.
And how did it feel to go back into the studio?
Oh, it was great, really, cos we’ve been playing live for a year-and-a-half or so, and we felt right about it, and it was really, really good. It felt like when we first started, back when we started in 1989.
I know Paul worked with Flood before, jointly producing The Music’s album “Strength in Numbers” a few years back. What was it like working with him as your producer, rather than as a collaborative partner?
It was great actually. Essentially, that’s what we wanted, because me and Paul wanted to record it in a big studio, and Flood had a studio like that, a mixing studio. So we called him up, asked him if he had a studio available… He said yeah, then asked if he could join in, basically. It was great fun, really good fun. He sort of processed it. He’s a great processor, and he’s got a great museum of synthesizers. So he ends up processing what we got: He’d take a break beat and turn it into a sequence or something like that. He’s a man with a passion. So it’s really good.
Speaking of those synths, could you describe some of the gear you used?
Yeah. We got this quirky Macbeth M5. They make them up in Scotland, and it’s based on these old analog synthesizers, remixers, that sort of thing. That was one of our mainstays. The Moog Voyager was another one. What else did we use… we had a bit of a quirky one called a Sun Synth. I can’t remember who makes that one, actually. But that’s a very quirky one. Those three were our main synths. We also had 909, 808, and 303 on-hand, as well as an SH-02, and a 101 would pop its head up. That’s the mainstays of them, from what I remember.
You were mentioning a lot of the synths being quirky. Was there one that stood out in your mind?
The Macbeth M5, I’d say. That was a big one. We did a lot of passes, a lot of recordings, and we chopped them up into new sounds, particularly with the track “Beelzedub.” That was really useful.
Has there been much change in the way you’ve been recording since Blue Album?
In the recording process itself, nothing really. Actually, yes: Ableton. We used Ableton in at least one track. Not all the time, where we used Logic before. But we used Logic and Ableton together. So I’d say that was the most significant change really on that front just in the approach. Ableton’s intuitive and quick and easy, but Logic has its advantages as well. We used of mixture of that, and that’s the fundamental difference, really, apart from the attitude and feeling inside the studio, which was major. Other than that, just Ableton.
Could you elaborate further on your thoughts on Ableton? It’s become such a common thing now.
I use it for DJing, which I think is great fun. We also use it for live, playing live. So yeah, it’s really good fun. The big thing about Ableton is that it takes the place of our sampler, obviously, and it provides triggers for all our synths and everything. It’s a very easy, very instant looking sort of thing. Visually, it’s very easy to see what is going on, very quickly. So it’s a very useful tool, for the intuitiveness.
[We’re] always feeding off the audience: The atmosphere, the energy. It encourages us to play, and it becomes freeform, which is what we’ve always done since 1990.
How did you guys meet up with Zola Jesus? And how was performing with her?
Well, that was fantastic. We did the song “New France,” and we both thought it needed a female vocalist. I’d never heard of Zola Jesus, but somebody suggested her, and as soon as I Spotified her, it was like, “Yeah, she’s the girl that we need.” Fantastic, fantastic vocal range, and we like what’s she doing. We like the ambiguous sort of lyrical content, and it’s actually fitting in really well. We asked her transatlantically, and she was totally up for it. She also mentioned that she was coming over to Europe to do a couple of gigs, like when we were recording the album.
So I got her to pop in a couple of days when she was in London, and met her. She’s a fantastic girl, really really lovely. But quite nerdy as well, actually. She was interested in the walls of synthesizers that were surrounding her. So we spoke about a couple things, and she just jammed for a couple days. Then we used all the material after she left, and we fit it into the song as it went along. But yeah, she’s entirely great, she’s fantastic to work with, great girl. Really, really interesting, and we totally love her voice.
Going into a couple songs here, Beelzedub stands out, to me, for it starts out this sort of obligatory dubstep track that a lot of non-dubstep electronic artists are doing in the last two years, before you completely shift direction into something else completely. What was the thinking going into that track?
It’s a reworking of our track “Satan” that we’ve always played live. And the way we played it live is very adaptable. We’re improvising with the structure of the song. Since 1990, we’ve always played that track, and it’s always developed through just that gun. When we got back together, and we were playing live, “Satan” was in there, and we started half-timing it, and started giving it a more drum-and-bassy sound and half tempo. With this album, we were out DJing quite a lot and trying things out.
You know, I really love the bits and the bops of dubstep, and I love the technique that they use for the bass. So we were just having some fun with the “Satan” thing, and it was purely for the fun of it: The fun of adding some dubstep wobble banks into it, because we were half-timing it anyway. So that sort of developed that way. When we went to Flood, it was Flood who really got into it. We never intended to put it on the album, because it was just a live thing. But when Flood heard it, he just begged us to put it on the album. So that’s what we did.
Just to reiterate because you cut out a little there, the basis of “Beelzedub” is that you half-timed Satan and added some dubstep wobble to start, correct?
Yeah. We do enjoy a bit of dubstep. I enjoy a bit of everything. I do love the fat bass wobble that they got in there. So we just sort of play around with that for fun. It wasn’t like we got an obligatory dubstep track in there cos that’s the in thing at the moment or anything like that at all. It’s just like dubstep has been around with us, do you know what I mean? And like I was saying, it wasn’t an idea to put it on the album ever until Flood really begged us to put it on there because he loved it.
Now, Wonky, while the song is definitely interesting, the music video’s something else. First, to paraphrase the KLF, why cats?
(Laughs) Cos the noise sounds like ‘em. There’s a noise in there that sounds like cats meowing. That’s where the inspiration for that came from for the video. The cats going (sing-song) “meow meow meow!” At the time, Lady Leshurr was hard to track down for one reason for another to join in the video. Mat Horne and Will Sheridan, the dudes that made the video, they came up with a treatment. We always called it “Cats” in the studio, and they happened to come up with the same thing, coincidentally. We thought, “Yeah, let’s go with it.” It wasn’t like we disagreed with them at all because we called it “Cats” on the stripe anyway. So it was quite funny.
I guess you were trying to capture the sort of paranoid aspects of the song in the video?
Yeah, definitely, wonky. That’s definitely what we were going for. It began as an instrumental, and we were playing it up, DJing it live a lot. The idea came up to get a rapper, Missy Elliot-type, willing to play quite late in the day when were recording it. The idea essentially was for it to be a bit disorienting on the dance floor with the big off-key bell. Trying to put it out a bit wonky, really. So yeah, the video picked up on that, and they went with it: To be a bit wonky, a bit paranoid, a bit “oooohwawhoouh,” rather than a joyous celebration. (chuckles)
We couldn’t just ride around, playing off the back of what we’ve done in our history.
Going into your live setup, what gear are you using, and what has changed since reuniting?
Since we reunited, the fundamental difference is… well, the live setup is all analog synthesizers, all around us: The 909, 303, SH-02, the Macbeth M5, the Voyager, the Sun Synth. These are all the live synthesizers, and I’m sure I’m forgetting another thing..a Slim Fatty. There’s a couple other bits and bobs I’ve probably forgotten. But those are our main synthesizers, our mainstay, which we send out our MIDI to. We run it on Ableton, and now, this time, we’ve triggered them from iPads via the remote control hookup that you get with Ableton. We’ve got in touch with the programmers and they developed the program more so that now, we’ve got three iPads running in conjunction with the remote control essentially. Basically, every individual part is broken down. Nothing is in a pre-arrangement, so we’re improvising with the structure of the song. The Ableton audio clips are triggered from these points as well, which obviously takes the place of a sampler. And then everything is coming into my mixing desk in front of the audience, and we’ve got all the creative techniques with the mixing desk that you can use for live as well. We can make a song last an hour or a minute, if we want. But we’re always feeding off the audience: The atmosphere, the energy. It encourages us to play, and it becomes freeform, which is what we’ve always done since 1990. I think what’s really changed is that the iPads and Ableton have taken the space of the Emax sampler and the Alesis MMT8 sequencer, of which we used to have a bank of three, with eight buttons on each. Essentially, it’s the same way we played since 1990, but with different gear. It’s an organic process.
Going into the iPads themselves, has that simplified the process?
Actually, it’s no different. It’s a bit more complex than we used to be able to do with the sequencers. Just agreeing to bass drum, hi-hat, snare drum, bass… whatever you had. So, now, it’s more you can be a bit more complex. You can have more complex stuff going on with the Ableton and the iPads than the Alesis MMT8 and samplers. But it’s really the technique and the way of improvising the structure that’s the most important thing.
Something that stuck out in my mind in recent years, I recall an interview in which Boards Of Canada acknowledged they were brothers, and they avoided mentioning that fact to people because they didn’t want to be compared to you, for whatever reason. Which brings me to ask, do you feel the dynamic is different working with Paul than it is working with others? I ask you specifically, given your prior experience with Nick Smith for The Long Range.
Yeah, it’s different. It’s hard to know, really. It’s a hard thing to know whether it’s… I mean, it’s easier, I think, because we’re brothers. We’ve obviously got very similar backgrounds and upbringing, we got very similar experiences from a very early age together, and enjoy music together. So we got all that history, whereas our friend Nick Smith hasn’t got all that history. Sometimes, it depends on the individual. Sometimes, you can say, like, with Paul we go, “I know, I know, I know,” and nobody gets offended or anything like that. Whereas working with new people, you have to be a bit more diplomatic, a bit more careful how you say things, really. So we can be brutally honest with each other, whereas you have bit more diplomatic with other people that aren’t my brother. But that’s my initial thought on that, really.
You keep referencing throughout the course of this interview about sounding since you did when you started out back in 1990. Was that the mindset you were in when you started out this reunion?
Not really. It’s more a mindset when we got into the studio again making music together. We weren’t particularly happy with the last two albums before we split up. You could probably make one decent album out of the two. And when you’re starting to put music out that you’re not particularly proud of, or something’s wrong there… That is what made us stop, essentially. That’s not a good feeling. (lamenting) “Oh, I dunno” is what it sounds like. You start questioning yourself, and what you’re doing. So when we did make Wonky, it was very enjoyable, and it was very free. We were enjoying nearly every minute of it, really, as when we first started. Yeah, it was important to retain that, keep it enjoyable, and keep it fun. Which is why essentially we wanted to have some fun in a big studio and have a third set of ears. And thus why we went to work with Flood.
Being around so long, what have you noticed in British electronic music that you didn’t see when you started out?
I dunno. I always thought of it as a big electronic tree, the way it’s all grown. You have its roots in the 1960s, with Hi-NRG and disco, coming up through the 1970s and 80s. Then you had house music and techno coming up through the 1990s, and it all branched off. You got British house and British techno, and jungle, drum and bass, dubstep. All these different branches coming off. And now, it’s more like weeping willow, cos now we got 20-year-olds now sort of emulating or doing music that reminds you of Chicago house, for instance, and they were one when that first came out. So it’s all just growing, and that’s the way I see it. I find it really interesting what does come out, and it’s still very exciting to me.
I can’t say I’ve seen anything specific, all I’ve seen is growth. I think the fundamental change, I suppose, is that in 1990 you go to a club, say an acid-house club, and there’d be only one type of music playing: Acid house or techno. And now you have 70 different clubs with different club nights. We got drum-and-bass night, we got dubstep night, we got techno night, we got house night, we got happy hardcore night, and “Oh, let’s go retro! Back to the 90’s” night. You got lots of different styles out there that now have a different night and different club.