Music

20 Questions With Orbital: ‘There’s Just This Open, Puppy Dog Joy That Seems to Come With an American Crowd’

Back when “rave anthem” was still a burgeoning genre staple, Orbital released its 1989 debut single “Chime” and gave the nascent dance scene something to vibe to.

The classic track by the English duo — brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll — was forged from clean synth stabs over acid production, and became both an era-defining track and an eventual standout from the duo’s 1991 self titled debut LP, commonly referred to as “The Green Album” for its lime-toned cover. Dually celestial and hard-edged, the album also includes classics like “Belfast” and “Midnight” and put the Hartnolls on the map.

By the time they took the stage at Glastonbury three years later, they were in conquering heroes mode, with their set widely cited as the festival’s crossover moment into electronic music.

“A lot of people [would] come up to me afterwards, saying ‘I used to be an indie rock kid, but when I saw you, it crossed the bridge between indie rock and electronica,’” recalls Phil. “[Glastonbury co-founder] Michael Eavis realized that when we played. It was like, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we should take a look at this electronic thing, because obviously people are really enjoying it.’”

They’re enjoying it still, with Orbital and the wave of U.K. artists that came up alongside them — the Chemical Brothers, Underworld, etc. — experiencing a renaissance, as ’90s rave and acid house have come back in fashion. Orbital will make its first Coachella appearance since 2010 over the next two weekends (April 12-14 and 19-21), with the shows rounding out a U.S. tour that included stops in New York, Chicago and Ultra Music Festival in Miami.

All of these shows feature “The Green Album” and its 1993 followup Orbital 2, or “The Brown Album,” played in their entirety. The run culminates in the re-release of a remastered “Green Album” on April 19, with the brothers then returning across the Atlantic for a tour in the U.K. and Ireland.

Talking to Billboard over Zoom, here the Hartnolls reflect on their origins, their influences and the time they raved with Stephen Hawking.

Where are you in the world right now, and what is the setting like?

Paul Hartnoll: I am in Brighton. I’m in the middle of cooking Pad Thai. Well, I’ve taken a hiatus from cooking Pad Thai to chat to you, but I did as much prep as I could. I’m about to sit down and have dinner with the family. It’s lovely.

Phil Hartnoll: I am here with one of my cats, but next door, I’ve got a spare room that I’m preparing [before I go away.] My wife is from Pittsburgh, so we’re going to go see the family. Then I found out there was a solar eclipse on the eighth of April, which was the date of my firstborn child was born. The eclipse is happening over Mexico where my brother and sister in law live, so I’ve worked out this plan based around the solar eclipse. We’ve got New York, Chicago, Miami, then Pittsburgh to see the family, then Mexico to get the solar eclipse going, and then go to Coachella. So I’m preparing my spare room for the cat sitters, a lovely couple from Germany.

Have you seen a solar eclipse before?

Phil: Actually yes, we did actually do one. Where was it Paul?

Paul: We witnessed the U.K. one in the late ’90s in Cornwall. We played the night before I believe, and then everybody stayed up or got a couple of hours sleep, and we all walked to the top of a hill — and there was so much thick cloud cover, nobody saw a damn thing.

What is the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself? And what was the medium?

Paul: Seven-inch single — “Tears of a Clown” by The Beat, on 2 Tone Records.

Phil: I was really into The Jackson Five, so my mother’s cousin bought me Michael Jackson’s “Ben” for my eighth birthday. It was a bit disappointing, because I didn’t understand what “Ben” was. I’d never even heard of it. It was the first stage of learning how to be happy, when actually, it was a bit confusing in my head. But actually, [when I understood] the sentiment behind it, it was the first track that made me cry.

What did your parents do for living when you were kids?

Paul: Our mom used to run a temp agency company — pretty sharp actually, she was good. She was in partnership with another woman, and what she did was, she used to drop us all off at school, come back to the house with two other school-run moms and set up an office in the living room. They worked there, then just before school run, they’d all pack it all away, fold up the tables and pick us up from school. And our dad was a builder, ran his own building company. A plasterer.

And what do or did they think of your careers?

Paul: They always encouraged it, didn’t they? They always encouraged us to do creative things. But my dad always used to say, “Come on, you’ve got to have something to fall back on.” I am absolutely a firm advocate of not having something to fall back on. If you’re trying to be a musician or an artist, and you’ve got something to fall back on, guess what you’re gonna do? Because it’s a tough road. Anyone I’ve ever known who’s had something to fall back on has fallen back.

Phil: There’s four years difference between me and Paul. I didn’t get on very well with school. And they said, “do a brick laying apprenticeship.” So I did. Really easy for me. It wasn’t intellectually challenging at all.

If someone said to you, “I’m looking to get into electronic music” and you had give them one album. What album would you give them?

Paul: Since the Accident by Severed Heads. Because it’s not what you’d expect. That’s like, how to make electronic music that’s dirty, haunting, beautiful, scary, comedy. All of those emotions and feelings on such a low budget, but it sounds like it’s on a kind of high budget.

Phil: I would probably tell them to listen to Kraftwerk‘s Autobahn. That’s what blew my mind. The fact that it was a concept album about a motorway, and electronic. It doesn’t have to be a pop song, and it doesn’t have to follow any set rules. They were doing that in the ’70s, a whole concept album about a motorway.

You guys are playing Coachella this year. As I’m sure you know, Chemical Brothers and Underworld, contemporaries of yours, played last year. Do you feel like you’re part of a revival of the scene from which you came?

Paul: No, not to me — in the sense that I didn’t notice any of us going away. Because we’re all just working. We know these guys; you see them around. It’s just a continuation of highs and lows and peaks and troughs. A 33-year career goes through lots of different moments, but you’re always present in your own now, so you don’t feel like it’s a thing that comes and goes.

So you don’t feel that things have come back around?

Paul: Actually having said that, I will say I did notice — probably with Calvin Harris first — that revival of people really enjoying that early ’90s dance music sound and picking on a lot of European sounds. I hear that in contemporary music quite a lot and find that quite interesting, because I have noticed things like tracks of ours — like “Halcyon,” from 20 years ago — for awhile sounded not very on the money, and now it just sounds completely of the time.

Tell me about your take on U.S. market. Have you experienced crowds here to be in any way unique or particularly receptive to what you do?

Paul: I always find American crowds far less cynical than European ones. There’s just this kind of open, puppy dog joy that seems to come with an American crowd. It’s like, “We’re here to enjoy ourselves! We’re gonna do it then! let’s do it! Let’s do it together! We’re all in it together!” It’s quite endearing.

Your Glastonbury 1994 set is considered legendary. What are your strongest memories of that day?

Paul: Just the sheer terror and excitement, in equal measure, and thinking “I’m never going to be able to do this.” I remember tuning my synths… backstage behind Björk’s set up, and they were just about to come on and everybody cleared the back. There was nobody there apart from me tuning my synths.

And then I saw Björk just standing there looking pale and and just like, “Oh my god.” This little woman behind the curtain. Then they started playing “Human Behavior” out front, and she just stole herself and became eight feet tall and walked around the curtain. The roar from the crowd literally brought me to needing to throw up. I had to run off stage to try and find somewhere to throw up, because I’d never heard anything like it. I was behind the curtain, but you could hear the full roar of like 40,000 people. It was incredible.

Do you hear your influence in any groups that have come after you?

Paul: Who’s going to say it? Are you?

Phil: Who?

Paul: Who do you think has an element of Orbital in their sound that’s quite big at the minute?

Phil: Oh, Bicep! I think Bicep to be honest. I’m not saying they’re copying us or anything like that.

Paul: I think they’re the best of contemporary dance music in the live arena and the festival arena. Because one, they jam, and you can hear it. You can hear that they’re messing about and trying things and it’s kind of rough and ready in a good way. They don’t do club music, but they kind of do, which is kind of where we came from as well. That’s where I hear them being like us. You feel like you’ve passed the baton in a relay race and it’s like, “Go, next generation! We’re worn out! Go! Just leave us! We’ll be fine!” I think they’re filling a similar space to what we did in the ’90s.

Are you worn out?

Paul: We’re not worn out, and we are ready to keep going. Don’t worry.

Phil: I think Bicep do Orbital really well by the way. I love them, don’t get me wrong. I think you can put a Bicep album on a low level, and it’s nice in the background. Or you turn them up a bit and you can have a little jig.

Are there other new generation electronic artists you’re particularly into?

Paul: Not for not me, no. I go through different phases of things. I’m currently doing the prog rock band renaissance, the Cardiacs and Kate Bush. Oh, I really like Anna Meredith, that Scottish composer who does quite wild electronic music. She did an album called Fibs, which is really good. At times it’s kind of very Philip Glass-ey, Michael Nyman-ey, then all of a sudden it just falls into stuff that sounds that’s full on dance music with huge, great orchestral samples, and then it’ll boil down to a really sweet, almost folky vocal, which I think is her singing.

What’s been the proudest moment of your career thus far?

Paul: I don’t really do pride. I do satisfaction. [Laughs.] I have to say, I know it’s a bit boring, but coming off stage at Glastonbury ’94 feeling like I’d done a good job. I had a very kind of Zen-like glow.

Phil: I’ve got quite a few moments. One of the best moments was the [London 2012 Paralympic Games] with Stephen Hawking, where we got a speech he had made into a tune that essentially made Stephen Hawking sing. And he performed it with us. He wore the torch glasses, and he had to take off his glasses to wear the torch glasses and couldn’t see a bloody thing, but he was so up for it and such a laugh and such game. He was there in his wheelchair, me and Paul behind, all in our torch glasses, performing the opening ceremony for the Paralympics. That was a moment.

Paul: Ian McKellen stood there watching it as well. He was lovely.

Phil: Actually the day before, I gave Steven Hawking a copy of our album Wonky, he’d gone home and listened to it, and I got an email from him saying how wonderful it was. You can’t make that s— up.

When is the best business decision you’ve ever made?

Phil: [Laughs.] Never! Never! I would say never have we made the best sort of business decision. We are creatives. We don’t know what the f–k we’re doing.

Paul: Speak for yourself! Mine was investing in my first four track tape machine. With that I realized, “Oh, this is what I want to play, not keyboards, guitars, drums. They’re something I want to command, but what I want to do is get them all on this tape and build the layers and make the whole thing in one, in a bedroom.” Relatively speaking, that was much more of my GDP at the time than anything I’ve ever bought since. That was a big spend. That was my entire arms budget in one go.

Who’s been your greatest mentor, and what’s the best piece of advice that they gave you?

Paul: There’s a few different ones along the way. There’s no one Obi Wan Kenobi, or Yoda. That’s the thing see, there’s multiple ones. Early on [British DJ/producer] Jazzy M encouraged me to keep making house music and gave me free 12-inches every week and said, “Do something like that!”

For production, Jack Dangers from Meat Beat Manifesto taught me so much about how to go one more in the studio, and also how to do it with a big grin on your face and have a laugh about it.

Michael Kamen for film and music — when we worked with him on [the 1997 film] Event Horizon, he was brilliant. He taught you to not take it too seriously, but pretend to be serious when the director comes in the room — then carry on having a laugh after, because you’re going to get more done that way. And working with the producer Flood. He was like the next-level Jack Dangers.

It sounds like they were all very encouraging, yes?

Paul: All of them have very similar attitudes to production. It’s like, “Go with the best take, not the best equipment. All that matters is if it sounds good.”

Phil: Also Angelo Badalamenti. We worked with him on [the soundtrack for the 2000 film] The Beach. Like Michel Kamen, they all made us feel so welcome and free. These big players, you think, “My God.” And all they do is go, “Yeah! Just be free!” They were really open. You’ve got the fear of God when you go to meet these people, and they’re just like, “Do this! Do that!” And they’re the top players. They were brilliant. Brilliant.

What’s one piece of advice do you give to your younger self?

Phil: Don’t marry that girl that you did. [Laughs.] No no, workwise, I presume you mean?

Paul: Take a holiday between the fourth, fifth and sixth albums. You’re doing all right. It’s okay. Take a minute. Take some time. Smell the roses.

Did you not smell the roses back then?

Phil: When a road has opened up to you, you think, “OK, let’s go down this road and try it.” And that road is so important that you lose yourself in the here and now. It’s always about the next thing. Even like Glastonbury ’94, you don’t really get to enjoy that, because it’s like, “What’s next?” Trying to keep the kettle boiling. You don’t get time to reflect on the brilliant times and the fantastic positions that we found ourselves in. That’s the advice I would give myself, to reflect on what you have got.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Paul: I think I’ve said too much already.

Phil: I’m gonna say that I’m really excited to be playing in America again. I’m really excited to come back over there.

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