Orbital are one of the most influential dance music acts of our time, and this week they play in Ireland on one of the biggest weekends of the year. Off the back of the launch of their 10th studio album ‘Optical Delusion’, released on Feb 17th, you can expect to hear lots of new tracks alongside the many classics they are known and loved for.
We caught up with brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll to chat their take on new technology, tips on producing tunes, and of course, their new album…
We start off chatting about how creative hot spots are often born out of shit situations…
Paul: We come from a shit village in Kent, that’s why we ended up doing this. When you’ve got to make your own entertainment, stuff happens doesn’t it?
Is that where the political and punk notations through your music comes from?
Paul: In a way… I don’t like to tell other people what to think, that’s up to each individual. It’s just to highlight it and get people to think.
You guys have seen a lot of changes since your first track in 1989, what would you see as the most impactful change in that time?
Paul: The biggest thing that has changed for music is the fact that all recorded music is now available to anyone who has a phone. When I was growing up, if you didn’t buy the single that you wanted to buy, that was it, you weren’t going to get it. You would be lucky if it was in your local record shop. But now…it’s like, can you imagine 20 years ago wanting to listen to a particular Cilla Black album, it wasn’t easy, you’d have to go find it in a second hand shop cus you couldn’t go buy it new unless it was reissued… But now if I decide I want to listen to Cilla Black’s entire back catalogue I can do it on my phone..
Phil: Before you wouldn’t have even known about her because of exposure. It’s about hearing music you’d never have got exposed to before. Radio 1 had it all sown up about what they wanted to play, it was a commercial vehicle, and you know, it’s about hearing music which you’ve never found before, going out there and searching yourself rather than relying on a shitty radio station. We couldn’t get pirate radio stations cus of the hills where we lived when we were younger, but we had John Peel on a Monday night back in the day and thank god we had him…
That was pretty cool that you guys discovered so much music through John Peel and ended up doing a Peel Session…
Phil: Ya that was pretty good, definitely a highlight doing a John Peel session, and for him to support us like that.
Paul: He was the only one who supported us inside the corporation of the BBC really, supporting properly unusual and independent music. Although Gary Davis used to play us as well.
It’s hard to avoid the elephant in the room when talking to musicians these days, what are your thoughts on streaming platforms – yay or nay?
Paul: The whole history of recorded music is pretty complete between all the streaming platforms. I like that ability, and I use streaming platforms myself. The system needs re-addressing so that artists get paid better, but that’s often down to the bad record deals they got, not actually the platform not paying money out, it goes to the record company and not the artists. Whatever the balance is, we need to address that, and it will get sorted eventually, I believe or hope anyway. It always does. We’ll be seeing old fashioned record deals crumbling, deemed unfit for purpose…so people know, the old paradigm is dead. Things are changing. The streaming platform is a brilliant idea we just need to make sure everyone gets paid properly.
If I like a certain folk artist or whatever, sometimes you get that recommendation at the bottom or you’ll see they also work with these other people. It’s a bit hit and miss but it’s a funny train to follow…but it’s no different than looking in the folk section of the second hand shop. You might find something interesting there.
It has definitely added to the current renaissance in music. What new acts have you come across off the back of this never ending way to explore music?
Phil: You got the world there. I love my dance music and that, [and have discovered] Xtavolt, they’re German melodic techno. I discovered those on Spotify for instance…I wouldn’t have known about that, wouldn’t hear it on the radio…it’s a double edged sword cus the only thing is those guys won’t get anything every time I play them. It’s a struggle, but it’s a good thing really.
Back in our day the only way you could get things out were with white labels, press a thousand and try and sell them to people. When you get the more obscure stuff like they are, they don’t make music for the club, it’s just beautiful music – where would that get played? Where would you even hear it? So it’s a good thing for that.
For any young producers out there, do you have any tips for the creative process or for getting music out there?
Phil: It’s very easy to get caught up in I need the latest technology, it’s very easy to go down that wormhole…but you don’t really, you only need a few bits, or a computer which is the most amazing thing. You can get caught up in having to buy the latest this and that…A tune’s a tune – it doesn’t matter really… that’s a piece of advice that I would give.
Paul: Ya, that’s the biggest piece of advice.. get your ideas down, don’t procrastinate, don’t try look for perfection either, cus you won’t find it, nothing is perfect. Get your idea down quickly. Get it out there. Move on, let it fly and do something else. It’s amazing what it sounds like a week later when you go back to it when you haven’t heard it for a while.
Phil: And you have got all these platforms for that purpose, you have those places to get it out there across the world, it’s there instantly. Which is a wonderful thing.
Paul: It’s freedom from the small village. Someone from a small village has as much chance of getting something heard as someone from a bit city.
Phil: We come from the old school record company background where you need finances, now you don’t need to go impress an A&R person etc, that cuts all that out.
You are masters at improvising your sets, tell us a bit about this process.
Paul: We’re working on that now, we’re finessing all the parts [for the shows this week]. You make an album and then smash it into little pieces again so you can do it as an improv performance. We don’t play keyboards and things cus it’s not that kind of music, you break all the sequences down so you can just play any part of the track in any order, in any combination, and then you have your synths on stage so you can play with the sounds and all that kind of thing, it’s so much fun.
It’s based on my paradigm, which is quite crazy really, it’s how I imagined Tangerine Dream played live when I was young. I’d see pictures of them and think ‘ohhh so they’re doing improv around sequencers’ and thought wow that’s what I want to do. I’ve no idea what they really did…and I don’t ever want to know.
Phil: There’s no backing track or anything like that, our tracks could last a minute or an hour or whatever we want. Which is great cus we can respond to the audience in that way, keeping a bit they like going, or taking it away from them, and teasing them bringing it back.
Paul: Limerick are going to get that one, it’s an exploration for us and them, [‘oh they liked that, not sure about that’] Then Dublin will get a more refined version.
Phil: Happy accidents happen too, like don’t get me wrong, bad accidents happen too, but there was one that happened a while back when I pressed the wrong button but it sounded great. That happens live as well.
Tell us how you came up with the track ‘Belfast’.
Paul: That was me attempting to make an ambient house track like The Orb, it was before ‘Chime’, and just doing something really mellow and soft. Then I got to the end of it and was like, I’m gonna try some drums. And then what happened was we were recording it for a single and Phil was making a tape on the other side of the room while I was arranging the track and he was playing ‘Feather On The Breath of God’ into a track and he called me over to his headphones and said ‘listen this works really well’ so we played around with it. That was the wrong thing at the right time.
Tell us about the album.. what was the process of making the album like?
Phil: It was very different cus of lockdown as we were very separated, I was shielding cus I have a bad chest, so we were in isolation which was quite different.
Paul: It made me make tracks that were softer I felt, I wanted to make things that just felt pillow-y and cushion-y, going more down that house-y ‘Belfast’ route for me, but then as you started coming out of lockdown and things like that track ‘Dirty Rap’ happened which was, hang on a minute don’t forget all this bollix that was going on with Brexit.
Phil: That’s the different between us – I was a lot more hedonistic with some of the things I wrote! [laughs]
Tell us a bit about the collaborations that have come up on the new album.
Paul: Different people for different reasons really. Sleaford Mods cus they asked us to do a remix, and said we’ll sit on one of your tracks in return, I was a big fan of them so I was really pleased with both those projects. Penelope Isles, they’re upstairs in the studio, and I just said to them you should sing on one of our tracks and I found a track that would work. And ehm, then Ana B Savage came about cus my wife heard her on Radio 6 and said I think you’d like her, and I absolutely loved what she does, and thought ‘ooh I’ve got this track, I think it could do with something like her voice’, so she came down and we had a great day in the studio messing about and coming up with the track.
Phil: I did a remix for this Japanese performance electronic artist called Coppé on the Sweet Rice and Mango record label over there, called ‘Lost In Time’… I sent her a demo of ‘Moon Princess’ and she came back with all these vocals, she’s funny, she thinks she’s a jellyfish in mars [laughs] … She sent me samples. Then there’s The Little Pest, a bit like the Banksy of the MC world with a secret identity, so he appeared a couple times and insisted in joining in.
What can people expect from your gigs?
Paul: About half and half new album and half classics.
Phil: I’ll be playing an afterparty in the Hyde on Grafton Street after the gig too so you can catch me there.
Paul: I shall be finding a nice local pub and downing some local pints of Guinness in tribute to St. Patrick. Really looking forward to it, we love the Irish.
Thanks to Paul and Phil Hartnoll for the chat! Make sure to catch them play if you’re in Dublin at The National Stadium on St. Patrick’s Day. Grab your tickets here.