By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 1993
Of the current crop of techno/rave bands, Britain’s Orbital are by far one of the most unique sounding. The group creates a slowed down, often ambient dance sound that comes as a welcome change from all the hardcore that has dominated the rave scene. Orbital also have a unique approach to live performances. Rather than having backing tracks come off DAT, as many techno bands do, everything heard is manipulated live off sequencer.
Orbital is comprised brothers Paul and Phil Hartnol. Paul says that they had always been been making music together, and cites Kraftwerk’s Autobahn as a major influence in using electronics. The duo started up Orbital about three years ago when they got the opportunity to make a record.
The resulting single, “Chime” sold out its entire 1000 copy white label run in two weeks. When the second pressing sold out out just as fast, the group realized they had a hit on their hands.
“It did get silly. At one point there were about six record companies ringing, trying to sign this record just because it was doing well in clubs,” says Paul. “We just used to sort of sit in this room laughing our heads off. The guy who put up the money for the white label, he’d just sit there on the phone playing of these record companies, bouncing them off one another trying to get more money because they were all getting a bit silly. He’d put the phone down and we’d be laughing – it was really funny.”
Orbital ended up signing with FFRR Records and had a string of top 40 hits in Britain. In Spring of 1992, the groups self titled debut LP was released in America. At the end of the year, the group released a new EP, Halycon and toured America with the Communion tour. Orbital are now back in England working on a new album, most of which is based on musical ideas that the groups was testing out on the road. Paul says that trying things out and gauging audience response has given them a pretty good idea of what the songs on the new album will turn out like. “They’ve been slowly building up, so basically all we have to do is go home and record them,” he says.
The group emerged at a time when electronic dance music was riding a wave of popularity. With house and techno music giving birth to the “rave” scene, Orbital managed to fit in perfectly. But Paul says that they didn’t make any conscious effort to fit into any particular genre. “Doing electronic music, you’re often doing dancey music anyway,” he says. “When people started calling it ‘rave’ and ‘house’ music, we were doing that sort of thing anyway.”
Since Orbital are one of the most original dance acts around, it seems odd that the track “Halycon” samples the vocals from another successful dance track – Opus III’s “It’s a Fine Day.” Paul says the song was simply a case of doing something for fun and unexpectedly getting a good, releasable track out of it.
“It all started just messing around on a Sunday evening, I just sat down to try and make a pop record. Not for release or anything like that, just messing around. I sampled the Opus III bit. We know Kirstie anyway, she’s a friend of ours. I just thought that would be quite funny – I was just amusing myself really. And then, by the end of the evening, first using the sample and then taking out all the silly bits that I’d put in to make a pop record, I actually quite liked it and recorded it then and there. I sort of left it alone for a few months and I still liked it, so I thought, well there’s got to be something in it somewhere.”
The possibility that using the sample might make it seem that that group is lacking creativity did cross the Hartnoll’s minds, but in the end they decided to go with it. “I was thinking ‘should we do it’, but then why not? I don’t think it had been sampled up to that point, so that’s quite good,” says Paul. “It’s quite funny because we’re using obscure samples all the time, so it’s funny to throw in something really unobscure.
“If it works really well, it makes me laugh to hear, especially if it’s something that isn’t a dance record. I can appreciate that, like a lot of the Jamms, when they used to do a lot of those really outrages reocrds where they just play a drum machine along with an ABBA record. I enjoy things like that. There is that boring element where you’ve got techno record that just came out and then a month later someone’s just taken a big chunk of that and mixed it with a big chunk of another techno record and just put the two together. They think it’s a new track but in reality it’s just a mix sort of thing. It’s fair enoough though, I can’t say that I’ve got any sort of moral ground with sampling. If you’re going to be sampling you’re a bit of a bandit anyway.”
Orbital live shows are known for their simplicity, with the Hartnoll brothers just standing behind their electronic gear with no visuals whatsoever. The group has no interest in getting into elaborate stage shows. Paul says that he doesn’t like to go to traditional concerts, preferring instead to go to clubs where a live band is just another part of the evening. While the Communion tour strived to provide this type of setting, there were some instances where the crowd simply stood around and waited for the bands to come on. “We always play in nightclubs, where people aren’t really go to see you; you’re just an extra thing. Therefore, they don’t expect anything of you,” he says. “So doing this tour is quite strange because people are expecting something of you, and it’s just dance, go away and dance.”
In taking their music on the road, Orbital bring along most of the equipment that they used in the studio. They do admit that very little of what is heard is actually being played on keyboard, but they make up for this with extensive live manipulation.
“Generally, it’s like a cross between being a band and a DJ,” explains Paul. “I’ve got two sequencers in front of me, and I don’t have them in any song mode or anything. So they’re not going to play a particular song for seven minutes and have all the break downs and build ups. I just have it lopping around, say every four bars. And then when you want it to do something different, you have to move it on a pattern or back a pattern but on top of that you’ve got 8 tracks with drums and bass lines going all the way along and I sort of jam it, punch things in and out as it’s going along so it’s gotten to the point where it’s almost like playing a slow piano sort of thing on these sequencers.”
Paul doesn’t rule out the possibility of working with vocalists sometime in the future, either on a part-time or full time basis. But if that happens, it would have to be someone able to come up with vocals as original as Orbital’s music. “It’s hard to come by good ones, because I don’t want someone to be singing the same as every other dance record,” says Paul .”I find that very dull, there’s not a lot of imaginative lyrics about.”See all interviews →