not a member? click here to sign up
Ecstasy helped break down the barriers
So says Phil Harnoll of the hugely influential electronic duo, Orbital, but then he's a man whose views are just as radical and progressive as the band's music. Interview: Helen Toland
Helen Toland, 06 Dec 2001
“I think there’s been a lot of knee jerk reactions from headless chicken people.” Phil Hartnoll is pulling no punches with his views on events following the attacks in New York. And he’s not even referring to the subsequent international war. He’s talking about the powers that be, in their infinite wisdom, censoring what the public is allowed to hear or see at this time.
“AIthough it was crap when they started going ‘We can’t have this record or that record’. They’ve even banned films. They’re not going to have Spiderman anymore cause the World Trade Centre was in it. I think there’s a point of caring – and there’s a point of ridiculousness.”
Phil is one half of electronic (don’t say dance) duo Orbital. There are many things you don’t realise you know about this band. They wear funny headgear with torches onstage. They were named after the M25. They’re brothers.
What you really might not know is that Phil (37) and Paul (33) were punks in their day.
Hotpress assumed that this would make Phil pretty sceptical about the current plastic punks that are tripping over each other on street corners up and down the country. But not so.
“Well, it’s very different now, isn’t it?” he stresses. “It’s very hard to shock nowadays within society. I think that’s why piercings have gone so mental. All I had to do in my time was to wear a pair of drainpipe trousers, a few rips and a few safety pins and I was singled out. It was really shocking to walk round the high street like that. You’d have to go a long way now.”
Hartnoll’s laid back disposition towards today’s punk kids may stem from the fact that he’s under few illusions as to what real changes the original movement achieved. “I was first generation punk, my brother was second generation. I think the second generation got it right a bit more. With Jello Biafra, they were a lot more politically in the vein of what I wanted punk to be.”
Biafra, the former lead singer with the Dead Kennedys, has provided a consistent and articulate voice against censorship in the music business. Nowadays he’s also a crusader for freedom of speech in all aspects of life. So does Phil believe that such outspoken activists or even musicians in general can ever help this confused old world?
“I think they can make a difference with people’s moods and emotions. But I don’t think they can change anything. Not after living through punk – nobody took any notice of what people were trying to say. Jello Biafra is very different now, he does a lot of spoken word. I think that’s important, particularly him being an American, to come out with all the facts and figures of what the American government is doing. It might stir people up. That’s why I thought the Criminal Justice Bill was so interesting. Because you’ve got essentially an instrumental music – but it’s the closest music has come to being banned, from a government point of view.”
The Criminal Justice Bill was introduced in the UK in 1994 and gave the police powers to shut down the massive raves that were the hallmark of the early British dance scene. Hartnoll views that era as being significantly more important in ushering in social change than punk ever was.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with the music really,” he points out, “It was the drugs that helped. The introduction of ecstasy and the rave scene went hand in hand – but it was ecstasy that helped break down the social barriers at the clubs that I was going to. You got a lot more ethnic and cultural mixing. Before that I was going to hip-hop clubs where I was the minority – they were predominantly black. When the rave scene hit it broke that down.”
“It broke down a lot of the barriers between the sexes as well,” he continues. “You could go up to any girl and just start chatting. You didn’t have to look over your shoulder and there’s some narky old boyfriend thinking you were trying to hit on her. I think the whole scene has been subversive in not really caring and doing your own thing. With the Criminal Justice Bill, the government obviously saw it as a threat.”
This year Orbital released their sixth album The Altogether on FFRR/London. However the brothers have since parted company with the label after eleven years.
Phil explains: “Our contract had run out but they did have an option on one more LP. They tried to give us half the money and basically we said ‘No, we’re not doing it’. To be honest we’ve always been a bit of a square peg in a round hole with them anyway. From our point of view we should’ve done it quite a few albums ago.”
“We haven’t fallen out with them or anything.” he adds, “If they’re going to put records out under your name, then you want to have control over that as much as you can.”
So where does this leave the band for album number seven?
“I dunno actually,” Hartnoll shrugs, clearly not losing any sleep over it, “We’re gonna do it and see what sort of LP we’ve got. The possibilities of doing it ourselves are there or there’s a few record companies that have approached us already. But we just want to work with people who are enthusiastic and who want the LP that we deliver them, rather than what they think they might get. So it’s just best to get an album done and then see how we feel.”
Orbital released their first album in 1989. Unlike many acts of that era, the Hartnolls were never satisfied with merely cobbling together singles and packaging them as albums. From their second LP on, they delivered coherent and complete records that garnered massive critical acclaim. This more traditional ethic may in part explain the longevity of the band, where many of their peers have much more quickly fallen out of the race.
“We have been going a long time,” agrees Phil, “After Dublin we’ll be in our thirteenth year. And it’s not that usual, nowadays, for bands to be working on their seventh album.”
Still though, that hardly merits the duo being dubbed the “Grandads of acid house”.
“I don’t feel offended by the grandaddy title.” Phil laughs, “What I do worry about sometimes though is, when you’re playing gigs, who’s gonna come along? That’s why it’s important to go out live: you see the people that come along. You still get your old ravers the same age as us, who think ‘It’s my one time of year, I’ll go out and see Orbital’. But this year the vast majority was quite young – much to my surprise really. I just think ‘When we wrote Chime you were ten.’
So, to set the record straight. As the scene’s elders, you’re not grumpy old farts standing up there muttering to yourselves “It was different in my day…”
“Nah,” laughs Phil, clearly tickled by the notion “We love it! I’m up there going ‘C’mon! Yeah!’.”