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Tossing the Orb
After 15 years and seven albums of premium electronica and blissful live shows, Orbital are shutting down all systems.
Tanya Sweeney, 30 Jun 2004
"There will be tears shed, that’s for sure,” predicts Paul Hartnoll of Orbital’s final run of shows. “I get like that anyway! I think you’ll have to drag us off when we play ‘Chime’.”
Brother Phil interjects: “We always look at each other when we’re ending ‘Chime’, and I’m like, ‘stop now?’ and he’s like ‘no no, bring the drums back in’ – which is what he does anyway, he makes me bring the drums back in about three times. This time though, we’ll be doing 20 drum repeats, a prog version of ‘Chime’. You’ll have to get us off the stage with a shepherd’s crook.”
In music parlance, the phrase ‘end of an era’ is an overused term, yet there’s something about the fact that Orbital have decided to call it a day that heralds a demise of sorts for electronic music. Together, the brothers Hartnoll, purveyors of their own unique strain of pre-millennial tension, took the dance genre to unchartered, warmer climes. Unlike many other electronic acts, they will perhaps be best known for their euphoric live shows, and so the summer of 2004 will be marked by a series of final festival slots, culminating in a last-ever show in, suitably enough, Japan.
“The Japanese gig will be a week long,” muses Paul. “They’ll all be weeping and wailing about it ‘cos they’re so emotional about their music.”
“It’s the only chance they could show emotion, innit,” deadpans Phil. “They do go mad at the gigs, you have to hand it to them…”
Never mind the Japanese; festival-goers throughout the world will no doubt mourn the departure of this quintessential festival act. In fact, newspaper reports have stated that Glastonbury ticket-holders are signing a petition to have the band reinstated to the Main Stage for their final UK gig.
“It’s so sweet,” concedes Phil of the petition. “It’s really nice... but the second stage at Glastonbury is the stage we love playing at.”
“We don’t want to rise above our station!” interjects Paul.
“The main stage is too far, the sound is too quiet,” reasons Phil. “The second stage has a better sound system. It’s the difference between playing, say, a tight sweaty club as opposed to a warehouse.”
“You mean a tight sweaty club with 40,000 people in it,” counters Paul.
“At festivals, there’s a certain amount of audience you know aren’t there specifically to see you,” continues Phil. “At your own gigs, it’s a safe environment. I like that random element of festivals, preaching to the non-converted.”
The question as to why Orbital are hanging up their Mag-lites begs to be answered. Certainly, these are usually the actions of a band who are creatively exhausted, yet Orbital’s swansong Blue Album is wholly fresh, vital, and relevant to the cultural landscape.
“It’s in here that you feel it’s run its course,” responds Paul, pointing to his chest. “It’s stopping something before it gets boring. After The Altogether, it was like I was trying to find ideas artificially or something, whereas we did this album to tie up the loose ends and put out the things we didn’t want to not release.”
“It’s time for a change, simple as that,” says Phil. “It’s not like we’re retiring; we’re just going to do different things. It’s a creative kick up the arse, ‘cos all of a sudden you have to do things in a different way. After 15 years and 7 albums, people expect you to be a certain way.
“It is a nice time, there’s no logic behind it other than it feels right,” he concludes. “Whether it works out or not is beside the point… a change is as good as a rest, they say... besides, rather than just disappearing, it’s nice to go out with a bang.”
“It would be boring to retire…” offers Paul.
“What are you on about? I’d love to retire,” counters Phil.
“Fair enough then…”
Though they’ve often had to deal with the ‘which one is which?’ anonymity that often comes with faceless dance outfits, the Hartnolls also gained a reputation among their peers for being as entertaining and enlivening in conversation as they are on stage. Despite a recent family bereavement, both are hugely entertaining this afternoon in Phil’s flat in Brighton, blessed with a humour that their music simply never alluded to.
The individual future aspirations of the brothers speak volumes about their respective musical sensibilities. Paul has expressed a desire to continue working on film music, and presumably it was his filmic, epic visions that gave much of the warmth and personality to Orbital’s sound. It transpires that he is a huge Scott Walker and Nick Drake fan… perhaps his leanings toward the pastoral are the reasons behind Orbital’s sometimes quaint, organic sound.
“I’d like to do period dramas,” offers Paul.
“See, this is why we’re splitting up!” laughs Phil.
“I’d like to do great big hawking sci-fi films, or something directed by Tim Burton, or Terry Gilliam. If I were asked to do the score for the new Willy Wonka film I’d love it.”
The brothers have already dipped their toe into the soundtrack world; some might argue with varying degrees of success. While their remake of ‘The Saint’ theme rocketed to the top of the charts, their minimalist Octane soundtrack left many critics cold.
“We had a lot more flamboyant music in it,” notes Paul, “But it’s a collaboration, and the director kept asking for it to be more minimal, so we stripped it way back until it was almost a single chord, so most of the original stuff ended up on our new album.”
“It’s a great opportunity for us, and it was really interesting, but it was hard work, especially when it’s someone who really doesn’t know what he’s saying,” reasons Phil. “It was obvious in the edit that it wasn’t working. (The director) had a lot of stress on his shoulders and was blaming others for the fact that his film not really working out.”
“We did what was required of us, but it’s not what we would have done,” Paul recalls.
“Ours was a lot more flamboyant. It was more like the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, or American Beauty, with these abstract percussion sounds.”
Phil, by contrast, has harboured dreams of disappearing back into the techno underworld.
“I’m not really thinking much further beyond Orbital,” he admits. “I’ve been out DJ-ing over the last year and it’s been fantastic to get back into the world that I started out in.”
“You stopped listening to dance music for a major part, and now you’re back into it with a new enthusiasm,” offers Paul.
“Bringing children up, you tend not to listen to dance music,” he explains. “I have more time now to choose the music I listen to. The last thing I wanted to do was come out of the studio and listen to electronic music. In fact, when you work on music full-time, you don’t tend to listen to it too much.”
Now that the end is near, it’s time for the Hartnolls to sit back on reflect on the madness of the last 15 years.
“The whole thing has been more successful than I could have imagined,” says Phil, as if he still can’t believe it. “Getting to remix Madonna and Kraftwerk, playing the Albert Hall… I couldn’t have wished for more. I mean, I thought it was going to last for a year. I deferred my college place, thinking, ‘I’ll come back to it in a year’s time…’.”
“I used to enjoy going on tour and getting the opportunity to travel round America with a bunch of people,” recalls Paul. “And discovering the weird parts of America that you only see in films, like truckstops. They’re astounding places.”
“One of the most bizarre gigs we’ve ever played was up a big tower in Germany,” Phil begins, when asked of his most memorable show. “We were asked to play on the top of this flume tower, on a metal platform. There were about 10 people and thunder and lightening and we did ‘The Box’ as a Hammer house of horror version and it was so appropriate! All this lightning coming down... it was fantastic.”
“But then I came to my senses,” he continues, “and decided we shouldn’t stay there any longer on the top of a tower when I could see lightning ten feet away from me...! So I just scarpered, but Paul was so pissed he just stayed there and played like a madman! It was quite an experience.”
As for the episodes they would rather forget?
“Airports with hangovers,” notes Paul immediately. “We’re not talking about fault or blame, but that’s the one thing I won’t miss.”
Still, it must be an exciting chapter for the pair who have been musically paired for so long.
“Don’t forget we were linked ever since I was born,” jokes Paul. “At least when we work together we don’t have to share a house!”
“It’s a bit like we haven’t left home yet,” says Phil of working alongside his brother. “And now it’s time to leave home.”