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Orbital interview: songs, samples and sibling rivalry

Orbital interview: songs, samples and sibling rivalry

September 11
16:18 2018

“Have the extra bit, we’ll just argue otherwise,” Phil Hartnoll of the electronic duo Orbital says to me. “Do a cheeky half,” his brother Paul adds impishly.

It is almost 30 years since the British pair’s first single “Chime”, a rave anthem from the era of acid house. Back then “cheeky halves” came in tablet form — ecstasy to be precise, the raver’s drug of choice. But here I am sitting with the Hartnoll brothers, not in a motorway service station on the way to an illicit rave divvying up portions of illegal pharmaceuticals, but in a stylish Brighton cafe with the last piece of a quartered cake in front of us, a raspberry and orange gluten-free friand. I do the cheeky half and pop it in my mouth.

These days Paul, 50, and Phil, 54, are elder statesmen of electronic music. Their original audience of ravers have become middle-aged ex-ravers. “Let’s get a babysitter, let’s get on it, it’s Orbital!” is how Phil describes the reaction when they come to town with their celebrated live show. But they are not merely another addition to the blossoming 1990s nostalgia circuit — for the Hartnolls have a new record out, Monsters Exist.

The album is their first in six years. It marks a rapprochement between the brothers, who both live in Brighton, on opposite sides of the English seaside city. After 2012’s Wonky, they split up and did not speak to each other for five years. Their reunion followed invitations to play festival dates last year, which led to the decision to head back into the studio. The new tracks came quickly and are of high quality. “It’s like the excitement we had doing the first album [1991’s Orbital],” Phil says.

Orbital in concert © Gavin Batty

Their sound remains as distinctive as ever. Bouncy numbers teetering on the verge of hysteria summon the spirit of levity that has largely drained away from today’s techno. “They’ve forgotten the message of the grand masters, Kraftwerk — the arch masters of comedy and seriousness combined,” Paul says.

There are doomily prophetic spoken word samples whose origins they will not divulge, and which they are glad to learn are undiscoverable on Google. A long-running interest in science continues with physicist Brian Cox delivering a talk about the death of the universe over an atmospheric ambient soundtrack. “We call him Brian Emo now, with that message about how we’re all going to die,” Phil says.

Electronic music is frequently mischaracterised as machine-like and emotionless. But Orbital’s particular sound, their voice — ironically for a duo who have spent most of this decade not talking to each other — rings out as clearly on Monsters Exist as it did when “Chime” hit the UK charts in 1990.

“You’ve got the writer’s voice, that’s a long game, it starts when you begin writing,” Paul says. “Then there are questions of style and production, which are like the clothes you put on the person.”

He has been writing songs since he was 14, growing up with Phil in a village near Sevenoaks in Kent. Their father (“a cheeky Cockney type” in Phil’s words) ran a building firm and then a pub. The brothers came to electronic music through the unusual starting-point of punk bands — the original 1976 scene for Phil, the later likes of Crass and the Dead Kennedys for Paul.

Orbital were a gateway act into techno for rock fans in the 1990s. A headline appearance on a stage at Glastonbury in 1994 is celebrated as a particularly notable conversion experience for the tens of thousands present. “People going, ‘I really hated electronic music and then you came along and I got it.’ That was the story that we used to hear loads,” Phil says.

They took their name in 1989 from the then newly built M25 orbital motorway around London, a key transport node for the profusion of illegal raves around the city during the acid house boom. But Orbital really made their name on the conventional gigging circuit of venues and festivals.

Their live act involves playing in real time, improvising and jamming rather than relying on pre-recorded music. Shows are son-et-lumière spectacles in which the brothers wear twin pairs of glowing headlights, bobbing about in the dark like aliens as they operate their kit. They are an early staging post on the path leading to today’s big-budget, superstar DJ shows in Las Vegas enormodomes. But that kind of commercial breakthrough was never Orbital’s intention.

“Calvin Harris has chosen to go that way,” Paul says, referring to the world’s best paid DJ, with estimated earnings of $48m in 2017. “He was quite indie when he started but he writes really good pop music and he’s rinsing it out. Fair play to him. It’s not a game I play. I look at that sometimes and think that’s a real craft, could I do that? No, it’s not me.”

They come across as temperamental opposites. Phil is tanned, fit-looking, wears sunglasses and semaphores his words with an ex-raver’s hand gestures. He likens his role in the band to the Looney Tunes cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil, a seething whirl of energy shaking things up in the studio. Paul, the techier of the two, is more measured and analytic. There is an irascible exchange when they describe each other’s responsibilities.

“I’m the writer of the band and then he comes and helps me produce it if he wants to,” Paul says. His brother glares back at him, affronted: “I am not just the producer.” A proper sibling squabble starts. Phil thrusts himself angrily back into the banquette. He looks like he is fighting a powerful urge to put the 50-year-old younger brother sitting next to him into a headlock.

They have split up before. “I think you can get to more heated places and come back from it than possibly two people who aren’t brothers because you’ve been doing it all your life,” Paul says.

The two halves of Orbital are once again joined. “The main reason I wanted to get back together was so I can communicate with my brother again,” Phil says.” So now we’re talking. Job done. It seems to me Paul’s enjoying it a lot more now and I’m enjoying it. We’ve got nothing to lose.”

‘Monsters Exist’ is out on Friday on ACP Recordings,

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