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In Extremis

Higher Frequencies: An Interview With Orange Goblin
Toby Cook , December 8th, 2010 08:41

Toby Cook talks to Orange Goblin singer Ben Ward about scant financial rewards and confronting neo-Nazis on tour

A mere 15 years ago, the world was a very different place indeed (no shit, right?!). For starters you wouldn't have been reading anything on this site, as the internet was still very much in its dial-up infancy; mobile phones were only just beginning to be mass produced and apparently we all used to work a great deal harder too. Elsewhere, you'd have had to relocate to a soviet nuclear fall-out shelter buried deep within the heart of the Ural mountains to escape Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, whilst at home the football hooligans turned voices of a generation, Oasis, were busy fighting it out with the then recently turned 'mockney' art school types, Blur, to be crowned kings of Brit Pop.

But the country's musical landscape wasn't quite as flooded with men in parkas and Reebok Classics, busily ripping off The Beatles and T-Rex, as we might remember; no, way back in 1995, unbeknownst to the rest of the world five bearded, long haired dudes on the dole decide to pass the time by forming a band: Our Haunted Kingdom. A year later that same band issued their first release, a split 7" with Electric Wizard titled Aquatic Fanatic, on Rise Above Records. A further year down the line and the very same band, now going by the more familiar moniker of Orange Goblin, dropped their debut LP, Frequencies From Planet Ten, on the same label. The rest, as they say, is history.

Whilst they may never have quite achieved the levels of stardom that their hard graft surely deserved, The Quietus found vocalist Ben Ward in an unsurprisingly up-beat and contemplative mood on the other end of a good old fashioned land-line phone...

So Ben, I guess that 15-years-ago you never thought you'd still be kicking around having to talk to the likes of me, hey?

Ben Ward: Nah, not at all! If I'm honest, the only reason we started the band was to give us all something to do; we were all sitting around on the dole, listening to music, drinking tea and smoking all day so it was just something that filled the time. We never had any ambitions beyond maybe recording a demo and doing a few shows here and there for friends. We've far exceeded all of our expectations in this band, and we're grateful for that – we've never forgotten who we are and all that sort of thing – and, y'know, 15-years down the line we still enjoy doing it as much as we did that back then.

I guess you could probably say is the reason that we are all still doing it, because if it wasn't fun we probably wouldn't. I mean, there's no financial element in it for us; none of us earn a living out of doing the band, so we do it solely for the love of doing it.

When – if ever – was that light bulb moment when you realised: "hang on, we might have something a bit special here!"

BW: I don't think that there was ever any sort of glaring moment that stands out. I think it was kind of a huge jump from, as I said, recording a demo and doing a few shows in Uxbridge and around our local area in Harrow and such, to all of a sudden being on tour supporting Cathedral and going to Japan. That all happened within the space of about three years.

Then, before we knew it, we were playing places like Wembley stadium and the NEC, supporting Alice Cooper and Dio. I wasn't a meteoric rise - like I said, we all had to still keep our day jobs - but it was just a really fun learning curve, and eventually you get to the point, when you're doing headline shows as opposed to supporting, you have to accept that there's a sort of responsibility, and you have to have a certain level of professionalism about you to give the paying punters what they deserve. So in that respect we did realise that we'd reached the next level, but it wasn't glaringly obvious – it just sort of evolved.

You've toured all over the world – but where have you had your best touring experiences?

BW: Well, there's good and bad everywhere you go. Japan stands out immediately, just because it far exceeded anything that we'd ever dreamed of; we got there and it was like being in The Beatles for five days! We were greeted by crowds of screaming girls when we arrived, which is something we weren't expecting, and have never experienced since. So that was an eye opener, and it makes you feel good about what you're doing. We've had great times in America as well, headlining venues like CBGBs and the Troubadour and all these really historical musical places that, when you read about any band that has ever gotten anywhere, they've played these venues on their way up.

But at the same time you have nights in places like Bozeman, Montana, where it's the stereotypical, North-West US bar where the minute you walk in the jukebox stops playing and everybody turns around and gives you that 'you aint from around here' look. So that can be a little bit daunting. But we've been lucky – touch wood – that everywhere we've been we've had an appreciative audience. We've never had any real bother anywhere, even in Europe. I think European fans are a lot more open to the style of music we play: particularly in mainland Europe; Germany, Italy and Scandinavia... places like that have been great. So, we're in a really fortunate position where we basically get to go on holiday with our mates, get free booze, get paid for it, and see the world; and every night you're expected to get up on stage and play the music that you enjoy for an hour and 20 minutes or so.

Ha, it's a hard life, hey?!

BW: Yeah! I just wish that we were making a living by doing it...

But you must have a few horror stories, right? Fights with promoters, the police, that kind of stuff?

BW: Well, there's been nothing too dramatic. There were times in America where things got a little bit weird; I think it was in Portland Oregon where we had a massive group neo-Nazi skin-heads turn up at the show and were kicking off down the front, and me and our drummer Chris [Turner] ended up sort of having to jump into the crowd to try and settle them down because they were beating the hell out of each other. Also, when we played with Cathedral in Milan, in 1999 I think it was – personally I can't remember it because I'd drunk myself into a stupor on red wine – but I was told the next day that we'd been escorted out of town by the junior Mafia because they'd wanted to seize control of all our merchandise! So our tour manager had to make a deal with them that saw us receive a gun-escort out of town.

We also played once at this huge biker rally in the south of France, called the Bol d'Or, and on the way down there we got stopped by the gendarmes... and let's just say that a few band members were carrying stuff that they shouldn't have been when they searched us. That took all of our tour managers best persuasive skills to get us out of that, but we managed it. It's just one of those things – it's all part and parcel of touring, I'm sure if you ask any band they'd have had similar experiences.

The world touring aside, if there's is no financial reward to being in Orange Goblin, what's kept you going for so long?

BW: Well, the simple answer, like I say, is everybody in the bands enthusiasm and the amount we enjoy it; that keeps us going. But y'know, we get a lot of people on MySpace and Facebook messages saying "why don't you come to Canada? Why don't you come to South America? Why don't you come to New Zealand?" and all these places, and the thing is that we would love to - if it was financially viable, we'd absolutely love to - but I think that a lot of people don't quite appreciate the logistics involved.

Orange Goblin, all four of us, have mortgages to pay, children to raise, jobs to hold down, so, if we decide that we're going to tour, we don't get a holiday with our family, or with our wife, we use all our holiday time with the band. So yeah, it can be a wrench on us, but we keep doing it because we love it, and, as I say, as long as we're enjoying it we'll keep doing it and it's just a shame that we don't get to go to all these places that we'd like to see. But, y'know, if there are promoters out there that are willing to pay for it, we'd certainly look in to doing it.

Was there ever a time when you were close to just saying "Fuck it!", and walking away? What prompted that?

BW: Yeah, I guess it has cropped up a few times. When we got back from our first US tour in 2002, we were at an all time low. Our former rhythm guitarist, Peter O'Malley, quit the band saying that he had achieved everything that he'd wanted to, and was moving on; we were all pretty disillusioned, having though that we'd be coming back from America rock stars, and it just doesn't happen like that – 35 shows in 36 days, 14 hour drives with seven of us in the back of an eight seater van and that sort of thing, so it's definitely not as glamorous as people make it out to be. We definitely had to reconsider things when we got home from that tour, but it was just a case of sitting around for two weeks, twiddling our thumbs thinking: "Well, if we're not going to do this band, what are we going to do?" We all work and getting together with the band on a Saturday to rehearse or to play a show, that was sort of our release valve. Every now and then we still get a little jaded with it, but the good times far outweigh the bad.

Does it ever piss you off that after 15 year you are still very much an underground band?

BW: It doesn't anymore. I think if you'd have asked us that question nine years ago we'd probably have been a bit more frustrated and pissed off and I think that's probably why, if you notice, mid-way through our career, around the time of Coupe De Gras, our music took on a bit more aggression - I think that we were a bit frustrated that it wasn't going our way. But as you get older you realise that it's not meant to be, that we're not the next Iron Maiden, the next Metallica. We know that the music we make is not as commercially viable as a lot of bands, but you accept your lot and just try to be the best that you can at what you do. I mean, I think I'd rather be where we are now, and doing what we do, than selling out and not enjoying what I'm doing, but earning good money from it... if that makes sense? I definitely wouldn't want to jeopardise our material for the sake of earning a few quid. It's all about being true to what you believe in I guess; again it's a old cliché, but we'd rather have some pride and a dignity to what we do, than compromise just to make a quick buck.

No, that makes total sense. There's something wrong about handing over your songs to be used in an advert for L'Oréal or something.

BW: Exactly, yeah. Although our bass player [Martyn Millard] could make some money doing that, with his hair.

Now, the Orange Goblin Christmas bash is coming up again soon, and they've reached, I don't want to say 'legendary'....

BW: Nah, it's ok, you can say legendary.

Ha! Ok, so the 'legendary' Orange Christmas bash is coming up aging soon; you've been doing them for a few years now, what was it that brought that about?

BW: Do you know what, I honestly can't remember. I think it started one year when we booked a show at that time of year and because it was so close to Christmas, the crowd there were in such good spirits, everybody had a really good time and the promoter asked us afterwards if we'd like to make it an annual event and get some special bands to support. It all grew from there really – and each year it's escalated. We've been lucky really that it hasn't got stale yet, we've been able to move it from venue to venue, try new things, and we're still enthusiastic about it.

When you get fans saying to you that it's not Christmas until the Orange Goblin Christmas show, it feels that it's almost become as much a part of some peoples Christmas as turkey and presents and stuff – and that's great. And again that's the sort of thing where as long as people are still happy to keep coming out an enjoying it, we're happy to keep doing it – it's a nice way to sign off the year really, and thank all the fans that have stuck by us.

So beings as this is the 15 year anniversary of the group, can we expect anything special?

BW: I don't know, really; we're still discussing possible set lists and things like that. But there's only so much you can do with us, I mean, there's never going to be a Kiss kind of show with all the pyrotechnic and that sort of thing. But I guess we could try and do an Alan Partridge and get a Pink Floyd laser show for 50 quid! I think that with bands like us, our fans know what they're going to get, and we know what they want. Which is: They want to turn up, have a few beers and bang their head to some plain and simple heavy metal.

Orange Goblin will play the following tour dates this month: Dec 15 Sound Control Manchester
Dec 16 Ivory Blacks Glasgow
Dec 17 The Asylum Birmingham
Dec 18 Talking Heads Southampton
Dec 19 O2 Academy Islington London