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In Extremis

Tangled Paths: An Interview With Orphx
Albert Freeman , April 2nd, 2015 09:29

With the second of their Sonic Groove compilations recently released and a new album on the way, the industrial techno duo have an in-depth conversation with Albert Freeman about the oft-overlooked rhythmic noise scene and the evolution of their sound and approach to production

The growth and merging of contemporary techno and industrial music is a topic much commented on in recent years, but what is much less discussed is their shared roots and symbiotic relationship, emerging alongside each other until the purist break in each genre led to fragmentation. It occurred quite early on, when both were still very fresh, and even in the same city: as Chicago house music split off onto its own stream that birthed techno a few years later, Wax Trax! Records was busy releasing early EBM and industrial classics from European and American artists, and while the lines intertwined occasionally for a few years, by the mid-90s the fragmentation was mostly complete.

What then becomes of artists whose careers are defined between these lines? Jeff Mills and Carl Craig acknowledge the primacy of industrial music in their own ideas, but, besides Birmingham's brutal outcroppings in Surgeon, Regis and their contemporaries, the waning of popularity in industrial sounds in the late 80s effectively muted continued developments that, a decade later, arrived at similar destinations. It was an era where exploration of technical limitations and perceived genre boundaries ultimately reconverged as improvisation, hardware, harsh sounds and fuller palettes retook the lead. Amidst all of this, few artists weathered the changes, but a survey of Orphx's back catalogue finds them on the very front line.

The Hamilton, Ontario-based duo of Rich Oddie and Christina Sealey started out deeply interested in industrial and noise music, but also embedded in the most ferocious days of the raves in Toronto in the early and mid-90s, choosing to combine the two ad hoc, quickly arriving at a sound that many are only now catching up with. A description of a 2000-era rhythmic noise group's stage set-up doesn't read so much differently than today's industrial-techno hybrids: MPC, a few synths, pedals, perhaps a computer doing rudimentary tasks. Frustratingly, the diversion of techno into a European-centred, mostly laptop-based scene before the millennium brought about a break in methods and communication for many artists pursuing similar ideas, something that would not be re-bridged until much later, when the overly effete minimal scene of the mid-2000s began to look back to Detroit, Chicago, Birmingham and Sheffield for a much-needed dose of grit and attitude.

Reunions can be rude awakenings or smooth transitions, and Orphx's reunion with the techno they always loved is both a seamless shift, leading them to greater renown than ever before, and also a belated nod to a generation of industrial acts that never received popular recognition. As Orphx prepares for a new album on Sonic Groove later in the year and returns from long-awaited, successful tours that have led them to Berghain and other first-rank clubs and festivals, the lines between techno, improvised electronics and noise and industrial music seem blurrier than ever, and they have at last found the moment to make their voice properly heard.

After going back and listening to a lot of your old recordings from the early 2000s, I couldn't see such a difference in the sounds or ideas. What's remarkable is that the audience you are playing for now is so much different than it was even a couple years ago.

Christina Sealey: We agree with that for sure.

Richard Oddie: In the very, very beginning it was more improvised noise and old school industrial, but even by '96 there's a techno influence that's creeping in, and from about '98 forward there's a fairly coherent thing that's still happening now.

The progression in this era we're talking about - was that due to you finding your way through what you were doing, or was it also changing gear?

RO: At the very beginning, we were really inspired by early industrial, but it was also the case that we really didn't know how to sequence. We were actually learning as we started the project how to use MIDI. At the same time we were listening to all of that industrial stuff, we were also heavily into techno and going out to raves in Toronto, and that influence started to come in by about the mid-90s.

And the studio set-up has changed over this time I imagine?

CS: At the same time period Rich is talking about, early on, computer programs had just started up really, and we began using them for our sequencing and recording, and that allowed a little more rhythmic base and control for what we were doing. Since then, we've gone in and out of phases with more computer-focus or less. 

RO: It's changing. We've gone from using everything we could possibly find to then focusing on computers and software by about the early 2000s, and then Christina got heavily into modulars about six years ago. Since then, we've gone more back to hardware, and now we're using both. I'm on Ableton, and some of it is software, but there's lots of hardware coming back in.

That's roughly the same pattern that a lot of other producers followed. It was the progression of tools as they developed: everyone that was doing stuff in the 90s had to use hardware because there wasn't a choice. Of course, there was a huge financial burden for that too, and the industrial scene in the 90s wasn't big at all, was it?

CS: There was an underground, and that's how we got going really.

In some ways, I feel that caused you to get channeled into a certain area of music that I don't feel had a large following during that time.

RO: The industrial scene in the 90s, or what we've called the rhythmic noise scene - that specific combination of techno, industrial, drum & bass and noise - was a vibrant scene for sure, but it definitely wasn't getting a lot of coverage. The history of what's now industrial techno often leaves that scene out and skips over the 90s, and that's unfortunate because there was a lot happening there, but it just didn't cross-pollinate with the techno scene until recently.

Is there anything you'd like to pick out of it that you consider particularly important or inspiring? I don't think there's a lot of public discussion really.

RO: We mostly worked with HANDS, some stuff on Ant-Zen and the new compilations are on Hymen, an Ant-Zen sub-label. It was mostly focused around those and festivals like Maschinenfest and Forms of Hands. It was mostly in Germany, also events elsewhere in Europe, but I think that was mainly the focal point for that scene.

So even though you were using the same tools as other techno producers of the era, at the time minimal techno took over so completely that doing something different got pushed out to the sides. I was in Montreal then, just a few hours from Toronto, and it was completely dominated by minimal.

RO: There just wasn't much communication between the techno scene and where we were. It's only the last few years that there's been this trend back towards harder and darker techno, and it seems people's interests are expanding a bit to consider the historical connections to industrial music. Ten years ago that wasn't happening at all.

You're one of the few survivors from that?

RO: There are acts that are still going, but what is different for us versus other artists in that scene is that we actively tried to connect with techno, not just in sound. It was kind of a random chance we met Adam X [Sonic Groove founder], but just before that we had done a retrospective on HANDS in 2008 [Teletai - Rarities And Remixes], and I got in touch with Surgeon, Fluxion and Sleeparchive because I wanted to make those connections, and I knew with Surgeon and Sleeparchive that they followed that music and had an interest in industrial music. I wanted to make a connection and see what would happen.

CS: The remix by Surgeon was actually really important because then Tony was playing Orphx stuff out live, and he helped to promote a bit by putting us in his mixes.

The problem with minimal in that era was that it just became too polite. I remember Adam X saying he also anticipated a swing back to fuller sounds and was completely frustrated by how polite and refined things had become. From this point you moved pretty much straight into the Sonic Groove stuff?

RO: In 2008 we released those remixes, and that was the same year we met Adam at Maschinenfest, and then he invited us to do something on Sonic Groove, and then it went straight on.

CS: We also did do a full-length on HANDS during that time, the Radiotherapy album. We were still working with the industrial labels alongside Adam.

Techno labels are good for releasing singles, but if you'd already been around for so long and are used to releasing albums then it can be a bit limiting.

RO: The last album was the one Christy just mentioned, and we're just now working on another album that should be out later this year. It will be through Sonic Groove, but what we want to do is something that's a bit more wide-ranging than what we would do on the 12"s. There will still be techno elements, but we'll experiment a bit more. 

In the last year or so, you guys have been moving on to larger audiences and bigger clubs and much more techno environments, so how has that experience been on your side?

CS: It's been great. We've played great festivals and venues, and it's really great to play to a wider audience. 

RO: I think we're in a good position because we're also able to continue to play industrial events and festivals. We're playing Wave-Gotik-Treffen in May; that's a pretty classic industrial festival. It feels good to be able to connect with that older audience and at the same time meet new people. I think the timing was really good with Adam; he was reviving Sonic Groove in 2009 with our first 12" with the Surgeon and Substance remixes. That sound was gaining ground around that time or shortly after, so it attracted attention.

I don't feel Berghain techno is that far removed from what Adam was doing in the 90s anyway. The resurgence of Surgeon or of Sonic Groove makes sense; they're close cousins. It's a little more surprising to see it going further into noise and industrial music though. How does this tie in with your overall changes in working methods though? For you are is the return to hardware reflected in rawer sounds in your own work? The modular synths are definitely popping up and audiences are starting to notice them, but even my understanding is pretty limited.

CS: The modular systems have always been around, but they started to get a little more popular. Doepfer was always making stuff even before 2008 when I started, and then the Eurorack stuff has made it a little more affordable. Some things are more expensive now because they're coming out with modules that do a lot more things. You can choose a lot more now because there are so many people making things and experimenting with different ways of putting things together with both digital and analogue. You have a lot more choice.

I really liked the first modules I got, maybe just because they were the first ones. They're called Frac Rack, and they're a little bit more powerful in my opinion and a little bit simpler. In some ways, I like the simpler modules. You can't do as many different things with one, but I like the simplicity. 
 As far as new stuff that has come out, I think Make Noise is a really good company. All of the things I've tried out or purchased from them are things I want to keep. They're well-designed and have interesting ideas in them.

So now you're seeing this huge wave of people improvising on electronic gear. Cheap, simple analogue devices started it, and now it's expanding into other stuff. For someone going in, it's a lot easier to get some sound out of it. You started in 2008, so you have quite a bit of background already.

CS: [laughs] At first I didn't really know what I was doing with the modules; there's a huge learning curve. We had been using MIDI for a long time and knew the basics of synthesis, but it really started expanding once I got into the modules, where you're forced to have to understand things or you don't get any sound. There have been companies putting out small, inexpensive, easy-to-use pieces… Korg released and re-released a few things, and Rich just picked up this Arturia MicroBrute…

RO: There's so much stuff that's fairly affordable, and it's a reaction to ten years ago when it was so software-based. There were so many innovations in software, we found it irresistible like everyone else to try granular synthesis and all of these different programs, then Ableton came around. Now, there are lots of options for getting away from the mouse.

CS: We got really frustrated with that, which is why I ended up going to the modular. I wanted something to have to be able to actually play live that was going to inject a bit more life and chance into the live performances. I got it really initially thinking about live performance as much as recording. I think that's a little different than what people that have larger modular systems are getting them for now because they're more interested in studio sounds. I've seen a lot more people playing live with them recently I guess. 

RO: The excitement when you first got them was trying to use it live and the risk and the chance. When you get good results it's amazing because there are such risks involved. We started in improvisation: when we first started making music together in '93 with this project, everything was improvised, every show, every recording, and that was the fun and the excitement of making music, cooking stuff up on the fly. That's always been an aspect of the project, but then as we moved more into software, that became more and more difficult to do on the fly, especially if you want to have rhythms and basslines. Whereas now, we can go back to that, and it's put more life into everything: we can improvise in the studio, we can improvise live much more freely.

You are as much at the forefront of this as anyone - you started off with gear, then you went almost completely into computers, and now you're doing something very contemporary by combining the two and figuring out the possibilities that are inherent.

RO: It's another case where the timing was good, where Christy got into that before the trend emerged. We've been integrating that for awhile. Seeing the modulars appearing in live settings is even more recent. 

CS: Just in the last couple of years. I know when I was first dragging it around for shows, even a much larger version, people were usually quite shocked to see it out on stage, but now it's a bit more accepted.

As a matter of preference, I come from a more live music background, so I've always preferred to see more instruments onstage if possible. The computer thing was starting to get a bit stale for many people, and it was time for a change. I really didn't see much live electronics going on in the techno world during this time.

CS: Our friends Junior Boys were touring with all of their analogue synths throughout the early 2000s. Your comment about things changing: I think the change has been in techno artists because in other genres I don't know there has been as much of a change. In techno it's more marked.

RO: In the rhythmic noise scene, we were the odd ones out because most of those acts would have been hardware-based, like a MPC and a synth and some pedals was the norm more than laptops. Partly the association with techno at the time was that techno artists used laptops; noise artists used gear.

Noise a lot of the times is performance art anyway, so if there's no performance to it, unless it's really very good, it loses something. It's probably no coincidence, but the set-up you're describing with the MPC is very similar to what I see a lot of new techno artists working with nowadays. It's good to understand the process of someone who has come through this the entire way on the forefront though. Moving forwards again, I guess we've already pulled back the shades about the album, but are there other upcoming releases you'd like to talk about here?

RO: We've been doing quite a bit of remix work lately, and there are various side projects. I've just done that release with Dave Foster, O/H, which has kind of taken off, and then we have Eschaton, the project with Ancient Methods - we're working on a follow-up to that, a 12".

The Rich Oddie solo records, is that something that you approach a bit differently than the duo material? I really like the 12"s on Surface.

RO: Yes, it's started to have a bit of its own sound, I think there's a little less industrial influence and a little more purist techno, more hints of melody and this kind of thing and turning back on the noise aspect a bit. I'm intending to do another solo record like that too, and Christy is also working on solo stuff right now.

CS: It's fun to explore. You have other ideas you want to do, and I love working with Rich, the collaboration is great, I love having a partner to work with, but it's nice to explore your own personal sounds too.

The Sonic Groove Releases Pt​. ​2, a CD compilation of the last three 12"s Orphx released on Sonic Groove, is out now; get hold of it via their Bandcamp. For details of their upcoming shows, head to Orphx's Facebook