Transcendental Mediation: An Interview With The Orb

With The Orb's new retrospective box set recently released, Exotic Pylon lizard lord Jonny Mugwump speaks to Alex Patterson about industrial ambient dub, the social conditions that fed into the 90s rave explosion, and working with Lee 'Scratch' Perry

England, 1992. The Thatcherite rancid slash and burn decimation of society had lost its chief architect, but none of its bile and poison. Unemployment was towering, with millions finding themselves the victims of class warfare – a relentlessly sustained and effective program of privileged hatred that should have left a cloud of hopeless despair lying over the land.

But 1992 was also the year that it really fucking kicked off. Rave was suddenly way beyond being merely "a scene" – it was everywhere; and everywhere meant it was fair game. Even the music press put down their Morrissey records and noticed something was up. It felt weird out there – the streets were beginning to wobble. What seemed like an endless social hell was beginning to acquire a tint of something… less certain. I’ve certainly never lived through another time that compares to it. This wasn’t dewy-eyed 1960s optimism (we all know how that turned out) and it wasn’t punk (which was maybe more of an industry year zero than a societal one).

The mutation of rave in 1992 might not have been politically orientated, but anyone who argues it wasn’t caused by politics is a liar.

So yeah, things had gotten weird in 1992. And this weirdness had a soundtrack. Nothing could have been weirder than switching on Top Of The Pops that year to find Dr Alex Patterson and Kris ‘Thrash’ Weston dressed in futuristic garb playing chess to the most cavernous space-age dub imaginable – wordless vocals, air-raid sirens, dense alien drift. This was The Orb presenting their latest single ‘Blue Room’. It peaked at Number Eight in the charts, which was kind of remarkable, as ‘Blue Room’ was only two seconds below the maximum allowed time designated for a single by Gallup – 40 minutes. A 17-minute version of ‘Blue Room’ was placed on The Orb’s second album U.F.Orb, also released in 1992. That peaked at Number One.

The TOTP clip features on disc three of the wonderful new Orb retrospective box set, History Of The Future, which covers the years from their birth in 1989 up to 2000’s Cydonia. The time beyond will be covered in a second volume. It’s easy to forget and possibly impossible to quantify quite what kind of effect The Orb have had on the history of sampling, dance music and live performance; all done with a lightness of touch and a sense of humour. It’s also easy to overlook the radical nature of their work – their plunderphonic philosophy and rigid adherence to plagiarism as art. So, I voyage by a disappointingly non-futuristic train to visit Dr Alex Patterson in his London home for tea and a smoke. I go there intending to nail some kind of essence of The Orb, but Dr P’s meandering avenues of thought quickly throw me off, and instead of trying to get back on track I think, "Fuck it, it’s The Orb. Just run with it and enjoy the collage."

So what is The Orb’s conception of ambient?

Alex Patterson: It’s ambient, but there’s also the industrial thing as well. We wanted to take ambient to the streets and give it to the working class. I’m sure there’s a lot of [working class] people who like Beethoven and Mozart, but that doesn’t make them middle class. So up until us, I guess, ambient had this clichéd image where it was all Eno and highbrow. I was in that world. I managed to wangle a job out of EG as an A&R scout when they weren’t even signing bands, but Allah be praised they said, "OK, we’ll give you a job and you can go out and tell us what’s happening."

And that was 86, 87, 88 and, well, we all know what happened in 88, but I saw it coming in 87 because I was already out there. I was in my late twenties and had become a face about town, but then I also discovered I had someone else’s face [momentary confusion from writer, who feels like something terrifying is about to happen] which I now think helped me in many capacities, and that was Adrian Sherwood – we look incredibly similar!

So I started hanging out with all the reggae boys, and they were saying, "Adrian, are you Adrian?" And I was like, "I’m not Adrian – are you taking the piss?" [laughs]. But in his own way, with the On-U sound stuff, you know, that was basically creating ambient music for reggae heads – things like [On-U collective] Singers & Players, Prince Far I and North Of The River Thames [by Doctor Pablo and Dub Syndicate].

I love those Prince Far I albums.

AP: [sighs] I sold chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4 for an 1/8th of black in Brixton in 84 – I really needed a smoke. I totally regret that – I got most of them back, but not on vinyl… they were on vinyl… Anyway, so you have all the sound effects but we remove them from the dub and relocate them, so you end up in an almost post-industrial, bleak, hypnotic… warmth, which attracts people to it.

The Orb is a relatively friendly entity, though?

AP: Yeah, well we try to be. I mean, we’re struggling like most other bands. We’re not a super band who doesn’t have to make records any more – well actually it’s not records – we have to tour, so we have the [just completed] tour in America and then we’re supposed to be back in December, but we’re not youngsters either – we need some space.

You played Glastonbury this year, with the Kakatsitsi drummers from Southern Ghana.

AP: Probably one of the best performances we’ve ever done in terms of things being on time and not over the top. When it’s got to be on the four and it’s gotta be on the two and the one and the three, then you can’t be off, and if you are then just do it twice and pretend to get away with it [laughs]. Actually, my favourite moment from this year’s Glastonbury… We were playing the West Holts Stage, and I’d asked for a special pass to go to the artists’ car park as my mate was bringing me a van to sleep in if I stayed the night, as I was DJing there too the next day. My mate was also the Orb tea man, and he blagged his way right up to the tent wearing a pork pie hat, and he served all different kinds of tea and milk and cake and biscuits and everyone was kind of blown away – Public Enemy were there.

Didn’t you used to roadie for Public Enemy?

AP: Once upon a time, although they probably don’t know that. That was when they did their first gigs in 86 – the Def Jam tour.

I remember the Beastie Boys getting banned all over the place at that time.

AP: Ha, yeah giant cocks and girls in cages – it was like Phoenix Nights gone horribly wrong.

Your background was in live work before making the transition in to the studio.

AP: When people are talking about 25 years of The Orb there are things I’ve forgotten about, and it’s to do with getting old and not being able to remember things I did years ago. Before The Orb, for example, I did two or three intros on Night Time by Killing Joke – the album they did in Berlin with Chris Kimsey. Me and Paul [Raven] the drummer would go out with microphones like that one [points to my digital recorder]. We would mic up tunnels as we would with drum kits, so you would have mics placed 40 metres away to pick up these noises we were making. We would put a mic in a bucket and then drop all these steel plates on them from 30 ft up in the air, and that would be the intro to one of the songs. [Laughs] I never got any credit for that. I loved working with them – they were my brothers when we were teenagers – my formative years – but it was amazing to move on as well. I’ve done so much more. I don’t mean I’ve done better without them – it’s just great to work off your own back.

How do you compose, as the one constant over this long period? Is this different from collaborator to collaborator; where does the ‘Orbiness’ of the Orb comes from? – because, well, it must be you really.

AP: Well, I’ve never blown my own trumpet and put all my blame on the samples I’ve used, re-created or replayed. But the method Thomas [Fehlmann] and I have been using since ‘Outlands’ [from epic debut album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld], really, is a series of very strange noises that we recreate and make into patterns. We don’t want to find a keyboard that everyone else has used and use the same sounds but just in a different format – even if that means de-tuning static to different notes and then playing them. Are you with me? I mean, it seems complicated, but it’s a lot more fun than that. But plagiarism can be so much more creative than people give it credit for. It falls so well into the critic’s criteria to sit there and slag it off, but it can be done in a really disgusting way. We learnt the hard way, you know, with ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of Ultraworld’ and ‘Loving You’ – you know, we just took that big Minnie Ripperton vocal? We were on the verge of getting a hit and of course we got into trouble, and then not long after someone else comes along with a cover version which goes straight into the charts.

You see, most of my generation were massively into rock music and not disco or funk – most white people I knew barely scratched the surface of soul or disco, but your average bloke, they found The Orb, and then they found dance music, and that’s something I’m massively proud of. But it was never meant to be such a thing – the early stuff was my statement of intent to chill people out.

And then in the UK everything just exploded socially and culturally…

AP: Well, it’s small enough and volatile enough and if you’ve got the right mates around then you can create an atmosphere, and we did that very well. The Orb was in the right place at the right time at the end of the 80s, with the 90s coming into view. And what do we all think of the 90s? Space 1999, 2001: A Space Odyssey, white robes and ambient. So the press leapt all over this thing, but it was just one room in Heaven, and they created this whole scene out of it. I had different DJs in different parts of the country saying I was copying them, but I hadn’t even heard of any of these people.

But I had some mates who got really jealous in the summer of 88 because they also wanted to be DJs, but then you know how it is when you have people who claim to be in to music but then they get bored and just give up. A real DJ doesn’t stop there – it’s a constant feed, it’s like food, it’s like appetite, it’s a new cuisine every day. Being in a band, you spend a lot of your time developing those recipes, and creating a sound that is unique to what you’re doing, and you’ve learnt from all those different musics that you’re going to take aspects of but not copying them. You take bits of Bad Company and of Donna Summer and create a whole new genre of anything you want to do at your own speed, at your own BPM, it’s like, "Phew…" It’s phenomenal these days.

Do you keep up with technology?

AP: I don’t. Many years ago I settled on a system that works for me, and I let Thomas get on with all the mundane stuff. He loves it. You should have seen him when we had to edit by tape splicing – he was like a rocket scientist with professor glasses. Thrash always fucked that up [laughs]. The Erasure remix – that was a tape edit we couldn’t undo. But then I’ve been listening to ‘Super Nova At The End Of The Universe’ a lot recently, because of the hip hop bleeps and how sparse it is and how crap the edits are, but that was all we could do at the time, and it also made it more of a… well… not an ambient moment, but more of an industrial moment. [He makes an industrial duck noise] "Kwoarckkqq", and that’s like a Tibbs tune now where he cuts off in mid-flow and then goes onto another tune.

What about the role of humour in your music?

AP: Well, it’s part of the ambient thing I was talking about. It’s to stop you from sitting there becoming all highbrow, thinking this is your spiritual destiny, and then in a month’s time it’s all fizzled out. The humour is a spinning top, it’s an aeroplane. I remember a journalist talking about us, saying that you can’t kiss the sky with your tongue in cheek, but that was exactly the point. There’s someone who already did that, and did that incredibly well. And we honoured him on ‘Spanish Castles In Space’.

How does the compositional process work with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry?

AP: He does the vocals and a few rhythms.

How is he working with rhythm?

AP: Bits of wood, rocks. Quite simple. We had a big camp fire and had him mic’d up. We had a mic down his shirt and, well, the man likes to be filmed – he was being filmed then. What came through was miles and miles away from the gig we did, which I’m afraid to say wasn’t so easy. If we had done it for an hour it would have been OK, but an hour and a half. [Gives an exasperated sigh] There are so many facets to him, and he’s always trying to find a rhyme to go with what he’s saying… but yeah, it’s not easy at all.

With the album, though… we had five tunes to send him and he was up for it, so we went over, and by Wednesday we’d nailed those and we had until Sunday to keep him amused. So Thomas and I got our fast skates on and got up early, and on the first night I DJed so he could sing over the top, and by Friday we had 17 tracks. Saturday we got some amazing things – Scratch talking about shadows and there being no colour differences between shadows and all this quite poignant stuff coming out of his… er, gob. He had no fear – he would be walking up to bulls, a field of bulls, in a red wig and red tracksuit and just brushing them down and talking to them. He thought cats were from hell because he thought birds were angels, so cats eat birds and they’re from hell.

The Orb’s ambience, despite being sparse, had a huge sound at that point, like a parallel to The KLF’s stadium house – until we get to one of my favourite points of your career so far, the really out-there processed noise of Pomme Fritz.

AP: Nobody at Island was expecting that. [laughs] "Where’s the single?" We had just done ‘The Blue Room’, which was a 39 minute single, and we wanted to do an album for 41 minutes. Our plan was to do one track and mix it down into six very different versions. We gave the A&R man a tab and locked him in our studio, and an hour later he came out and said, "This is godlike – I have to have it", and this was his first release for Island. You know, we got such criticism for it, but it also acted as a clear-out for the fans – who was going to leave and who was going to stay with us. We keep moving, and this led to a more melodic strain with Orbus Terrarum, which still had post-industrial ambience slammed all over it with the old dub style. The Americans loved it, but Pomme Fritz had gotten to the American top ten [in sneering pure Jonny Rotten tone] by the way. It got crazy – we had done a double live album and then this mini album, and Island were still saying we hadn’t done an album yet. Then we found out that our management had ripped us off for an amount of money that you wouldn’t believe, and so, yeah, there was a lot of bad things going on. So Fritz was made in this antagonistic fashion – it was as punk as we got, other than doing ‘No Fun’ for John Peel.

What’s your attitude towards the remix? It accounts for a huge part of your catalogue.

AP: It’s different every time. Last year Shrubbn wanted a remix and gave us five tracks to choose from, but I liked them all so much that I said to Thomas we should make something out of all five parts. So we made this epic fourteen minute thing [‘Echoes’] that we pressed up on 666 copies that came out on Shitkatapult. For me to be part of something that I like anyway and to contribute to that – well, it’s just an honour anyway. But here’s a different example: Pop Will Eat Itself come along and want a remix. [So we ask], "How much?" [Pauses] That’s the difference.

But with what I hear at the moment, I don’t see no punk revolution like I did when I was 16, and I don’t see no house revolution like I did when I was 26.

Did it not feel amazing to be right at the heart of all that?

AP: Yes, of course, but then it leads to other things like stage fright – it’s not me. Certain medications I gave myself blocked that out. I was angry when I was a punk – we were all fucking angry in a grey world without any colour. We grew up in a society that didn’t warn you about racial prejudice. We didn’t get any education about this. I grew up with black kids and when we got to secondary school the black kids were being hated. I mean our police are not exactly what you would call ambient – their solution to anything and everything is to hurt people, and our right to protest, our right of democracy is just a joke. But honestly it’s better now – it’s so much fucking better now.

The Orb on tour


Wed 6 Gloucester, Guildhall

Fri 8 Bridport, Electric Palace

Sat 9 Nottingham, Marcus Garvey Centre

Sun 10 Holmfirth, Picturedrome

Wed 13 Exeter, Pheonix

Thu 14 Bournemouth, Old Firestation

Fri 15 Hebden Bridge, Traders

Sat 16 Dublin, Button Factory

Sun 17 Buckley, Tivoli Venue

Sun 24 Cambridge, Corn Exchange

Box set: The Orb: A History Of The Future – The Island Years is out now

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