Interview by Howard Shih (August 1997)
Sitting in a hotel lounge less than a block from Times Square, The Orb and I are having a laugh about the sudden discovery of electronic music by American press. Andy Hughes, longtime engineer for The Orb and now full-fledged member, replacing the departed Kris "Thrash" Weston, can only smile: "The other week when we came in they're talking about the 'new wave of electronic dance music.' I thought it's quite funny actually." But what's the situation like in England? Is there a divide between rock and...
"Rock?" Dr. Alex Paterson, founder of The Orb, smirks. "No, we killed it. I mean, look at U2. They have to make discotheque records now." Paterson is exaggerating a bit since bands like Oasis and Blur are still huge in England but more importantly, going to a club to hear a DJ spin records is as normal as going out to see a band play. This acceptance of DJ culture by the masses in the UK has its origins intertwined with those of The Orb.
Rewind to London 1989. On Monday nights, for about six months, Paterson DJed with The KLF's Jimi Cauty upstairs at the chill-out room of London's Heaven nightclub during the seminal Land of Oz parties. "When we first started doing ambient stuff we used three [record] decks, a little 12 track Akai [mixer], loads of cassettes and cds... and nobody would know what the fuck was going on," he explains. Their experimental ambient DJ sets were a swirling ocean of sound that was perfect for people to lose themselves in after an night of Ecstasy fueled dancing. "In those days it was a beginning of a new era, a new society. It was a new drug [Ecstasy] everyone enjoyed as opposed to everyone suddenly dying from it," explains Paterson.
When the good Doctor began recording The Orb's double-length debut album, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld in 1990, he and Cauty had already parted ways but the album expanded upon the music developed at their Land of Oz sessions. A song like "Little Fluffy Clouds" took totally unrelated samples (a snippet of Rickie Lee Jones reminiscing about the skies where she grew up, a harmonica from an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, and Pat Metheny's guitar playing on Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint") and married them to a catchy beat surrounded by blissfully bubbling synths to create something that you could chill-out or dance to- it was ambient house.
In the UK, Ultraworld reached the Top 30, a feat virtually unheard of for a double album by an unknown, let alone ambient, group . Despite its success, Ultraworld was neutered into a single disc for America, much to Paterson's chagrin. "They said, 'We'd like you to trim all the tracks down to three minutes.' Sorry? You want "Spanish Castles" in 3 minutes? No, you can't..." (The average Ultraworld track is about 10 minutes long.) "Only if you change the name to "Spa Ca"," jokes Hughes. "You don't do bits of The Orb... you have to get the whole thing or it doesn't make any sense."
Actually, the success of The Orb's 1992 single "Blue Room" probably doesn't make sense to those who dismiss ambient or electronic music as 'faceless' and inaccessible. "Blue Room" was a 39 minute and 58 second single that miraculously reached #8 on the singles chart. Soon afterwards their second album, U.F.Orb, entered the UK charts at #1. (Not bad for 'faceless' music, eh?) However, at this point The Orb's relationship with their record label, Big Life, quickly deteriorated. They were unable to release any records for about a year until the legalities were worked out and a new deal was struck up with Island Records.
Interestingly enough The Orb's next two albums of new material, Pomme Fritz and Obrus Terranum, alienated fans won by the blissed out ambiance of their earlier material. The music was less beat oriented and incorporated dub's mindfuck studio techniques into The Orb's vocabulary of oddball samples and sounds. Their latest album, Orblivion, harkens back to The Orb of old by adding jungle-ish breaks and beats to the mix and sounds like a natural progression due to jungle's origins in dub and rave. While Orblivion is more immediately accessible than its recent predecessors, the album probably isn't Island's idea of a breakthrough record.
"They just don't get it," sighs Hughes. "The album launch organized by Island in LA was pure Spinal Tap- the party was on the rooftop of the Hyatt where they actually filmed it. It was like, 'What the fuck is going on?' No one could smoke; security people were chasing you around trying to get you to put your cigarette out; the sandwiches were [so small] you that couldn't fit the bread over the bits of meat; they had nothing there but a PA and a CD player... There wasn't a whole load of people either; it was like 30 people."
"They said we spent a thousand dollars on drinks. Wow, great", Paterson says very dryly. "It's not as if individually we don't get on with people in the record company. It's just that we feel as if we're just product." Indeed, Orblivion was recorded almost a year ago in May 1996 but it's release was delayed because Island wanted the album to follow the release of U2's much hyped 'techno' album, Pop. It's not the first time that an Orb project was held up by their mega-selling label mates. The Orb had completed a remix of U2's "Numb" but U2 never released the results.
"It's sitting at home somewhere," says Hughes. "[It's] a much sought after piece of music." Which is a statement that can be applied to just about every one of the countless remixes The Orb have done. Primal Scream, Erasure, Depeche Mode, and, more recently, label mates The Cranberries are among those who've had their music reconstructed by the band. While Paterson and Hughes acknowledge that remixes are mostly done to pay the bills artistic expression is also an important factor. "It's a bit of challenge... A lot of people are like, 'We need an Orb remix', but then none of them have really heard a remix that we've done. They expect their song with not much changed but you really get an Orb track with bits of your song on it."
While record company execs may think of Orb remixes as another way to sell the band, Dr. Paterson has a better idea: "Maybe when one of us has died they can turn us into an icon... they can turn us into a Bob Marley or something."
"I thought I was gonna last night when I was flying in through that storm," says a deadpan Hughes.
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