Last week, UK electronic duo Orbital touched down in Sydney for the first time in over eight years, playing a show at the Enmore Theatre that could only be described as transcendental. When it comes to dance music, Orbital are rave royalty and they’ve been massively influential since their inception in ’89 when Paul and Phil Hartnoll recorded their first major hit, Chime, on their father’s cassette deck.
Needless to say, things have come a long way since then and the brothers have embraced new technology with open arms over their 30-year career.
Orbital’s setup was perched high on a round podium, entirely encased in synths, sequencers, drum machines, touch screens, and laptops. If you close your eyes and imagine your impression of a UFO’s control panel, you’d be pretty close. Complete with their signature flashlight goggles, the duo looked like interstellar beings ready to fly.
For 30 years Orbital have taken electronic music to stratospheric heights. We caught up with Paul and Phil Hartnoll backstage at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney to see how they do it.
The multi-sensory show had all the elements of the early rave days; dazzling lasers, mind-blowing light shows, and of course, some pumping music. Interestingly though, video and audio samples were used to carry a persistent message; a strong call for unison and togetherness plus a warning of divisive powers, political monsters and authoritarianism. It seemed a particularly relevant message for Sydney concert goers.
In fact, when I caught a moment to interview the duo after soundcheck, Paul was discussing the ridiculousness of Sydney’s lockout measures with a roadie. Phil had a similar sentiment walking past a ‘No Passouts’ sign, where he pretended to ‘pass out’ in front of it before querying “What does that all mean then?”.
It seemed like a good ice breaker.
Hi Paul, hi Phil. How was Brisbane last night?
Paul: It was great.
Phil: Yeah, good thanks.
They don’t have all the strict laws to the same extent, we’re even getting festivals shut down here.
Paul: That’s crazy town!
I’ve been listening to Monsters Exist, it has a lot of these political and existential undertones, was there a certain message you were trying to convey?
Phil: It’s a warning of wolves in sheep’s clothing and a sort of ‘end is nigh’ message. You know fucking politicians and that, we don’t trust that lot.
Paul: Look at the people we’ve got at the moment, between all the Brexiteers in England, Donald Trump, Kim Jung Un… there are monsters everywhere. You’ve got this Cardinal Pell fella at the minute down here. What a monster! You know what I mean? They’re hiding in plain sight but they exist.
Some of the tracks, particularly P.H.U.K. have a real old school sound. Was there anything you were listening to at the time that shaped the process?
Paul: Hmm, what was going on there… in terms of sound, I was really trying to think about, not copy because you know you want to always be going forward, but I was thinking about those early, bleepy Warp Records tracks that I used to like in the early ’90s.
Phil: There’s nothing in there that implies anything of the flavour of Monsters exist, but then we’ve extended it by calling it P.H.U.K, so ‘Please Help the United Kingdom’. You’ll see it tonight, we’ve had the guys make up a bit of a punky sort of video with lots of juxtapositions, like fantastic new estates being built for the rich compared to the people living on the streets. So that sort of rave-y track gets extended into that idea.
So it goes a lot deeper than the dancing?
Phil: Exactly, yeah.
Was there anything on the gear front that helped to shape the album or got a good workout?
Phil: The Matrix Brute was seminal on Little Tiny Folding Cities.
Paul: Yeah it was one of the only things on there, just layers and layers of it which was good fun. The Prophet 6 was a big one, it’s one that I’ve just got so it popped up a fair bit. What else, a new Electro-Analogue drum machine. But then I went back to some big guns, like the Sun Synth and the Jupiter 8 which is in there a lot.
What was the Roland on stage?
Paul: That was the Jupiter 6, it’s a real old one. I got that for like 200 quid in 1991.
Sounds like a bargain! Was there anything in terms of plugins that you were using?
Paul: I try to write with Massive, it’s like my pencil, do you know what I mean? Then when I have the structure of the song or the idea I like to bust it out to analogue synths to see how it sounds. Sometimes you end up keeping the Massive because you’ve written with the character of it. It’s not the deepest sounding synth but it has a good vibe to it.
I like Massive too personally, it’s a great synth
Paul: Yeah it’s great. I always use Valhalla reverbs and I like the inherent sound of Ableton, I know some people don’t get on with it, but I like it. It does colour things but I like the samplers and the filters in the samplers, I think they’re awesome.
Is that what you use to record into?
Paul: Yeah yeah, we don’t deal with other stuff.
So when it comes to a live show how does it work there?
Paul: It’s all loops and we do everything on Ableton’s clip launch, I have two Lemurs on iPads with custom interfaces on each pad. So you can have the same song on each pad, but then you can change songs and start taking stuff out of one and bringing things in from the next track and then sort of mix the tracks together.
What were you using in the early days to do that sort of thing?
Paul: The Lemurs replaced our Alesis MMT-8’s, which we used to punch sequencer patterns in and out. We also used to have a big mixing desk for mixing everything on stage. So now we have everything running through Ableton and we have three big Novation XL control surfaces, so you’ve got 24 channels of mixing but you’re just mixing the virtual sound. We’ve still got it coming out of some really nice FerroFish interfaces so there’s that real nice front of house sound.
Phil: We’ve got the MIDI going to all the synths like the 303, and you can tweak it live and improvise, you can have a track last a minute or an hour, it lets you improvise endlessly with the arrangements.
Is there anything plugged in that’s fully live that you can solo on?
Paul: I don’t know, I’m not a keyboard player. I’m a shit keyboard player haha!
Phil: Not true, you play the Jupiter and use the wheel!
Paul: Yeah I play one note for that bit, I should use a keytar for it! But yeah it’s more sequence-based music. I used to back in the day when I couldn’t fit it into the MMT-8 sequencer but nowadays I can get what I want and have the loops there.
On the visual side of things, I was looking back at some of the cool graphics from Glastonbury shows in the ’90s, how has that kind of thing changed over time?
Paul: Ahh well, it’s gotten pretty sophisticated now. We used to have a guy sitting at the side of the stage named Giles and he had a bank of VHS videos and he used to literally swap videos around and fade things and VJ and kind of listen to what we were doing. If he got things right he got it and if he didn’t he would mix in a different video. It wasn’t like random rave visuals, he was really smart. He had a beginning, middle and end for his visuals and he was playing along with us. We still have that element, but now, because we can, we have a MIDI trigger on stage to trigger different bits ourselves.
So you’re doing all that on stage?
Paul: Yeah, so the improvisation is still there. If we go into a drop down we can send it with a sequence and it goes together.
Phil: Each video is themed for the track itself and ties in with the lights as well, which is developing and changing and improving all the time. On this tour we got a whole lot of new video material come in and we’re using a whole lot of the new video content for the first time which is quite exciting, like in the intro.
And the P.H.U.K video?
Phil: The P.H.U.K video we actually pre-made for the track but we incorporated it into the live show. But yeah we have this big intro and Monsters Exist doesn’t have a video so we’re making one live.
Back on the instrument front, what’s your opinion on the software and hardware comparison?
Paul: I like it all! There are so many things you can do with software that you just can’t do with hardware. But then you know with hardware, I’ve got this big Macbeth M5n synth, you turn it on and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘ohhh’, and like an ARP 2600, it’s just got a sound. Again it’s horses for courses. But then sometimes you don’t need a huge analogue synth, sometimes it’s just too big.
Phil: We used to use Logic, but what I like about Ableton is that it makes it much easier for people who are just learning, it’s more intuitive, and with all the soft synths you don’t need anything crazy to make a great track. What I love about soft synths is that they’re so accessible to people who are just starting out, learning and building up sounds and on a budget. You don’t need a 303 to make something that sounds like a 303.
Talking about the 303, obviously, you guys started out on a lot of analogue gear. How has it affected your creative process having all this new technology come out over the years?
Phil: Option paralysis! Paul collects synths and has them wall to wall in the studio.
Paul: Haha. Yeah, but I like limitations as well. I like having two things set up and go, ‘well that’s what I’m going to use’. You know? What I tend to do now is think about the right synth for the job, I don’t go in there and think, ‘oh what am I going to use? What should I do?’. It’s more like, ‘that’s going to be that, that’s going to go there”. It’s finding the right tool for the job. So that’s quite good and it cuts out a lot of that option paralysis, as long as you know your gear and what’s going to work. Though I do like having a studio with only two or three bits in it and focusing in, you drill down into it a lot more.
Is there anything that you’ve gotten a lot of value out of?
Paul: Jupiter 6, 909!
What were you’re first bits of kit going back?
Paul: 909, Jupiter 6, 303!
Phil: Poly 800.
Paul: DX100, Quadraverb, and a Roland R8 drum machine. Oh and an SH09, that was one of my first big, chunky analogue synths.
Phil: And the stupid fucking MIDI [synchronisers] that made no noise but just sticks them all together!
So thinking about your favourite synths, if you could take the best parts of one and whack it on another and make a perfect Frankenstein synth, what would that be?
Paul: An Emax sampler and a Macbeth M5m mixed together.
Paul: Great big fat filters, lots of patch points and sampling. I love samplers and I love analogue synths so I love them together, which is what they’ve just done in the new Dave Smith X and the Waldorf Quantam, which I’ve got in the studio waiting for the next project.
Phil: They’re getting warmed up.
What about a new bit of gear, what would be the first thing you’d grab?
Phil: Just that!
Paul: If I had to run out of the studio with one, it would be whichever was closest out of the Dave Smith X and the Quantam.
I don’t blame you, they are some pretty special synths. Well, that’s everything, thank you so much for the time, and I can’t wait for the show!
Phil: Thank you, my pleasure!
Paul: Cheers! Hope you enjoy!
Photos: Dani Hansen