Having split up in 2004, Orbital have recently returned with their eighth studio album, entitled Wonky. To celebrate this spectacular return to form, State caught up with one half of the electronic wizard brothers, Mr. Paul Hartnoll. Encompassing everything from female folkies, slapping Mike Read on the arse and the how they come up with song titles, we try to discover what exactly happened with Orbital, why they broke up and how they fit in to a musical landscape which has changed entirely.
When you called it a day did you really think that was the end for Orbital?
Totally. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of it, otherwise it’s a bit daft, really. We went for it. We decided to stop.
Why did you get back together then?
I missed it. It’s a bit like driving down the road. You can’t really see the car you’re in but if you get out and watch the car go off in the distance, you think ‘that’s a nice car, I’m pissed off I got out of that car’. About four years later, you catch up with it, jump back in and off we go again. It’s a bit like It’s A Wonderful Life, where you’re quite down on yourself. It takes you to step outside of it to realise, actually, this is a good thing. It’s amazing, really, to be able to step back into something you thought was dead and there’s a whole new world of life there and fully appreciating it this time.
Wonky seems to hark back to the sound of the first four Orbital albums – was that a conscious decision?
What people are hearing is hopefully an honest, good album which is why it sounds like the first four. It probably doesn’t but it kind of does because it’s still us and hopefully if it’s good, it fits in with the other good music we’ve done. We had a very clear objective. We’d done two years of touring, really enjoyed it and said, ‘let’s make some music that we wanna tour with’. We wrote music to play live. Those first four albums are very much done in the spirit of the ‘90s, late-‘80s dance music so because we were thinking about large stages and festivals when we were writing it, it’s got that feel about it. Tracks like ‘Never’ and ‘Stringy Acid’ are very simple which when we play live make sense because they’re loud and big and brash but they still have emotional content.
Zola Jesus and Lady Leshurr are unexpected collaborators for you but work incredibly well. What was it about them that made you want to work with them?
The songs chose them. We thought maybe these songs would be good with a vocal. With Zola Jesus, we felt it would be great to have a wailing goth kind of vocal, a strong voice – definitely female. And then we stumbled across her and she had this really powerful voice, almost like the woman from Propaganda. It was the same with Lady Leshurr. I was listening to the track thinking what if we had some rapping on it, like Missy Elliot, but we couldn’t find many female rappers. Then somebody suggested her so we checked her out and we thought, ‘woah, she’s like a machine gun, she’s perfect’ – we wanted someone who was really sharp on their timing. So it was basically a case of deciding what we wanted and then finding someone who could deliver. Often you collaborate with people over long distance but they both came into the studio on the last week of the album. We were kind of confident of the tracks working as instrumentals if it didn’t come off. But Zola Jesus came down in the last few days and we mixed that and then Lady Leshurr came down the second last day and she just hammered it out quickly in a day and then we mixed it the next day. Which is why the album ended up being called Wonky because that was the last track and it was our celebratory day and we thought, ‘fuck it, let’s call the album Wonky’. We’ve always named things like that, like ‘Chime’, it’s named that because it sounds like a chime, so that track’s called ‘Wonky’ because it’s kind of wonky.
In between the Blue album and Wonky, the music industry has entirely changed. Have you had to think about how to adapt or is that something that you just don’t worry about?
We’ve always had the same management team and I leave it up to them ‘cos I’d be an idiot not to – that’s what they do best, music is what I do best. But I’m quite enjoying it because the thing we loved with Orbital was the playing live and that’s where you can make money nowadays and the record is just really a tool to keep playing live and keep it fresh. That’s how music used to be before the 40s or 50s, music was all about playing live and they thought that recorded music was killing live music. Now, recorded music is dying and the internet is killing that. If you don’t accept change you’re gonna have a tough time with life and getting older. Everything changes. The music industry changes. People aren’t going to stop wanting music – people love music – it’s been there ever since people could bash rocks together- it’s just interesting finding out how it’s gonna work now, how we’re going to earn money from it – if I can earn my living from it, I’ll be happy.
As our chat continues, we end up talking about his solo album (“it was a great experience but cost a lot of bloody money to do”), the Electric Picnic (“a proper festival, there’s loads of mad shit going on”) and how he finds limitations creatively-stimulating (“when I go into a studio with too many synths in it, it’s a bit overwhelming because you feel like you have to use them all”). Talk eventually turns to the launch gig they did with Public Image Limited for Record Store Day.
“I was really hoping to have a chat or get my photograph taken with John Lydon. I only saw him pass in the corridor but I did actually get to meet Mike Read, the Radio 1 DJ from the 80’s, how great was that! It was mad, it was one of those things with someone who because you know his face so well, you think that you know him. (I said) ‘Oh, hello what are you doing here?’ and slapped him on the arse and then thought, ‘Oh shit, it’s Mike Read, I don’t know him at all”. I had a really good chat with him. So I got to meet Mike Read, I didn’t get to meet John Lydon, but hey, that’s how it goes sometimes”.
We end our conversation with Phil listing his current listening favourites. He namedrops Irish knob-twiddlers, The Japanese Popstars, who they’ve been touring with (“they’re set to go a long way, they’re a real festival dance band”). He continues by reeling off a load of female artists – Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, The Unthanks, Emily Portman. “I like the slightly odd melancholy harmonic female singers because it’s the absolute antithesis of what I can do – I just can’t get anywhere close to doing that”. On mentioning how great it would be to hear Orbital collaborate with Joanna Newsom, Phil asserts, “give me any of those ladies to collaborate with and I’d be really happy”. Here’s hoping we get that fifteen minute techno harp track on album number nine.
Wonky is out now on ACP. Orbital play the Electric Picnic in September.