The Orb Interview
Photo by Greg Cristman
In promotion of their History of the Future four-disc box set, electronic music legends Dr. Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann, better known as The Orb, are on a 25th Anniversary Tour across the globe. I was lucky enough to have some time to chat with them before their show at Webster Hall in NYC last month and was impressed (but not surprised) by their diverse tastes in music. I’m also happy to report that it seems as though they could go on for another 25 years. Here’s hoping…
It’s been almost 25 years since you two met. Can you expand on the details of what brought you two together?
Alex: I was working at EG Records. I was an A&R man there, and Thomas had a label called Teutonic Beats, which basically had a variety of acts on it very similar to what I was doing. At the same time, in conjunction with the EG job, I was running a label with Youth called Wau! Mr. Modo, which we can come to later cause that’s what Sun Electric ended up on. After originally signing to EG as Fisherman’s Friend, getting absolutely nowhere, we said change the name and put some music out on Wau! It’s much more credible, and it did work that way, didn’t it?
Thomas: Yeah, we were both in love with this new music, this electronic music, which was club-oriented but still experimental. One evening you could have a bit more leaning towards that side and the other towards another side. And I think that’s what really interested us. Because ambient as well, you know, Alex’s way of coming into the scene, was coming more from the avant-garde side and not so much from the pop side. So there was always this dynamic between those two poles. And he loves both of those.
And you just melded them together somehow…
A: Well the day that we met, my A&R boss, the manager of the record label, says to me, “Entertain Thomas and his crew. They’re over for a couple of days.” So I took them down to Shoom, which is a legendary house club.
T: One of the first…
A: If not the first. Shoom and Spectrum were the two clubs that were running simultaneously, one of them by Danny Rampling, and the other everyone knows was Paul Oakenfold. So yeah, I just said, “Come on. I’ll take you to this.” And it was a club where everyone was eating food and drinking water and lots of very weird celebrities wandering around talking to people very openly. It was a very open club. It was a joy to see them all there. And it was nice that he returned the favour going back to Berlin. That saved me when I went back to Berlin with a whole gang of journalists to promote the Teutonic Beats album I was putting out on EG. And guess what happened when we went over? The Wall came down.
That was that year?!
T: That was that year and that weekend.
A: That blew everybody away. It was just immense. I was DJing that weekend in a club called UFO, and we were actually playing “spot the Eastern European” because of it.
T: But Alex had before had a passion for Berlin, too. So this fact that I was in Berlin and him having the chance to come out was also kind of working towards our–
A: Yes, unbeknownst to us again, we’d been running a similar path where we’d been recording in the same studio. Me just as a roadie but working, getting the job ready with Killing Joke where I played chef and looking after them all the way through the recording session. I was setting up the gear and going home and then coming back and sitting down again. I was actually there for two months or something in Hansa Studios when Thomas was working in Hansa Studios. And that was right by the Wall.
T: So, we didn’t meet then. We were in the same building working on the same thing.
A: We met a few times in the lift…
T: It took us a few years to then actually really connect. But from then on, pretty much from the first album, I had one contribution on one of the songs.
A: The whole album was based on one track, “A Friend.” And Thomas and I, we had become friends in that time. We both had the same, more so than most people…Thomas isn’t as muso as all the other musos on all the albums, and that’s probably why we click.
“Little Fluffy Clouds” and “Toxygene” are probably your most well-known hits, but do you have other personal favourites that probably don’t get as much exposure or attention?
T: It varies. At the moment, I’m a big fan of “Slug Dub,” which we haven’t really talked about or played for years.
A: We never played it live.
T: And now we do it, and it’s great fun to do.
Have you been playing it on this tour?
T: Oh yeah.
A: It comes from the Orbus Terrarum album, which kind of broke us more in America than any other album. We got great exposure.
T: Yeah, it got good attention. That’s right.
A: And a lot of people I know from past visits to America always have “Slug Dub.”
As opposed to maybe people from the UK?
A: Differently. People in the UK would go on to us about U.F.Orb or–
T: Powers of Dub was a very popular track in England.
A: It was a very popular track here as well. It was a popular track everywhere really. My favourite is a really difficult question, at the moment it would be Back Side of the Moon, which we found out when you listen to it on a very, very big system is dubby as your mother. There are so many slick hip hop moves in there, which no one has ever picked up on. The hip hop side of The Orb. It’s there.
T: I remember from very early on we talked about hip hop.
A: There just can’t be too many genres. We can’t be hip hop and be–
Sure you can. You can do whatever you want.
T: We do it anyway, but it doesn’t seem to get noticed in the club.
Right because they’re not expecting it.
T: No. We have deep love for certain hip hop artists over the years like Dilla, we’re big fans of. Madlib, we’re big fans of.
A: Down to Twin Hype and Eric B. and Rakim. All that lot. That was one of my biggest thrills as well in my roadie-ing years. I actually went on the Def Jam tour in 1986. They had jaw-dropping PA systems with this 808 bass – bass that just destroyed you.
What role did your beginnings in the acid house era play in your productions with The Orb early on?
A: Early days, acid days, sitting on beaches, getting sunburned with humongous headaches and telling Jimmy to get rid of the drums, and then ambient house was born, basically. And that’s the “A Huge Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain…” single that came out in February ’89. If you’re curious to know why we’re celebrating 25 years 24 years after the first pieces of music came out, it’s because we were doing live stuff in ’88 anyway, and we were definitely experimenting in ’88.
I kind of look at it as since ’88.
A: Yeah. We’re going to carry on touring, and we’re going to put out another box set.
You’re preparing for the 25th…
A: Yeah, we’re doing another box set for the independent years.
Another one on top of the one that just came out?
T: Yeah, that’s the first part.
What can you say about how your sound has evolved since then?
A: Fatter, clearer, lovelier and smoother. Not slick in the way of slick but a minimal twist.
T: The groove’s gotten a little snappier.
A: Well I know that The Orb put the “O” into God, so that’s pretty much where we should be moving forward.
Do you feel that what’s hot at the time influences your sound at all, or do you try to stay true to what you’ve been doing?
T: We’re ruthless. We copy everything.
A: Yeah, we do in a sense. The Orblivion album, there’s some drum and bass tunes on there. They tend to be a bit dated now, so we steer clear of them. But again, if you listen to it on max 11, it actually sounds great. It’s meant to be played out. It’s not meant to be something that you just…maybe the ambient stuff, sure.
T: I think also when you look at the way contemporary music has adapted. I know some people can copy it very well in the sense that you won’t recognize it from the original, but in another way, like Juan Atkins adapted German disco, and what his abilities were came out as techno. In the same way, we’re transforming what we like into our sound. So there are certain influences, but it’s impossible for us to sound like something else. We have our own style of working, and it seems to be just a very personal way of us treating contemporary influences. Sometimes you forget about them. They might just kick off something.
Your first gig was in Bath in ’88, twenty-five years ago. What are some of the best shows you can remember from over the years?
A: Going back, in essence, the best shows would have been the “Sunrise, Sunset” gigs in Trekroner in ’93 on an island that we were exorcising from the tyranny of Nazis, which is basically quite cool for me. Peter Gabriel wanted to do it, and they said, “No, we want The Orb,” so I thought that was even cooler.
T: It is a little island off Copenhagen, Denmark.
A: You have to get a boat to get there.
T: All the people had to have a boat, and it was really quite major. But it was great. The whole island was full.
A: It was almost like we took a little leaf out of LL Cool J’s first album, a Big Box with just this huge pontoon boat where the stage was.
So it was on the water?
A: We were on the water.
T: The stage was on the water within the little harbour of that island.
A: Everyone on that island watching us from afar, but that didn’t matter because the live show stretched down Copenhagen, all down to Copenhagen airport. That’s how intense it was. We managed to get ourselves on the front news of the Sunday papers in Denmark because of it.
A: How do you like me now? But we’ve also done some really good gigs on this tour, I gotta say. There’s one or two that do jump out and make me go, “Yeah that was really good.” That was Los Angeles, which was a really good one, at the Fonda Theatre. And, somewhere in the middle…
T: Madison was good. Denver was good. Chicago was good too.
Do you feel that the American crowds are significantly different than the ones overseas?
T: I just find that the people here are really receptive and open to react very spontaneously, just greeting you when they recognize you. They didn’t feel shy, which I liked. And they certainly went with the groove, so I felt they were a little less shy than some European audiences might be.
A little less reserved…
T: Yeah, less reserved. We enjoy that.
A: Really gotta shout when you play golf. Do you know the acronym for golf? Gentleman only, ladies forbidden, forboden.
I’ve never heard that acronym.
A: Have a little look, then wonder why you’re not allowed there in the mornings when only men can go to the golfing clubs. Hmmmm? But anyways….
What would you say makes your live show unique?
A: Learning stupid shit like that.
A: S.H.I.T. Suspected Hippie In Transit.
You like your acronyms.
A: How much weirder do you want me to get?
You can go as far as you want to.
A: That’s cool.
Can you share any surprises for tonight’s show?
A: Watch out for….
T: What is it?
A: Are you going to do some yodeling? You’ve got the outfit, haven’t you?
T: I won’t out there.
A: Well, if no yodeling then, watch out for some kind of pet sounds, and they’re not dogs. Woof.
T: Oh yeah. That’s a very good way to put it. Super riddle. That’s a serious riddle. Watch out for some pet sounds,
A: But they’re not dogs.
How has the 25th Anniversary tour been shaping up?
A: We have some UK dates and some European dates in December. And we’ll probably be going to Australia in January/February. I know we might be doing it all again at some point next year because we’re going to be doing a second box set, so…
T: I calculated up until Christmas, and there were about over half, two-thirds almost.
A: We’ve still got a ways to go.
T: But it’s fun, it’s real fun because we didn’t do tracks the way they were originally done. We really worked with them.
When was the last time that you toured, and would you say that you tour primarily when you have a release?
T: This has really changed a bit. Early on, it seemed like the tours are advertising for the record, but it’s more like, these days, records advertise the tour. In a way, touring varies from two weeks, three weeks, four weeks in a row – only do weekends. Fly out on a Thursday, come back on a Sunday. But a real tour, for Alex, goes on and on.
A: This has been a real tour for quite a while this year. The last real tour of America we did was in 2006. We do weekend gigs and then spend the rest of the week being told, “Why aren’t you working?” when we’ve just done a weekend show. We do festivals and things like that over the summer. It’s not like we’ve been going idle since we started doing the English tour. July, August, September – we did many festivals in England. It’s festival season. We played Glastonbury.
T: You should look it up. The Orb live at Glastonbury this year on YouTube. You’ll have fun.
The Orb History of the Future box set was released last month. How did you decide what content to include?
A: Hit or miss guess work, see if it all fits. Tried to use things that hadn’t been used too many times before. The whole idea of putting this out in this form was that, through my own A&R experiences, and working with the Roxy Music back catalogs, this is what they do every five years. They’ll put it out at Christmas and try and cash in with the Christmas rush.
A: Well, I don’t want to be doing that with The Orb, but, we have a reason to do it. We have 25 years of existence, why not celebrate it? We might as well give ourselves a pat on the head because we’re still here, and we’re still doing it. And by saying this, how long we’ve been doing it, other bands around us like Orbital, who are just a year younger than us, they’re on a similar parallel. Paul from Orbital came to see us play with Kakatsitsi right before the Glastonbury show. Amazing comment. I was going on to him, “Would you fancy doing a little remix of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds?’” And he just looked at me and went, “Man, would I? I would love to get my name on that,” and I was thinking that was a little over the top. “You just don’t know how many people come up to Orbital and ask, “Are you going to play ‘Little Fluffly Clouds?’” Orb, Orbital. We get the same thing. People keep thinking we’re Orbital. Not everyone, but it does happen.
What can we expect from The Orb in the future?
A: Visions of small green men building the moon and such.
A: We have a new album coming out called Moon Building 2703 A.D., so it’s set in the future.
Ah – is that due out next year?
A: When we’ve got some time out of doing this touring malarky.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: Thomas has got a new single out on Kompakt, and that’s very good.
A: I think you covered everything, really. Lee Scratch Perry – we’ve got another show with him in November, and we’re going to kind of call it a day show-wise with him. We’re not too compatible on stage, unfortunately. We’ll do that one and then maybe we’ll write other songs. He’s a dear soul, and he’s also a very upsetting soul. He’s not called “The Upsetter” for no reason. There is a reason why he is the “scratch upsetter.” And what we’ve got out, recording-wise with him, I think we got the best out of him that we could have done after listening to stuff he’d done with Adrian Sherwood and The Prof [Mad Professor]. We just wanted to do something different. We didn’t want it to be another reggae album. He went, “I want women singing on the album, and I want brass sections.” And I told him, “It’s not a reggae album. Hold up.”
A: Hold up. What about a bit of live bass? Compromising.
Well, thank you guys so much for talking with me.
T: Our pleasure.
A: Thank you. Come back and have tea with us sometime.