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Interview: Orbital Discuss The Politics Of Electronic Dance Music

Interview: Orbital Discuss The Politics Of Electronic Dance Music

Interview by Chris Cudby and Satin Sheets / Wednesday 16th January, 2019 1:50PM
Pioneering UK electronic dance duo Orbital are playing their first ever New Zealand headline shows this summer, with appearances lined up for Auckland's Splore Festival 2019 and Christchurch's Electric Avenue Music Festival in mid-February. Comprised of brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll, we were lucky to get Phil on the line for an in-depth conversation about Orbital's hugely impactful history and what we can look forward to with their local live debut. Auckland vaporwave producer (and Orbital fan) Satin Sheets was all set to interview Hartnoll, but in a last minute showbiz twist he lost his voice the day before their scheduled chinwag. Chris Cudby (also an Orbital fan) stepped in with Satin Sheets' questions at hand to chat with the affable English electronic figurehead, read their wide-ranging conversation below...


You’re playing at Splore Music Festival in Auckland and also at the Electric Avenue festival in Christchurch, this will be your first visit to New Zealand as Orbital...

As Orbital, definitely. I did a little DJ thing last year, I supported Underworld at this little festival (Oro '17)... When I DJ, I play a lot of disco, a lot of my favourite dancehall tracks with splatterings of Orbital. They’re very well educated over there and when I played Orbital, that's when I realised “oh my god, we should be playing there” and “why haven't we done this ever before?”. So I tried to get the ball rolling and I said ”we’ve got to get to New Zealand” and luckily somebody was listening to me. We finally got to New Zealand after all these years and much apologies for not coming here before, but at least we’re coming now really.

Do you or Paul have a preference for indoor or outdoor sets? Do you feel that Orbital’s sound and live show interact with the different environments differently?

The indoor / outdoor thing really depends... I've got no real preference really. My only desire is that the people that are there enjoy it. I like seeing the whites of their eyes and I like seeing people enjoying what were doing. That’s my prime directive really, I don't care what it is, where it is, as long as you’ve got that, I’m a happy person.

Nineties electronic music from the UK has seen a resurgence and a great reception from a fresh generation of fans today. Many of your younger audience were introduced to Orbital through ‘Halcyon On and On’s spine-tingling opening in (90s film) Hackers. Are you and Paul aware of your new audience, and has it influenced any creative decisions on new projects or live shows?

'Chime' was our springboard to getting a record deal with London Records. We convinced them to treat us like an electronic band and it was a bit difficult then because they just wanted dance tracks for the dancefloor really, because that was what they were all about. When we chatted to Pete Tong at the very beginning when he first signed us, we were saying “look Pete, were an electronic band, we're not just for the dancefloor.” There’s been people like Kraftwerk as examples of people that have gone before us and that's what we were trying to encourage, that idea and he went for it and that's what we did.

Then we took Orbital live and what we do live, we essentially set up a studio on stage and we’ve got all our synthesisers up there that are getting MIDI triggers, and we've got a computer running Ableton which essentially takes the place of the samplers and Paul’s got these two iPads.

We're improvising with the structure of the song, which allows us to respond to the audience and we can go a bit crazy sometimes, its rough and its raw. We’ve done that since the 90s, ever since we've played live. That I think really has been the key because the audience feel that and they recognise that, even though they don't know what we're doing technically and people are not really interested, but they can feel that. If they're familiar with ‘Halcyon’ for instance and we play it live, they can tell. It doesn't sound like it is on the record, at all really, which is the live performance element of it. It happened when we did this seminal gig in 1994 at Glastonbury, when they were very very rock and roll and they didn't give much to electronic sound. But when we played there, people were so gagging for it and they heard that, then Mike Eavis (Glastonbury Festival founder), he sort of realised, actually there is a space for electronic sound in these festivals, and ever since then its built up to the point where they have an electric field. It’s that element, which has pushed the electronic band, the electronic sound and how to perform electronic music live really.

What’s your feelings on artists that have more of a 'press and play' approach?

Well whatever they wanna do really, but whenever I go and see an electronic band that sounds like the record I get a bit bored... It's like why am I watching this? It's nice on a big loud sound system but it's nothing… When we perform we've still got a set list in every gig that we play but it is really individual to that performance in the here and the now really, which is what I like about the way we do it. You go see a band that rely a lot on backing tracks, I get a bit bored is all I can say.

I was reading a pretty interesting article on contemporary EDM performers and their insane schedules (The North Face by Cory Arcangel), where they’ll be flying to multiple festivals every single day, like three festivals in a day and you kind of can't really tell what they’re doing on stage other then just being there.

That doesn't do it for me. It was funny because we did an American show... about seven years ago. It was funny because the main stage where all these superstar DJs were playing all this EDM stuff. When we were there all day, you’d get the superstar DJs playing on the main stage and of course they just turned up half an hour before. There was a top ten of EDM records that were going around at the time, every single DJ played at least one or two of the same record that the previous guy played. We were there all day and it was like “fuck me, they just played this one. The other guy just before just played this one and played that one” and during the whole day this was a common thing. I’d feel a bit cheated if I were a member of the audience to be honest. But that's a typical example of what you're talking about.

I'll hit you with one last question from Satin Sheets - political themes and dance music seem to traditionally to be an unconventional combination. Orbital has produced a unique social voice, most recently shown in the 'P.H.U.K.' music video... are there any artists or movements in electronic music that you guys have felt you’ve been drawn to because of their social or political stance?

I can't think of any really. Not currently.

Do you think that there's an absence of that kind of thing?

It’s a twofold thing because you’ve got dance music, which is going back to the first sort of idea where we got signed to Pete Tong. For us, we come from the punk era, we are aware of the social, political things that are going on and we express ourselves... We’re affected by the current political status of wherever we live and it concerns us. We are more concerned about the care of the planet, which is a big thing with us, the stupidity of the human race [laughs], and with the current political climate. It's the ridiculousness of it.

We grew up through the 80s, I thought that we’d done all that by then. We had an album out called Snivilisation. We tend to point questions, pose questions and what with the current political climate... it all came out as an expression. As an electronic band, we don't make music for the dancefloor, we express ourselves and what's going on at the current time when we write music. Monsters Exist... look at the state of what’s going on in the UK and the rest of the world really, in the USA. It’s all very unbelievable really. Coming up through the 80s it's like you’ve gone one step forward and three steps back. Can’t quite believe we're in this position now, Brexit shit going on and what with the USA and pushing buttons and all that sort of stuff. I can't believe this and it comes out as an expression through our creativity. We don't like banging on about things but we do things on more of a ironic side of things and posing questions side of things.

We decided to call it Monsters Exist, because they bloody do! And watch out, its like heed the warning. You get the opportunity to do tracks like ‘Please Help UK’ which is a bit of a joke but then the actual track itself is an instrumental track. You get the opportunity to title it ‘Please Help UK’ and then a video to go with it which is a juxtaposition of the nice glitzy side of the UK which the government likes to promote... It's a bit of an 80s / 90s sort of video, harking back to where we come from. Its an extension, but you listen to the track and it's not like it's going “oh please help UK, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck” or anything like that. It's just something to attach an extra arm to it that goes under the title of Monsters Exist really. And then we go the remix “fuck you, please help UK, urgent” so it's fun, but there's a seriousness behind the fun as well.

You can catch Orbital live at Auckland's Splore Festival 2019 at Tapapakanga Regional Park, taking place from Friday 22nd February to Sunday 24th February, and at Christchurch's Electric Avenue Music Festival at Hagley Park on Saturday 23rd February.


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