We first met Phil Hartnoll soon after he and his brother Paul moved to Brighton in the early 2000s. It was 4am at a house party and we were on the way to being appropriately refreshed when we noticed him walk in and sit down on the sofa opposite. Realising that we had about 30 minutes before we took a turn for the very friendly, we crawled over and told him just what ‘Belfast’ meant to us – perhaps the most emotional and affecting piece of dance music ever made. He leaned in, and with us at his feet like children listening to a story, talked us through exactly how he made it, where the samples came from, the mindset they were in and even the lucky breaks.
As good as it is to hear stories about legendary tracks from the people who made them, it’s perhaps even more exciting to be sitting with Phil and Paul talking about new material, something we thought would never happen again. When the pair split in 2004 it seemed like a sadness that we’d get over but their return for the greatest hits tour a few years ago made us realise just how much we missed them.
The announcement of new LP, ‘Wonky’, was a different prospect though. With such a legacy – ‘Lush’, ‘Halcyon’, ‘Are We Here?’ and so many more – was another album of dance music wise 23 years after ‘Chime’ appeared in the charts? It turns out that, yes, it’s very wise, as ‘Wonky’ is right up there with ‘The Brown Album’ and ‘Snivilisation’. With all the elements that make them so good – those epic, emotional soundscapes, the prettily naïve yet complex melodies and the driving techno beats – ‘Wonky’ isn’t afraid to bring in new sounds and fresh ideas but maintains the feel of the classic Orbital sound.
Most surprising is the album’s title track, an astoundingly ‘now’ piece of electro dancehall hip hop with Lady Leshurr that gives Azealia Banks’ ‘212’ a run for its money. Meanwhile old fans might be surprised to hear ‘Satan’ reworked as ‘Beelzedub’, a throbbing piece of dubstep. Yeah, you read that right – and you know what? It sounds amazing.
“That was something that was developing live as we were playing it,” says Phil. “Paul slowed ‘Satan’ right down one night at a gig and then we developed further in the studio. It wasn’t even going to be for the album, it was just for playing in gigs. But I love what dubstep producers do with bass.”
It’s fun hearing your favourite electronic producers play their tracks loud, there’s always the concern that you’re watching them press play on a CD. Headlining slots at Glastonbury suggest that Orbital were doing it properly but while we see the lights on their trademark glasses bobbing up and down, what happens up there in all that equipment is a mystery.
“It’s a studio up on stage really,” explains Paul. “I do the arranging of the tracks, improvise with that, Phil does the mixing. We have various analogue synths on stage, some of which don’t even have presets. We have to literally dial up the sound for each track. That’s part of the fun.”
“Everything is broken down – bass drum, hi-hats and so on – into loops,” continues Phil. “You can make a track last a minute or an hour. It’s all down to the communication that you get from the audience. You can see them really enjoying a bit so you take it away from them and build it up again. The audience play quite a big part of how we perform. It even surprises me how different the tracks turn out every single time.”
They’re clearly still buzzing off playing live right now, and it’s thanks to the comeback gigs that we have a new Orbital LP. With no plans to reform beyond a handful of gigs, the tour got longer and after two years they were looking for new material to play. A couple of new tracks went well so they stopped the touring to head into the studio for the full longplayer.
“We could rely on our history, but it’s not very exciting for us, from a selfish point of view,” says Phil.
“That’s why we stopped before,” confesses Paul, “we got bored with it. This time it’s all about keeping it alive. The two years that we were on tour was all about playing our greatest hits but this time around we’ve got four or five new tracks in the set and we’ve got some old tracks that we wanted to resurrect.”
“It was never a masterplan,” says Phil. “It just progressed. We thought, ‘What are we going to do now? We can’t keep playing these old tracks.’”
As much as the songs were made to play live, the album is very much a single piece of music that develops slowly over 50 minutes. Opener ‘One Big Moment’ sounds like the soundtrack to the most amazing documentary about the universe, while the Zola Jesus-featuring ‘New France’ is as euphoric as Orbital’s biggest stadium numbers. Things get more raucous from ‘Stringy Acid’ on – a raw dancefloor track that could have come from their first EP – but the journey there is a subtle one.
“We sat down and made a map,” says Paul. “I always think of albums in one go – that’s how I listen to them, one gesture. We’re not very modern in that respect – I don’t adhere to the iPod shuffle generation of buying albums, shoving them on your iPod and leaving everything on random. It might suit some people but I think of albums as one big piece.”
Rather than coming from the techno world of making individual tracks for the dancefloor the pair see themselves as a continuation of electronic artists like New Order, Cabaret Voltaire and Kraftwerk.
“As much as I loved electro, it was very much 12” based,” Paul says. “Whenever anyone sat down to make an album they were pretty poor. We were caught up in the whole dance thing in the late 80s as it happened but we brought that electronic concept album angle into it.”
But after 23 years is electronic music still exciting to them? After hearing them talk about the new music they’re making and the new gigs they’re going to be playing, it’s a question that doesn’t really need asking.
“I love it,” beams Paul. “I can’t stop.”
That’s good news because in a couple of decades someone is going to be grabbing the Hartnolls at a house party, eager to know how the classic tracks from ‘Wonky’ were made.
LP: ‘Wonky’ out now
WONKY 7”: Available on Record Store Day, Sat 21st April 2012
Photo Kenny Mc Cracken at Create
Assisted by Faye Fillingham, Matt Martin & Josh Redfearn