The Orb at 25 Years: In Fact, We Are Dead!
It is 1988 and the emerging rave scene, fueled by so much chemistry and caffeine, found a need for a new kind of “comedown” sound. Around the same time, a pair of DJs in London began a successful run of very very late night sets of sample-laden dance and dub fusion. The duo, Alex Paterson and The KLF’s Jimmy Cauty, began calling themselves The Orb. Almost single-handedly they created the genre of Ambient House.
This fall, The Orb – now consisting of Patterson and longtime contributor/collaborator Thomas Fehlmann – are on a Silver Anniversary North American tour. Alex Paterson is a freewheeling and candid interviewee – when you can sort out what he’s saying in his thick London dustman’s accent. It’s sort of a cross between a loony lager lout and a philosophical psychoanalyst. Just don’t ask any dumb questions.
The Orb have released 14 albums, some would say only 14 albums, in 25 years. Is your approach quality over quantity?
Alex Paterson: Fourteen albums of what? It depends on how you look at it. I’m not going to mope about it. I’ve probably done over 100 remixes. I’ve run record labels. So it’s not just sitting back and saying, “Oh I’ll do another Orb album every other year.” We had signed to Island originally (in 1994) and then they were bought out by Universal. And we were stuck with this monster label that didn’t know its arse from its elbow. And they certainly didn’t know what to do with The Orb. In 1997 they would not let us release (our new) album for four years. They wouldn’t fucking release it. Four years of sitting there saying can we release a record? “No. We don’t like it. Go back.” So we began putting out bootlegs. In 2001 we finally got dropped and we were glad to move away from that… And yet now 15 years later we’re releasing an Orb box set on Universal in November. So I shouldn’t be too cruel. History Of The Future is another form of greatest hits, for a new generation of kids who’ve never heard of The Orb. It’s a four-CD set plus a DVD with loads of things that have never been released ever.
Reaching way back to the early 1980s, you were a roadie with Killing Joke, with their early goth/metal/punk vibe. What was the lasting impact of that experience?
Yes, Killing Joke. You got to start somewhere, mate. It made me a very strong individual. I can hold my own in any room, circumstance, with anybody in the world. If you work with those bastards you can work with anybody, I’m telling you that now. But I like the lads you know, I think of them as my brothers, we still huggle when we see each other. We still have very fond memories. And mammaries. All sorts of things we have memories of, including lots of cocaine. Oh dear yes, I’m sorry.
Your first record in 1988 was “Tripping On Sunshine” which I recall hearing on John Peel’s shortwave show. On the topic of obsolete equipment, does any of the gear that created those earliest records still survive in your rack of stuff you take on the road today?
No, not at all. We’ve got all our music copied onto digital anyway. We do try to keep the ethos of the sound.
So when The Orb does a set, how much is prepackaged and how much is live, so to speak?
What is live and what are we playing? I mean, we are not live at all. Musicians would say, “A DJ is not live.” So therefore we are never live. In fact we are dead. When we come onstage, we don’t move. In fact there is no point in coming to see us. Because we’re just lying to everybody when we say we’re playing live. But… all right, mate, sarcasm is sarcasm. I am fed up with answering that question, sorry. I can’t really answer you… other than to say if you come to see our show it will be an experience where probably, hopefully, you go away with a happy, happy memory.
Point taken. The Orb’s music is laden with always-interesting samples. Are you on an endless quest for sounds… your radar going all the time to capture and catalog sounds for later use?
We are all unique individuals and I just happen to know what I am on this earth for. The whole world is a giant sample to me. Everything around me is sample-able. The cars going past, birds in the trees, plus everything man has made to live in an environment that keeps him secure. You can go and sample it all. You can slow it down, pitch it down…
John Cage’s approach?
Yeah, maybe. It’s a lot of people’s approach. I mean we talk about The Orb’s Jubilee Anniversary with all the congratulations, but it is also the 100-year anniversary of The Art Of Noises. That is noises with an “s,” and if you Google The Art Of Noises you’ll actually see where we are coming from. They took everyday objects and sounds, and made music out of them. So it’s been going on a lot longer than you think.
In The Orb’s early days you had an alignment with KLF. So you probably came away with a rather liberal legal view of the term “fair use” when it came to sampling.
Well, yes. Very liberal. After all it was the Kopyright Liberation Front.
The Orb’s first album, Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, was released in 1991, made with multi-track tape machines, cassette decks, numerous CD players, three turntables, and the BBC sound effects library. You instantly created a new fusion all your own. The New Musical Express, for what it’s worth, ranked it in their top 100 greatest albums of all time. The first single “Little Fluffy Clouds,” was a top 10 hit. Its centerpiece was an unauthorized Rickie Lee Jones interview, in which she charmingly recalls the picturesque sky of her childhood. Did Mrs. Jones ever come around to liking that sample?
She always did. It was her management that didn’t. And they tried to fleece us for as much money as possible. But as the sample was spoken word, they really didn’t stand a chance. And we gave her a handsome amount of money out of court and she was happy with it.
And yet paradoxically the entire “Little Fluffy Clouds” record was itself sampled as a spoof record called “Gray Fluffy Clouds” – as an addled and testy punter complains about Britain’s awful weather while The Orb’s track floats in the background. Did you appreciate the spirit of that?
Yes, certainly. I had to give it my blessing for it to come out. I thought it was fine. The only thing I was annoyed about was the accent should’ve been a London accent and not from up north.
The next year came the pioneering single “Blue Room” which clocked in at 39 minutes and 57 seconds.
Yes. THE longest single to ever chart. And it will never get any longer than that, ever. Because of us they reduced (a song’s eligibility) to 20 minutes.
And it was a bonafide hit, and thus you were invited to join the lip-syncing parade of bands on the BBC-TV’s seminal Top Of The Pops. For our American readership, can you recreate what happened that night?
We came up with the, um, zany idea that The Orb would simply play chess on Top Of The Pops. It’s one of our favorite sports. And the BBC were, like, well, “Why?” And we said because we are an ambient band, we are samplers, and we don’t play instruments. We are an engineer and a DJ, and we intend to play chess (for our on-air segment.) And after huffing and puffing and puffing and huffing and puffing and puffing… and after threatened with being sanctioned, and threatened with being thrown off the BBC set all day… we finally recorded us playing chess on Top Of The Pops whilst the “Blue Room” track played. And this year we finally got permission from the BBC to include that in our box set coming in November. Ah, that particular moment in our time.
2010 saw The Orb in collaboration with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour for the album Metallic Spheres, which was praised for revisiting the sound of Floyd’s Ummagumma and Meddle, while criticized for not venturing past either party’s comfort zone.
We were not trying to be pedantic, we were trying to be ourselves. I had not really bothered with them since Meddle and “Careful with that Axe Eugene.” And “See Emily Play.”
In 2012 The Orb released an album with Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Orbserver In The Star House, and this year, More Tales From the Orbservatory. I find it fascinating to hear you bring hooks, wit, and structure to Lee Perry’s wilder ramblings. It’s a cliché but I have to ask, what is Lee “Scratch” Perry really like?
Huh, I dunno. (laughs) Well I can tell you he has a big dick. He’s got a big cock, there you go. And he loves singing about it. But he’s a very nice chap. Yet I’m sure he can be… well, he wasn’t called “The Upsetter” for nothing. But the wise man is getting older now so he doesn’t get so upset. He only tends to get a little bit spaced out. He has lived in Switzerland for 25 years with his Swiss wife and he has Swiss children. But he traveled to Germany to record with us, just outside Berlin.
And this year, a second Orb album with Perry. Was this a new gathering or did you have enough material from the first record to do another?
We had enough material to do a second album. We actually have enough material to do a third album, but we don’t really want to put out a porn album, hence going back to his dick. It would cheer people up though. There you are. And to anticipate your next question, he was much more fun to work with than David Gilmour.
Even with Perry’s fewer brain cells, a little spaced out?
I wouldn’t actually say that, really. I would not try to think that just because David Gilmour speaks posh, he’s got more brain cells. Far from it. He’s not an individual, he’s part of a collective. And Perry is an individual, and a prophet. I mean, really, he created dub. He created dub. You are talking an Eno-esque type person here, while Gilmore is second-rate guitarist in a third-rate fucking band that happened to hit it big. They made a really, really commercial record called The Dark Side Of The Arse. You know, crap. Whoopee. So what if I liked that album. Who fucking didn’t like that album, unfortunately? It was in the charts for like… it was obscene.
Did you prepare tracks for Perry to sing or pontificate over, or was it a cappella poetry on Perry’s part that you recast?
A little bit of everything really. We never really worked that hard, but it was fulfilling. We thought we would do four tracks with him in one week, and those four were completed in one day. So we had another five days with him, so we did another 17 tracks, from scratch. Ha ha, did you get that?
Oh yes. I’m quick. Looking back on 25 years of The Orb, may I just say that the type of ambient music… or whatever it’s called these days… that you have created has always had great textures and samples, along with a large amount of wit and humor, as opposed to the plodding cookie-cutter structure of a lot of house or rave or happy hardcore dance flavors. You are clearly trying to have fun.
Well yes, that’s the idea, thanks for saying that. Because a lot of people just say to us, “Well why did you do that?” And you have answered that without me having to say a thing. Thank you.