Global Dance Party: An Interview with The Orb’s Alex Paterson
No Sounds Are Out of Bounds is electronic collective The Orb‘s latest studio album, full of soulful vocals, silly samples, strange sound effects and quite a bit of Reggae rhythms. Alex Paterson has been making weird and grooving music since 1990 as The Orb, first with Jimmy Cauty (The KLF) and then a revolving and sometimes returning group of musicians and producers like Kris Weston, Andy Falconer, Andy Hughes, Simon Phillips and Nick Burton, with Youth and Thomas Fehlmann being the mainstays. They put Ambient Techno in our ears with their first two albums proper in The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld in 1991 and U.F.Orb in 1992, crafting often long, sometimes languid, often powerful compositions designed originally as a break from the pounding techno sounds heard on the dance floors at clubs. Alex and Jimmy Cauty would spin Ambient, Reggae and more chill tunes in a room with couches and places to lounge. From that came The Orb.
Their classic and timeless tunes have been the soundtrack to many, inspiring producers and DJ’s to have a go at it themselves. But there can be only one Orb with Alex Paterson as the constant, the joker, the audio prankster and lover of the strange and the soulful. The week before their Orbfest with GAS, System 7, Leftfield and Ulrich Schnauss, I spoke to Mr. Paterson about his legacy, what’s new and what is to come with The Orb.
I was listening to audio of a show you did one summer called Organic 96. It was with Meat Beat Manifesto and Orbital, up in the mountains above Los Angeles.
That was certainly a very good gig. One of the best gigs we’ve ever did, actually. With Meat Beat Manifesto. I’d been a DJ with them all year as well.
The last time I saw you was with Thomas Fehlmann at the Henry Fonda Theater.
That was L.A. We’re coming back in November hopefully. Visas permitted if we’re lucky to be allowed back in to your lovely country. Fingers crossed, we’ll be there. It shouldn’t be a problem. If Jimi Hendrix can play a version of the Star Spangled Banner and become a national hero, surely the American authorities they’ll let us back in. We’re happy, we’re a good band.
The new album is a fun listen. I last talked with you for The Orbserver, with Lee “Scratch” Perry. On the new album was there a concerted effort to have more samples?
Many of the samples were really done by my friend Roney FM. He’s a ventriloquist and he can change his voice. He’s a shapeshifter, he’s really good. Not many people would know he’s Jamaican for that matter. That’s how good he is.
And you have a few guests on the album like Hollie Cook.
We worked on her new album last year [The excellent Vessel of Love] over at Youth’s studio and it’s sort of reciprocal, here’s one tune for you, here’s one tune for you. Lot of history there, [at this point I lose the phone connection. Hollie Cook is the daughter of The Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and was in the last line-up of The Slits]. Where were we? The Sex Pistols, not very ambient really. Radio 4 by Public Image Limited, PiL has some amazing tunes. Have you come across that one?
I‘m sure I’ve heard it, I have most of their music.
It’s the classical one called Radio 4. It’s on Metal Box, their second album with Jah Wobble doing a Korean bass line, with some mad strings done by Keith Levine. Anyway, over to you. The new album. It features lots of vocalists, that’s for sure. It’s a move away from the Teutonic German sound with Thomas. I’m happy that we’re back to it’s old self, the generic old self from the Ultraworld phase. When it was us against the world, as opposed to just a couple of us. And rather than use samples, get a singer in. That’s novel.
I enjoy the songs with singers, like off of Cydonia and The Dream.
On Chill Out World we did have lot of vocal samples. But on Moonbuilding we had hardly any vocals. The Orb just needed to be a bit more British again. And the humor that The Orb projects sits well with the American palette. It has a certain je ne sais quoi in how it can touch someone in Australia, New Zealand, America, Britain, all the English speaking countries. They don’t have to think twice about the humor, they get it, it’s there. But if I try to explain this to a German, (laughs) it’s difficult. The word humor isn’t in their vocabulary, for a start. They kind of like a laugh if somebody gets hurt but they can’t see a funny side if somebody tells a joke. What I’m implying is The Orb needed to become more British, more Monty Python-esque. A bit more Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. And we have become that and the new album is a testament to what I’ve been trying to into as opposed to playing in the same safe zone that of minimal techno. It’s really good and there’s a few minimal techno tunes on the album that many people don’t even talk about. Soul Planet (Ft. Andy Caine & Mary Pearce) the last song on the album, what do you think of that?
It reminds me of A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld.
That’s part of the trilogy, this huge ever growing soul planet that’s spinning around in the Ultraworld.
It seems like that was your intention, to hearken back to those longer tracks.
That was just one track that was like that. There’s also a part of Other Blue Worlds. I thought we did some rather hip hop kind of tracks like Koi, some dancey tracks like Doughnuts Forever which is a heads up to J Dilla‘s Donuts. There’s not a J Dilla sample in site, it’s just in the word. Best album ever made. It’s a work of art.
I heard Robin Williams saying “Good morning Vietnam” and it sounded like Jerry Seinfeld being sampled but was it Roney doing the voices?
It was Roney doing the voices. Very silly.
You have Orbfest coming up. That sounds exciting.
A lot of people are coming in from all over the world to see it.
You’ve got System 7 and GAS.
Wolfgang (Voigt aka GAS). Not a lot of people know this but I released Wolfgang Voigt’s first album ever on an EG album called Teutonic Beats 2. There’s a little bit of research for you. That’s from 1989. I didn’t know this, but when I went to Kompact to release Okie Dokie Its The Orb in 2005 Wolfgang politely mentioned that it was a little bit of a full circle because I was now coming to his record label to release a record. I’ve always been a big fan of GAS anyway so it was kind of natural of me to have him as a matinee gig in the afternoon.
And System 7, the relationship I have with Steve Hillage is really funky. We’re doing a short matinee program called Big Fish Little Fish at the Roundhouse where we’ll be playing to kids as young as two and as old as nine with their parents. It’s quite an interesting concept. The event is from noon-2pm. If you Google it, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. It’s a really cool thing for kids and also for older people who miss the early techno days who have kids now.
You’re going to educate the kids while they’re really young.
Why not? I wish my parents did that for me when I was little.
I know that you have an interest in aliens and ancient history.
Have you heard of the Kensington Rune Stone?
I’m sure I’ve read about it. Tell me about it.
It’s a stone that was discovered by a farmer in the late 1800’s that he found after he uprooted a tree. There’s a lot of debate about it and who made it to America before Columbus. We know that the Vikings got there before Columbus, for sure. But there’s the movement of where did the Templars hide their treasure and there’s the Money Pit in Canada. Then you also have a thing in Rhode Island called Newport Tower which is a very odd building that dates back to the 12th century. That’s another one of those things that is a bit out of whack. It just shouldn’t be there according to the history that we’re told. These things interest me.
Back to the album.
No Sounds Are Out of Bounds, this is The Orb’s 35th year, and it’s an album that’s turning over another page of our history. It could lead to many different things we could do in the future. The Eno tune Ununited States, that’s a phenomenal tune and he’s a terrific pianist. Always has been. I was blessed and lucky enough to do A&R some of his records for EG back in the 80’s. So I’ve got history with him as well.
When you have many contacts in music, why not use them? And that’s what we’re doing with this album, more than what we’ve done in the last few albums. Andy Caine, who is on Soul Planet, he originated the vocals on Movin’ by a band called Marathon which was the original band where I first discovered Moritz von Oswald, he was doing Marathon before was doing Basic Channel and he used Andy again on all his Main Street Records songs in the early 90’s. I’m Your Brother is the tune on Main Street. All that minimal sort of Reggae stuff they were doing. So, there you go. And the full circle there is now I’ve got Andy doing vocals on Soul Planet.
I see that you’re still being a DJ, a curator and shining a light on all the artists that you’ve enjoyed through the years.
I think that’s important. I’ve got a friend around at the present moment that is playing me all his demos. He’s a 21 year old bloke. That’s the thing about this collection of artists on this album, we hardly took a side. Brother Culture (as heard on Rush Hill Road with Hollie Cook), he’s known in the rest of the world, but he’s probably not heard of in America, but he’s a big toaster in the Reggae scene in Britain and Jamaica. And that’s the other thing, we’ve tried to bring out proper roots back. Jamaican brothers that we share our lives with. We’ve tried to bring that back into the records.
I enjoy that. I was talking with Jack Dangers and he was saying that Reggae was basically your 60’s and 70’s Soul music. While we were listening to Blues and Aretha Franklin, you were listening to Reggae in England.
A lot of our music was Reggae covers of that music anyway. Do you know I’ve got a Reggae station?
No, I didn’t.
It’s called WNBC.London. It’s an internet radio show. If you go to The Orb website and there’s a banner at the top, you click on wnbc.london and you’ll find all kinds of radio shows we do there like Radio Orb. We start at 2am your time so if you’re an early riser you get a really good Reggae show from 6-10am in the morning on wnbc.london, in Los Angeles on the internet. And if you’re ever up at 4 o’clock in the morning I’ve got an Ambient show. We do a New Moon show too. It’s all up on Mixcloud. The thing is, that even if you’re a DJ with your own radio station playing your own radio show, you still can’t play your own music. So, nevermind.
But three songs by The Orb and that’s an hour gone by.
I have been thinking of playing the hour-long version of Loving You just for good measure.
I don’t think I’ve ever hear that. I’ve heard the almost hour-long version of Blue Room.
Lots of Eno, lots of really weird PTL stuff mixed in. It’s a DJ mix.
Do you have a hermetically sealed vault with all your old tapes and samples?
Hmmm. No. When I hear old mixes back in those eras, boy, I wish I’d have kept them, but it’s good for me to find new ones. I keep finding new ones. If you do them all constantly you’d have to get a copyright. If you do them once or twice, no one’s going to take notice. With the samples, you get lucky or you don’t.
As a musician that wants to make money off of his own work, you don’t want to have to pay to use the original samples too often.
The art of the sample, this is what the musicians and artists don’t get, is the DJ can actually make a record out of people’s one bar samples and create a whole new album and call it Moonbuilding. Not one musical instrument was played making that album and we’re all very proud about that. Because we showed what we could do as a technique using samples properly. Not just taking a four bar loop of someone else’s song, but taking one bar and creating a new song with it. Fluffy is a great example of what I’m trying to say. The art of using so many different samples and it all sounds great. That’s just weird as well. Trial and error, that one, and it worked. No one else is going to use a drum loop by Harry Nilsson in 1989, that’s for sure.
This is what The Orb is really good at doing, cross-fertilizing people’s minds. I’m forever grateful to be part of something that is doing that. That was from Jimmy Cauty, Youth, Kris Weston, all the guys out there. The Orb made something of it that is great. We made music then that still sounds present day now. I’m not bullshitting now, am I? I am correct saying that.
I’ve got a few questions from fans. Aaron asks: When you started out, did you attempt to be a commercial act or were you just happy to play music?
When we first started out, no, nothing to do with a commercial act. It has become a branded name now. it’s still in the right hands. It hasn’t been moved over to another musician within the structure. The Orb has still got an originator, the person who started the band with Jimmy Cauty is very much in control of his own destiny. We don’t see ourselves as a commercial enterprise. We’re a collective of people at the moment.
We’ve got the Roundhouse gig coming up and that’s straight after the Roundhouse we’re working out dates doing new tunes for the next album. Which I haven’t got a title for.
We’re a collective. We don’t really see ourselves as a band, in it for the money. I have a massive financial loss. An old manager of mine ran off with a very big substantial amount of money which The Orb should’ve got. I’m still paying that back from Universal. I haven’t actually earned any money from all the albums everyone goes on about for the last 25 years. How do you like me now? So I wouldn’t say I’m in it for the money. I’m lucky I’ve still got a sense of humor and everybody still loves the music.
Ben asks: Did you get access to Pink Floyd’s back catalog through your shared label at EMI to make the remix albums and what do you think of those albums?
No, and I didn’t do them and they’re terrible. I didn’t get access to their material and the remixes are terrible and nothing to do with us, that’s to do with my ex-manager again. Making more money out of me.
Nico asks: Where do you see yourself in the pantheon of acts around the time you started in the early 90’s like Aphex Twin, Orbital, FSOL and Underworld, some of the people still making music today?
I kind of see myself with them, as that kind of genre of music that created a whole new way of life musically. Aphex Twin is phenomenal. He found a Karlheinz Stockhausen record and was taken back by it and it shows. Stockhausen was making records the year I was born in ’59, an electronic artist. And he came and saw the stuff I was playing in the White Room in 1989 with Jimmy Cauty. That was the first time I came into contact with Aphex. He still looks really young. I don’t know how he does it. It must be the sea air in Cornwall. (I ask him to repeat the last sentence.) Sorry man, it’s the accent. People ask me what band I’m in and I say “The Orb,” and they say “The Who?” And I say ‘No, that’s the bloke with the big nose.’
What is left on your bucket list? You’ve made the longest “single” with the 50 minute version of Little Fluffy Clouds, toured the world and played in front of crowds of thousands, you’re a DJ, you ran a label, you were a roadie for Killing Joke. What else would you like to accomplish?
Retire, then do a reformation. Like everyone else. Like Orbital, the two brothers (laughs). I’d like to do a really good film soundtrack. Anybody in Los Angeles that would fancy gambling on an old tart from London making some really fucked-up sounds to a spooky film?
You’ve been my soundtrack for the past three decades.
I’m enjoying travelling around the world making music. That’s basically what I want to do until I die. I’m going to Argentina in September for the first time. Hopefully we’ll be doing an American tour in November. We might be doing one single gig in L.A. with Killing Joke and The Orb together.
The Orb‘s No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds is out now on Kompact.
(By Bret Miller)
Sat, 20 Oct 2018 /System 7 & Mirror System w/ DJ Alex Paterson at Under The Bridge / London, England, United Kingdom