Alex Paterson: Turning records from Oxfam into The Orb

On the eve of his Australian DJ tour Alex Paterson takes a few minutes to discuss fifteen years of being part of ambient music pioneers The Orb and their latest studio album Bicycles and Tricycles. In its ever-changing line up, Paterson has been The Orb’s one constant figure. Most will know them best for such singles as 1991’s Little Fluffy Clouds or 1997’s Toxygene. However with now seven albums of new material, a best of compilation and countless remixes over fifteen years The Orb have hardly been ones to rest on their laurels. Paterson, who began his music career in the late 70’s as a roadie for Killing Joke, is credited as The Orb with pioneering ambient house. As we dive into the head of this man who has carved his own niche in musical history we find one very at ease with himself and his accomplishments.

It’s a busy time for Paterson as he tries to fit DJing, producing and remixing amongst his press commitments for the bands seventh album. An album that sees The Orb returning to their more ambient stylings after the more drum’n’bass influenced Cydonia of 2001. Released in Japan last year, Bicycles and Tricycles has just been released in Australia to coincide with the tour. His home country has to wait whilst he catches the tail end of summer for two weeks in Oz to escape a bleak and wintry London.

What’s the main reason for the delay in the release of Bicycles and Tricycles between Japan and the rest of the world?

Pretty much management, we’ve got new management and a new record label. I was finding my feet and I found a deal for myself with V2 whilst I was out in Japan djing and that kept the Orb going. Then we got a couple of really big gigs in Japan that were really good for us.

Was that live of djing?

The Orb live; there was one at Fuji and one on New Years Eve in Yokohama. They were both really good fun, both were sold out. We played after Lemon Jelly and before Mogwai and halfway through you could hear Mogwai playing guitar along to Blue Room, so there was just this really good vibe going on. We’ve earnt our respect which is really cool. I don’t want my ego flying out any dimensional holographic fucking asshole. If I’m ever like that with anybody then forgive me as maybe I’m having a bad day or have a bad journalist on my back (laughs). You know what I mean, the proverbial “I got out of bed on the wrong side”.

Would you say Japan’s your biggest market?

Only because that’s the last place we’ve had a record out. I think we sold around 12,000 copies of the album there which we’re really happy with.

When you first started off as The Orb you were pioneers of a new sound. Fifteen years later with all that’s followed what influences you now?

15 years ago I’d be listening to Mad Professor albums and 20 years ago tripping to them basically. Now I’m working with the geezer, which is a trip in itself really isn’t it?

So someone you’ve had a lot of respect for all this time you’ve now had the chance to work with…

I find myself being invited to go and DJ with him and Lee Scratch Perry and I’m like “To Mexico for one week to DJ? Oh alright” (laughing).

Yeah I imagine it’d be nice to be invited by someone you admire like that to go and DJ with them in Mexico.

There’s being blessed and there’s being blessed. I’m not saying “oh I’ve had a hard life” but we’ve all had our experiences. I was talking to a girl in the supermarket the other day who was moaning about her son not earning any money, he’s fifteen and doesn’t have a job. My mum kicked me out when I was 13 ½ and I was doing a day job at Boots just up the road. I was getting seven pounds a week and lucky to see a third of it because my mum would take it all. So yeah, I’m grateful for that. I’m careful with my money. I’m not gonna go out and buy a Lamborghini when I can’t afford it. Or buy a palace when in five years it would be a haunted castle. I’ve got my feet on the ground. I’ve learnt that. I had a proper upbringing. It shows in the music in that The Orb has sustained a life and I’ve got a focus. It may have taken me a while to work that out when I was a teenager and in my twenties and being the wayward fire stoning youth I was.

Over that time what do you think the main achievements of The Orb have been? How have you grown personally?

Trying to be tolerant and trying to show compassion. There’s a hell of a lot of love in The Orb. It’s grown up like a little teenage daughter, and I’ve got a little three year old at the moment. I think there’s a big comparison there, it’s something that I’ve noticed. It’s left, gone off and given everybody all these experiences.

Do you consider the music to be in its teenage years?

I think it’s probably matured now because of the age group that were listening to it ten to fifteen years ago. But the actual Orb was only a little baby and that’s why people loved it, it’s like a teenager now. There’s no reason now why it shouldn’t go on and make some more funky music.

What kind of things inspire you now?

That’s difficult. I went up with my mate Phil to an Oxfam shop and bought ten pounds worth of records for 50p each and I found around thirty different samples that I’ve used on two tunes already. That’s the sought of thing that inspires me. The record that goes “Spain – 101 strings”. I’m like “ooh what’s that?” And things that I really can’t tell you about because it’s too obvious that it’s so unobvious because I only use it as a drum loop.

Do you think that’s one of the charms of the Orb in that the mindset hasn’t changed and that it hasn’t turned into something that’s over produced?

I’m not a tech head basically. That’s funny because when Thomas (Fehlman – Orb collaborator) does his own music he hasn’t got me doing that weird stuff on top that sends the music in another dimension that’s got all these weird samples from way back when and future ones. That’s just the tip of the iceberg really, talking about ten records from an Oxfam shop. That would be a good title for the interview (laughing and coughing). Blimey Governor!!

It’s a natural charm that I don’t want to destroy. I want to nurture myself slowly. That’s why a lot of people have said to me “Alex, don’t get involved in all the engineering and computer stuff because you’re gonna lose what you’ve got”. That’s my proper friends, not people I’ve just met at a gig, people I hold very dear to my heart.

There’s always the latest and greatest equipment isn’t there?

Yeah there is but everyone’s got all the same preset sound and I’m aware of everything in that sense…la de da! Most people just do things off laptops these days, which is really scary, everyone’s sounding the same. It depends though, for example with really minimal techno if you’ve got a really good ear for it and it’s really well produced and you create the sound everyone copies then that’s a good idea. But the other way around is obscene.

For someone coming to see you at one of you’re Australian shows should they bring their dancing shoes or be prepared to chill out?

It depends on how long they’re going to let me play. If it’s for two hours I’ll do techno. If it’s for three hours I might do a bit of reggae and then a bit of techno and maybe a bit of ambient amongst the reggae. But then I might play a bit of ambient on top of the techno if I’ve got CD decks as well. There you go.

Be prepared for anything?

Well yeah but mainly a lot of 4/4. I’m 44 so you’d expect 4/4 – that’s my motto for the year.

Speaking of numbers, when looking at your website I was reading about the significance of the title Bicycles & Tricycles and it’s significance to the number 23 and everything that number represents. Is this all your doing?

Laughs, unfortunately it was my doing. Someone asked me that the other day. It was quite nice because it was 2003 last year and that was the connection. That’s why it came out in Japan last year. I said to Mark “they’re gonna ask me this” and I’m gonna go “because the album came out last year”, kind of a predictable answer. I could call it “Bicycles and Quadracylces” but it doesn’t quite have the same ring. “Bikes and Cars”, yeah I don’t think so. It’s all coming back to me now.

I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing something different. A lot of people who come over you know what you’ve going to get before they arrive…

You’re gonna get a mash of a lot of stuff, you might even get some Janis Joplin if you’re lucky. I dunno.

I think one of the most interesting things I found about you, I don’t know whether it’s conscious or subconscious, you don’t seem to get caught up in the whole scene that is the dance music scene.

I tried that for the first few years with The Orb, even before Ultraworld (1991), when it became apparent that we had a scene that no one else was doing and that we’d created ourselves, which was the ambient house shit. And that came out of KLF and The Orb. I was djing with KLF at the time. It’s like working with Killing Joke for five years and never getting any credit for any of it. It’s a very important part of my life. Mike Cole who runs Malicious Damage, which is Killing Joke’s first record label, came over and saw us and we went through tapes from 25 years ago and I found 7 tapes from Killing Joke gigs from Joy Division tours and stuff.

That’s a long time ago…

Yeah 1979, it’s quite a while ago. Talking of cycles, 25 years, a quarter century, is a pretty big cycle. I’ve been around, I’m an old geezer. I left school in 76 and by 78 I was with Killing Joke.

And so concludes our time with Paterson and our talk on all things Orb related. Bicycles and Tricycles is available NOW through Shock at all good music retailers. To check out ITM’s review click HERE.

Be sure to check Paterson out at one of the following gigs around the country:

Sat 3 Apr – Club A, Scarborough (Perth)
Sun 4 Apr – Enigma, Adelaide
Thu 8 Apr – Bliss-Earthcore @ Qbh, Melbourne
Fri 9 Apr – Kinetik @ Deep 11, Melbourne
Sat 10 Apr – Manning Bar, Sydney
Sun 11 Apr – Toast, Canberra
Thu 15 Apr – King Street Hotel, Newcastle
Fri 16 Apr – Q Bar, Sydney
Sat 17 Apr – Troccadero, Surfers Paradise
Sun 18 Apr – The Zoo, Brisbane