To be able to say you’ve nearly single-handedly created a genre of music is an amazing legacy for any artist, and so it is with The Orb. The group offered a soulful, slowed down take on the pumping synthetic beats that were emerging out of rave and acid house culture in the late 80s and early 90s, and there was a solid formula to their success: taking the rhythms of Chicago house and techno, slowing the BPMs right down and adding the same sort of ethereal synthwork and sound effects that Brian Eno was using when he tagged the term ‘ambient’ in the 70s. “In that era it was really something original,” says The Orb’s frontman Alex Patterson. “Nothing like that had come out in dance culture. It was a time to sit back, and start to embrace the female again, as opposed to the male dancing on his own.”
The Orb were the original ‘Back to Mine’ purveyors, with their ‘91 album Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld providing the soundtrack to many a post-rave chill out session. And along with Kraftwerk, they’ll be one of the acts representing the early legacy of dance culture when they tour as part of the inaugural Global Gathering tour later this month. ITM speaks with Alex Patterson of The Orb.
I realise you guys are probably looking straight ahead with your music right now, but I can’t help citing what an interesting history the Orb has had. I recall really enjoying your early albums as a teenager- how do you recall that era and do you think it continues to influence current music culture?
In that era, it was really something original, UForb and Ultraworld, nothing like that had come out in dance culture. It was a time to sit back, and start to embrace the female again, as opposed to the male dancing on his own. In a culture where it wasn’t happening in the clubs back then, it was spreading love but in a more soulful way. It was unique because we we’re a white band doing this, coming out of South London instead of Detroit or Chicago. It’s difficult to recreate something you do uniquely, then everyone copies you.
So were you doing a lot of improvising at the time?
That’s a good word for it. We didn’t know what we we’re doing. My culture, I could make that music because I grew up with a lot of black people, so I wasn’t embarrassed doing that form of music. That’s the ambient side of my generation, I was also with Killing Joke but none of the punk stuff ended up on the albums. And we turned lots of people against us.
There was a bit of a backlash, especially from the press.
We needed that, every band has that. To get past our own stigma, more forward thinking. If we carried on doing Little Fluffy Clouds the press would have gone “Oh, they’re doing that again.” We didn’t want to do that same bassline all the time, the same groove, one of my philosophies is where we’re at now is far removed from a lot of people, but in a few years they might get it. I understand now we’re a band that really influences a lot of other bands. I’ve got my own niche, my own audience, about 50,000 people around the world that’ll buy an Orb album. That’s hardcore fans.
They want to see what you’ll do next, they don’t want the same thing.
Exactly, at the end of the day that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to be doing the same thing forever. I would have been bored shitless, and it’s not my style. Same with the people I work with. We’re a collective of people. Thomas Fehlman and me don’t work in the same studio, but I go to Berlin and work with Thomas. I go and live with him for a couple weeks, we lock ourselves in and ignore everyone. He’s always busy, though, a very wanted man production wise.
So do you really enjoy coming to Australia?
Personally, I really do. The Earthcore parties we’ve done, they’re really good fun. I like the outwardness, the frankness of the Aussies. You know what side they’re on, they tell it as it is, the innocence is refreshing.
I saw you guys perform in New York in the early 90s, a synaesthetic experience of music and visuals. How has your live show evolved over the years?
We’re much more compact now, we know what we’re doing a lot more. We use Ableton, and every show is quite unique.
How is your visual setup for the shows?
Gary’s my man who does visuals now. We’re really blessed, we are like a little family. We sit around and hang out, have a laugh and come up with creative ideas. He knows what I’m like, and we’ve worked together for eight years. He uses nature, a bit of industry, he’s really good. We don’t even talk about it sometimes, then I turn around and see what he’s doing and it fits just right, it’s brilliant. Most of the time I’m looking at the audience, and it just happens behind me.
You we’re influence by guys like King Tubby, and toured recently with Mad Professor. Are you still feeling a connection to reggae music? The scene in Europe seems really strong, whereas over here we don’t get that much.
Oh god yeah. In NZ there’s a big reggae collective, not a lot of people but they have great reggae festivals. I met Mad Professor through a Kiwi promoter, and we’re really good friends now. I’ve got a new project called High Frequency Bandwidth, and will be working with Mad Prof on that one.
Can you tell us about your recent album?
The new album is a return to form, we tried to take the first two albums and recreate them. Copy ourselves instead of everyone else copying us. Honestly, to me it’s an old album, the Orb’s got a new one coming out in April. It’s a soundtrack to a film Plastic Planet, an environmental film. It’s for a very, very good cause. And in the last couple weeks (I haven’t told anyone this yet) I’ve been doing music for Amnesty International and their last two adverts. One for the 42 day detention without charge, the other is to do with Guantanamo Bay. Hello America if you’re listening! I know this stuff can bounce around the world and they get interested in you. But I’m just a musician, so get off my back CIA, MI6 or whoever you are!
You can catch The Orb on the Global Gathering tour later this month….
Sat Nov 22nd – Global Gathering, Melbourne
Sun Nov 23rd – Global Gathering, Perth
Sat Nov 29th – Foreshore, Canberra
Sat Nov 29th – Global Gathering, Brisbane
Sun Nov 30th – Global Gathering, Sydney
For all the latest on Global Gathering head to ITM’s festival page – inthemix.com.au/globalgathering.