Electronic duo Orbital came out of the UK acid house scene of the 1980s and are regarded as pioneers of live electronic performance. Before visiting New Zealand for the first time, they speak to RNZ Music about taking electronic music mainstream.
Brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll of Orbital enjoy a rare place in the history of rave culture and techno music. They've been consistently successful both commercially and critically since 1989.
Renowned for improvisational live sets, they've seen electronic music go from the underground acid house of the '80s to the mainstream beast that it is today; in fact, they were central to its ascendancy. Their 1994 Glastonbury set saw dance music beamed into millions of homes, nudging the genre toward mainstream acceptance.
Orbital are coming to New Zealand for the first time ever to play Auckland's Splore festival and Electric Avenue in Christchurch in February. Phil Hartnoll speaks to Alex Behan.
AB: At the time, back then, were you and your brother members of the rave scene?
PH: I was going to warehouse parties before they were warehouse parties. The music just changed a bit, there was a lot of hip hop and stuff like that going on, then they changed to rave, and I personally love it, but my brother's a little bit ... we're chalk and cheese, to be honest, me and my brother, but I still love a good dance.
Actually, I've been to New Zealand once, I was there last year. I played a festival with Underworld, I DJ'ed. I love the dance floor stuff. Paul loves the more hedonistic, cerebral electronics if you like, and that's where we meet. I was in New Zealand, in Auckland, there was a little festival going there.
AB: It was Oro Festival in Auckland, and it was a beautiful gig, it was a lovely set.
PH: That was it, it was an amazing place. I loved it and I was trying to get us back as Orbital there last year with them, so I am really happy we're coming back this year with Orbital because I was quite jealous of Underworld. The audience back there, they're very educated, you know.
AB: It was a Roland 303 that you and your brother recorded your first song on. This is in 1989, the name of the song is 'Chime'. You're at home in your parents' house in Seven Oaks in Kent, England, and you record the song to a cassette, that seems just so bizarre to me.
PH: We mixed it down onto a cassette, yeah definitely, that's the way we rolled then because we didn't have the computers or anything, so you just gave off sequences and did sort of live jams, and we used a six-track as a mixer, in actual fact, and then we burned it down to stereo onto my dad's cassette player.
AB: Then you take the Cassette to a DJ, the DJ likes the song, you guys press a thousand records and suddenly you signed to Pete Tong's label and the song goes to Number 17 in the U.K. You couldn't have imagined that would ever have happened.
PH: No, not at all. It did springboard us ... we then convinced Pete Tong to treat us like an electronic band, rather than just pump out dance tunes all the time, cause it's not what we're about really.
Pete Tong was all about the dance tracks at the time, but he went for it, which was great, and we stuck with London Records for about six albums I think it was. We cultivated - or re-cultivated because it was already there with Kraftwerk, and Cabaret Voltaire… it was already there with us, but there was a separation between us and dance music, and the electronic bands weren't really considered at that time. So that's what we did and never looked back.
It's not "just disco"
AB: Orbital's 1994 Glastonbury performance was one of the first times that techno music got taken to the main stage, and because that was streamed out on TV it really did have an impact on mainstream culture.
What are your memories of that set and the impact it had, immediately following?
PH: Well it was fantastic really, you know we came on after Bjork, who was headlining. So, we were trying to convince people to stay for the little disco bit at the end sort of thing, because [it] was a very rock and roll sort of festival at the time. Michael Levis, the owner, never really embraced the rave/electronic world really.
And so … the audience is what did it, they were just gagging for that electronic sound, and we were there providing it for them. Then they went ballistic, they went absolutely crazy and Michael Levis is going "Wow", he realized that the two guys twiddling knobs and pushing buttons with that sound does work, and … now they've got a whole dance field, so it did help push the cause of stopping that "it's just disco" sort-of attitude really, so that was great, it worked out really well.
Spawn of Satan
AB: You guys have been involved in quite a few soundtracks, and movie soundtracks have helped you grow your audience and fanbase I'm sure.
Movies like The Beach, The Saint, and Triple X, but the one I'm most interested in is, from 1997, and it is The Spawn soundtrack.
The entire concept was to take electronic artists and rock artists and merge them together, and I'm not sure whether history is kind to the Spawn soundtrack or not. But it is a very interesting moment in time, you ended up doing a kind of duet with Kirk Hammett from Metallica, right?
PH: That was fantastic, it was like going around full circle that track because it really started as a bit of a joke. There's an old story … Iron Maiden or somebody that got deemed as devil worshipers and somebody even said if you play their record backwards it says some devil worship thing.
It just started off with that story really, and we thought, let's just do one called 'Satan' and you play it backwards it says "Jesus loves you", and then we thought, let's go with guitars and all that sort of thing, sample Butthole Surfers… and there you go. It was a bit of an ironic track in a way, but then you end up getting Kirk Hammett on the top… which made it more of a serious track really.
But I must say, the claim to fame with that is that in Poland we did get these Catholic ladies demonstrating outside one of our gigs, saying we are terrible devil worshipers, because of that track, so that was a bit of a moment in our career that I was quite pleased about.
New Zealand shows:
- 22 Feb 2019 Splore Festival Tapapakanga Park, NZ (sold out)
- 23 Feb 2019 Electric Avenue Festival Christchurch, NZ