Paul Hartnoll – Orbital Interview 2014

Hard to believe but Orbital have been at it for 25 years now, the Hartnoll brothers creating some of the most distinctive, beautiful, intelligent and commercially popular dance music of all time. From their breakthrough hit and industry game changer, Chime in 1990, to last year’s excellent ‘comeback’ album ‘Wonky’, Paul and Phil Hartnoll have always been about much more than four-to-the-floor beats, instead always seeing themselves as a band, often using guest singers such as Alison Goldfrapp, in making interesting, intelligent, evocative music, that could be both danced to and listened to and performed live, often improvised. Aided by their distinctive headlights which act as a focal point for their live performance, Orbital took dance to the mainstream, in part due to their legendary 1994 Glastonbury show which was also beamed on television.

Not only that, but almost uniquely amongst mainstream electronic dance acts, they tackled political, environmental and social issues, such as in ‘Halcyon’ (based on their mother’s addiction to tranquillisers), ‘The Girl With the Sun in Her Head’ (recorded entirely using electricity provided by Greenpeace’s mobile solar power generator) and a four minute remix ‘Criminal Justice Bill’ remix of ‘Are We Here?’ which appropriately enough consisted of four minutes of silence in response to the draconian bill that would attempt to repress so-called repetitive beats.

Their story is a brilliant one and I met up with Paul at his Brighton based studio to talk mainly about those early days, but also about the here and now and Brighton of course…

The New Album
”I’m currently putting the finishing touches to a new album and about to mix it with Flood (the A-league producer, otherwise known as Mark Ellis, who in amongst a very deep portfolio, has a Grammy to his name as producer of U2’s ‘How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’). Lisa Knapp and The Unthanks are some of the singers guesting on the album. Holly (aka Fable) has also sung on the album. She’s only 18 and little, but she’s got a big voice – she opens her mouth and you go, ‘Really’!?

I make music as an ‘instrumental’, until it stops working. That’s when I think it needs a vocal.

I had always wanted to work with The Unthanks, but they don’t tend to write, they sing other peoples songs. But I had a flash of inspiration listening to one of their songs and I thought, ‘Oh, imagine if they sung like this, but did a cover version like ‘A Forest’ by The Cure, really slowed down. So, I got in touch with them and they said, ‘send us a track and we’ll see if it’s a good idea’. So, I whipped up the track with that in mind and they got right into it. I went to see them; they sat me down in their parlour and sung it sat on the floor…. I’m so used to going into a studio… they said, ‘We’ll sing it to you now’. They sang A Forest to me in their witchy style and it was brilliant.

I stayed up with them because they live in the middle of the countryside, outside of Newcastle and the next morning they put on a Lisa Knapp album and I said, ‘Oh, what’s this? That’s great’. So I went home and got it and thought she would be a great person to get singing.”

Folk Music
”I’ve been into folk for years, but it’s got worse! In fact the habit has grown so large, I rarely listen to anything else. I got so excited when I discovered that Bella Hardy had a new album out… I pay attention to the BBC 2 Folk Awards more than The Brits… I just laugh at the Brit Awards, which is a hilarious pageant.”

In The Beginning…
”I started making music in earnest when I was 13, I got some guitars and did a lot of playing. By the time I was 16, Phil (the eldest by four years) was interested in a lot of electronic music and got me interested in that. He became a bricklayer for my Dad and I was his labourer and it was then that I got to know my brother; we became friends, rather than him being my annoying older brother. Until I got to 16 I just avoided him. Before puberty we were fine, but during that 12-16 phase I didn’t really want to know.

But to be fair he took me to my first gigs: Splitz Ends, The Beat and Madness. He then bought a drum machine and a synth, the same machine that I ended up buying and so we combined his drum machine and synth with my guitar, guitar pedals and amp and messed around at home. Then I got a four track, he got another drum machine and we built it up from there…

Phil went to America and discovered hip hop and in that older brother kind of way, didn’t think of me and gave all his equipment to a new friend he’d made. ‘Oh, thanks. Cheers for that!’ So, then I had some money which my grandfather had left me when I was three which would be mine when I was 18. My mum knew and I said to her, ‘I’ve got no musical equipment’ and she said, ‘I’ll let you have it early’. So, I spent the money replicating the equipment that Paul had lent out, which did mean that when we did get it back we had loads of equipment!

I then got a 909 drum machine, which is probably the second most coveted drum machine in the universe (after the 808) and I bought it new, £239. That was cheap, because all the digital machines were coming out then for £500 and they were selling the analogue ones cheap. Now, they are the ones worth something.”

The Arrogance of Youth
”I was very arrogant, I was quietly confident – but probably not that quiet – in my youth. I can remember when I was 16, turning up at school after we had left school to do our CSE’s (one below O’level, currently known as GCSE’s). By that point I had a bleached mohican and you weren’t allowed to have that at school but by that time I had left and the teachers were very disappointed… I remember someone asked me, ‘What are you going to do, Hartnoll’? I said, ‘I’m going to be a pop star, you wait. By the time the year is out, I’ll be on Top of the Pops’. I was that arrogant. It took a few more years…

I didn’t really have a plan B; I had decided I was going to do music. The trick is, don’t listen to your dad and don’t have a plan B. Anyone who has a fall back plan… if you can fall back, you will, because picking a career in music is so bloody hard, you would be an idiot to pick a career in music. But you do it and it’s the quietly confident people that make it and the arrogantly over-the-top people as well. They are normally the front people…”

College & Plan B…
“Actually, my fall back plan was to be a visual artist, which would have been harder! I tried Building College – I didn’t know what to do when I left school – I did a couple of weeks and I thought, ‘Fuck this standing around with all these machismo men. What the fuck am I doing here? I want to be in college with girls!’ So, I left and did a variety of crap jobs and then I met the Sevenoaks trendy, hipster crowd, people I knew at school but who I had never hung out with. Someone said, ‘We’re making a band, do you want to join?’ and that was it, I entered the hipster crowd of Sevenoaks, the dope smoking crowd… not that I ever did any of that!. And then I thought I would go to art college, because that’s the place you go if you wanted to be in a band. Not music college, that was the kiss of death… You got to go to art school, that’s where the rock bands are formed…

I did actually go to sixth form college, to get the qualifications I would need to go onto a foundation course and that was fantastic and I ended up going to Hastings Art College to do a foundation course, whilst still making music.”

Back to Plan A…
”I did a couple of tracks for the ‘House Sound of London’ album (a very early house compilation from 1988, which featured such future luminaries as Jamie Principle, Paul Oakenfold, Kevin Saunderson and D-Mob) under the name DS Building Contractors because I didn’t know what to call myself. I picked my mates initials and looked at my Dad’s building van, Hartnoll Building Contractors… I never really took name-calling that seriously, otherwise I wouldn’t have called the band Orbital… But on the back of that, Gee Street (Stereo MCs et al) offered me two weeks of studio time to see how much of an album I could hustle up. I had a chat with the Head of the Art Dept at Hastings who was brilliant. He said, ‘Look, unless you’re a real protégé of art – and you’re not – then you’re not really going to get in when this is over’. So I said, ‘Do you mind if I do two weeks in a music studio?’ and he said that was fine and added, ‘If you want to come back you can, you’ll just have to catch up on your coursework. I’ll cover for you. If you come back I’ll put you on the register’. Bless him, I never did. I felt I had hit the big time. Totally naive and wrong, of course. I hadn’t but it felt good.”

Pete Tong, John Baker, Jazzy M and all that…
”In those two weeks, I made a few tracks that actually came out later as Orbital tracks, such as ‘Satan’ and a different version of ‘Deeper’ (the original and still brilliant, b-side of ‘Chime’) and ‘Macrohead’, which was on the vinyl version of the first album. I rustled up about 5 or 6 tracks in all.

John Baker called us in and said, ‘Great, I like what you’re doing, but it’s not for me, I’m not going to release it’. He WAS Gee Street, a larger-than-life character. Kinda like a real life Ali G; fucking mad, with a gold tooth. I had never met anyone like him, coming from Sevenoaks. He dressed in the most flamboyant hip hop clothes. He was brilliant, he was hilarious. He was great. They were doing great things and he knew it. They were in a basement and his girlfriend ran a modelling agency from the floor above… you had to walk through the modelling studio to go to the loo… An 18 year old guy from Sevenoaks seeing all these absolutely stunning modelling girls!

I wasn’t that disappointed when John said no. I thought, ‘Fuck it, you don’t know what your missing’. I had that much self-belief. I thought, ‘OK, it’s not for you, you’re a hip hop man’… he wanted to branch out into house music but was cautious about it, which was wise. Totally no qualms there…

Later on I met him in a toilet, both having a pee in Turnmils or something and he turned to me and said, ‘Paul! Chime! You didn’t play that one to me!’ I hadn’t written it by then!

It was Jazzy M who introduced me to John Baker – he was my musical mentor at that point, a very forward thinking house DJ on a pirate station in Croydon and he used to run his shop Vinyl Zone on the Fulham Road. I used to go to him and play him stuff and he always had time for me. I guess he thought there was something there.”

Brother Phil
”I was mostly doing it on my own, Phil had had a baby and didn’t indulge in music at that time. He was coming and going, but it was mostly my thing. He would come and do little bits and pieces but he got more interested after his ears were pricked up by the DS Construction thing. We then got the gear back together but when he had his first child he ended up moving to the family home, in Dunton Green and setting up the studio there in a knocked-through cupboard under the stairs, because my parents had moved out to run a pub in the next village. Which was brilliant, because I could go and get some free bottles and have a party!

My memory is a bit vague, but Phil, I think, was initially going to apply his bricklaying skills for V.S.O. But then his partner, Rachel, got pregnant, so that plan changed and we started doing more and more stuff together, living in Sevenoaks, doing a few shifts in a pizza restaurant, my parents pub and making music.”

”I took the Chime track to Jazzy M who always said he wanted to start a label… If you put this into a film of my life, exactly as it happened, people would say, ‘That is an exaggeration’. But I’m not joking, it was like a scene from a film for me. So, I took it up to his record shop on Friday, because Friday was his big day selling records to DJ’s. If you remember, in those days in dance shops, you’d get DJ’s three or four deep against the counter and one of the guys would be taking money and piling up the records on the counter, the other would be practically DJ’ing, putting records on, looking up, seeing if anyone wanted it… You’d put your hand up, put that on your pile, on the counter. Then you’d tot it up at the end and pay – that was your Friday night, new tunes sorted. I went in and said I had a demo, but he (Jazzy M) was busy: ‘I’ve got too much on, it’s Friday, gotta keep serving these lads’. He said, ‘Give it to me and I’ll listen through the headphones’. He put it on his tape player and he was looking at me, kept looking at me and started smiling and then he took the headphones off and said, ‘Right, fuck it, I don’t care, I’m going to play this now’. So he re-wound it to the beginning and I’m not joking, nearly everyone in that shop, before even the main hook had kicked in, put their hand up. He said, ‘You can’t have it, this ain’t out yet. But, I’ll tell you what, it will be! Come back in a couple of weeks’. He was just standing and talking like an evangelist! ‘We’re going to put this fucking track out!’ and that is how he started his Oh’Zone label.

First, he sent me home to re-record it, to make it a bit longer. I had to buy a metal tape, £3.50 or whatever, which I completely resented, the most expensive tape I had ever bought. Sevenoaks Hi-Fi, I think. But Jazzy M said, ‘Brilliant, I’ll print some up…”

”I had to think of a band name. Me and my mate Chris Daley sat around the kitchen table, drinking and chatting and listening to records, as you do in Sevenoaks. We were brainstorming band names and he was good with words and he had written down Orbital Madness – we were by the M25 which is where the big raves were at the time. I liked the idea of it being relevant to where we lived and what was going on at the time. We got rid of the ‘madness’ bit and the name was born…

Jazzy M didn’t like it much, but I played my poker face and he went, ‘Yeah, alright. That’s fine, yep’.

I always think it is a silly name like The Jam. I don’t even like the name Paul! They are just labels for what they represent, doesn’t really matter.”

Chime pt.2
“He pressed up a thousand and said, ‘Go and see if you can sell a few of these in your local record shop. I used to hang out in Brighton at the time, my girlfriend was living there and I went into Rounder Records… (which only finally closed it doors in 2012, after 46 years of selling records). Brighton was where I did some of my acid house clubbing thing at the Coco Club and Tonka (both at the legendary seafront venue The Zap). I loved the way Tonka would pile all their gear out onto the beach afterwards, at Black Rock. On a Monday night! Brilliant!!

I can’t remember the name of the guy in Rounder I used to speak to, but he was friendly and knowledgeable; back then in 1990 he had a flattop… Anyway, Jazzy M had tutored me on how to sell records to record shops: ‘Don’t let them go for less than £2.35. You’ll need to get that, they’ll probable take a couple each’. So, I went in there with my 10 records. He then gets the boss, puts it on, listens for a bit, turns to me – very poker faced – turned around again and asks me how many I’ve got. I said 10. ‘I’ll have all ten’, he says. So, I said £2.35 each. He said, ‘Oh no, I can’t pay you more than £2.10… What I didn’t realise at the time was that if they wanted them all, then they must have thought it was quite good. But I didn’t. I think I might have said £2.15, something we settled on. But I was really nervous when I went back to Jazzy M… ‘I sold them all… for £2.15…’ ‘Don’t fucking matter’! he says, ‘I’m pressing up another thousand already, they love it up north’!

Back then, the distribution system for a white label was for the shops, producers and labels to give it to the guys with the white vans, that used to travel the country for all the record companies. They would often rely on the reps, who would go in and say ‘I’ve got this’ – it was all a bit of cash-in-hand for everyone. I don’t know, I don’t know how these things work. I’m not suggesting anyone didn’t pay their tax…”

Label Wars
”Chime was something I’d done on my own and going up to Phil and saying Jazzy M loves this track – that was to be the start of the band. After two thousand records, there were about six labels trying to sign us; it was mental. Jazzy M was a bit out of his depth, but to be fair, we were all amateurs in that world. But we all knew Pete Tong because of the ‘Future Sound of London’ compilation and he seemed to be making the better offer through his record company, FFRR.

Sensibly, Phil’s wife Rachel said you should get someone to look at that. She knew someone who had worked for Tom Watkins management, the people who managed Bros and Pet Shop Boys. It was someone called Rob Holden who has ended up being my manager for 25 years and he started talking to them all about it and that seemed to upset Pete Tong: ‘Fuck, someone who knows what they are doing’, kinda thing. I think… Jazzy M didn’t really like it and we all started to fall out: ‘Fuck it, I don’t want anything to do with you. Go on, fuck off, go and do it with Pete Tong’. It was a shame. I’m not bad mouthing, we have met since and we were both alike, ‘We didn’t know what we were doing, did we’?

Rob ended up getting us a multi-album deal, a proper band deal with options and everything. We had always said we didn’t want to do just dance 12 inches, we wanted to be a proper band…”

Top of the Pops
“That happened incredibly quickly, I was still working at the pizza restaurant. I even had to change the rota to be available when the call came! It’s another of those incidents that if you put it in a film, people wouldn’t believe it. All this was happening and I was still washing the dishes and I hadn’t  been given any money. But the record came out and it made the top 40, so we got the call.

We wore anti-poll t-shirts, which caused a stink with the music press. You cannot wear a t-shirt with a slogan on TOTP. We got away with it because a friend who did our covers did it in a hip hop style; one said ‘No’ and the other said ‘Poll Tax’. I got lucky, I wore the one that said ‘No’, I wasn’t comfortable with the other one saying ‘Poll Tax’,

That and the fact of our dull, lacklustre performance, meant they didn’t want us back!
It was terrible! Check it out, it’s on Youtube, it was awful. I had this Lars von Trier attitude that I would only play my music live and straight away I fell at the first hurdle! But you’ve got to do it, your mum would never forgive you… and also, I had promised all those people in the queue that I would be on TOTP…

The Rave Scene
”I only went to the one (M25 rave) that was closest to Sevenoaks. It was the most godawful pile of shit I had ever been to… a bunch of London bouncers charging people a tenner, standing next to a style on a public footpath, with a farmer’s gate, to climb over the style to walk up the hill to a cow tunnel, underneath the M25. It was pretty spacey looking, at one end it was a wall of PA and lights, beaming down this tunnel. But it sounded just awful.

I thought it was ridiculous that whole scene – the amount of times my friends would come back and say they had never found it. Just before that I loved going to Schoom (legendary acid house club in London). That and the Coco Club and Tonka and I also went to a Mutoid Waste Party once in Clink Street – it was famously a squat street. That was outstanding, as an art exhibition and event – six different PA’s, so much brilliant sculpture.”

Musical Messages
”My musical upbringing, my teenage years, was that kind of second generation punk rock, like the Dead Kennedy’s and Crass, rightly or wrongly, whether that’s a good thing or not.. I’m still a vegetarian…

If you revisit Crass it’s got to be Penis Envy, the feminist album. Lyrically the best one, because it’s still bloody true. I prefer Eve Libertine vocals to Steve Ignorant. Saying that, ‘Stations of the Crass’ is brilliant. Some of the lyrics can be a little childish, like big A and little A, but as a 14 year old it said a lot to me; it made me cry, ‘I do want to be myself and do what I want to do’. Sounds a bit childish now, but then I’m not 14… Penis Envy was very fucking aggressively attacking patriarchal society.

No one today seems to have the balls Crass had, because they are worried about their pay checks. Maybe Pussy Riot…

The folk world still does it; there was that guy (Chris Wood) who did a brilliant song about the guy who got shot on the tube… brilliant, really emotional. The Unthanks are political with a small p, they sing about social issues. I prefer that kind of thing, rather than posturing and telling people how to live their lives. I like conjuring up an image with certain melodic temperaments and scattering a bit of spoken word to influence the way you might think about it.

The thing I used to dislike about dance music or house music, probably because I was missing the point, was ‘Why is no one saying anything political, or making a social comment?’. Because it’s dance music, you idiot! They are going to a nightclub because they want to dance! But that is what I wanted to hear. I grew up listening to that kind of thing. Like On-U-Sound, Adrian Sherwood – political comment and hip hop. Hip hop used to be political comment and you could dance to it. Public Enemy… brilliant. I wanted to bring some of that to the party, as it were, quite literally.

I’ve been told off by people in America, by people on Ecstasy. Playing in Seattle someone came to the soundman – not the band, no one knows what is going on – but to the soundman – ‘you got to stop playing this track, you’re spoiling our night, no one likes this track’ – We were playing ‘Satan’ with the visuals of tanks and bombs – ‘this is too much, you got stop this now’!

With this new album I have been giving the singers some serving suggestions, because its got more of a concept behind it. The singers are always given a blank canvas, I don’t write lyrics at all. But the music has themes, messages, visuals and vocal snippets, which act as serving suggestions.”

2004 Break-up
“I couldn’t work with my brother any more. Our working system wasn’t working for me – that’s the most gracious way I can put it.”

2009 Reunion
”It was Guy Morley who helped to make that happen. He was the Big Chill programmer and also Brighton Festival programmer for many years. He rang up with a proposition; ‘If you fancy getting the band together you can headline The Big Chill’. So I got together with my brother again and we tentatively worked it out… it couldn’t be how it used to… We used to drink vodka and orange on stage, which I think is a poor show. You shouldn’t drink while on stage… You’re fucking performing for God’s sake…You think you are the funniest man at the party because you’re drunk. Well, you’re not! You’re just the drunkest man at the party.

I think it totally affected our performances. When I listen to live recordings from 1992, 93, 94 we were really sharp. When I listen to stuff before we broke it up, it’s sloppy. So, now I perform on stage 100% sober.”

Chime re-visited
”Paul Isaac, who got me into the trendy Sevenokas crowd back in the day, he said ‘You should do a Christmas version of Chime; it’s begging for it’. Whenever we had played New Year’s Eve, we always did Chime, mixed it in with Big Ben, that sort of thing. Nathan Fake also encouraged me. He came on tour with us, this super cool trendy guy doing this brilliant electronic music and we were sitting there having a beer and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve had a go at doing two Xmas singles’. ‘What?, Captain Cool here has what’? ‘Yeah, it was great fun…’ With this super cool trendy guy doing it, I couldn’t take myself too seriously here… I did it on my own, Phil was supposed to be in Thailand and he was on the cusp… I didn’t want to be working with him at that point…. he thinks it’s cheesy. Of course it is, it’s a fucking Christmas record! It’s just something you do for a bit of fun.”

”Brighton has got many redeeming functions but I built my network of music related people in London for ten years and when I moved to Brighton I missed them and I miss that. You don’t bump into those people in Brighton. Brighton is a great place to get your head down and do some work but on a networking level it’s not that great. Why would it be, it’s a small town, really.

I moved here in 2002 – I wanted to move somewhere that was good for kids… that old chestnut. I was living in a warehouse in Shoreditch and it was mental up there around that time. If you saw the TV series Nathan Barley, it was like that. Not a good place to bring up kids; people pissing in my letterbox, there was a gunfight outside my house. People would ring on my buzzer while I was eating olives and drinking a nice beer while watching Ballykissangel on Sunday – my life had turned into that…

I’ve always been one for big gestures. My best mate Jim lives in Brighton, Phil lives in Brighton and he was getting on the train three times a week to do the bits on Orbital that he was doing at the time. But I went down, gave it a last shot and it didn’t work out.

Brighton has changed a lot in the time I’ve been here; the food has got fantastic and we’ve got the best vegetarian in the world, Terre a Terre. Jesus Christ, I’ve tried vegetarian restaurants all over the world. I’ve been to them in San Francisco, you’d think they’d have good ones. But Terre a Terre is the best vegetarian restaurant that I know in the universe.

Brighton has got so many more than its fair share of outstanding pubs. It’s a great place to hang out and we get more than a decent share of good bands. I love going to the Dome, a brilliant venue.

The North Laine, check that out! I’ve been touring this country for 25 years and I watched towns go from having their individual identities, to being homogenised into UK High Street crap and even those shops are now closing down. It’s just horrible now, walking around town centres, the same bland old names. The independents, the fiercely independent North Laine, when I walk around the North Laine, I take a deep breath and think, ‘Yeah, this is brilliant’.

If you went to deepest darkest Kent and walked in with a pink t-shirt and asked for a vegetarian meal…”
Jeff Hemmings