Tune In, Turn On, Chill Out
Riding the ambient house wave, The Orb have released a concept album that mixes dance beats with new age textures. Tim Goodyer tunes in to Alex Paterson and Thrash as they chill out with technology.
Ambient house - much discussed but rarely heard outside certain nightclubs - has just had its second LP release. On it The Orb chart areas of consciousness unknown even to Brian Eno.
AS THE LAST DECADE OF THE 20TH century gets underway, the emergence of a new musical form is at least as unlikely as at any other time in musical history. Perhaps the most recent "new" musical form is rap - although even in the form we now recognise it, it's over ten years old. The electronic music which grew out of German studios is the next most recent arrival, dating back to the early 70s - but owing much to the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen back in the '50s. New Age music owes almost everything to Brian Eno's ambient style which emerged in the late 70s. And world music, while new to most Western ears, has been alive for generations in its native countries. Even tracing the roots of rock back to the rock 'n' roll of the mid-'50s leaves us asking embarrassing questions about just how much it was new, and how much directly lifted from uncredited black blues and R&B artists.
None of this is to say that there haven't been plenty of recent developments in the field of popular music, however. If we accept fresh combinations of existing musical forms as being "new", then the list is long indeed - in the 70s rock paired itself with everything from jazz and folk to the classics, while the late '80s/early '90s have seen house going through similar contortions. Recently we saw the Beatmasters and Kool Rock Steady rowing it out over who invented hip house. Now we're being asked to welcome ambient house.
On the surface, the unrelenting beat characteristic of house music couldn't have less in common with the floating, arhythmic textures of ambient music. Where house pounds itself into your awareness, ambient music works almost subliminally, suggesting an atmosphere. Could they ever find themselves elements of the same piece of music, and if so how?
To date, only two ambient house LPs have been released. Last year the KLF released Chill Out (KLF Communications), 45 minutes of unrelated sounds and samples slowly drifting in and out of the mix. Nowhere else could you expect to find Acker Bilk sharing vinyl with Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac and train sound effects. As you read this, the second ambient house album will just have been released. It is The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (Wau Mr Modo/Big Life), it runs for a little under two hours and it's the work of The Orb.
Closer examination of the project reveals it to be the brainchild of Dr Alex Paterson - one time partner of the KLF's Jimmy Cauty. Although the ideas behind the project date back over two years, the recording itself was a fairly swift affair conducted late last summer with the help of ex-Killing Joker Youth, (re)mix engineer Thrash and a list of musicians which includes Steve Hillage, Sunsonic's Ben Watkins and (appropriately enough) latter-day Pink Floyd bass guitarist, Guy Pratt. Taking a break from mixing material for a new band calling themselves Ultimate Bob, Paterson and Thrash have a date with MT.
Two Orb singles pre-date the release of Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld: 'A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld' and 'Little Fluffy Clouds' made an impact on America's Rockpool chart as well as London's clubland last year, and a track called 'Peace (in the Middle East)' was released earlier this year under the name Apollo XI as a reaction to the Gulf war. Currently another track off the LP, 'Perpetual Dawn' has been seriously re-recorded and remixed to become a third Orb single. But it is only in the context of long-playing vinyl - or better, Compact Disc - that the true nature of the music is revealed. The opening cut, 'Little Fluffy Clouds', is typical of half the material, featuring house drum beats overlaid with ambient textures and (in this case) a monologue in which Rickie Lee Jones describes scenes from her childhood. (Eno meets Frankie Knuckles?) The remainder of the material is ambient, relying purely on textures and sound effects.
A bizarre marriage of material in theory, it all starts to make sense when you consider Paterson's background. Once a drum roadie for Killing Joke, he subsequently became an A&R man at EG Records - Eno's label at the time - and then went on to become a DJ.
"Working for EG and being a house DJ, it seemed all very obvious - to me, that was, although not to a lot of other people at the end of 1987/88", he declares. "It's only this year that people have accepted it; last year it was all techno and the German stuff, the Italian stuff."
Alex Paterson - his "doctorate" status due to manipulation of his initials rather than a stint in the educational establishment, incidentally - admits to being heavily influenced by Eno and his ambient experiments.
"I was 19 when I first heard an album of his", he recalls, "It was Music for Films, and it had just come out. I was in Germany on the 11th floor of a council block looking over the Ruhr at these huge foundry works pumping steel. It looked like a huge fire in the distance. I was also under the influence of hallucinogenics at the time, and I spent a day-and-a-half just listening to that album. I was working with Killing Joke who had just signed to EG, and I found out Eno was signed to them too. It seemed the perfect opportunity to get into it. From there I discovered that a lot of the albums I had previously been into - like Ultravox' first album, Bowie's Heroes and Low, two of my all-time favourite albums - were produced by him.
"I then got a job as an A&R man at EG", he continues. "EG are famous for their compilation albums, so it would be 'would you like to compile an ambient collection?; would you like to compile an Eno CD-only boxed set?'. So for weeks I'd be working on different tracks, looking at the chords, and I found he relies a lot on that 'singular note that stands out' theory. But he never took it far enough for me.
"Then house came along and I was being asked to DJ at all sorts of events - fashion shows and things - and I started putting the two sides together."
Originally The Orb project involved Paterson and Cauty. The partnership was ill-fated, however, and left Paterson to continue on his own. Three singles and an LP suggest it was the right decision.
"Chill Out was a direct idea of my own and Jimmy's DJing together", explains Paterson of the KLF's venture into ambient house. "It's very much like a session I would do when I was DJing two-and-a-half years ago. I think it gave a lot of people a lot of ideas and cleared the way for The Orb album. It opened a lot of peoples' heads up. The KLF - bless 'em - thought there might be a little bit of money in sticking out an ambient house album when there was such a big buzz about it. They did that on their label, KLF Communications. At the time that Chill Out was released, Jimmy and I were actually setting up a deal as The Orb with Big Life, but Jimmy and I split up, so I had to re-think the whole Orb idea - whether to go on, whether to invite somebody else to join me. Through my experience with Jimmy I decided to do it on my own. I had to get the whole thing out of the way and see what happened, and this is what's happened. Now I'm fed up of arguing with myself, so I've got Thrash to argue with."
Where Chill Out appeared as a meandering collection of unrelated sounds, Adventures... - which went into the album charts at No. 26 as this was being written - contains pleasing combinations of beats, textures and even melodies.
"It's not a dance album as such", proclaims Paterson, "it's a crossover album, if you need to file it under something in your record collection. I wouldn't even say it's contemporary - it's in a different world."
The viability of ambient music has been adequately proven by the burgeoning new age catalogue - but why should ambient music have a place in club culture?
"It works in a club in a chill out situation", comes the confident reply. "Without drums, you can do what we're doing - sitting having a conversation. It gives you a bit of social space to work your ideas out, work deals out."
Outside the club, the word "concept" looms large. The Orb itself seems to have acquired a character of its own in Paterson's awareness - he frequently refers to the "Orb style". Meanwhile Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, complete with a cover shot of Battersea power station reminiscent of Pink Floyd's 77 album Animals sleeve design, is undeniably a concept album.
"Yeah, it looks like it", concedes its maker with a broad grin. "This is the word.
"...there might be a couple of sound effects records, an Eno record, and 'E2=E4' by Manuel Gottsching, then there are tapes of people talking..."
"Who else is doing one?", he challenges. "Who else has got an idea of selling an album? Everybody reckons you've got to have a single on an album to sell it, but we thought why not make an album and sell the album for what it can do. A lot of people are calling it a 'progressive rock' album, but that's because nobody's done anything like that since the 70s, so that's all they've got to point their fingers at. But that's great for me because there are an untold number of people saying 'I wonder what that's going to be like if it's like Pink Floyd?'. In that respect, I've done just under two hours of tracks in varying musical styles, and linked them all up as an album. I'm very proud of that. And our next album is going to be equally progressive in different directions."
BEFORE ANOTHER EQUALLY PERPLEXING ORB album appears, however, there's the small matter of how this one found its way onto vinyl. Essentially it's a simple musical formula - easier, even, than house to work with (as the melodies are optional). All you need is the ability to recognise a good beat and to create and manipulate sound textures.
Paterson explains the working relationship behind Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld: "Thrash handles the drums and I get the ambient feel on top, the textures. From there we can get rid of the drums and just have the textures, or we can get rid of the textures and just have the drums. We've got the beauty of all these ways to work. It's almost like we're tripping over things without realising it - but at the same time, we do know what we're doing. It's like "yeah, we'll take that bit for this'. You know what I mean by take that bit or take this bit... We'll take the rest of it too!"
"It's like a jam, in a sense", offers Thrash, joining the conversation for the first time.
"It is, really", Paterson continues. "'A Huge Ever Growing...' was done in a day-and-a-half. The ideas were there two weeks before but the mix itself only took 20 minutes - it was completely five.
"Thrash and I met putting together an EG Editions remix. He was only 16. Now he's just turned 19, I'm 31 and we work so well together, that's the incredible thing. I was watching a thing on 808 State last night, and it's two on two - two old ones and two young ones. It's almost like a mini-808 we've got here. We work together really well."
Paterson is happy to admit to being a DJ and specialising in "hearing ideas" rather than possessing conventional musical skills. Similarly, Thrash claims simply to "like turning knobs and pushing buttons". But the duo are anxious to point out that Adventures... also contains the work of a variety of very talented, old-style musicians.
"I've put them onto the album in an A&R production style", says Paterson. "I've gone back to the old days of being an A8cR man, and going into the studio with the musicians. Obviously, with 11 musicians there are going to be a lot of musical directions and a lot of confusion - but on the album there is a certain string of attachment that binds it all together. That is myself - that's why I did the album on my own. The next album will be a unison of two people. We'll probably have a few more arguments, but I'm looking forward to working with Thrash. We can beat each other up, it's not a problem."
Anyone who can manage 11 musicians in a studio environment must have something going for them. But as with the KLF's Chill Out, the conception of Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld is based on Paterson's activities as a DJ rather than some exotic musical theory.
"When I'm DJing at Oz, we might have four channels going plus our own DAT player as well", begins Paterson, describing a typical night behind the turntables. "That's five channels of sound. There might be a couple of sound effects records, an Eno record, and 'E2=E4' by Manuel Gottsching. Then there are tapes of people talking that I've made up especially - the same tapes have also been used on the album. And you can do a lot of this at home if you've got a couple of decks and a tape recorder, which a lot of people have these days because we're looking at the '90s, not the 70s."
Take the above ingredients, mix carefully and you've got ambient house. But what goes in and what gets left out? How do you make good ambient house?
"It's called a feeling: knowing how far you can go with a certain rhythm before you get bored with it yourself. I mean, we've had this album finished since the end of August/beginning of September, so we've had it for nearly six months and we're moving on to new things already.
"A lot of the actual material comes from various places around the world", reveals Paterson. "You've got to have... not really a big record collection, but you've got to have records you know you can cover with other samples to make a sort of mish-mash.
"A lot of the drum samples have come from hip hop records because they get these amazing drum sounds together and then do something unintelligible over the top. So we take the drum sounds."
But then there are also those "real" musicians to consider. Although he now lives in New York, ex-Killing Joke drummer Paul Ferguson also found himself providing drums for a track called 'Into the Fourth Dimension'.
"As a favour he agreed to play drums for us", recalls Paterson, "but he didn't play drums to a track, he played drums. I'd say give us a break... give us a Soul II Soul type break... He is the perfect drummer.
"I've now got a whole library of live sounds and live patterns, some of which I've yet to use. Paul played drums live for an hour-and-a-half and we put it down onto quarter-inch half track.
"With Killing Joke we spent days making the most incredible drum noises. I spent a month in Connie Planck's studio in Cologne in 1985/86 experimenting with drum sounds. We'd do things like build 50 yards of tunnel, put a mike at the far end of it and maybe one on the bass drum. That's another direction, a totally un-ambient direction, we could go in."
"...a different day, a different mix, a different track, so during two weeks of August 1990 we completely produced five tracks of a double album."
So much for the elements of ambient house, but are they fitted together into a single piece of music?
"Shall we talk through a particular track?", suggests Paterson. "The next single, 'Perpetual Dawn' is very musical, we've even got a singer on it. Eddie Manasseh came up with a demo of a reggae track which we liked. To that we added drums, kept the bass guitar, and added samples of vocals from the West Indies - and we created an ambient reggae track. From there we did a remix ourselves using various choirs and a toaster called Jeffrey.
"Then Andy Weatherall came in and did exactly what we did - added his own samples, his own ideas, his own textures and used Jah Wobble as a bass player. Then we took it a stage further because we really wanted to use a singer called Shola, but she was stuck in with Frazier Chorus doing their stuff. Then Youth came along and did a 'Shola version' using the drums from the mix we did and Jah Wobble's bass from the mix Andy did, and he added his own 'Youthfulness' to it. The end result is a track that's got two vocalists in it, a Jah Wobble bassline and a Youth mix. And that's what's on the seven-inch and the 12-inch."
It transpires that the original demo was not on tape, but in a C-Lab Creator sequencer file.
"He'd programmed a lot of stuff at home, brought it in and we developed it", explains Thrash, when Paterson's technical knowledge fails. "We used loads of new sounds, sampled drums and stuff, and built it up from there."
"A lot of people have been trying to get me into computers", says Paterson, in his defence, "but my head's elsewhere. I'm into listening to things like chains being pulled and the sound that would make if they were sampled. Or birds flapping in System 7 (another project). Any abstract noises - that's all down to myself; the logistics of using the computer I leave to Thrash."
Mention of further technicalities demonstrates the relative unimportance of the gear as compared to the music it's being used to create. Most of the recording was based around Creator and numerous Akai S1000s, but there's plenty of talk (from Thrash) about "some Moogs... some Oberheims... a Prophet 5 - loads of analogue synths... a phenomenal amount of outboard, from Lexicons to Quadraverbs". Apart from endless enthusiasm for a now-discontinued unit called the Dytronics Cydosonic panner - an elaborate panning unit that claimed to make sounds move in three dimensions (they used three) - there are few specific technical details to be gleaned, however. One of the main reasons for this is the time scale of the recording: two years of musical ideas committed to tape in a matter of weeks.
"In demoing up the album, we did five tracks in five days", says Paterson. "Then we did another five days of mixing them in the 24-track. A different day, a different mix, a different track. So during two weeks of August 1990 we completely produced five tracks of a double album. It's very difficult to try to remember what was going on."
One item that has stuck in the memories of both DJ and mixer is the modular Moog system used by Miquette Giraudy on 'Supernova at the End of the Universe' and 'Back Side of the Moon'. Paterson calls it "one of the early birds. It's a really early Moog synth that she's painted - so it's become this piece of art with knobs on."
Perhaps more encouragingly, the duo talk unprompted about setting up a studio of their own. In addition to the musical freedom a studio would bring, there's also the financial angle to consider.
"We did this album as a daily routine", says Paterson. "That whole double album was done within a month - minus 'A Huge Ever Growing' and 'Fluffy Clouds'. The budget we were given was 20 grand and it came in under. You don't get many of those around these days."
THESE DAYS, FEW POPULAR MUSIC INTERVIEWS would be complete without covering the issue of sampling and the copyright problems it throw's up. In the case of The Orb, much of the sampled material is simply spoken word - over which there is no copyright. Of the copyrighted material Paterson claims to be clever enough to manipulate most of it to the extent that it becomes "an original sound". There are still passages in Adventures... which are readily identifiable though, most obviously a long section of Minnie Ripperton's 'Loving You' spun into 'A Huge Ever Growing Brain that Rules from the Centre of the Universe'.
"That's been cleared", Patterson reveals. "But we didn't use it in the way it was used as a commercial song anyway, we used it as part of a 23-minute ambient piece that slipped in at nine minutes and came out at 11.
"Jimmy and I had worked a lot on that track and by the time we thought 'if we use this we're going to get into a hell of a lot of shit' it was too late. Also, at that time Jimmy had gone through the Time Lords saga with ABBA and he was very reluctant to go through that shit again. We did a version without Minnie Ripperton and everybody said 'what the fuck are you doing?'. They didn't realise that we couldn't say 'we can't use the Minnie Ripperton sample or we'll get sued to fuck'. It got to 76 in the charts and stayed in the independent charts for five or six weeks, so it wasn't that much of a disappointment. But the Minnie Ripperton version went on the album because it's a classic track.
"We've cleared some of the stuff, but other stuff is so impossible to recognise that there's no point. Look at the credit for 'A Huge Ever Growing...' and you'll get some idea of what we've had to clear. It was because of that that we didn't make it obvious that another sample is 18 seconds of Grace Jones.
"Big Life have already had to deal with this issue with Coldcut and De La Soul. In this day and age we can get around copyright problems by paying the artist a fee if they realise it's their sample. But within the album there are musicians playing too, so it's not as if its a 'sampled' album. We've just used what we think are the best things for the music - in an Orb style."
So what of the future of ambient house? Although relatively unexplored on vinyl, the term has been used and abused in clubland to the point that the tag itself is threatening to handicap any future releases. Paterson confidently predicts that it will undergo a name change, but quite what it will become is a matter for speculation.
"There are rumours of calling it mellow techno", he says, "but it could be picture music, atmospheric music, '90s music..."
When questioned about the significance of the style he is in no doubt that there is much ground still to be covered.
"Last weekend I was taken around to various peoples' houses in Europe who were doing things very similar to The Orb: taking six or seven things and mixing them to a drum loop. That's not dissimilar to the way I started when I was using the William Orbit 'Prepare to Energise' track in the clubs. In Japan there are loads of ambient clubs, and they have chill out rooms on top of all their clubs - because they're highly stressed-out people. So they've taken to the two Orb singles like ducks to water. The album is being released in July. In America 'Little Fluffy Clouds' is in the Rockpool charts at No. 6 and it's climbing up the dance charts. The best review I've ever had was a Rockpool review: it said at the end 'this track changed my life, I'm happy now'. That really touched me - if that's what I'm doing, it can only be a good thing. What can you say? Also through our fan club I'm receiving a lot of mail from prisons - I've never been to prison, but if you're cooped up in there for two years and you can put The Orb on... It's repetitive, but it's easy on your ear and it doesn't do unpleasant things to your head."
If not ambient house, Music for Prisons, perhaps?