Urban Guerilla | William Orbit
Paul Tingen meets William Orbit, re-mix maestro and the man behind Bass-O-Matic.
An obscure row of terraced houses, somewhere in an obscure backstreet in Crouch End, North London. On one of its obscure corners, partly obscured from view by an overgrown garden, stands a house which looks particularly average. The house was once painted white, but the paint has started to peel and whither. The front door is bolted, the view through a small front window blocked by blinds. Apart from that there's absolutely nothing remarkable about the house.
It's so average that if someone were to reveal that hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of business are being conducted in this urban dwelling, suspicions of criminal activities would arise. The truth, however, is that this mundane-looking residence is one of the trendiest places on the planet. Some of the world's best and most successful music finds its way to this backwater. Inside, this music is chopped and churned, and is then chucked out again, ready for world-wide release.
Music which has been subjected to this urban remix treatment includes that of Madonna, Peter Gabriel, Prince, S'Express, Erasure, Seal, The Cure, and Malcolm McLaren, among many others. Some maintain that the re-mix process is indeed a criminal offence. On top, probably to the abhorrence of those same people, some of today's loudest and most aggressive aural assaults originate from this very building.
With song titles like 'Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Bass', 'Zombie Mantra', and 'Attack Of The 50ft Drum Demon', Bass-O-Matic have infiltrated our musical awareness with music which some describe as 'inane' or 'moronic'. Others praise Bass-O-Matic's wild cocktail of samples, drum loops, heavy grooves, analogue synth textures and overall whackiness. The general public, however, doesn't conceptualise. They simply bought, and bought rather a lot of, Bass-O-Matic's singles 'Fascinating Rhythm' and 'Ease on By' and their debut album Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Bass.
And now there's a new Bass-O-Matic album, Science & Melody, and a new single, 'Funky Love Vibrations', in the shops and William Orbit, the man behind Bass-O-Matic and the deluge of (re-)mixes, is doing his obligatory round of press interviews. He's sitting in Guerilla Studios, located in the front room of this unremarkable London abode, where he records and mixes all his music. But Guerilla Studios and William Orbit themselves are anything but unremarkable.
The studio is extraordinarily low-tech for a place which gives the high-quality products of Madonna and Peter Gabriel the re-mix treatment. There's an old, battered Trident 80B desk with Electrovoice Sentry 100A monitors, plus Auratones and NS10s. The most advanced piece of outboard gear is a Lexicon PCM70, and the rest consists of two SPX90s, an SPX900, two Korg SDD3000 digital delays, a Bel BD80 digital delay, a few DBX160X compressor/limiters, an AMS delay, and an Aphex Aural Exciter. Then there's an Otari MTR90 24-track, plus an Otari MTR12 1/2" 2-track, and a handful of DAT and compact cassette machines.
Not exactly the most glamorous studio set-up in the world. But even more mind-boggling, for a musician admired by many keyboard players for his innovative use of synth sounds, is Orbit's collection of sound sources: a Roland 106 and two Akai S1000s, and... that's it! And, oh yes, a Roland JD800, but that only found its way to Crouch End a few weeks ago. To complete the picture there's an Atari Mega ST2 computer with Cubase software, plus a Steinberg SMP24 SMPTE-MIDI processor and an SBX80 sync box.
William Orbit (nee Wainwright) himself is also an unusual presence. He's tall and skinny, almost to the point of gauntness, dressed in ragged trousers, an old jeans jacket and a reversed black cap. Most striking, however, are his intense blue eyes. They seem to be lit from within. Perhaps they are, as he talks with infectious passion about his work, as if a compulsive creative flame drives him on almost despite himself. Confronted with rather quizzical looks, directed at his little home studio setup, he embarks on a deluge of opinions, explanations and observations: "This thing about having to have the latest technology is completely fallacious. I don't have that much stuff and neither do I need or want it. You can spend thousands of pounds on the most expensive Lexicon reverb and then feel compelled to use it. But in reality you have to keep looking at the music and what it really needs, and I feel that often it's more about dynamics and arrangement than the latest in sound processing,
"I have worked in commercial studios, but I don't really get off on them. I like the 40ft sofas, cable TV with big screens, gorgeous secretaries to make you cups of tea, and engineers who keep the place in pristine conditions, but I find it difficult to concentrate. Also, my working style is so erratic — I like to work at night and sleep at daytime and I do a lot of catnapping — that I end up paying for an empty studio most of the time. At Guerilla I can work anytime I want. And I like the sound of this room. When things sound good here, they sound good everywhere."
"Erratic" he calls his working style, and as he keeps on talking it emerges that one could also add adjectives like 'fast', 'improvised', 'risky', and 'intuitive'. The studio is in many ways his main creative instrument — probably more so than his first instrument, the guitar, or the keyboards which he maintains he "can't play properly". Orbit has developed a whole recording ethos which is all about going for what sounds right at the moment, and trying not to get bogged down in details like "programming a hi-hat all night. I made that mistake of spending hours programming details. It's very bad, you lose a lot by doing that. I'm still training myself to be less precious. If something sounds right at the moment you do it, by and large it's right. You have to trust your first instinct."
His recording ethos will take him to the extent of recording live overdubs whilst he's mixing, straight on to the 2-track: "A track is an ensemble that you're trying to get to work together as a whole. So if I've made a recording that I'm happy with but something isn't quite right, rather than endlessly EQ it and try to wrestle the snare and bass drum into shape, I find it better to free my mind from what I've got and just do it again live, in a way which is right for that moment. If I'm mixing a 12" and three minutes into it I suddenly feel it needs a new dimension, something to give it a kick, I'll add it at that moment, live.
"Mixing is a very fluid thing really; it's never fixed, you can always change and add things even till the very last moment."
Orbit applied this fluidity to great effect on a dance mix of Peter Gabriel's tender ballad 'Mercy Street', requested by Geffen Records in America for their campaign to promote Gabriel's compilation album Shaking The Tree: "I did two re-mixes of that track. Peter liked them both and wanted the best of both combined in one version. So I brought both mixes up on the desk from two DATs, EQ-ed them to make them compatible, and crossfaded them straight on to the 2-track. At the same time I added some extra vocal samples live, manually, just to create some dynamics which would help the edits.
"Don't get the idea that I'm not taking infinite pains over what I do," he adds. "It's not just completely haphazard, but there are moments when you have to move on and move fast."
Guerilla Studios was set up in the early '80s by Orbit and Grant Gilbert, a school friend. They found jobs working for an oil company during the North Sea oil boom, "made tons of money", and invested it in a recording facility. Together they also formed a band called Torch Song. They were signed by Miles Copeland, and released an album called Wish Thing in 1984. In 1987 Orbit released his first solo album on Copeland's IRS label, called Strange Cargo. It was an instrumental album of very varied music, occasionally latin influenced, sometimes evoking a pastoral beauty, as on the tracks 'The Secret Garden' and 'Silent Signals'. 1990 saw Strange Cargo 2, a direct continuation of the '87 album.
1990 was also the year of Bass-O-Matic's Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Bass, showing an Orbit alter ego with its vicious acid house-like electronic explosions. "Bass-O-Matic," says Orbit, "was born out of a large collection of 1/2" instrumental dance tracks I'd made for my own pleasure. I then I decided to do something with them and got signed to Virgin very quickly." It was only at this stage that Orbit started to employ the services of other musicians and rappers, including singer Sharon Musgrave. He cites that as the reason why the new Bass-O-Matic album, Science & Melody, is much more melody and song-orientated.
"I really like exploring those different moods — making music that has a sexual feel, or a dark and slightly unpleasant atmosphere. With dance music I just love the repetition."
"Sharon came in at a later stage, but for this album I worked with Cindy, the singer, formerly with Well Red, from the word go. Cindy was co-writing lyrics and vocals, so there was much more emphasis on that side."
On the new album Orbit was also joined by rappers Glory and Divine, as well as Fergus on percussion and Matthew Vaughan on 'real' keyboard parts. Vaughan also brought in some 'real' keyboards, like the D50. But all keyboards on the Strange Cargo records and the keyboards played by Orbit on the Bass-O-Matic projects were nothing more than the Juno 106 (his master keyboard), the two S1000s, very occasionally a battered DX7 and, during the very last stages, some JD800. Orbit acquired the JD800 because he wanted to have at least "one keyboard with a decent MIDI spec". The Juno 106 is not even velocity sensitive, and the DX7's MIDI spec is hardly the most up to date.
"I just love the 106," he remarks, "its bass sounds are so low and pure. They're little more than sinewaves. I think that those kind of bass sounds are the best and I use them a lot." It emerges that the sounds on his albums are indeed overwhelmingly of an analogue origin, and that many of them are samples of self-penned sounds from previously owned synths, including a WASP, a Prophet 5, and a Jupiter 8. His other sounds are, of course, also sampled, albeit taken from drum machines and records he's remixed. Orbit explains that he generally warps, tweaks and processes these sounds to make them fit for his own purposes.
But Science & Melody features some 'top' samples too, lifted off other people's records as part of what Orbit calls "a game. It's fun to take samples off other people's records and disguise them. I enjoy that."
Science & Melody even features some complete unaccompanied lifts, off what sounds like '40s or '50s records, most notably the cha-cha-cha at the beginning of 'Go Getta Nutha One'. Orbit refuses to identify any of them, for obvious reasons: "Many lawyers are starting to wise up to the fact that there's lots of money to be made in this area. It's a whole can of worms."
Lifting samples off other people's records is "artistically valid," he says, "but that doesn't mean to say that the people who originally made those records have no claim to them." He expands on the point about artistic validity: "The sport in the dance world is to pick samples that no-one has ever heard before, but are still interesting and part of the whole dance iconography. That's actually quite difficult, and the reason why my records don't have more samples on them. I don't want to make things that are too obvious.
"But there is more to it than just sport. I think there's a musical value in samples too. They simply sound good. And if something sounds good in a new context, it's like making a montage or a collage. You can say something brand new using other people's photographs — Andy Warhol was a really skilled illustrator but became famous for chopping up images and sticking them together again, creating a new thing. In music you can take an old record and stick a sample of another old record on top and create something that sounds good and often better than those original records. The sum is greater than the parts. I think that's very exciting."
Remixing is one big sampling affair too. Orbit explains that he often samples the whole multitrack into an S1000, and then juggles the bits and pieces around like a jigsaw puzzle until he finds a form that's right: "I can spend a lot of time on a remix, usually more than on my own new tracks, because it's both technically and artistically very difficult to make something that's fresh and new, yet has respect for the original. That can take a long time.
Orbit apparently takes his re-mixes very seriously, and it's therefore all the more surprising that when he's asked about their musical relevance he says, bluntly, "People pay me a lot for them and I enjoy doing them, so I do them, but I often wonder what they're about. They're a marketing thing really. Re-mixes are important for the clubs, but who else listens to re-mixes, apart from a certain number of people who follow everything by a certain artist or producer? I get letters from people who follow everything I do, and that's important to me, because it means that I know that the subtleties I put into things are appreciated. But still there's this weird anomaly about re-mixes. I mean, why are they done, really? What is it all about, how do the economics work? Is it only a marketing thing? I think that at the end of the day they're bullshit."
The North Londoner adds that, as owner of a publishing company, Guerilla Music, and more recently of a record company, Guerilla Records, he has a serious interest in the business machinations of the record industry. And he has no illusions. The Bass-O-Matic stuff, he says, no matter how much he enjoys it, is "a little bit like prostitution. We're pandering to a commercial audience. You have to, because if Bass-O-Matic doesn't have any chart success it won't exist anymore. Whereas the Strange Cargo things will always exist. It's been used for soundtracks for all kinds of things. I simply do it the way it sounds right for me and people then cut it into their movies or commercials."
Strange Cargo and Bass-O-Matic appear to be two ends of the spectrum in more than one way. It's actually quite bewildering how someone can create the exquisite, meditative scenery of some of the Strange Cargo tracks as well as the thundering aggressiveness of Bass-O-Matic, even though their newest offering is much more gentle and melodic. Orbit sees no contradictions: "I'm fascinated by different moods. It's a dynamic that you see much more in the movies, where it's much more accepted to indulge in the corners of the psyche and manipulate the audience. Movies contain very contrasting moods and that can be very cathartic. In music that's not so easy to do, it's not as encompassing a medium as film. Music is this thing you knock together in a studio, but nevertheless you can create very extreme moods as well.
"I really like exploring those different moods — making music that has a sexual feel, or a dark and slightly unpleasant atmosphere. With dance music I just love the repetition. I love acid house, I like the physicality, the stupidity of it. I can listen to it and dance to it for hours. It simply bypasses the intellect. House isn't always sexy, and I like sexy music, slow funk like George Clinton. And I like reggae a lot.
"With my own music I prefer to separate things and concentrate on one area, not be too eclectic with it. I know that I can do the really heavy club things in my re-mixes. If I want to do something ambient and moody and expressive I have my Strange Cargo project. So I try not to put too much of all that in Bass-O-Matic, and keep it upfront and poppy and enjoy it for that."
At the same time, Orbit is branching out in other directions. There's a Strange Cargo 3 planned, and he's producing some material for former Bass-O-Matic singer Sharon Musgrave, who signed a solo deal with WEA. On top of that he will take the unlikely step of producing The Christians: "The songs on their new demo are just outstanding. They've been solid in my head since I heard it."
But, of course, it wouldn't be William Orbit if he didn't manage to give another strange twist to this already out-of-the-ordinary collaboration: "I won't be spending that much time with them in the studio. I can't be, like, Mr. 'in control', organising their sessions, and they don't want that either. So they'll send me their tapes here and I'll send them tapes back with comments and suggestions.
"I can't be involved in long projects like that anyway," he concludes, "I need to do things in my own time. I have a habit of disappearing, because I like to travel at short notice."
Interview by Paul Tingen
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