The original ambient funsters have a new studio album all but ready, a live album on the way and a major recording deal in the offing. Jonathan Miller encounters Dr Alex Paterson and Thrash on the verge of a higher plane...
Officially crowned as leaders of the ambient house scene in 1992 when their second album U.F.Orb entered the UK charts at No.1, 1993 sees The Orb's Dr Alex Paterson and Thrash on the one hand faced with the daunting task of producing a follow-up amidst a monumental record company legal wrangle, and on the the other hand enjoying their biggest ever live shows. Jonathan Miller encounters the duo in the studio, where the red tape has been threatening to outstrip the Ampex stuff, while MT catches a recent outdoor Orb spectacular in Copenhagen.
The Orb continue to ride on a wave of success - or so it seems. Earlier this year they effortlessly completed another sell-out UK tour, premiering a vast amount of new material, but surprisingly have yet to release a record in 1993, an indication that all is not well. Rumours have abounded in the popular music press over the state of play between band and record label. When the band first appeared in MT in June 1991, they seemed very much at the vanguard of a new musical genre for the '90s. To some extent, this years troubles confirm with a wry inevitability that this genre - the ambient music which The Orb helped to create - has indeed become big business.
But now the situation seems on the verge of resolution. The Orb are about to sign a new contract with a major label, in a move that will test both that label's flexibility and the bands ability to mature in a corporate setting. Taking a break from a remix session for the recently reformed Yellow Magic Orchestra, Dr Alex Paterson and Thrash are breakfasting late in the afternoon and ruminating on these events. At one stage, there were stories of The Orb's plan to release a total of six albums and then stop, so that in years to come listeners would only have a limited number of recordings to explore. Alex is keen to put this into context.
"That was said when we were working with Big Life. It was a 6-album deal and that seemed like the best way to get out at the time. Releasing six albums and then stopping is a concept which I think would work, but it was more a case of thinking do we have to put up with more of an unsatisfactory recording deal? We were just being outmanoeuvred all the time, having our goal posts moved to different locations on the pitch. We've now managed to get out of the deal, but at one stage we really felt that if they keep an injunction on us saying that we can't release anything as The Orb, then that will be the end of The Orb.
"I think we've got round that, and what we've got as ideas from this year alone amounts to more than six albums, anyway. Seeing as we like to have total control over what we do, we want to become more of an album band as of old and not worry about having singles. It's an old thing that happened in the 70s, but doesn't happen so much now as most people still rely on hit singles to sell their albums. I suppose U.F.Orb charted at No. 1 through people being aware of the Ultraworld album, just as much as the 'Blue Room' single which really was an album within itself anyway. Orb fans went out and bought it because they were used to what they'd been hearing.
"What's actually happened is that Wau! Mr Modo, the original Orb label, has actually reverted back into my hands as opposed to Youth and myself. When the new contracts are put together, Kris [Weston, aka Thrash] will then become a partner in Wau! with myself."
In a nutshell, the Sheffield-based Wau! Mr Modo Records own the copyright to The Orb's recordings, whilst Big Life Records were the exclusive licensees for the world. Wau! stands for What About Us!, Mr Modo being the assumed name of Alex's manager, Adam Morris. Meanwhile, Weird & Unconventional Records, the Wau! subsidiary to whom Steve Hillage's System 7 are signed, is now the sole province of Youth.
Work is complete (bar mixing) on The Orb's third album, recorded at a friend's farm in Dorset where bass player Simon Philips was reputedly recorded in the middle of a field in the name of added ambience. When asked in what way they see this album progressing from the previous two, Kris's reputation as a man of few words is confirmed: "Just exploring, really." With little difficulty, Alex expands on this. "It's more of a unique sound as opposed to something that maybe people can relate to. It's actually given birth to a sound of its own. Obviously, it's a progression from the second album, and if you listen to that one there's a hell of a progression from the first album. It's in the same sort of vein as the second album, but I think, as Kris says, we're taking the exploring side of it a lot further. Rather than just trying to sell the things that we've done on the second album, we're exploring and experimenting, which will be pleasing to people who buy our records for that, as opposed to just getting the same old twaddle again."
Session appearances by 'proper' musicians are the often-overlooked ingredient of Orb recordings, and one recent guest cuts a very familiar figure on the ambient scene. 'We've moved over to Robert Fripp, with whom we've done a rather long track. I can see this being a separate album myself, but we've got various ideas which the two of us have still got to talk about. They're positive ideas, so it's not as if we don't want to put it out, it's just a matter of whether we are going to release it as a long single or a normal album. I'd like to surprise people with it..."
It transpires that the track in question formed the spacey intro to recent Orb shows, albeit in a 25-minute edited form. The completed version is expected to be around an hour in length, substantially longer than 'Blue Room'.
As appointed technical spokesperson, Kris is at first no more forthcoming about his tricks of the trade than about the new album. "Well, it's all outboard and overboard innit, mate!" for example, is his description of the role of the copious outboard equipment that shapes the Orb sound. However, he does let slip that he has had some custom equipment built...
"I've got one box so far. We call it a Tweeter Eater because it just destroys tweeters. It's actually a random and sweepable EQ device with different filters and stuff, but it doesn't work properly yet. The geezer who built it is a bit of a nutter. He built me the box and then said he'd spent so much time thinking about it that he didn't want to do it anymore. Then he started ringing me up saying he'd done this other box when he hadn't even finished the first one!"
Is it possible, then, that Orb records could begin wholesale destruction of the great record-buying public's hi-fi speakers? "No," Alex assures. "The only thing we could do would be to give them a bass frequency to kill their goldfish..."
Kris confirms that the legal minefield surrounding sampling has curtailed the once rampant plundering of source material that helped launch 'ambient house'. "We don't do that so much anymore. It's more a case of getting samples and changing them round so you wouldn't know they were samples. We always create our own samples every time we do something. If we were going to do a drum track, for example, we wouldn't take any sounds into the studio. They'd all just be taken off synths, or whatever, and then I'd start mucking about with them on the sampler. I want Alex to get involved in it more and now he's starting to get to grips with the sampler."
Alex concurs. "After the amount of shit that we've had with sampling in terms of having to clear things, it's a godsend that Kris is here because he can easily disguise a sample with the S1100 now. I just like to feed him really weird noises to get off with. It's his way of having a girlfriend in the studio and he treats it like a big love affair! When I've seen people like Jimmy [Cauty] and Youth trying to get their heads around it and spending so much longer getting it together, it's obvious that Kris is a natural."
The Orb are self confessed non-musicians, although Alex claims to have once had a violin lesson. Nevertheless, they have amassed an impressive collection of vogueish analogue synthesisers, including a Minimoog, a Prophet 5, an Oberheim Matrix 12 and a Korg MS10 - whilst remaining somewhat scathing of their digital counterparts. At the time of writing, Kris is planning to buy an Oberheim 4-Voice, the company's first programmable polysynth dating from 1976.
"I spend all my money on synths, and have just bought a Digisound modular system which is amazing. Digital synths are shit. They've just got completely the wrong idea. Hopefully, when we get our own studio it'll be so much easier. We'll have all the time we need for experimenting. That's my ultimate goal and biggest aim in life at the moment."
It's something of a surprise to learn that an act like The Orb still don't own and run their own studio, but less of a surprise to discover that, in the current record company negotiations, correcting this particular oversight takes top priority.
"It's part of the deal with another record label," reveals Alex. "Without it, what's the point? We don't want to sound like we want to be pretentious pop stars and have loads of money, a Rolls Royce and champagne in the fridge all the time. We just want our own studio. With Kris saying his ultimate aim is having a studio, I can see myself having a little label, doing a bit of producing and hopefully getting it right."
They've certainly got this whole ambient thing pretty right so far. Above all, it's an intuitive production process that Alex can explain only vaguely.
"Everything just falls into place. There's a start and an ending, but what we like to do with our records is make a start happen at the ending. There's not a pause until the record or CD finishes. That's the one thing that we've done throughout the albums that we've recorded. There is a start and there is an end, but within those boundaries we are free to do whatever we want. We kind of know when certain tracks are going to be used, and when to drop out things to fit in with other things along the way. It's like a verse/chorus-type scenario, but a different process. It's something that's then put onto DAT and edited."
Kris lets a bit more slip: "There's less of that on the next album. I prefer to just do a mix straight off in one pass without any edits. I think edits can jumble things up. It's hard to do though, because you've got to get it right all the way through and if you f**k up you've got to do it all again!"
Temporarily unable to record under their own name, The Orb's attraction to the lucrative remixing market is hardly surprising. Credits in addition to Yellow Magic Orchestra include Primal Scream; Front 242; The Grid; Hawkwind and Mike Oldfield, whose 'Sentinel' single was remixed virtually beyond recognition.
"Sometimes people are shocked by our remixes," says Alex, "but usually in a nice way. The Mike Oldfield track was especially amusing. Kris wanted to take it all out, including the repetitive sequence. I was saying we've got to leave just a little bit of Tubular-Bells in there for people to recognise, but he didn't care!
I think Oldfield was quite happy with it because it gave him credibility, but we couldn't believe that they even copied our flippant artwork for its packaging as 'Oldfield Verses The Orb'.
"We've just been experimenting with live drums, and Kris wanted to put it onto Orb stuff, but rather than use it straight away we've tried it out on a remix and it's worked perfectly. We had a bloke from Yellow Magic Orchestra down last night, and I don't think he thought that we'd be using live drums on anything, but he went away quite happy. It's all about experimenting with things that have never been done before.
"Some of the outboard effects that we put over particular instruments are pretty 'orbified', like the Dytronics Cyclosonic Panner. When we first started using it we were getting four of them into the studio to do stuff like 'Backside Of The Moon'. Strangely enough, 'Backside Of The Moon' and the other track that we did on the first album with Steve Hillage are both the same track. One's with drums and the other's without, but nobody's ever noticed that they're from the same mixing session. That shows you what you can do when you put your head round a remix.
'To be honest, the main reason for remixing at the moment is that we need the money to support what we do, but if there's a good band that we'd really like to do and there's not a lot of money involved, then we'll still do it. If you're lucky they'll give you an 'additional production' credit. It's a standard working fee, but we just go one stage further than a lot of other people when working on a remix."
"It's all about experimenting with things that have never been done before"
The Orb's musical style naturally interacts with visual accompaniment - as can be witnessed at their concerts and on the Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld video. It would be ideally suited to television and film soundtracks, so have Messrs Paterson and Weston ever considered getting in on the act?
"We wish!" says Alex. "It's just a case of something coming up. Nobody's making any films in England at the moment, so it's a bit difficult. There's only something like five or she films being made a year in this country. I suppose we could always go to France. The French film industry's one of the most thriving industries in the world, along with the Indian industry. It depends on who's going to pay the bills at the end of the day..."
Although The Orb's music is very much a studio-oriented creation, it's also been successful crossing over to the live arena - as the Copenhagen outdoor spectacular demons&ates. "Playing concerts is the most important thing for us," confirms Alex. The Alesis ADAT system has given the band onstage freedom of access to all the component parts of the music, and like Orbital they conduct an exercise in live sound manipulation and mixing according to their mood on a particular night. This complements Alex's DJing experience perfectly, and he still uses a Vestax CD-33 rackmountable double CD controller live, offering full mixing control over two CDs, together with pitchshift, pitchbend and forward and reverse scanning at 16 times normal playing speed.
Meanwhile, Kris' main responsibilities onstage include smoking, mixing and stepping on Alex's headphone leads. "The music's mainly from three ADATs on stage, with a couple of things running from the computer; plus live percussion; bass and samplers," he explains. "It gets quite confusing sometimes. The only time Alex plays any of our own records is when we're changing over the ADATs."
Unfortunately, greater freedom in live techniques has not always been matched in the administration. It's those company wrangles, again...
"We've taken the show over to the United States once in 1991," says Alex, "but again let's just say that the dispute with Big Life has prevented us from doing a lot of things. We were supposed to be going over again in March this year, but they refused to give us tour support, as they did back here in October. They told me what was the point in going out on an 18-date poxy tour, but the fact is the UK tour was a sell-out. Then they turned round and said we should have sold more albums last year! I've got so stressed out about it because when speaking to lawyers and managers it's like we're not human. We're just figures in a bank account.
"We haven't even toured Europe yet, and that's just a great injustice, really. Not so much for us, but for the audience. We've had Germans coming over here to see us in London. It's a joke."
It's not all doom and gloom on the live front, however, as the historic Copenhagen show once again illustrates, as does the prospect of a full UK tour during November. It's a tribute to The Orb's achievements so far that advance ticket sales for this tour are as healthy as ever, even though no new product has appeared since the last one. And there's no doubting Alex's optimism for the ambient scene as a whole.
"As long as it doesn't start to become really stylised and people have to conform to wearing certain clothes or something, then I can see it lasting for as long as people actually bother to go out and buy it and see it. At the end of the day that's the measure of whether it's working or not. You can have a great trade name, a great little logo and T-shirt, but if the music's shit what's the point? It might work for a few years, but then you get the likes of Bros with a 2-year life span. It becomes an image projected by the major record labels to get artists into the charts."
So what exactly does the future hold for The Orb?
"Certainly not to be advertised on bus stop shelters. We're just going to carry on as we are. As you saw with us live, there's four of us on stage, with Nick Burton on drums and Simon Philips on bass, and that's the live band. We've also got an Orb remix team. They'll all become part of it and we'll probably do an album together and live happily ever after!
"Really, we're just giving people a holiday from having to listen to shit music. It's escapist music. There's no other way to describe it. If people can't do anything other than sit in their front rooms listening to music, then at least escape with us."
Next month: The Orb's lighting designer Chris Craig talks to MT
The Orb Information Service, (Contact Details)
Interview by Jonathan Miller
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