It Came From Outer Space | The Orb
The Orb's ambient experiments have transformed dance music and put the longest single ever released into the UK charts. Mark J. Prendergast hears what Thrash and Alex Paterson have to say about it all.
First there was the track 'A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld', recorded for John Peel in December of 1989. At over 20 minutes long it was hardly standard session fare — and despite being the creation of DJs Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty, it wasn't your typical 130bpm House assault either. The beat boxes seemed to have been disconnected, and in their place was left an array of brightly coloured and translucent sounds. Waves lapped from speaker to speaker, old radio voices rose up in the mix, birds twittered, and a meditative melody was heard on some tinkly keyboards. David Gilmour's trademark guitar lick from Pink Floyd's 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' just seemed to drop in from nowhere, as the high vocal of soul singer Minnie Ripperton intoned the lush words to 'Loving You'.
Some bands come and go. Music is made and instantly forgotten. But others stick, and The Orb have stuck like glue.
Audiences and DJs alike were getting bored with the bump and grind of House circa 1989. At London's Land of Oz club was born The Chill Out Room where three DJs — Jimmy Cauty (of KLF fame), Alex Paterson (ex-Killing Joke roadie and EG records person) and Youth — invented Ambient House, using synths and a mixer alongside the familiar record decks. 'The Huge Ever Growing Brain...', or 'Loving You' as it became known, was stretched to four hour versions as hypnotherapy records, children's bedtime stories and everything and anything were edited in. The KLF released 'Chill Out', and Ambient House was born.
Of course House and Rave continued to evolve. The beats increased from 130 to near 150 per minute as Hardcore Techno turned the dance culture into a brutish exhibition of drug addled mayhem. In contrast, KLF and The Orb put an exciting new twist to everything everybody knew about pop. The short was ditched for the long. House was to Ambient House what the '60s was to the early 70s.
In 1990 The Orb released 'Little Fluffy Clouds', which featured Rickie Lee Jones girlishly describing her childhood skies of Arizona to an electronic backdrop from Paterson and Youth. Then, if there was any doubt that Head Music for the '90s was perhaps just a passing fling, along came the awesome double album Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld (1991) with its Battersea Power Station cover.
The tracks were lengthy and, though peppered with dance beats, were better enjoyed sitting or lying down. The audience blossomed and the album dented the charts. The Orb was now officially Paterson, engineer chum Kristian Weston (aka Thrash), and Steve Hillage (ex-Gong guitarist, and leading light of System 7).
If Hillage added some great sounds to Adventures, it was his playing on the 1992 'Blue Room' single that did the trick. Based on the kooky concept that at Wright Patterson air force base in Ohio there are stores for downed UFOs, this 40 minute single went Top 10 in the British charts. The follow-up album U.F.Orb astonished everybody by going straight to Number 1.
The Orb were now a phenomenon and people clamoured for their production skills. Many weren't aware that they had produced Primal Scream's glorious 'Higher Than The Sun' single. Even a rejuvenated Mike Oldfield invited Thrash & Alex to do a job on his lacklustre Tubular Bells 2, and with predictably humorous results the 'Orb vs. Mike Oldfield' CD sounded nothing like 'Tubular Bells' at all.
It's early in 1993. The Orb have been taking an extended break in far-off climes. Alex Paterson is somewhere in Morocco with an open return and a DAT machine. Thrash is in Egypt with his Yamaha QY10 Walkstation. Both are presumably collecting sounds or tunes for their new album. Thrash is due back first and on his return is deemed to be homeless by his management, who arrange a house for him in South London. When I call round there one day in January I find Thrash/Kris watching a TV programme on Indian tabla drumming. A moment later the doorbell rings and Kris jumps up. It seems he's been waiting patiently for the delivery of a Kenton Pro2 MIDI-to-CV convertor for hooking up a load of recently-acquired analogue synths. It's a good cue to move int0 his backroom where an arsenal of equipment lies waiting for a call to arms.
A 12-channel Tascam mixing desk lies propped against a distant wall. An Alesis ADAT just sits in the middle. Various old synths catch my eye: a Putney (aka EMS) VCS3 in pristine condition; a Prophet 5; a rusty old Korg MS10. A big Oberheim Matrix 12 synth seems to get most use, and next to that sits an Atari ST.
Immediately Kris starts turning things on. He flicks on a DAT machine and fills the room with a space hum coloured by devotional singing and underswept by splashy wave movement. "It's a new track called 'Plateau'. It's not bad actually. I'm using a Yamaha Portasound on that — it can give you the sound of Latin rock or Orbital swing. I like pretty shit keyboards, the type you can get at Dixons and that."
I ask him about his involvement in Ultraworld and a re-mix album called The Aubrey Mixes which some contend made Ultraworld a triple album. "Well, the only thing I did on that was mix 'Backside of The Moon'.
I was even less involved in 'The Aubrey Mixes' because that was only a whole load of other people doing remixes. I wasn't even in the studio for that. The current Orb, me and Alex, is basically U.F.Orb. I think it was better before we joined, really!"
Looking at the copious credits on Ultraworld it seems our young Mr Weston is a bit amnesiac. Out of the album's 10 tracks he was involved with the engineering and/or mixing of seven of them.
Thrash isn't that voluble. Each word is spoken softly, almost under his breath. His round-eyed features are those of a shy boy who'd rather move faders and load software than talk to the press. Much later in the interview I am surprised to learn that he is only 20. For now I attempt to probe the mystery of the Orb sound.
"It's really the attitude we take in the studio, and the ambient and linear qualities which run though everything we do. We're currently working in lots of different ways in order to find the best way of working. We're trying to find a perfect way but so far there hasn't been a formula way of laying down a track. Just trying different ways of working on the computer, just going through different programs, trying to find out what's best for us."
Thrash sees Ultraworld as the recording that allowed them to go in whatever direction they wanted to. "It's really brilliant because people will pay you to do what the f*** you like because they're into your weird or spacey sound. And when people ask you to do a re-mix they expect the unexpected."
Thoughts of the 'Mike Oldfield vs. The Orb' CD filter through my mind. "That was funny that. After we met the manager and Oldfield himself, we went into the studio and Alex played me the tape. We listened and just cracked up. It was really bad. I just couldn't believe all this nice Trevor Horn production, which was like elevator music. We had four multitrack tapes in Bunk, Junk and Genius [studio] and we threw out most of it. That's the beauty of it: we can remix anything by throwing most of it away. All those mad drum offbeats you hear were 808 and 606 sampled and EQ'd in such a way that you'd get all these different hi-hats going off in so many directions that you could never tell where the beat was."
I was intrigued at how such a young, hippie-looking whizz who wouldn't look out of place in Nirvana got involved with the 32 year old Dr. Alex, as he's known in the trade. "Well, I met him in a little 16-track Battersea studio I was working in. It was in a business centre. I was involved with him on the first album on the engineering side, hanging tape in Berwick Street. It was Alex and Jimmy Cauty then. That Space album [an anonymous ambient adventure which started out as an Orb project but became a Cauty solo release in 1990] was an Orb album, but I don't want to talk about that. Anyway I was on a different wavelength to Alex because I was quite a bit younger, from a different generation, though there are similarities. It's fair to say I know a lot more about technology. His area is DJing and the concepts behind The Orb. I'm not musical, but I played with some boring bands and when I got into the studio and saw all the flashing lights, that was that. You could say the first instrument I got into was the Atari."
Someone who was present at the recent Q awards noted that The Orb did not present themselves in sobrely dignified fashion. I wonder how winning joint best production gong with Peter Gabriel affected them.
"Stupid bastards", says Weston in no uncertain terms. "We think Gabriel is shit anyway. U.F.Orb could've been miles better quality if we'd had the equipment. We hardly had any equipment of our own. Most of the stuff here I got together in the last week. This here [pointing to a Roland PC200 keyboard] is what we've been using for live stuff. You can see it's all taped up so I can see what samples are on what keys. It's not worth setting up a computer and a sampler with the keyboards and stuff. It's so boring to do and the gear is easily stolen."
Kris then launches into an attack on the music industry. Sponsorship deals seem to be pretty thin on the ground and Big Life Records, the company which licenses Orb recordings, are not exactly throwing money at the duo to build their own dream studio. "I call them Big Strife," he says. "For U.F.Orb, whenever we wanted a specific sound we had to hire in keyboards from Audiohire."
'Plateau' seems to have come to an end. Weston picks up a strange looking Arabic tape and puts that on. It turns out to be some Jordanian guitar and vocal music he's collected on his travels. At the same time he's loading floppies into a Sequential Circuits Studio 440 drum sampler/sequencer.
"To continue with U.F.Orb we were limited to what the hire companies had. We used Korg and Sequential Circuits stuff. The Prophet 5 is all right, but it's quite a hard sound. I'd like to use something more obscure and spend time learning how to use it. The VCS3 hasn't been MIDI'd up yet."
What about samples?
"We don't keep any samples. All the samples we do are created in the studio at the point we need them. It's a lot better if you don't take any samples with you into the studio. I've got samples here but in the studio you've got to create all the sounds again, which is great fun. On U.F.Orb the Russian voices came from a tape of Alex's about the space programme and another record he had which was all about fish in Russia."
What sounds did you most enjoy putting on the album?
"The elephants sniffing! We tend to use a lot of sniff elements — horses sniffs, really deep breathing, most of it live. We've done a new track in Dorset which is really wicked.
We've got this mate in Dorset who has a farm, and we worked in his mother's leather-making hut. We just started tracking there. It had a big field with loads of horses, so we recorded every single animal on the farm so it ended up as a cacophony of noises. We then put this bass player, Simon Phillips, out in the field and got him to play at full volume with his speaker aimed at a big hill so that the sound would just bounce off. We had ambient mics, and mics on top of the hill as well. It was f***ing brilliant."
This recollection reminds Thrash of yet another off-the-wall mic technique employed on U.F.Orb. "We got these little plastic microphones for 99p and cut a hole in the side of them and used them as reverbs with headphones gaffered around one side. Just anyway of getting a different sound without being too fuddy-duddy or boffiny about it."
He returns to this theme later, re-iterating that he believes in abusing equipment. "Don't just use it, abuse it. Don't just get good at the language or the controls. Don't be a boffin."
Returning to more conventional hardware, I notice that Thrash has the familiar Akai samplers — two S1000s to be precise — plus a Yamaha E1010 analogue delay, and two Drawmer Dual Gates. Is he happy with what he has?
"I don't have the gear I want. I want loads of customised gear. I've had this EQ box designed by a guy in Sheffield, the guy who owns Westward Electronics [see p32]. It's a random EQ device which does mad MIDI EQ and all sorts of stuff. You can control it off a computer. It has its own computer program so you can run it with a sequencer.
"I mean, our music is a mixture of analogue and digital, mixing some really wicked old effects and sounds with some really high-tech desks. I don't have a favourite console but we used SSL on U.F.Orb. They haven't really made a desk the way I want. Look at this stuff here. The Prophet 5, awesome. The Matrix 12, awesome. I've got a MiniMoog somewhere outside. This new Kenton convertor is well handy for getting all these old analogue synths working off MIDI — it's a pity I can't get the VCS3 hooked up to it."
Weston puts on 'Plateau' again. The music is mostly a squishy bass run. "That's a sampled bass put through this mad Marshall Time Modulator. It's pretty Ambient linear. This mix is actually finished. We'll finish off the second in Bunk Junk and Genius, which is a great studio."
Studio preferences aside, both Weston and Patterson found ways to put their travelling to creative use, Weston in Egypt and Patterson in Morocco. "I took the Yamaha QY10 thing with me. It's only a little sequencer, but it's got MIDI on it. I bought a lot of tapes there and made quite a few recordings from the radio as well. Alex is probably picking up some interesting sounds in Morocco at the moment."
Orb influences closer to home include Timothy Good's alternative science investigation books Above Top Secret and Alien Liaison — U.F.Orb in particular bears their mark. "He's an English teacher who just looks really really straight, but he's so far out inside his head. He comes out with all this stuff about Stealth bombing UFOs, how the USAF has been test-flying UFOs and how they've actually got together with the aliens. But he's also a violin player and he's done loads of sessions for loads of bands. For the new album we're going to dub him over and over."
Before we finish up and Weston gets lost in his machinery, he offers this parting shot: "All I'm interested in is getting a wicked studio together. As long as we can do what we want and not be bothered with anything else then I can get to my goal. I started computing when I was 15 and lived in Mitcham which is pretty horrible. At least now I'm getting nearer to what I want."
It's now over a week later. Myself and SOS photographer Ian have been waiting all afternoon for The Orb to turn up in the fairly luxurious Marcus studio complex in Fulham. Sundry engineers and assistants sit around reading and smoking. Says one, "They're great blokes but don't expect them to be on time."
Tim Hunt, their regular engineer here, is not phased. He likes The Orb because they don't have any pretensions about the studio. The studio we're in is home to an SSL SL4000E 48-track mixing console, along with the usual selection of equalisers, harmonisers, limiters, compressors, gates, reverbs and so on.
Some time in the evening Alex Paterson and Thrash arrive, and begin humping their gear in — it seems they worked all through the previous night. Paterson is smaller than you think he is. Stubbled and burnished brown from his Saharan sojourn, he's wearing his usual blue woolly hat with track suit top, very comfortable balloon trousers, and spongy runners.
His first priority is to get a turntable together and start playing records. The first is some incredibly spacey Aboriginal Ambient House, which slowly creeps up on you like a snake. Paterson is immediately likeable, with a bearish look that communicates a twinkle in the eye. We move into the stone recording room, set ourselves down on some Indian carpets, drink Purdeys and talk.
My questions for Paterson start with his view of the way the Orb has changed since he and Cauty founded the band. "Orb was originally me and Jimmy in 1988, The Peel Sessions, the Kiss EP, 'Huge Ever Growing...', a few singles. Jimmy was basically mucking around with drums all the time and I was just trying to ditch 'em. We ended up putting this 8-bar bass line over the top which we then changed to a synth line, added some effects and that was basically 'Loving You'."
Plus some of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here...
"Yeah, well we weren't spring chickens, myself and Jimmy."
Is it true that you did Space together and then went your separate ways?
"Well, I don't want to get into that because it took nigh on two years to get back to a communication point with Jimmy after the KLF/Orb thing. Space was basically an album we did together which later he re-mixed and re-produced."
I suggest that Space sounds rather dated in any case, whereas U.F.Orb is a much more exciting, contemporary sound.
"Ultraworld is still my favourite album. With U.F.Orb it's all very compact and you know each track comes from the same album, but with Ultraworld it's a mish-mash of different things from all over the world.
Most of it was done when I was working as an A & R man for EG, running around with only a week off in the summer and mixing five tracks in five days. Other tracks would be done during the week. It was a rushed job, Ultraworld. One week I'd be in New York getting drum samples, and the next day I'd be in EG in the morning and then going to the studio and mixing a track in the evening, going back to EG in the morning and then going to another studio to mix another track... It was complete mayhem for a year."
Those days at EG, then Brian Eno's label, gave Paterson an ear to some of the freshest new music being made, albums by Harold Budd, Jon Hassell and Eno himself shaping Paterson's mindset towards the music he's creating today. So convinced that he was onto something when he began spinning Ambient House as a DJ that he formed his own record company, Wau!. Mr Modo, with Youth. But does Dr Alex consider himself a musician?
"No, strangely enough. There are enough champions of causes around. What happened between 1988 and 1989 during the British dance explosion was the rise of the DJ. People were coming to clubs to listen to DJs, not look at bands. Now this was a complete reversal of what had happened before in the rock industry — 'The Blue Room' and what happened to the British Top 30 was another aspect. If we can keep the Orb as a non-centralised figure of amusement on stage, or with an added vocalist/guitarist/bass player just like with Steve Hillage playing a few licks, we'll be happy. Really it's about being someone who is technically aware of what people want to listen to, and that doesn't necessarily have to be a musician."
So how did Alex Paterson the DJ create Ambient House?
"At The Land of Oz we would be using an 8-track mixer with four or five record decks. Then we'd get 'Pacific State' by 808 State — specifically the intro to it with its little clarinetty tweety bit — and we'd loop that over and make an hour long mix of it without any drums at all. We did the same thing to that Beloved track which became an Alpen advert. One night we did a version of 'I'm Not In Love' which went on for two hours — that threw a lot of people."
With Berlin, Barcelona and half a dozen London studios credited on Ultraworld, the 1991 album was obviously a more complex affair than looping a few record intros.
"Yeah, well that involved 20 musicians over a period of two months. I was interested in technology to a lesser and greater degree. I was interested in natural sounds going through samples, as opposed to loads and loads of technical sounds going through samples. Moreover I was interested in using those natural sounds with a rhythmic attitude. Like on 'Star 6 & 7, 8, 9' — along with the guitar piece played on a DX7 you get the bumble bee, the birds and the bike at the beginning. The feel that you're in a big open space with that little harmony going off makes you feel kinda happy, you know?"
One thing that's making Paterson happy is his awakening to World Music. After Morocco he sees the importance of their sound to Western culture particularly from the rhythmic point of view. "Morocco has contributed more to the West than any other type of middle-Eastern music. For example, the Moors brought the guitar to us in the 14th Century. And the Bedouin tribe's drumming is outrageous stuff, incredible."
That seems very far away from the Space Invader feel of 'Blue Room'. How was that recorded?
"Well, it was 40 minutes long, and could have gone out as an album. It took six months to record. We got Steve Hillage to learn to play a steel guitar, which he had never done in his life before. He actually assembled one himself and managed to play it. For the bass we got Jah Wobble in for an afternoon and got a few bass lines down, just programmed that in. We did 10 minute takes of each different kind of version and linked them all together. The problem was in knowing they'd be the right way around and wouldn't be too boring for people. With one particular part there's this guitar going off into a heavy rock thing which would sound crass if we left it. So we put it through an effect going backwards at the same time which takes the guitar hero part out of it. Due to the joys of editing you can get it all in time. Now, one thing The Orb has shown the nation is that there's a hell of a lot of people out there who enjoy things other than drink."
Of course, The Orb's music works very well sober, which is the real test. Paterson is aware of the global impact of what he and Thrash have done. He talks about being in Goa India last year, hearing The Orb on a ghetto blaster. He recalls walking down a street in Japan, hearing 'Higher Than The Sun' (the Orb-produced Primal Scream track) beaming out of a street speaker. "Yeah, they've got TVs in the bus stops, and speakers too. I thought, 'what's going on. Here you can wait for a bus, look at TV, and listen to Primal Scream."
I tell Paterson that I've been listening to The Byrds two acid rock albums, Younger Than Yesterday and Notorious Byrd Brothers, a lot recently. Both are chock full of electronics, the second one from 1968 being a kind of electronic suite. Just how McGuinn got those sounds in 1967 is beyond me. One track in particular, 'Space Odyssey', sounds just like The Orb with its water drop sound swinging from one speaker to the other. Could Dr Alex and Thrash do what they do with 1960s equipment?
"Probably not. It would take an awful long time and be more worn out. Believe it or not we still don't have a studio together, yet we've had a pretty successful string of albums. We just don't seem to be getting the money! If we got £100,000 for getting a number one album, or £50,000 for getting a Q award then it'd be great. Anyway, the studio is vaguely in the making, and right now we're living off remixing and my work as a DJ."
Why do you use so many different studios, rather than sticking to just one?
"Well, we like Marcus because of the engineer here, Tim Hunt. It's keyboard city at Bunk/Junk, and Matrix has a great live room. I play keyboards now and again. We're only at the early stages of getting the studio together in Thrash's house, and we've still got all this material we've been working on since last year to finish. The new album will feature minimal playing, with a single note triggering loads of instruments and sounds. We'll be also trying to get a bass player and percussionist for live work."
Though the samples chosen by the Orb are pretty eclectic, they seem to pass on classical music.
"Actually we're really crying out for a classical track. 'Into The Fourth Dimension' used some Vivaldi, a classic piece of violin playing. My album was crackling so I had to buy the CD to make sure I could sample it properly — it's over 100 years old so it's a free sample."
Somehow this genial quiet spoken man seems to be just what the sated rock and pop music scene requires. In the control room things seem to ready for The Orb to start another all-night session which will see them going home to bed just as most of us are getting up for work. What really intrigues, however, is how someone so involved in punk ended up setting the controls for the biggest revival of trip music since the first psychedelic era?
"It was the David Bowie/Eno albums, Low and Heroes, which got me into all the ambient stuff. I'd heard of Roxy's Virginia Plain, but then Eno did so many off-the-wall albums with so many people people that your average teenage kid couldn't get into it. You had to be 21 for his weird kind of thing to go in. I remember hearing Music For Films on the 10th Floor of an industrial complex in the Ruhr and it just struck me down. I was on this tour with Killing Joke. I didn't take the album off for a day and I remember just looking at the Ruhr iron works exploding in the distance as the music went off in the background. The scene seemed to be taking place in the music as well.
"Looking back I really liked what Eno and Fripp did together, particularly on the track 'Heroes'. We'll be working with Fripp for the next album. He actually sent us a DAT of guitar samples for us to use. We'll be taking it much further than 'Evening Star' or 'No Pussyfooting'!
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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