The Hart­noll brothers are back with new al­bum Mon­sters Ex­ist. We catch up with them in their Brighton stu­dio

For more than 25 years, Or­bital have been one of dance mu­sic’s most orig­i­nal, in­flu­en­tial and pi­o­neer­ing forces. Danny Turner chats to Paul and Phil Hart­noll about the record­ing of the new al­bum Mon­sters Ex­ist

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

Fig­ure­heads for Eng­land’s bur­geon­ing ’90s rave scene, Or­bital gar­nered no­to­ri­ety and crit­i­cal ac­claim for their twin self-ti­tled (Green and Brown) de­but al­bums. The band’s land­mark show at Glas­ton­bury in 1994 pro­pelled dance mu­sic into the main­stream, cre­at­ing a point of no re­turn. Fur­ther al­bums such as

Snivil­i­sa­tion and In Sides de­liv­ered rapid com­mer­cial suc­cess.

How­ever, by the turn of the cen­tury the brothers’ pop­u­lar­ity had waned and their per­sonal re­la­tion­ship had frac­tured. So much so, they re­fused to speak to each for five years. As Paul drifted into the world of sound­track and Phil fo­cused on DJing, Or­bital’s fu­ture looked grim. It took an olive branch and a tri­umphant gig at the Blue­dot fes­ti­val for them to re­solve their dif­fer­ences and re­turn to the stu­dio, re­sult­ing in the im­pend­ing re­lease of their ninth stu­dio al­bum, Mon­sters Ex­ist.

It’s great to have Or­bital back again. Did your re­cent split re­volve around the mu­sic-mak­ing process or busi­ness pres­sures out­side of that?

Paul: “Much more busi­ness than per­sonal; we’ve never ac­tu­ally had a prob­lem with our mu­si­cal dif­fer­ences. They’ve been there, but I never saw them as a prob­lem. When things are a pain in the arse and there’s fric­tion, it’s not nice. Those peo­ple who say fric­tion is ben­e­fi­cial to a band are peo­ple that aren’t in one. I can prom­ise them, if they were in a band they wouldn’t see it like that. Dis­agree­ments are some­thing you have to nav­i­gate, whether you have four peo­ple or two – or you’re brothers. The clashes with my brother were on a stupid level: ‘Why aren’t you do­ing as much as me?’ and ‘Why are you late?’”

Once you and Paul had de­cided to work again, did you sud­denly find that, cre­atively-speak­ing, the break was ac­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial?

Phil: “I’d say the ideas are just start­ing to come out now. I was very cau­tious after not hav­ing any com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Paul what­so­ever – all I cared about was get­ting my brother back and break­ing the non com­mu­ni­cado. It got to a point where play­ing live was not en­joy­able and you tend to get in­hib­ited if you take things too se­ri­ously, but now it’s back to be­ing a bit of a laugh and all the skele­tons have been put back in the closet.”

The au­di­ence only sees the end prod­uct; does that be­lie all the ef­fort and con­flict that goes into the mu­sic-mak­ing process?

Paul: “It’s a young per­son’s game, but the older you get the more you re­alise how lucky you are to be do­ing what you’re do­ing. Writ­ing mu­sic is a thing that I wanted to do to avoid get­ting a job. But of course, it is a job and, like you say, it’s hard work. Any­one who writes any­thing, whether it’s a novel or an al­bum, when you ask them what part of the process they love, they usu­ally say ‘fin­ish­ing’. When you’re ac­tu­ally writ­ing, it’s a kind of John Le Bap­tiste-like mad­ness, but also quite med­i­ta­tive.”

What part of the pro­duc­tion process makes you want to pack up for the day?

Paul: “When the doubt creeps in, that’s when it’s prob­a­bly time to stop. But I don’t find it that frus­trat­ing, be­cause I’ve got a room with way too many syn­the­sis­ers. I feel like Nigel Tufnel from

Spinal Tap. It’s crazy, but it’s also pure in­dul­gence. Play­ing live is when it gets com­pli­cated and frus­trat­ing, be­cause the irony is that to get it to sound as loose as you want to, it has to be quite com­plex un­der­neath. But re­ally, this is a dream job.”

As an es­tab­lished band, is no longer hav­ing that hunger for com­mer­cial suc­cess a ben­e­fit or a draw­back?

Phil: “I don’t even think about that. I’m not the 9 to 5 type; that’s Paul’s bag all day long. He never used to be like that; we used to get so stoned the night be­fore that his tim­ing was the same as mine. We’d trot into the stu­dio and stay there un­til we’d had enough, which could be un­til the next morn­ing. Paul got into a regime when he had chil­dren, which suits him. Now, he’ll go down in the morn­ing and get on with stuff and I’ll come in and ir­ri­tate him. We also have Steve Dub around a cou­ple of days a week. At the mo­ment, we’re pol­ish­ing up sam­ples from all the old tracks and will prob­a­bly re-record them for a re­lease next year that we’re call­ing

Or­bital30, and I also want to do an­other al­bum.”

Your early in­flu­ences are many, but are you in­flu­enced by mod­ern elec­tronic mu­sic?

Paul: “Not re­ally. I have to say I find it very dis­ap­point­ing. I don’t find there are many peo­ple do­ing any­thing that makes me ex­cited. If I want to in­dulge in the Ra­dio­phonic Workshop part of my brain I can en­joy Autechre or Aphex Twin, and if I want emo­tion I might turn to artists like Plaid, but they’re all old-school guys who have been around for nearly as long as we have. I like what Jon Hop­kins does; his new al­bum has some very in­ter­est­ing sound sculpt­ing go­ing on. I sup­pose I keep lis­ten­ing be­cause I’m look­ing for a val­ley in the cul­tural land­scape; some­thing that isn’t be­ing done. The last thing that in­spired me was the whole dub­step thing, where peo­ple changed the styling and tempo of dance mu­sic and opened up a whole new set of grooves.”

Is the prob­lem that tech­nol­ogy has al­ways been a big driver of elec­tronic mu­sic, and it’s much harder to cre­ate a new sound now than when you first started?

Paul: “I know what you’re say­ing. We’re def­i­nitely all look­ing for sounds and there’s only so much that you can pluck out of the air. We’ve cer­tainly done a lot of ex­plo­ration since ma­chines be­came cheap enough for any­one to play with, which was around the late’ 80s. You take Are‘ Friends’ Elec­tric? by Gary

Nu­man. When I saw that on TOTP, it blew me away. But if Gary Nu­man sat down on a piano and played it, it would still be a good song. It’s the gild­ing of the lily that it sounded fan­tas­tic, cold and synth-driven, but it wasn’t just about that, it was about the song. I find that a lot of peo­ple nowa­days think that mak­ing the ‘right’ sounds is enough, but it isn’t. Where’s the ac­tual song?”

We were in­ter­ested to read that you buy more hard­ware gear now than you used to. Is it the tac­tile el­e­ment that in­trigues you or the tim­bre?

Paul: “It’s both of those things but, more im­por­tantly, I some­times find my­self in a white box star­ing at a com­puter screen. If you’d have asked me if I wanted to do that for the rest of my life, the an­swer would have cat­e­gor­i­cally have been ‘no’; I didn’t plan on be­ing a com­puter pro­gram­mer. When you use hard­ware, you stand up, walk around the room and lis­ten rather than look­ing. For me, that’s when ideas form and songs hap­pen in a more nat­u­ral way. If I turn on one of my big old blun­der­buss ana­logue synths and do a bassline, I’m go­ing to start record­ing, tweak it and sud­denly the mod­u­la­tions start cre­at­ing th­ese nat­u­ral move­ments that I didn’t in­tend. That in­flu­ences the way you layer the next synth. It’s like cre­at­ing a river of sound that me­an­ders, which just doesn’t hap­pen if you stick to soft­ware. But there’s noth­ing wrong with soft­ware.”

So what part does soft­ware play in your record­ing process?

Paul: “I’ve just been liv­ing the dream sat in my gar­den with my lap­top plugged into a mini-speaker and com­pos­ing. When I’ve got an ar­range­ment ready, I’ll take it all down the stu­dio and bust it out on my big old ana­logues. I sup­pose the soft­ware is my pen­cil and pa­per be­fore I go in the stu­dio and con­struct it prop­erly. It’s not how I al­ways work, but I was al­ways jeal­ous of gui­tarists who wrote songs on a tour bus, and now I can do that too. And the lap­top’s smaller than an acous­tic, so it’s a win-win.”

The al­bum ti­tle is Mon­sters Ex­ist, with track ti­tles like Tiny Fold­able Cities – are th­ese po­lit­i­cal state­ments?

Paul: “I’d say, they’re po­lit­i­cal ear­worms and more mis­chievous. Tiny Fold able Cities con­jures up lots of things for me: a 1950s Or­wellian vi­sion of the fu­ture, but also card­board cities in Water­loo. I find it thought-pro­vok­ing and want peo­ple to take what they want from it. The track’s quite beau­ti­ful but does have a som­bre mid-sec­tion. With Mon­sters

Ex­ist, what we’re not say­ing is who the mon­sters are. If you asked me in the pub what I think of Brexit I’ll tell you it’s fuck­ing stupid, but I’m not say­ing that on the record be­cause I don’t want to in­tim­i­date half the coun­try.”

Phil: “With the cur­rent state of af­fairs and the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate in the UK, what Or­bital are re­ally con­cerned about is sim­i­lar to what we did on

Snivil­i­sa­tion. I’m en­joy­ing the cover art with John Green­wood and re­vis­it­ing what he’s done be­fore with us. As an al­bum, it’s been re­ally en­joy­able putting it to­gether. The next sin­gle re­lease, PHUK

–Please Help the UK, is a lit­tle dance tune, hark­ing back to the world of bleep. The video’s very ’80s, with peo­ple sleep­ing rough – it’s an ironic, tongue-in-cheek look at the state of the coun­try.”

Have you al­ways needed th­ese con­cepts to give you a theme to work around?

Paul: “It’s not nec­es­sary, but some­times it’s en­joy­able. Snivil­i­sa­tion was one of those al­bums, but In­sides and TheMid­dleof Nowhere were not. It’s that old thing of let­ting the book write it­self. Like I said, you do some mod­u­la­tions and if it feels good that in­forms the mu­si­cal di­rec­tion. This al­bum started off with Mon­ster­sEx­ist, and it felt like the open­ing piece of mu­sic to a Panorama doc­u­men­tary and a good an­gle to go on.”

“When you use hard­ware, you stand up, walk around the room and lis­ten”

Phil, what was your role in the cre­ation of Mon­sters Ex­ist?

Phil: “It was made from a lot of bits and bobs that Paul had. There are no de­fined roles in the band, although Paul was dom­i­nant in the stu­dio in this case be­cause he had a lot of demos ly­ing around. The next al­bum will be very dif­fer­ent, be­cause we’ve never worked as well with some­one as we have with Steve Dub who, just by be­ing around, is able to

process drums and do things son­i­cally to the sound that help with the mix­ing stage.”

So in the past, have you tended to mix ev­ery­thing as a duo and keep out­siders away from that process?

Phil: “No, we used Flood on Wonky. On the Brown al­bum, we wrote and mixed with Mickey Mann, who started off be­ing The Shamen’s front of house man be­fore we stole him. We worked in a lit­tle stu­dio in Shored­itch, half­way up the stairs – and that worked out al­right. Ac­tu­ally, Steve re­minds me of Mickey a lot in the way his ears work, and the fact that they both don’t stop talk­ing.”

The track The Raid is bril­liant and has a very filmic sound. It’s rare we hear movie sam­ples in songs th­ese days due to clear­ance, but pre­sum­ably that’s not been an is­sue for you?

Paul: “No, be­cause we’ll prob­a­bly make fuck-all from the al­bum, so I don’t mind if they take half of fuck-all [ laughs]. I left get­ting those sam­ples cleared in the hands of my man­ager, but they’re pretty ob­scure. We got away with loads of sam­ples in the past, but peo­ple don’t buy records any­more, and that’s okay be­cause they go and see live gigs. I’m still earn­ing money from some­thing that I love do­ing, so noth­ing’s changed.”

You used Sound Dust’s Ships Piano on that track, which is a Kon­takt in­stru­ment…

Paul: “The guy at Sound Dust, Pen­dle Poucher, makes th­ese re­ally de­tailed sam­ple sets that are par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing. My in­ter­est started off with his Dul­ci­tone and Grand Thrift au­to­harp vir­tual in­stru­ments, which I used all the time. Iron­i­cally, after chat­ting to him a bit on­line and try­ing things out, he’s ended up in the same stu­dio com­plex as me. He finds un­usual in­stru­ments, does deep sam­pling on them and makes a lot of ef­fort to sam­ple all the me­chan­i­cal noise as well, which you can bend in and out. From or­ganic source ma­te­rial, he makes them sound like syn­the­sis­ers in them­selves be­cause he adds tons of con­trol into his Kon­takt in­ter­faces. The Ships Piano is based on an old Vic­to­ri­ana piano that would have been on a ship and it just sounds great. It’s re­ally pli­able and has a beau­ti­ful tone. Some­times I’ll knock the piano part out and keep the me­chan­i­cal bit, which sounds like a re­ally in­ter­est­ing clock­work hi-hat. All of his sounds are like that, which makes them so in­ter­est­ing.”

Will you tend to use hard­ware for beat-mak­ing or ven­ture into the box?

Paul: “They come from all over the place. I use Elek­tron drum ma­chines, but in the box my two go-to com­po­si­tional tools for beat-mak­ing are Sonic Charge’s Mi­cro­tonic VST and Na­tive In­stru­ment’s Mas­sive. Mi­cro­tonic has got this sim­ple but re­ally punchy sound to it. I’ve also cre­ated my own sam­ple set from go­ing to Ne­whaven Fort. I’ll spend the day record­ing stuff on a field recorder, like fire bucket hang­ers, metal rods and hand rails that go 200 feet into a big

tun­nel. I’ll get foot­steps and hand­claps from th­ese mas­sive re­verbed spa­ces, keep all of those to hand and use them ex­ten­sively for the more in­ter­est­ing per­cus­sion sounds. In the past, I’d only use Roland-909 and R8 drum ma­chines, but nowa­days I drift all over the place. I do like real noises and en­joy the thrill of chop­ping a break­beat to bits and do­ing some weird tun­ing.”

Can you also elab­o­rate on your use of the SeekBeats app?

Paul: “It’s a fan­tas­tic drum ma­chine app for your phone – if it was a hard­ware drum ma­chine peo­ple would be go­ing on about it for­ever. It was one of the first beats I did for the track Tiny Fold­able Cities, and lo and be­hold I de­cided to keep it. I can’t re­mem­ber if I ex­ported the WAV files from it, but know­ing me I used a mi­cro­phone jack and ran it from my phone into the desk and recorded it. There’s some­thing about putting sounds through all those dif­fer­ent things that warms it up or changes it.”

Do you process ev­ery­thing through out­board if you can?

Paul: “Usu­ally. We’re us­ing our old Mi­das Venice, which used to be our live desk. You can drive it hot if you want, but I’ll tend to go by whether it’s sound­ing nice or not rather than over­think­ing the gain struc­ture. That will then go through an Apogee in­ter­face and into Able­ton.”

How long have you been us­ing Able­ton?

Paul: “I went from us­ing C-Lab Cre­ator to Logic 9, then when Logic 10 came out I was am­bidex­trous be­tween that and Able­ton. It was only when I started do­ing the score for Peaky Blin­ders that I found my­self drift­ing to­wards Able­ton be­cause the pieces lacked com­plex­ity and suited a DAW that had time-stretch­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Able­ton beats any­thing I know for mak­ing stuff fit, both in terms of sound and ease of use.”

The track Mon­sters Ex­ist fea­tures Oli Larkin’s Vir­tu­alCZ soft­ware. What im­presses you about that?

Paul: “I’ve al­ways been a fan of the Ca­sio CZ synth ever since I was 18 and got a CZ-101 on loan from some­one. Later, I got my­self a CZ-1 synth for £40, but when the Vir­tu­alCZ came out it was great. The soft­ware ver­sion has things in it that aren’t in the hard­ware, like loop­ing en­velopes, that just tip it over the edge for func­tion­al­ity. It’s weird and not a daily synth, but when I get into it, I won­der why I don’t use it more of­ten.”

You use the Ma­trixBrute on a lot of your tracks too. What is it you like about that in­stru­ment?

Phil: “It’s a quirky lit­tle fucker and we used it a lot on the al­bum. It’s full of char­ac­ter due its os­cil­la­tors, fil­ters and the Me­tal­izer, but Paul’s the synth-head. I of­ten suf­fer from the paral­y­sis of choice and think more about the char­ac­ter­is­tic of the sound we’re after. Paul’s re­ally good at play­ing synths, like the Mac­Beth M5n semi-mod­u­lar; he’s all over it and starts jam­ming around and go­ing crazy on it. It’s

made by Ken Mac­Beth up in Scot­land, who is one of the most won­der­ful char­ac­ters you’ll ever meet.”

You don’t sound as if you’re as much of a gear-head as Paul…

Phil: “How many syn­the­sis­ers does it take to make a track? I dip my toe in and out. Your magazine is highly re­spected be­cause it’s been around for ages. I have prob­lems read­ing any­way, so I won’t bother read­ing man­u­als. I’m play­ing it down a lit­tle bit, but my brother’s all over it. If I had a stu­dio it wouldn’t look like that, so it’s fan­tas­tic that we’ve got a shared stu­dio. Th­ese days, I pre­fer the DJing side of things and putting sets to­gether.”

Paul, we’ve read that your wife of­ten gets in­volved when it comes to your demo tracks…

Paul: “Oh, al­ways – nor­mally over a bot­tle of beer on a Fri­day night. When it comes to our mu­sic she doesn’t pull her punches. I played her a track and she told me I need an old Speak & Spell-type of thing on it. When we first got a Mac, around the time of the In­sides al­bum, I dis­cov­ered this speech thing that we used to lark around with, es­pe­cially if you put the wrong pa­ram­e­ters into it. We called one of the voices Sulky Su­san, but I couldn’t down­load the scripts for Ap­ple voices on­line, so I found some old DATs, put the sound into PaulStretch, and it just be­came this beau­ti­ful, heav­enly choir.”

How do you trans­late the stu­dio sound to the live stage?

Phil: “We al­ready use Able­ton as a writ­ing tool, so the com­puter is the brain of it. It took over as our sam­pler, be­cause we had to scale down things to make it eas­ier to fly. That means we can’t take big items like the Mac­Beth on the road very of­ten. Oth­er­wise, Paul uses two Lemurs on the iPad, which al­lows him to trig­ger what­ever he wants on Able­ton. That could be a loop, a sam­ple, a soft synth, or send­ing MIDI trig­gers out to what­ever hard­ware we have on stage, whether it’s the Prophet X, Ac­cess Virus, the No­va­tion Bass Sta­tion or the Roland-303. We’ve also got a new synth from No­va­tion called the Peak, which is a re­ally quirky sound mod­ule.”

What’s the sig­nal chan­nel to front of house?

Phil: “We used to carry a mix­ing desk around with us, but now we’ll use a vir­tual mixer con­trolled by three con­trol pads with sliders, so all the in­di­vid­u­als parts, whether it’s bass, drums or hi-hats, are bro­ken down on th­ese chan­nels and we can play with all the ef­fects. It’s all con­nected via Able­ton; then the sound comes out of there and through th­ese D2A con­vert­ers on 32 in­di­vid­ual chan­nels to the front of house guys. It’s more like a proper band setup; even the soft synths are on in­di­vid­ual chan­nels, and that al­lows us to im­pro­vise the struc­ture of the songs and jam if we want.”

Will you test tracks out live?

Phil: “Yeah, we have started to do that ac­tu­ally. We did it with one of the songs called Copen­hagen, which we re­leased last year. We started play­ing that live be­fore we recorded it, which re­ally helped. We’ve got a lot of gigs com­ing up, so we can test out new al­bum tracks there or dur­ing DJ sets and af­ter­show par­ties. Fun­nily enough, I don’t like live record­ings or watch­ing live gigs. It’s a bit like sport; I like play­ing it but not watch­ing it.”

Some peo­ple like the pu­rity of elec­tronic mu­sic, which doesn’t al­ways trans­late well live…

Phil: “Yeah, I can’t get into it ei­ther. Although live record­ings can sound good when you do a DJ set, be­cause it’s a bit more pump­ing, things de­velop and there’s no crowd be­cause it’s straight off the mix­ing desk. No­body’s ever heard them be­fore ei­ther, un­less they were at that gig. But we did Glas­ton­bury in ’94, which is when we re­alised peo­ple could dig you twid­dling knobs and push­ing faders out­doors on stage, which was bril­liant. The elec­tronic tree’s got to keep grow­ing!”

“At Glas­ton­bury ’94 we saw peo­ple could dig you twid­dling knobs out­doors on stage”

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