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
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”