Synth City (cover story, The Brag #460)

In 2010 I fled from Playground Weekender clutching a dalek; this dalek belonged to UK dance duo Orbital. Their set had pushed me into a place where this sort of hopped-up thievery was acceptable as a love gesture. I confess this to Phil Hartnoll, the elder of the two brothers who comprise Orbital, and he laughs. “Which dalek? The inflatable one? Excellent … I think you can get ‘em on the internet.” Widely available or not, I still consider this a crime of passion.

Since the release of the first single ‘Chime’ in 1990, Orbital have been pushing ravers and non-ravers alike into similarly blissful states. Now, after disbanding in ‘04 and reforming in ‘09, they are on the cusp of their return to Australia in support of Wonky, their first album in eight years. I spoke to the elder Hartnoll about DJing, dubstep, the changing of the times and the one thing that has proven completely unshakeable: Orbital’s ear for a tune.

“Melody is very important to us. We’re obviously influenced by the dancefloor, but it’s not FOR the dancefloor per se. Dance music tends to be more rhythm based—and so is ours of course—but the melody and harmony is very, very important for that sort of ‘mm!’ moment. And if you don’t get that, it’s not working.”

So might the brothers have ended up writing pop music? “We were very interested in the electronic sound, from a very early age,” Phil clarifies. “The synthesiser is a palette of noise, really, and you can just make up sounds you’ve never heard before. We love that side of things. So it’s a combination of [loving that sound] and just [wanting to make] nice music.”

Both halves of that equation—the technical and the creative—are represented in the brothers’ symbiotic partnership. “Everything’s a discussion,” says Hartnoll. “We sit in the studio and discuss absolutely everything. Paul does a lot of the actual pen to paper … he’s the nerd, and I’m the rebellious one.” Sort of a left-brain versus right-brain thing, perhaps? “It’s a bit like that yeah. He’s very technical and I’m more emotional. And it sort of just works.”

In a live setting, Orbital take to the stage surrounded by dozens of vintage analogue synths, wearing iconic torch glasses that serve the split function of allowing them to see what they’re doing and making them look like groovy robot aliens. The Hartnolls respond to the energy of audiences and improvise changes in their songs, resulting in a calibre of spontaneous performance that’s rare among dance acts. “If the audience is enjoying the piece we can extend it, take bits away, bring them back, muck around, jam with the arrangement,” Phil explains. “The audience definitely plays a large part in how we play.”

This feedback loop contributed to the the track ‘Beelzedub’, a halftime, dubstepified version of Orbital’s live staple ‘Satan’ that made it onto Wonky. “We went out DJing before recording [the album],” Phil tells me, “testing our demos to see how they were going. Before that I was doing it by myself, to get my enthusiasm back. There’s nothing better than other people’s music to inspire you. But then my brother came on board and we demoed a lot of the tracks we were intending for the album, which is great—we’d never done that before. The dubstep thing came out of playing ‘Satan’ live. You gotta love the fat sound of the dubstep thing—we really enjoyed that—so we remixed Satan and added that bass sound to it. People enjoyed it so much that it convinced us to put it on the album. At its core, it’s a live thing.”

The Hartnolls’ ongoing enthusiasm for the music scene has provided them with a long list of collaborators, including this album’s guest vocalists Zola Jesus (“We heard her and it was like ‘bang!’”) and Lady Leshurr (“She came in one day before we finished recording.”). 13 years ago they worked on the soundtrack to The Beach with Angelo Badalamenti, whose washes of beautiful electronica are so iconic in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. “That was great fun. We didn’t see any synthesisers, though we did see him lay down some music with the orchestra in London, which was a great experience.”

I also have to ask about Kraftwerk, whom they remixed for the Expo 2000 compilation. “Oh God, I was going to shit myself. I don't even know how that came about … it’s not one of the best tracks to remix [laughs] but it was really scary. It was just another time in my career where it's like ‘Jesus I never thought THIS was gonna happen!’” Alas, it proved too much for them to even meet their Germanic heroes in person. “I spoke to Ralf on the phone,” says Hartnoll. “My brother was too scared. We were very immature about it.”

Despite the numerous technological advances in the 22 years since Orbital began—and the arrival of things like dubstep for them to wink at—very little has changed in their approach, even with iPads replacing the older sequencers. “The iPads are basically just remote controls. We used to have sequencers with 24 buttons; when you want the bass drum, that’s button one, snare drum is number two, that sort of thing. Now we use Ableton. The computer takes the place of the sampler with all our clips on it, while the iPad has the MIDI clips that send the messages out to the synthesisers surrounding us so we can manipulate the sound and add effects as it’s going out. The method hasn’t changed at all. Just the buttons.”

Most importantly, the drive behind Orbital’s creative output is the same as ever.  “When we sit down to write, I’m just looking to bring out an emotion that I’m feeling at the time,” says Hartnoll. “I might go in angry or sad or whatever, but trying to catch that is the important thing. You don’t know whether anybody else is gonna get it when they hear it, and it’s always fantastic when someone comes up and tells you what a track means to THEM. That’s the connection that I’m looking for.”

After two decades and with one hiatus behind them, where is it going for Orbital? “I’m really enjoying it. We’ve got so much down, been welcomed back and there are lots of people driving us forward. The only way is up, baby!”