ORBiting Down Under

Going through all my old writing files, I found an article I was commissioned to write for The Buzz music magazine in 1997 (back in the day when I was a music reviewer/journalist – yep, I did that too), which I thought was worth sharing here – mainly because it was one of the biggest interviews I did in my early career and it was with Andy Hughes of UK group, The Orb, whom I’m somewhat a fan of. So, here it is again for your reading pleasure …

ORBiting Down Under
November 1997 (Feature Article, The Buzz Magazine – Melbourne)
By Sally McLean

The Orb are due in Oz with their complete “bells and whistles” show for Melbourne’s Starbate Festival. The Buzz’s Features’ writer, Sally McLean, got into a long-distance téte a téte with band member, Andy Hughes, to find out what makes this ground-breaking group tick.

The Orb. Satirical, quirky, philosophical, space-age, avant-garde, neo-classical, irreverent, (insert any descriptive verb you like here) and remarkably, very funny. Having swept the UK and USA by storm, UK club music pioneers, The Orb, are about to hit Aussie shores, appearing in Melbourne at the Starbate Festival in January, with a show that promises to be an experience of epic proportions.

I had a chat with band member, Andy Hughes, in an laugh-a-minute phone call, about their impending visit. “We’re touring Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, everywhere, something like 5 shows in 12 days, which I’m really looking forward to, as this is our first tour of Oz. Alex (Paterson – core member) was out there DJ-ing a couple of times this year, but it’s the first time for me.”

For the uninitiated, The Orb are a collaborative unit, created back in early ’88 by Alex Paterson. Alex, (who was then working for Brian Eno’s label, EG, as an A&R man), teamed up with Jimi Cauty (of later The KLF fame), and produced “The Kiss EP”, consisting purely of samples from New York’s KISS FM station mixed with, as one reviewer put it, “anarchic artfulness”. The EP was then released on Waul Mr Modo label – a joint venture created by Alex, Youth and Mr Modo.

Following this, according to one story, Alex and Jimi were driving home from a rave on Brighton Beach (that’s Brighton, England), when an idea hit them. What if they mixed an old soul ballad and natural sounds with a beat, and then added the backing melodies from say, Grace Jones “Slave to the Rhythm”? As soon as they arrived at Jimi’s Transcentral Studio, they hit the mixers and recorded “Loving You” on an hour long DAT tape.

And the ambient/house music scene was born.

Their development of ambient music truly revolutionized the scene, transforming it from New Age to the anthem of acid house kids everywhere. Described as “virtual drugs”, they took this new form and gave it a public unveiling at London nightclub, Heaven, when they were invited to DJ in the chill-out room for Paul Oakenfold’s “Land of Oz” club. Prominent DJ’s all over England championed “Loving You” as the first ‘post-rave’ track – music to chill-out to – and The Orb went on to be the barrier-breakers of the ever changing club music scene.

After reworking “Loving You” – retitled “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld” (with samples of Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Loving You’, waves, jet sounds, soundbites, bells – the list goes on) – they released it as their next single (again on the Waul Mr Modo label), with “Ambient House for the E Generation” stamped across the back. Jimi Cauty then left to work with Bill Drummond on The KLF, and Youth entered the picture as collaborator. They released “Little Fluffy Clouds”, which became a club classic, and the band’s debut album “The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld” (1991) began to take form. Other artists, Thomas Fehlmann and Kris ‘Thrash’ Weston, among others, joined Youth and Alex (who was still working full time), and the momentum of the band was off and running.

“The Orb’s Adventure’s Beyond The Ultraworld” was released to incredible critical acclaim. In typical Brit avant-garde fashion, they launched this latest offering by putting journalists in float tanks and ‘blasting’ the complete album at them. It charted in the UK top 30 – the album cover depicting a parody on Pink Floyd’s “Animals”, using the Battersea Power Station and flying sheep (a double tribute to Pink Floyd and Alex’s home turf, Battersea). At this point, Alex decided it was time to give up his full time job and concentrate on The Orb’s next album.

Their third album “UFOrb” (1992) unquestionably put them on the map, going straight to No. 1 in the UK charts – finally showing they had commercial as well as cultural appeal. Their top ten single “The Blue Room” – the alien abduction saga – ran a marathon 39 minutes, 58 seconds, and had people questioning what length of music constituted a single or an album (again challenging the perception of music within the industry). They capped this success with an appearance on BBC Television’s “Top of the Pops”, where they sat on stage, flooded with laser light, playing chess.

They began making live appearances incorporating videos, lights, sound, DJ’s and live musicians, which toured around the UK, Europe and the USA. They decided to sign with Island Records, while Alex DJ-ed around the world between gigs and working on the next album, appearing in Russia, New Zealand, America, Australia, South America and Japan (he once did Auckland and San Francisco in the same day!). The band also became known for their remixes of other artists’ work, including Primal Scream, KLF, Dave Stewart, Erasure, Depeche Mode, BAD II, The Cranberries and Lisa Stansfield, amongst others.

Kris Weston departed from the group after the release of “Pomme Fritz – The Orb’s Little Album” (1994) and “Orbvus Terrarvm” (1995) (which has been hailed as their “most eloquent and realized work”, and finally broke the band into the tough USA market). At this point, Andy Hughes, who had been their sound engineer, came to work with Alex in a collaborative capacity. Joining them again was Thomas Fehlmann, and they released “Orblivion” in March 1997.

I asked Andy about the concepts for the albums: “It doesn’t start with a concept – I think that’s a really trite term ‘concept’ – it went out with “Pink Floyd”, (chuckle) but everyone still uses it. The albums come from things you don’t actually think about, you know, we try out some things and something comes out of it from somewhere, while we’re not thinking about it – which is probably why I walk into lamp posts all the time.” (laugh)

But all the tracks seem to say something, then turn it into a giggle – the sense of humour is very strong. “Yes, it’s about having a laugh. It’s a form of escape. People listen to the tracks and they get what they get from it – they can really think about it or not, but at the end it’s just “ha ha” you thought it was all gloom and doom, but it’s not really! (chuckle) I can’t listen to people who take themselves too seriously.”

My personal favourite from “Orblivion” is “Secrets” at 5 minutes 40 seconds, which is a big change in length from “The Blue Room”. The sound of the album has a new feel too – a heavier, fuller sound. “It’s always changing. This new style just came about through experimentation. With the latest album, as we’re known for exceedingly long tracks, we’d put together a track and then have to cut it down, then we’d be ‘Christ, we can’t take that out – we really like it!’ So we kept our own album versions to listen to at home.” (chuckle)

What about the remixes for other artists? Is it something The Orb will continue? “If we have time. We’ve been to America three times this year, so really, it’s if we have the time. It’s a form of escape for us, re-mixing, it’s good fun because, well, we don’t care!” (laugh)

The Orb are known to collaborate with various artists – they are currently working with DJ Witchman on their forthcoming album – what do they look for in a musical collaborator? “It’s about their personality, who they are rather than what they do, if you know what I mean. Witchman is a lovely guy – there’s a real affinity with him. The other person we have a real affinity with is our roadie – I mean how many 50 year olds with dreadlocks are there?”

Thomas Fehlmann worked on the last album, will he be out here as well? “Thomas won’t be coming out with us this time. He DJ-ed for us in Europe, or ‘playing records and CD’s’ as he calls it, but he’s into a lot of other projects, and touring like this takes months out your schedule.”

Are they looking forward to coming out to the Starbate Festival? “Yeah, they changed the name (of the festival), it used to be The Big Day Out, but everyone called it The Big Day Off so they decided to go with another name! (laugh) Really, I can’t wait! When we’re in the States, people will come up to talk to us and ask ‘what part of Australia are you from?’ And we say, ‘no, we’re English’. It’s weird, I mean, it’s like ‘what is it about us that everyone thinks we’re from Australia?’ So I can’t wait to actually get out there and see it for myself.”

Andy’s call-waiting function on his phone had been beeping for most of our conversation, he had seven more interviews to do and it was already 11pm, UK time. So last question: What can Australian audiences expect from The Orb – live? “An event, a real ‘show’. I’m really looking forward to it.” And so are we.

If you can’t wait until January to hear The Orb – grab a copy of “Orblivion” (Polygram), available from HMV, or any good record store. I highly recommend it. Make sure you’re in a safe, comfortable place and with friends – it really is like “virtual drugs” – a vast, busy landscape, scattered with an oasis of humour every few miles. It’s a cerebral feast of fun that washes over and around you with waves of drum beats and a mishmash of sound, that, strangely, seems to make biting sense (and is frequently a bloody good giggle!).

The Starbate Festival is on January 24th 1998 at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne from 2 to 11pm, and also includes performances from The Prodigy, Black Grape, Regurgitator, Death in Vegas and Sonic Animation, to name but a few. For tickets call Ticketmaster on 11500.

Thanks to Polygram, Sheridan and Ken at HMV – Bourke Street and Aki Omori (and Andy Hughes for the most entertaining phone conversation I’ve had at 9.30 on a Saturday morning!)

© S. McLean 1997

Postscript (June 2009):

It was with great sadness that I heard of Andy’s passing on June 12th, 2009 after a short illness.  His contribution to not just British, but international music will be missed, but he will never be forgotten.  Thank you Andy, for the music and the laughter x

The Orb's Alex Patterson with Andy Hughes
The Orb’s Alex Patterson with Andy Hughes

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