The Orb survived a barrage of legal wrangles, financial upsets and personnel changes to deliver their latest collection of Ambient musical adventures. Mark J. Prendergast gets the word from the group's founder, Alex Paterson.
Amazingly, it's exactly two years since I sat down with Dr. Alex Paterson in Marcus Studios to talk about the rich history and future adventures of his ingenious electronic music vehicle, The Orb. Back then, he had just returned from trips to the Far East and Morrocco and was full of new rhythmic possibilities for The Orb sound. His partner, Kris 'Thrash' Weston, was busy mixing a spacey dub track called 'Plateau' and experimenting with a customised Westward Electronics MIDI controlled filter system. Both men were considering making an album to rival Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, to be titled 'The Seven Wonders Of The World'. Everything seemed to be open, everything seemed to be possible...
However, things started to change and what once seemed easy in the wake of No.1 chart albums and hit singles, began to be dogged by ill‑luck and negative press coverage. After 1992's tightly constructed smash hit, U.F.Orb, came works of sprawling experimentation, like Pomme Fritz in 1994. Everybody was waiting for the 'Wonders' mega‑opus but The Orb became embroiled in legal tangles as they detached themselves from Big Life and signed to Island Records. If that weren't enough, their management company — Wau! Mr Modo — collapsed leaving the duo in some debt. A subsidiary record company, Inter‑Modo, and a recording studio near Battersea all had to go as well. Then in a shock move, Thrash left The Orb in August 1994 after "musical differences" between he and Alex came to a head. All seemed to be lost...
Despite this barrage of troubles, Orb founder Alex Paterson has reconstituted the group and delivered a hugely ambitious new Orb album, entitled Orbvs Terrarvm, housed in a gorgeous sleeve emblazoned with references to 18th century cartography and early celestial maps. The album is a musically dense and exotically produced entwining of dub reggae ideas with the latest electronic possibilities. It is more experimental than U.F.Orb but retains enough of The Orb's special brand of humorous vocal samples and curious timbres to make it entirely their own.
Prior to the group setting off on a six‑month world tour I was granted an interview with the new Orb contingent, at Terminal Studios near London Bridge. After much waiting and wandering around the studio complex in search of Paterson and crew, I eventually find them in a smoke‑filled rehearsal room where the equipment setup looks fairly rockish — there's a large drum kit, owned by new drummer Nick Burton; a number of bass guitars are lying in front of some amps and long‑haired bassist Simon Phillips is thumbing away. To the left, German House musician Thomas Fehlmann is staring at a Macintosh screen. At the back of the room, Alex Paterson and engineer Andy Hughes are busy chatting with friends. I'm swiftly ushered out of the room into an adjoining space to do more waiting. With The Orb you definitely gain the impression that urgency isn't their number one priority!
Eventually Paterson appears, sans his usual beret. The hairline is more receding and the figure more rotund but the twinkle is still in his eye. He immediately starts talking about the new record.
" Orbvs Terrarvm is what we've come up with after two years of hard labour and a lot of changes. There were certain things from the past I wanted to clear up and put in the relevant places. Both 'Valley' and 'Plateau' had appeared on our 1993 live album, and we felt that to give these tracks any credibility we had to have studio mixes of them. Early mixes came out on a Bosnian Save The Children Fund album but I thought the samples could have been done better, could have been covered up and meshed more into the overall sound. Hence the new mixes.
"What with all the problems we've had in the past, every litigation department in the world goes 'Ah, there's a new Orb album out, let's check it out and see if there's any of our samples on it'. We had a lucky break in 1990 with 'Little Fluffy Clouds' and Rickie Lee Jones liking what we did with her voice, but her lawyers took a dim view. They just couldn't see the humour in it."
If Alex seems a tad edgy, it's because of the strain caused by convoluted business affairs. He may also be ruffled by the then early reports that initial music press reaction to Orbvs Terrarvm was far from positive. "It's a serious album. The idea of 'Plateau' was that we went back to the drawing board, took out all the samples and replicated them with other instruments. That worked sufficiently well. There are some vocal samples on the album which we took from a radio station in middle America. When you hear them, you think you are in the lap of the Gods."
Certainly the way many of Orbvs Terrarvm's seven long tracks are prefixed by vocal samples calls to mind The Who's Sell Out album of the late 1960s, where bits of radio jingles and ads suddenly appeared and disappeared between songs.
Paterson continues: "We structured it in such a way that the samples introduce each track. 'Valley' actually opens with the outro to 'Blue Room' and we're like saying here we are back from 1992, as if the live album and Pomme Fritz never happened. Just because we used samples this way on this record doesn't mean we won't go back and use them on a track all the way through again. The whole idea was like dub.
"15 years ago I made up a dub tape of all my favourite reggae records, just using a tape machine and a record player, not using great technology. And in‑between each dub record I put on this story about slugs [the garden pest variety]. It wasn't mixed or anything, just edited on a cassette. A few years ago I played it to a couple of people and they liked it, and I thought there were some brilliant samples on it. The record I used was this old Billy Bobtail 7", which I've lost now."
The fruits of Paterson's creativity can be heard on 'Slug Dub', the album's quirky closing cut, which amusingly samples the Billy Bobtail story of slugs eating up all the lettuces in a garden and sprinkles it through a typical Orb heavy dub mix. Paterson agrees that the whole concept is a lot more down to earth than the previous outer space explorations of Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and U. F. Orb. It's a very terrestrial record and Kris Weston receives a lot of credit for the outcome.
"Kris, as a writer, is all over the record, along with myself and Thomas Fehlmann. 'Valley' is the three of us with Tom Green and Simon Phillips. 'Plateau' is the three of us. 'Oxbow Lakes' is the three of us again, but the piano is mine. I was quite pleased with that. 'Occidental' is a track we started together but which Kris wanted to remix for different projects. There was a lot of friction and Kris walked out of the group at the beginning of the mixing stage [in August 1994]. Then Andy Hughes, Thomas and myself set about mixing.
"Andy actually appears as a writer on 'Montagne D'Or', but Kris couldn't get his head around the idea that it had derived from another track and that the other people involved should get a credit. In the end we gave him a writing credit, because he was in the studio when pedal‑steel guitarist B.J. Cole [famous for his work with David Sylvian and Elton John] was putting his licks down! Kris mixed 'Occidental' and 'Slug Dub' with us but he wasn't involved in the rest of the mixes."
Hmm... There seems to be a lot of residual feeling about this split. Only two years ago Paterson and the baby‑faced Weston were the geniuses of Ambient cool, in a class of their own. Now that's no more. Paterson obviously wants to get something off his chest: "Kris didn't see The Orb as a band, he saw it as us two. I was having a lot of trouble trying to convince him that it was more than that. Even my musical contributions I had trouble convincing him of. 'Oxbow Lakes' is an example of what I could do given the space and time, and that was the last piece of music we ever worked on together. It's quite ironic, because it turned out to be one of the most beautiful pieces of music we ever did. That track was just done in half an hour, but Kris could never get his head around the fact that I would not spend five hours trying to create a sound; it would be sufficient for me to spend an hour and get a sound I liked. Decisions have to be made and Kris never wanted to finish 'Plateau'. He was always putting it on the backburner and starting something else, because he was bored with it. Everybody needs a channel and in The Orb it's me that says 'Let's stop now. Let it end there.'"
Unfortunately Kris 'Thrash' Weston wasn't available for interview but rumours have been circulating around the business that he is fed up with Paterson claiming all the glory for The Orb's sound. In a rare statement, Thrash bitterly exclaimed that Paterson "never did 50% of the work, never came into the damn room."
Yet Dr Alex continues to be philosophical about the situation and maintains that things didn't fall apart when Jimmy Cauty upped and left to join The KLF in 1990. "You see, The Orb is The Orb — we all know that. And it's still The Orb even with all the changes over the last two years. We had a good studio in Battersea which we had to sell, because the management left us with loads of bills. Our production company, Wau! Mr Modo, deceived us and we had a legal battle with Big Life Records. Island is now the record company, Inter‑Innit is now my own record label, and Primal Scream's manager is temporarily taking care of business."
Paterson is happy that the new management have co‑ordinated The Orb's six‑month tour of America, Europe and Japan at the exact same time that Orbvs Terrarvm is released. He sees it as the right way to do things. Under the old regime The Orb had only played one gig in six years in Germany,. "and that's not a very good way to be advised. I'm seeing how things should be done now."
Paterson is still on the go as a DJ. "I never go out and play Orb records when I'm DJ‑ing," he reveals. "That's something more personal." He recalls two recent successful DJ slots — one at The Fuse club in Belgium, where he and Andy Hughes mixed Steve Hillage guitar loops with various new Ambient House and Techno records, and another in the Swiss Alps. "That was amazing. I was really high‑up in the mountains at a 10,000 people rave. There were two big ballrooms, and in one there was 'bang, bang' Techno music and in the other just me playing Ambient records, like Manuel Gottsching's 'E2‑E4', to 2,000 blissfully happy people. You see, after six years I've got the confidence to play what I think is right and not do what anybody else thinks I should do. That's also the way it is with The Orb; a certain je ne sais quoi, where we adapt to our own needs and always surprise people. A lot of the people into Ambient Techno and House will be surprised by the fact that our new album has real drums on it and that there's even a rock track at the end of 'Montagne D'Or'."
Now that Ambient music has become a huge movement in its own right, Paterson doesn't see himself or The Orb as part of anything. His views on Techno are straight to the point: "I'm very fed up with hearing Techno; it's just faceless crap half the time." Yet no matter how the artist sees the world, the world itself places The Orb in the premier league of Ambient music maestros. In terms of sales, even the strange mini‑album Pomme Fritz (with one good trancey track and a lot of peculiar noises) shifted 70,000 copies in the UK alone. Orbvs Terrarvm confirms The Orb's position as geniuses of the trance‑inducing track — where strange loops of sound intersect and dissolve heaven bound, where effects are tossed into a whirpool of sound and allowed to decay in slow motion, where the beat is never far from the surface and all kinds of samples bob up and down along the way. A new double 12" of 'Oxbow Lakes' remixes even features a classical string version.
"I'm becoming quite a classical fanatic," Paterson admits with a wry grin. "I'm a bit of a sponge, when it comes to music. I'm still listening to reggae and still listening to dozens and dozens of 12" records, which I get every week. I still like dance music, and I think what the Mo‑Wax label are doing with Ambient Jungle — with its characteristic slow breakbeats — is quite wonderful. What I'm into now is adding a different tinge to the music I hear. I'm into Kraftwerk but I'm not into taking any synth sounds off Kraftwerk LPs. In a sense, The Orb are now more of a drums and bass band. And when you go through that state where you don't want drums, you can manage to retain that rhythmic feel using other instruments. If something is used for the same purpose as a drum, it doesn't necessarily have to be a drum playing it. And that's the beauty of The Orb, the sense that we are always willing to experiment with something different."
Andy Hughes is a typical long‑haired engineer in his mid‑twenties. He started working with The Orb in 1992 when he helped build their fave London studio Bunk, Junk & Genius. In 1993 he built The Orb's former Battersea studio, which he completed in two months. "Thrash spent the money, I put it together. It was in Clapham and used to be called Joe's Garage. We took over the SSL room that was downstairs. It was a shell, which allowed us to put in what gear we wanted."
"We kept on buying old gear. Classic things like the Mellotron, Wasp, EMS Synthi, Arp Odyssey synths; early Yamaha and Korg keyboards. Equipment dealers kept on ringing us up and getting us to buy something they'd found. One great piece of equipment we found was a DX programmer, an old programmer for the Yamaha DX7 which used pots to instantly access any control on the DX7, and that was quite something.
"We used that on the album with the Oberheim 4‑Voice, which was used extensively on 'Occidental'. For manipulating samples the Roland S750 was fantastic, because the envelopes and filtering on it were great. A lot of the percussion sounds on the album were done using envelopes and filtering on normal sounds, which would end up sounding completely different.
Another important piece of sound processing software featured on Orbvs Terrarvm was GRM Tools [reviewed last month]. This is a digital signal processor plug‑in for Digidesign's ProTools system. Andy: "You put in a stereo sample and it gives you loads of different effects like stuttering and phasing, flanging and amazing pitch‑shifts. There's a doppler effect on the vocal in 'Plateau' that was done on four channels. We got this loop that was in time, put in this doppler effect from GRM Tools that slowed down and sped up again as it came around, and when it looped it was still in time with the track. It was just fantastic!
"The album took six months to record after Thrash left. It was recorded on a Studer A800 and the Alesis ADAT, which were both sync'd up using a Micro Lynx. We mixed it on a 48‑channel Amek Mozart mixing console, which I enjoyed using."
Fehlmann is 37, Swiss‑German and bespectacled. He looks like a smaller version of Robert Fripp, who he says inspired him to become a musician when the two met in Berlin in 1979. Having formed the stylish new wave group Palais Schaumberg in the 1980s, Fehlmann met Alex Paterson in Berlin as the wall came tumbling down. He has contributed to all Orb albums and is an important recording artist for R & S (the famous Belgian Ambient label) under the moniker of Sun Electric.
"I've always been involved in The Orb, but now my role has intensified. I'm a studio musician and not involved in the live side. I love working with computers and the latest software but I'm not brilliant at it. In a way I'm track‑oriented, more musical and always trying to get more of a tune into the track. I also play keyboards, but if something really complex had to be sorted out on the computers, then I'd have to ask Andy.
"This album was different for me. Before, I'd be in Berlin writing something on the computer, then I'd bring it over to London and build it up with Thrash in a studio. This time it was all done in London as a collaborative effort, with me on hand all the time. It was much more like being in a band.
"Our most important keyboard source was the Waldorf Wave, which was excellent fun. It was easy to use and without reading the manual I could get it to produce sounds I'd never heard before. Another interesting sound source was obtained by feeding samples through long effects chains. On the record you hear the samples as well as the sounds derived from them using this technique. In this way you may begin with a sample controlled by a lyrical keyboard melody, but after being put through the effects chain its character is sufficently altered to unhook it from its melodic source. Using this chain technique on samples, you can create more spatial sounds.
"None of us are real players of instruments. We love the music, we love sounds, we love pretty things in a sequence. We know how to work the whole sequence as it's happening, from a computer angle, but not so much on an instrumental basis. We all have different criteria but we are not fussy about our parts. In many ways our work is interactive and random. Nobody is trying to say, 'Oh that's my part, I'd like it louder' as is the case with song‑oriented bands. It's a pretty lengthy process getting tracks created the way we do it and sometimes it doesn't really work out. In 1993 we recorded an Orb track which was so long that it eventually became the album FFWD!"
Written by Kris Weston, Tom Green, Simon Phillips and Alex Paterson. Mixed by Andy Hughes, Fehlmann and Paterson.
This begins with the Nasa style interchanges of 'Blue Room' from 1992 and the familiar treacley production of that period, before moving into a solid dub groove over which elastic bass sounds, bird noises, and thumping hand drums are heard. The densely shifting soundscape is augmented by a little flute‑like melody, which floats enticingly along in the background.
Written by Weston, Fehlmann & Paterson. Mixed by Hughes, Fehlmann & Paterson.
Beginning with a radio announcer, this quickly turns into the "squishy bass run" that Thrash was working on two years ago. According to him the bass sound was altered using a Marshall Time Modulator [a type of digital delay]. Over this is heard a grandiose synthesized string melody, before the dub beats kick in. A perfect example of the effects which can be achieved with GRM Tools comes as sounds and noises of all descriptions are fired into the mix and then stretched until they just dissolve into the background.
- OXBOW LAKES
Written by Weston, Fehlmann & Paterson. Mixed by Hughes, Fehlmann & Paterson.
The lounge‑bar piano at the beginning is Paterson's, while swirling reverb distorts the tune as a hefty House beat seems to come up for air underneath the piano run, which is suddenly smothered by the insistent beat. There is an industrial air to the mix as it progresses, which is certainly the mark of Thomas Fehlmann.
- MONTAGNE D'OR
Written by Weston, B.J. Cole, Nick Burton, Andy Hughes, Fehlmann & Paterson. Mixed by Hughes, Fehlmann & Paterson.
Another silly vocal sample, about somebody leaving for Constantinople, preambles what is a vehicle for B.J. Cole's pedal steel guitar. Supported by watery and increasingly distorted high‑register keyboard accompaniment (again Fehlmann's work), the track takes about five minutes to work itself into some kind of groove. Subtitled 'Der Gute Berg', this track has all the metallic flavour associated with German groups like Can, and unsurprisingly comes to a loud, thrashy climax.
- WHITE RIVER JUNCTION
Written by Weston, Fehlmann & Paterson. Mixed by Hughes, Fehlmann & Paterson.
More vocal samples, this time from some American self‑help radio ad from the 1960s, brings us back to the land of the squish. Perfectly Ambient and slow, the track's harsh timbre is once again Fehlmann's hand at the controls. After four minutes it develops into a very strange door‑slamming beat, with an accompanying funk style bass riff.
Written by Weston, Burton, Phillips, Kris Needs, Andy Hughes, Fehlmann & Paterson. Mixed by Weston , Fehlmann & Paterson.
Imagine an orchestra playing House music underwater with dustbin lids! This clattering track, with its odd interjection of rubbery bass keyboard notes, is incredibly weird. After three minutes it stops to showcase more talking samples and then starts up again. There is a hook, there is a beat, but both so experimentally rendered as to defy analysis. Way out.
- SLUG DUB
Written by Weston, Paul Ferguson, Fehlmann & Paterson. Mixed by Weston, Fehlmann & Paterson.
Another vocal sample, this time from Alex Paterson's Billy Bobtail record about slugs eating lettuces. In the distant sonic backdrop can be heard a neat little reggae melody, which rises to the fore to be offset by a banging drum rhythm courtesy of Alex Paterson's old Killing Joke mate, Paul Ferguson. After 10 minutes of distortions the slug story is heard again and the tune grows more dub‑like, before ingeniously transforming itself into the characteristic stuttering keyboards of Detroit Techno.
During the interview Alex Paterson promised that The Orb's live show would be a spectacular with "each track having its own visual setting". He maintained that "hardly any strobes would be used". Engineer Andy Hughes even said that the new shows would get away from the tired formula of "strobes going off at random to the music".
As well as working with the music, Andy is in charge of mixing and playing the lights. According to him this is achieved "by having a MIDI feed up to Chris Craig's MIDI controllable lighting desk. In order to achieve interesting interaction between the lights and the music, there are footpedals to trigger MIDI sequences for the lights as we play. Every track has a setting and we even have little strummers to clip on various people's belts, so that they can strum the lights like the strings of a guitar."
The Orb have now got a live show to rival Pink Floyd. There shows at The Forum were spectacular. They chose this London venue because of the high ceiling above the stage area. A circular lighting rig, not dissimilar to that used by Floyd, hovers over the group and changes position from horizontal to vertical, moving up and down at different stages in the show. Contrary to what Paterson promised, two large strobe rigs hang each side of the stage and at certain points, usually when the dry ice starts billowing, they are triggered to mind‑numbing effect. Mostly though, the lighting is used intelligently. Various coloured spots around the auditorium bathe the stage in complimentary light to suit the mood of the tracks, while the backdrop features continual projections, the celestial maps from the new album cover, laser images, starbursts, an Escher drawing, and The Orb logo.
But all this is mere filigree compared to the music, which live is nothing short of brilliant. Initially Alex Paterson (in bobble hat) and Andy Hughes stand each side of the stage behind two dual record decks. To Paterson's right is the trusty old Roland PC200 keyboard, with a sample guide taped onto the keys. Various voices and sounds (mostly aircraft and helicopter noises) waft back and forth across the PA until the strobes go off and we're plunged into the thrash metal ending of 'Montagne D'Or'. Both Paterson and Hughes work pretty frenetically, constantly spinning records and changing tapes. According to Hughes: "We use 24 tracks of ADAT with Alex DJ‑ing with CDs, records, cassettes plus TV and radio snippets."
After the usual outer space Ambient extravaganza of 'O.O.B.E' the pair are joined on stage by drummer Nick Burton and bassist Simon Phillips for some Orb dub. 'Towers Of Dub', 'Close Encounters' and 'Spanish Castles In Space' are all great crowd pleasers, while 'Valley' (from the new album) sounds much more muscular live. The more the concert progresses the louder the bass parts grow, and in general the rhythmic element is much more pronounced live.
A high point of the show I attended was the interlacing of 'Blue Room' (from U.F.Orb) with 'Loving You', the track which launched The Orb in 1989. This brought cheers from the assembled throng, who were even more mesmerised when Paterson intercut voice samples from the popular TV series The X‑Files with a terrifically loud and bass‑heavy rendition of 'U.F.Orb'. Another highlight was a lengthy version of 'Slug Dub', whose reggae underpinning makes it suitable for The Orb's Ambient rave experience. Andy Hughes explains it as "a mixture of some pre‑recorded tracks with improvisations over and beyond them. We're not shy about seeing what happens on a given night and seeing where the music takes us."
Though The Orb have recently remixed U2's 'Lemon', Yellow's 'You've Got To Say Yes To Another Excess', Pop Will Eat Itself's 'Home', Bill Laswell's 'Praying Mantra' and Innersphere's 'Out Of Body', it is their own output which most accurately charts their recent development.
• Pomme Fritz
(Mini‑album, Island, May 1994)
Six tracks recorded in Berlin and London, 1993‑1994. Written by Kris 'Thrash' Weston, Alex Paterson, Sun Electric & Thomas Fehlmann. Produced by The Orb and Thomas Fehlmann. Engineered by Thrash and Andy Hughes.
(Album, Inter, August 1994)
Recorded in London/Berlin, 1993‑1994. Written by Robert Fripp, Thomas Fehlmann, Kris Weston and Dr Alex Paterson. Mixed by FFWD. Produced by The Orb and Thomas Fehlmann. Engineered by Thrash & Andy Hughes.
• Orbvs Terrarvm
(Album, Island, March 1995).
Recorded in London,1992‑1994.
• Oxbow Lakes
(Double 12", Island, April 1995)
A DJ special on yellow vinyl, featuring four radical remixes by A Guy Called Gerald, The Sabres Of Paradise, Carl Craig and Alex Paterson (under the pseudonym Instrumental).