Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on March 2012Orbital’s Paul and Phil Hartnoll may be the landed gentry of electronic music, but that doesn’t mean they’re stuck in their old analog foxhunting ways. When I reach younger brother Paul he’s reveling in the rare English sun, programming a live set for their new album on his laptop.
“We didn’t find a computer approach that was good enough until Ableton software came along,” Hartnoll explains about their move to computers. “These days everyone’s spoiled. We’ve got too much technology. You have to be disciplined—there is no end to the recording process now.”
Orbital’s first disc since their 2009 reunion, Wonky excels at the kind of hooky, melody-driven techno that made them giants of ’90s electronic music. “In the old days you could hear the simplicity of music that was made with only a few synths,” Hartnoll says. “There was a kind of raw joy to it that we’ve tried to maintain.”
A band that’s headlined Glastonbury and Woodstock presumably has all the gear time and money can provide. How do they stay focused?
“I’m not entirely sure… it’s something you instinctively feel over the years,” he muses. “The first few hours of a song are going to be the heart and soul—the rest of the time is wrestling that into shape. The discipline is knowing when to stop.”
Exposure to Detroit techno was an ear-opening experience for the Hartnoll bros, but their sound derives as much from pop as it does from hardcore dance music. “If it doesn’t stir me emotionally it’s not working,” Paul affirms. “The stuff that influenced me was Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire—song-based electronic groups more than my contemporaries.”
Now 43 and with three kids, Hartnoll approaches music from a different perspective than two decades ago, when he and his brother named their group “Orbital” after the London ring road near which many raves were held in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
“It feels totally refreshed,” he says breathlessly. “We had to go away and have a break. We were fed up with each other and what we were doing. We had to appreciate what we’d given up. We came back to it wiser, and with knowledge to resurrect creatively, which is an amazing thing to do—to find that it is still very full of life.”
Invited to play England’s Big Chill in 2009, the Hartnolls were so enthused at being back on stage together that they decided to get to work on a new album. The resulting collection of tracks takes its name from the second to last outing, the zany “Wonky” featuring the wind-up raps of voluble 23-year-old Brit-hopper Lady Leshurr.
Other tracks bear the distinct imprint of the currently inescapable subterranean bass lines of dubstep. “For me, music is a cultural group experience,” Paul explains. “We play music to people, we listen, it’s like one big circulated idea, a big melting pot. You take your influences and do it your way. We’ve got modern dubsteppy sounds because we enjoy some of the great stuff going on, but then there’s also a lot of contemporary modern folk music I listen to which influenced it. Influences are unavoidable because music is one big thing we all experience together.”
Orbital returns in May to reprise an appearance at Metamorphose, which was canceled last September amid a typhoon. First on these shores 20 years ago, they’ve headlined all the big events in Japan, including some of the formative ’90s raves on the slopes of Mt. Fuji.
Where will they be another two decades down the road? “Sitting on this bench, talking to people like you,” Hartnoll affirms. “Stopping and starting again was the best thing we ever did. We are really fired up and wouldn’t have been as inspired as we are now. Retiring once was great, but I’m not doing that again.”
Metamorphose @Makuhari Messe, May 12 (listing). Wonky is available on Beat Records Mar 28.