POSTCARDS FROM 88… Orbital, part one: Phil Hartnoll

There’s no doubt that the summer of 1988 marked a watershed moment in the history of dance, as the house rhythms of Chicago, artistic exuberance of Ibiza, and electronic soundscapes of Detroit surged through club culture. Acid house had arrived.

With this in mind, 909originals presents ‘Postcards from 88’, a series that sees leading DJs, promoters, journalists, club owners, photographers, and of course the clubbers themselves, shed some light on just what went on during those halcyon days, 30 years ago.

This week, we have a special treat for you at 909originals, as we meet a duo that over the course of a 30-year career have remained at the forefront of electronic music, from debut single, Chime, to their forthcoming release, Monsters Exist… the one, the only, Orbital.

Today, we chat to Phil Hartnoll, while on Saturday, we catch up with his brother, Paul. You won’t want to miss this.

Q. Do you remember what you were doing as the Summer of 1988 started?

My first child was born in 1988. At the time, I didn’t have anywhere to live, so I moved back to my parents’ house, in Sevenoaks, in Kent. I was a bricklayer, and I was due to do voluntary service overseas in Africa – you go over there and build a school or something, and you get paid local wages.

But I had a newborn baby, this was a big turning point in my life… I wasn’t going to fuck off down to Africa for half a year. So I stayed in England.

Paul was still living at home – I was 24 at the time, he was about 20 – and he used to go out with his mates drinking and then come back to the house, and smoke weed. I used to call them the ‘Youth Club’.

And there was me with this little baby, and they were like ‘what’s all this?’

Q. When or where did you first realise that ‘something different’ was happening with music, particularly dance/club music?

It was probably my older brother’s record collection. I had a penchant for Rick Wakeman and the prog rock thing, Deep Purple and all that – this is when I was about ten years old. Then I heard Autobahn by Kraftwerk. I was like, ‘my god, what makes this sound? It’s so alien!’

Then it hit me: this was a concept album about an autobahn. That blew my mind. It helped, of course that it was in German; if they were singing in English ‘we drive, drive, drive on the motorway’, it wouldn’t have had the same romance, you know? That’s probably what set me down this electronic pathway.

I was never really into being in a band, but when I was doing my bricklaying apprenticeship, I started making a bit of money, and I saved up to buy a little synthesiser – a Korg Poly-800.

Paul was very musical, I was more interested in pressing buttons and seeing what they did. It was like a child’s activity centre to me, I pressed this button and it went ‘ding ding’, and then this button made it go ‘whoosh’. I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Q. What was the rave/party scene like at the time?

In Sevenoaks there were lots of empty houses; I remember a big party in one house, we brought along a big fuck off generator. It was a massive mansion, the acid house was playing, there were strobe lights, smoke machines –I was tripping my bollocks off.

Then the police turned up. I went out to talk to them, and they were good about it, they weren’t going to shut down the party. We weren’t bothering anybody, they just wanted to know what was going on.

And then suddenly, out of nowhere, these fucking chavs start raining bottles down on top of us, shouting ‘fuck the police’, all that. Fucking idiots, everything was fine until they started doing that. They fucked it all up.

Another time, there was this rave out in the woods around Sevenoaks, around 1988, and I wasn’t going to let the fact that I had a baby stop me. So I stuck his bottle in my pocket, packed extra nappies, and said ‘right, come on kid, LET’S GO!’ I kept him strapped to me all night, people didn’t have a clue.

When people realised, they were like, ‘that’s so irresponsible’, but it wasn’t like I was off my tits or anything, I gave him his bottle, changed his nappy, and he was asleep. If nothing else I was getting some rhythm into him.

Q. When you started making music, did you think things would turn out the way they have done?

Paul was more active on the music side, with his band Noddy And The Satellites, and all that. He was always saying ‘this is what I want to do with my life’. For me, I was only doing it to maybe pay my parents back a bit some time down the line.

I had a drum machine – I think I was trying to copy Cabaret Voltaire. We got a few gigs in a few pubs, and made a bit of cash, so I bought another drum machine. And of course, I had the kid to look after, so between bottles and changing nappies, we started to put a few tunes together, one of which was Chime.

We put it on cassette, and nobody was interested at first, and then in 1989, it all kicked off. And that was that.

[Thanks again to Phil, and make sure you log onto the site tomorrow for Paul’s side of the story. Photos by Gavin Batty. Thanks to the good people at The Beatyard for hosting the interview – and for putting on an AMAZING festival. Postcards from 88 continues next week. Check out the other interviews in the series by clicking here]

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