2018 Rewind: Orbital recall the days before ‘Chime’…
‘Postcards from 88’ is 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.
The interview with Orbital coincided with the release of their latest album, Monsters Exist, which came out in the autumn.
First, we chat to Phil Hartnoll, while below that, we catch up with his brother, Paul.
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.
Q. Do you remember what you were doing as the Summer of 1988 started?
Musically, I was doing my own thing. I’d been in various bands from about aged 13, from anarcho-punk group Penal Code to thrash outfit Noddy and the Satellites, but that was well wound up by 1988.
I was already a year into listening to house music at that stage. I remember when Slam by Phuture came out, I was like ‘what the fuck is this?’ It was amazing.
Most of the time I got to know about new tracks from a friend of mine, he was a printer in Deptford, and a bit of a wide boy. A different mate of his was a pirate radio DJ who was mates with Jazzy M, so he got his hands on all this new music. Jazzy M was pretty much the don of all things house and acid-related at that time.
We used to get in my mate Mark’s car and drive over the downs to pick up pirate radio stations – where we were living, you couldn’t really get much of a signal. We couldn’t get enough of it.
Q. How did you get into making music?
I left school in about 1984, and was doing a few jobs here and there, one of which was in a packing room, sending pharmaceuticals all over the world. ‘Here’s the pink receipt for you, and the green receipt for accounts, and the blue receipt for me’, all that nonsense. I found out later than the pharmaceuticals we were sending were actually going to vivisection laboratories. I was an anarcho-punk! I was horrified.
But then I saw Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and I just burst into tears halfway through. It was a wakeup call, did I want to be doing this for the rest of my life? There and then I decided to give up my job, and try to become a musician –you know, run away and join the circus.
If you wanted to be a musician in those days, you went to art college, so I went to sixth form college to try and get my English O-Levels. I wasn’t very academic, and somebody said to me that if I was unlikely to get into art college because I didn’t have the qualifications, and besides, it wasn’t like I was some sort of protege.
So I started putting a few tracks together under the name DS Building Contractors – yes, I know it’s a shit name – one of which was picked up by Pete Tong’s label. It was called One for the Burglar, and I made it after someone burgled a friend’s house and stole all her musical equipment.
I actually had that, along with one other track on a compilation, The House Sound Of London. They were the only two tracks I had done, and being 19 and arrogant, I thought ‘that’s because they’re fucking brilliant’.
Of course, the reality was that there probably wasn’t enough British dance music out there to fill the compilation, so they got two of my tracks on the cheap.
I was experimenting a lot, trying to emulate stuff like Cocteau Twins, Severed Heads, Cabaret Voltaire, things like that. By the time house music came long I had the tools, and I had the skills to do it, and I would say to my mates, ‘yeah, it’s alright, it’s a bit like electro and hi-NRG mixed together. I can make that’.
Q. What was the rave/party scene like at the time?
I couldn’t go to raves, because in 1988 I’d given up on art college, and had to take a job washing dishes at a pizza restaurant three days a week. I made £45 a week, £15 would go my mum, and I had £30 left to do for the week.
I couldn’t afford to go to any raves, because it was £20 for an E, and £10 to get in – that was my entire weekly budget.
There were lots of free parties going on at the time, in squatted houses – this was before house music – and there would be psychedelic bands and DJs playing rare groove stuff, things like that.
I remember when acid house hit, we went to a party on Pembroke Road [in Sevenoaks] and I got the shit kicked out of me by the police. They had police from four counties come in to stop the party, and they just started beating the crap out of people. It was just some local kids having a party in a squatted house, like always, but there was something about the ‘acid house’ thing that made the police change their tune.
Going out to discos changed – discos used to places of fear and violence. Our local was at Donnington Manor on Dunton Green, at the other end of the village.
I remember me and Phil used to get a two-litre bottle of Coke, take the first half out and fill it with vodka, and drink it on the way. You’d top up with a little half pint now and again over the course of the night, it was a cheap night out.
But we used to leave early anyway, because you’d end up running the gauntlet after a while – all these kids having fights and ‘are you looking at my girlfriend’ and all of that. People getting glassed in the face.
It was madness, and it all took place at the end of our village.
Q. When you started making music, did you say to yourself, ‘I could still be doing this in ten or twenty years from now’?
From age 13, I knew I was going to be a musician. I used to get told off at school, teachers would say to me ‘you have to have something to fall back on’. Anyone else I knew that had ‘something to fall back on’, you know what they did? They fell back!
So that was my cue to keep pushing forward through the jungle, and see where it took me.
When Chime hit in 1989, we had six record companies chasing us for it. There was a bidding war. We had Gary Davies – Gary Davies! – introduce us on Top of the Pops. It was unreal.
Q. Looking back at that Top of the Pops performance, and the early gigs, do you think there’s anything you could have done better? Anything that could have had more focus?
No, I don’t actually. I’ve always been a bit unsure in my life, but when it comes to music, I know what I’m doing, I’m focused. I think that writing music, and playing music puts you ‘in the now’.
I’m always thinking about the concept of time. I’m obsessed with it. I never want to be late, for anything. But when I’m doing music, I’m in the now – it’s the ultimate zen place to be.
Q. The concept of time played a big part in the early albums, didn’t it – you had Chime, the Times Fly EP, that whole ‘Time becomes a loop’ thing..?
Ha, I put that in to totally freak people out! The first two albums start exactly the same. I love the idea that they went out to buy the second album, and brought it home, and then the same voice starts up… ‘time becomes a loop’.
I wanted to start the third album like that as well, but the gag was gone after the second one.
Q. The early Orbital albums always struck me as having a socio-political subtext, capturing a particular time in history. Tracks like Desert Storm on the first album, and Impact (The Earth is Burning) on the second. Was that always the intention?
I think so, but at the same time, they’re all quite ambiguous. Rather than making social comments, I suppose what we’re doing is trying to put a score to the times we live in.
I’d like to think that some of these are universal issues – the earth is still burning, even today, the world isn’t fixed, and governments are still fucking idiots.
I’m not saying I could do any better, but they could. With our music, we’re saying ‘go on then, sort it out!’
Q. Back to 1988, were there any particular tunes that stood out for you from that period?
Voodoo Ray was a big tune for me, because it combined danceability and very harmonic, melodic sounds.
Also, Dextrous by Nightmares on Wax blew me away when I first heard it. It was the first Warp record I had ever heard, and I just thought it was fucking brilliant – so modern. I kept a close eye on Warp Records after that, it’s always been my favourite UK label.
Q. Did you ever think about releasing something on Warp?
I used to know Rob Mitchell [Warp Records co-founder, RIP] very well, and he would say to me ‘you’ve got to do a track with us’, but I said ‘I can’t, I’m already tied up with Pete Tong’s label’. So he suggested I do it under a different name, and I said ‘sure, but only if you give me a purple cover’. But in the end, we never got it together.
Needless to say, a few people have said to me that Orbital was the best Warp Records band that were never signed to Warp. Which is a nice compliment.
Q. Why do you think that ‘old school’ and everything that goes with it is so popular, that it’s stood the test of time?
I think in any music, there is a series of ‘whispers’ that go on and on. Music has to be somewhat repetitive and has to be familiar, otherwise it’s just a bunch of random sounds. Unless, of course, you want to do something truly avant-garde.
Music goes in small little leaps, and is always referencing the past, and it’s the same with dance music. It’s always referencing the past. It’s like a jellyfish – propelling forward by pulling on the past.