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Orbital’s New Frontier: Skrillex, Obama, Wet 303s and Moon Gigs

Orbital’s New Frontier: Skrillex, Obama, Wet 303s and Moon Gigs


Photo by Adam Latham,

As the space shuttle Endeavour loop-de-looped the Los Angeles sky on September 21, brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll of techno legend were touching down at LAX. “We came in on it!” jokes Phil. But of all ironies, these electro space dreamers just missed the fanfare from their airplane’s tiny portholes as they rolled up on the tarmac.

NASA’s orbiter flew 25 missions and is soon retiring at the California Science Center. Onlookers young and old thronged at beaches, on rooftops and in sports fields to watch the storied spacecraft make its final victory lap piggybacked on a 747. The Endeavour was named after Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour, the 18th century British naval ship that explored the Pacific and Australia where it landed at Botany Bay, a name all Star Trek fans will recognize. So flying in from their native England, the Hartnolls were in good company.

Coming full circle, just a stone’s throw from Endeavour’s final resting place, Orbital helped rev the LA rave scene in 1994 with an infamous performance at the Shrine Auditorium. After several groundbreaking albums and a half decade of semi-retirement, Orbital reunited in 2009, produced the acclaimed Wonky and were back in the U.S. to bang the party at California’s Nocturnal Wonderland as well as shows in San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver. They’ll cap their tour in North Carolina at Moogfest on October 27. They also just penned a soundtrack for the film Pusher.

After an in-depth profile of Orbital in April from Paris to catch up on their latest sound and many historic turns, Magnetic sat down with the inimitable and hilarious Hartnolls at the Orlando Hotel after they played Nocturnal to talk the usual: overheated tour buses, mini typhoons, rocket science, chutney and Skrillex.

What has happened since we last talked in Paris? How was the rest of your touring in Europe?

Paul: The whole of the summer festivals thing has happened, mostly in Wellington boots in the rain. Our equipment got drenched on stage in the Czech Republic. About 20 minutes before we went on stage it was this beautiful evening and then this mad wind came through like a mini typhoon and blew all the tents down. It rained horizontally and filled all our synths with water.
Phil: We turned the mixing desk upside down and all this water poured out of it.
Paul: A lot of it got damaged. We managed to get it going for the next day. I did programming and Phil laid it all out in the sun.
Phil: I used hair dryers. We actually had quite a few casualties. Some were slowly dying. The 303 started sliding off and going wrong. It’s like, right. It started to rust inside. Because of the impurities in rain, it starts to oxidize.

The American rave scene is a different kind of beast. There’s a real theme going on here. It’s got its own style and technique and fashion and dress.

That was a low point of the summer I gather?

Paul: Yes, that was. But great festivals, absolutely stunning gigs. That little tour, we had the worst tour bus we ever had. Literally there was no air conditioning in the boiling, boiling heat, nine to ten guys sitting in the bus all wearing pants and their shirts off. It was not pretty. The bus had to keep stopping. The driver was a slow moving fat German guy. But the gigs were really good. We had a brilliant one in Slovakia.

How did you find the crowds and the reactions in general as you toured through Eastern Europe?

Paul: Brilliant. Eastern Europe is really alive at the moment. They have these big festivals nowadays. It’s a whole new territory that wasn’t really open when we were last touring around. We hadn’t really been to Eastern Europe. We’d been to Sophia, Bulgaria and that was it, and it was really odd. Now we’ve spent a couple summers in Eastern Europe. It’s really happening.

Are you going to do some Western European gigs too?

Paul: We’re about to do some shows in Scandinavia. We haven’t been there for ages and we used to go down pretty well over there. We’re going to be in Holland. We’ve done Belgium. The French don’t know us too well. I don’t know why. Although we did have that smaller show in Paris where all those French people who showed up loved us. They just need to embrace us more there first.

So how has it been playing live so much again, getting out there in front of new audiences?

Paul: It’s great. It’s what we missed. You don’t realize it until you step away. It’s so amazing to be on a stage, at Glastonbury or whatever, and 20,000 people in front of you and think, “Fuck, I’m improvising! Ahhh!” You know what I mean? But there’s an excitement. We know what songs generally that we’re going to play, but “I can bring in the bass drum now” ... “I’m going to tease it a bit longer” ... “I’m going to go with a snare and no kick” ... “I think it’s time to go to those chords and bring them in high.” It’s great to make those decisions on the fly.

It’s aggressive, isn’t it? It’s aggressive and full of youthful energy, like punk music…Dubstep is like that.

Do you think you’re moving beyond the reunion phase and working on more new music? Are you working on the next album yet and new ideas?

Paul: I’ve got bits and pieces on the go. I’m collecting up ideas from my various machines and recordings. I kind of do stuff and then let it go and forget about it. Do a little bit and let it go. Don’t even listen to it. I let it mature like a sort of jam.
Phil: Jam!? You mean wine?
Paul: No, jam! Jam! You can leave jam for like a year. Chutneys, jams. You leave it. Maybe it’s chutney, not jam. Jams just go off. Cheese! Like a ripe cheese.
Phil: Mum used to make jam like that. The next week you ate it. You didn’t wait a year.

In terms of how you guys work together, how does it work exactly?

Phil: He does a lot of the programming and I just go “That’s good! That sounds like shit.”

How does it feel to be back in America for some serious gigs?

Phil: It’s fucking great. It’s great to be back in the United States. It really is.
Paul: I didn’t know how Nocturnal Wonderland would go. It’s really well organized raves. The American rave scene is a different kind of beast. There’s a real theme going on here. It’s got its own style and technique and fashion and dress. There’s a real American rave scene going on after 20 years! There always was one that we tapped into and it always felt like it was quite a big scene to us. But we were sort of amongst it all and it was still kind of underground. Whereas now it has gone mainstream.
Phil: It’s gone national and it doesn’t seem to be just one particular thing either.
Paul: I didn’t know how we’d go down but it was brilliant. It was a really good gig. But the people who organized it knew what to do. They had bands all in one arena and they had two huge places too doing absolutely banging what I would call American-style dance music. And they were brilliant, to go and hang out there. But they were different. That was a different sound to what we do. It’s about DJing, not about live acts. It was great to see this kind of festival still embracing the more unusual side of electronic music. There were all these live acts -- Royksopp, Little Boots, quite a variety of electronic artists. It was great and people were really enjoying it.

I know the Insomniac organizers of Nocturnal Wonderland are big fans of yours themselves. In terms of the crowd and interaction with their following, what was it like?

Paul: It was predominantly a younger crowd. It’s a younger scene over here still. Those people 22 years ago a lot of them weren’t even born. It’s really a fresh thing for them. So it was brilliant to be playing for all these people who don’t really know us and to see them enjoying it. They’re not into being just bludgeoned into one style of music. They’re into different kinds of things.

When did you guys arrive in town exactly?

Paul: We flew in Friday.

That was the same day the space shuttle Endeavor was flown into LA. They were flying it around all over the city, out past Disneyland, the Hollywood sign and over the Griffith Observatory.

Phil: We came in on it! Actually, no, I didn’t see it. We went past it. It was one of those things because we were landing, we missed it. “I’m on the wrong side!” They asked people on the plane to sit down who were trying to see it.

The space shuttle in the States has felt like a has-been piece of technology up until now. Of course there were also the two tragedies, like flying death machines. But with the Endeavour, people all around the city were watching and cheering. All of a sudden it felt like a vintage, cool thing.

Paul: I remember when it was new, you know what I mean? I was between 5 and 10. I remember my oldest brother saying they’re about to invent a rocket that’s going to be re-useable, that’s going to take off and land like an airplane. They’re going to use it over and over again. I remember thinking, “It’s a proper spaceship!” Like Flash Gordon or something. I remember looking at pictures of it and thinking, “That’s just mad looking!” And now it’s gone. It’s old news.

When I saw the Endeavor on the TV, I instantly thought of you guys because of your interest in space. The shuttle really feels like Orbital. Even the NASA logo.

Phil: Yeah! It’s gone retro! I think we should do our first moon gig.
Paul: You’d have to do it like a silent disco. Everyone would have to have their own headphones. No sound waves in space, sir.

That’s OK. Maybe you could get a proper moon base station or something.

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Paul: Yeah, fuck it! “Let’s do it outside!” Idiot, you numbskull. There’s no outside festivals on the moon. We’ll do it underground, literally. You know, put a glass dome over a crater.
Phil: There you go! Sorted.

Besides Nocturnal, what is it like being back in the U.S. What feelings have you had returning?

Paul: Apart from England, America is sort of where we did our best business if you like, in the ‘90s, one of our most toured places. I missed it. I used to love getting on the tour bus and roaming around the U.S. for a month. Literally, you are wearing snow gear in Detroit and shorts in LA. It’s brilliant. I love that.
Phil: There’s so much music that we grew up with that came from America. Electro, hip hop. Even when we were younger, we listened to Motown.
Paul: House music, let’s not forget that.
Phil: Yeah, house music, techno. I was getting to that. There’s a huge chunk of our influences that are from America. So you know, it’s great to come out here.

Right, it can be energizing to be in the cultural places where the music came from that you admire. I remember reading in URB that long before you became Orbital one of you went to New York for a while to see it up close?

Phil: I did. Yeah that’s right. I got a job in a carnival, me and my mate. Some other friends got us hooked up in New York. I was really into hip hop. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to New York to get down with the b-boys!” But then I found out I’m the wrong color: “Fuck off!” like. I thought, “Oh really? It’s not like London.” “What you doing boy? Get the fuck out of here.”

Hey Mr. Skrillex, it’s nice to meet you!...He was so friendly. It was like teaching a little kid. He was like, Well what is this? Is it analogue?

It can be a little more divided here racially.

Phil: It was then, but I’m going all the way back to 1986, you know what I mean? So that was. We tried to go off for a few weeks but lasted for a day on the carni. “Fuck this shit!” Because it was a bunch of real rednecks running it. We ended up off in the far corner of a black bar at one point. They didn’t mind us being in there because we were English and we weren’t “tainted.” But then we went back to the carni and it was n-word this and n-word that. And it was like, “You know what? I can’t fucking handle six weeks of this shit!” So we ended up going back to New York and getting jobs and hanging out there for a long while.

I think that is one of the most interesting things about American music is the history of race and its turmoil. Whether it is Detroit techno or Chicago house music. Even if you look at the gay scene in New York with the Paradise Garage and so on. I think that whole history is fascinating. Now the black kids and black artists are starting to embrace electronic music much more again. For a long time there was this resistance because it was mainly all about hip hop.

Paul: Which is weird because it really came from black artists anyway.

Recently a lot of the big black artists are working with dance producers, many of them European. And you have the dubstep piece, that appeals to young black, white, whatever. One of the things I noticed originally about the rave scene was there was a color-blindness, though it was sometimes harder to find as many blacks in the California scene. There were Latinos, white kids, Asians, old hippies, Europeans who had transplanted to the U.S. and gay people. I think the mainstream has finally caught up with it.

Phil: It’s a great time to be back. Now we just need a hip hop artist to collaborate with and really make it.
Paul: Well, we did have Lady Leshurr on Wonky, one of England’s finest.
Phil: Yeah, but not American.

The dubstep stuff in the U.S. can be a bit more like Korn or Limp Bizkit.

Paul: It’s aggressive, isn’t it? It’s aggressive and full of youthful energy, like punk music. There were strains of techno that were like that early on. It has always been quite riffy. Dubstep is like that. Skrillex and Korn probably have collaborated already haven’t they? Or at least you can take a Skrillex and a Korn record and they are pretty close in some ways.
Phil: He certainly sort of looks like them anyway, like he could be in Korn. One of those rocker types. He’s very sweet though. We just met him actually at that Czech festival, the one where our gear got drowned out. We were just showing him all our equipment. And he was there and he was really excited. “Hey Mr. Skrillex, it’s nice to meet you!”

Did he know your guys’ music and everything?

Phil: Yeah! He did. He was so friendly. It was like teaching a little kid. He was like, “Well what is this? Is it analogue?”
Paul: I don’t know if he’d ever even seen an outboard. “This is a synthesizer! It is not made of software.”
Phil: He was really enthusiastic. He was really looking forward to seeing us.

And he knew what a TB-303 was?

Paul: Well, I don’t know. He certainly liked the look of it all. I’m sure he does. He’s a techno nerd like the rest of us! He’s gotta know.

In LA, he’s a local hero of sorts. He’s really helped electronic music reach a new level in the minds of newcomers. LA is in transition too. You have the film scene here warming up to it. You guys have always been into film scoring. Are you still pursuing that kind of work?

Phil: We just did one. It’s called Pusher. It’s a remake of Nicolas Winding Refn’s first film, the guy who did Drive. It was called Pusher, a Danish film. They’ve just done a remake of it, a British version. We did the score to that which was great fun.

Why do you guys like doing film score work? I’ve always been struck that your sound has a natural alliance with movies more so than other electronic artists.

Phil: It’s just sort of a different objective to it. Rather than just making music. There’s a thing to it that you have to enhance and you can do it in so many different ways. It’s really fun trying to get that key.
Paul: For me music is all about emotion and when you start marrying picture and music together you get a double hit. I love seeing the film with no music and then start to play music, and you sometimes make yourself cry doing it, because you realize, “That’s it! that’s working!” It changes everything. It’s like jamming with someone. You can play the wrong type of music and it’s just rubbish and then suddenly you get the right thing and it’s brilliant. I love it.
Phil: Sometimes we may love it but the director is like, “Oh I don’t know, I don’t want that.” And you’re like, “That’s the best bit, that’s the money shot!” And he’s like “No, no, no.” But that’s more just a joke and very rare.
Paul: Generally if you enhance the director’s vision, they are more than happy. That’s what they want. That’s what you’re there to do.
Phil: Yeah, definitely and this new one turned out quite well. We had real fun doing it. It’s available on the Web.

A lot of films have electronic music scores now. The Social Network was very electronic and got an Oscar. Drive. Tron. When we were younger there were electronic scores, whether it was A Clockwork Orange or the Michael Mann films. But more of the beats are coming in now.

Phil: It’s really because younger people are making movies and they’ve been brought up with electronic music. It’s just gonna be. It’s what they know.

Do you have a theory as to why more and more people, younger people, are gravitating to electronic music? Is it that electronic technology is more ubiquitous or that it took people time to acclimate to it in America and globally?

Paul: To me electronic music has been so omnipresent. It has gone from something that was a specialist thing in the ‘80s to just being everywhere. It’s on television. It’s show themes. It’s on news programs. The BBC News jingle is pretty much a rave tune, you know what I mean?
Phil: I think all the little pockets we used to see in the ‘90s in U.S. cities, pockets of ravers everywhere, has just grown. More and more people have come up with electronic music being there. People as they’ve grown up in their 20s, it’s been there. Bands like Orbital, we’ve been around for over 20 years. They were like babies. Now they’re 20. We had to search for it when we were their age. It’s opened up, especially with the Internet, which has made it all easier. People like Skrillex, putting stuff on YouTube or snatching it from there. You know, we used to get inspiration from Star Trek!

We were talking about space earlier and your guys’ interest in science fiction. After the ‘90s, things did get pretty dark. There was 9/11, two wars and then the financial collapse. But I feel that younger people somehow tend to be more optimistic. I’ve always felt that electronic music was essentially optimistic. And I think the thread of the younger generation is forward looking and always adopting new things.

Phil: I think Obama being elected as well raised a lot of hope in a lot of places. I was in the Caribbean when Obama was elected and all the black people there were like “Fuck yeah!” You’d never think you’d see it. That to me was optimistic, especially when you had such a cunt for president. It was so unbelievable he got voted in that second time. No wonder, no one had any faith. “I don’t have a chance in hell!” I think MTV and stuff, Rock The Vote, helped Obama because the younger folks were open.

Right, “social space.” They’re doing a thing called DJs For Obama. It’s hip hop DJs, it’s house and EDM DJs. It’s a generational thing. Dance music, electronic music is now a young person’s muse.

Phil: I would think having to live through Bush, it would be like “Fuck this, fuck off!” It’s sort of like what happened in England with punk. Punk was “Fuck you the establishment.” And the establishment was like, “Really?” And then the ravers just went “You know what, fuck it! That didn’t do us no good. We’re going to just go over here and just enjoy ourselves.” That really scared them to the point that they passed the Criminal Justice Law to clamp down on repetitive beats, this kind of Orwellian wall.

Your third album Snivilisation was a commentary on that, right?

Phil: It was. That’s right.

It’s amazing how the beat can be revolutionary in its own way and it seems technology is helping push that out. So we’re talking about Obama and politics. You guys are coming back during an interesting time. I think the last couple times you were here, it was before Bush and then you did Coachella more recently. Things are changing fast. Do you feel your music is on a big trajectory? You have dipped into vintage synthesizers more recently, but in terms of your own lives, what are some of the things you are trying to express?

Phil: Enjoyment. I would say the enjoyment of getting back together. Enjoyment is what has brought us here now. Enjoyment of new gigs. The enjoyment of the reaction of people. The enjoyment of going on. We either do more music or call it a day.
Paul: I think it is the confidence to express yourself. To be yourself. To stop thinking, “I must do a dubstep album now, that’s the current flavor of the month” ... “It must adhere to this tempo” ... “It’s all about the breakbeat now. Let’s do that then.” No, express yourself as you are as you want to be. That’s what people want. They don’t want to come to see a band that’s just a mirror of popular culture. They want to see a band because you apparently have something to say to them. “This is what I do.” That’s what I think coming back, has taught me, that it’s OK to be Orbital.

In America for a long time electronic music was dinged because so much of it didn’t have vocalists or lyrics. “It doesn’t have emotions” or “isn’t human” or whatever. And you can have singers, as you guys have with some of your songs. But some of it is pure and beyond words.

Phil: We were never really like that. Pete Tong tried to get us to be like that.
Paul: He’s always saying, “What about some young sexy female singers?” We’d say, “We’re instrumental! Stop it!”
Phil: “Do a track like that one that’s number three in the charts.” Shut up.
Paul: It’s crap.

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