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‘If we end up turning into the Grateful Dead of dance music I’d be very happy’ – Paul Hartnoll on 30 years of Orbital

The electronic music pioneer on Brexit, rave, streaming and re-imagining the band's hits three decades on

Orbital's Phil and Paul Hartnoll. Photo: Kenny McCracken

Brexit, Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll tells me, is now hitting dance.

The electronic pioneers are celebrating their 30th anniversary and are marking it by getting back on the road with their famously spectacular live show this summer. Or at least trying to.

“We had a gig and we nearly couldn’t because the promoter realised they needed visas and it cost £7,000 to get visas for the crew,” he says. Just trying to get a carnet for the band’s equipment to enter Ireland is, he says, “ridiculous”.

“It’s just depressing… the whole Brexit thing with travelling, you know?,” he says. “I know lots of young bands who can’t afford to do it.”

The 54-year-old is speaking to me from his home studio in Brighton where I can see behind him framed photographs of not fellow electro legends but actor Christopher Lee, Play School presenter Brian Cant (“my hero”) and horror star Vincent Price. The esotericism seems very Orbital as, indeed, does the fact the 30th anniversary celebrations actually come 32 years after their debut single Chime first charted, the pandemic having intervened. The band actually “formed” – if that’s the right word, given it consists of Hartnoll and brother Phil – in 1989.

Along with the live shows comes an album, 30 Something (also delayed due to Brexit-related transit issues), which mixes remixes with re-imaginings of landmark tracks based on the duo’s live show. Chime, Satan, The Box, Impact, Halcyon and more appear in new guises, familiar yet new.

It’s very different from a standard greatest hits. “Well, we’ve done two of those before,” says Hartnoll. That doesn’t stop a lot of bands, I say. “True.”

“It’s in two halves, really,” he says. “The first half is basically all the old favourite tracks recorded now as we play them live. But studio versions. So it’s like the live version on steroids, if you like, or the live version with all the little fun bits you can do in the studio that you can’t do live, or don’t do live, or whatever. Or as you arrange it live again you just kind of start messing again. So it takes it on one further, do you know what I mean? Which in turn will probably wheedle its way into the way we play them live.

“It’s always been a desire of mine to kind of compare, if you like, Chime recorded from 30 years ago to how it is now when we play it live. And I often thought about doing that with live recordings, and then it occurred to me, actually, why not just do studio versions of how it is live? You know, because of the evolutionary nature of being around for 33 years or whatever, things do develop and change in the live arena. 

“I may have recorded Chime in 1990 but I’m constantly playing it live all the time and have done throughout the years. So for me it’s kind of alive. It’s this ongoing piece of music that just keeps developing when I play it.”

Electronic aficionados may be reminded of Kraftwerk’s The Mix, the German pioneers’ 1991 album which similarly featured re-arranged and re-recorded versions of a selection of songs.

“Yeah, although I think with The Mix it was more a case of, they hadn’t been around for ages,” says Hartnoll. “And then they did those new revamps, if you like, and then took that out on the road. Whereas these versions are literally how the tracks have evolved over the years. I think there is a distinction.”

So how much of a different beast then, is, say, Chime in its 2022 guise after three decades of being played live around the world?

“It is different… the bare bones of it, if you like, the DNA is the same,” he says. “But it’s had a facelift, you know? It’s kind of just developed, a little bit. The drums are a little different. And it’s more the arrangements, actually, the way they’re arranged. The structure of the track now lends itself to how it works in a live environment. That’s kind of the difference, I think. 

“So it should reflect how arrangements are dictated by playing live and feeding off the audience. It’s a symbiotic arrangement, really, when you play stuff live. Because you are tailoring it to the audience and the zeitgeist of the time, I guess.”

Orbital have always been seen as a political band. On their very first Top of the Pops appearance, with Chime in 1990, they wore anti-Poll Tax t-shirts (while barely playing their ostentatiously unplugged keyboards). Other tracks have responded to the Criminal Justice Act and the 1996 Sea Empress oil spill, while the video for 2018’s P.H.U.K. referred to Brexit and the Grenfell tragedy and, since 2019, live performances of Impact have included a sampled speech from Greta Thunberg.

“I think we do it in that kind of slightly uneducated, you know, musician kind of way, but I don’t mind that,” says Hartnoll. 

“You know what I mean? It’s my point of view, it’s how I see the world. So I don’t mind if it’s ill-informed at times and things like that, it’s still an emotional reaction, a gut feeling. I grew up with music like that, loads of punk music, which was probably ill-informed as well at times. But it stirred emotions in me and, you know, helped me find my moral grounding as a teenager. So I think stirring emotion like that is quite important. And I like to pose questions rather than tell people what to do. 

“However, we have done a track with the Sleaford Mods and that doesn’t really hold any bars at all, it’s completely, aggressively anti-Brexit, anti-right-wing. So fair play to the Sleaford Mods, you know.”

Orbital, like the wider rave culture with which they were so associated, emerged at a time of a stuttering British economy, few chances for young people and a very right-wing Conservative Party in office whose own MPs were about to force a deeply divisive prime minister out. Ally that with the first summer entirely without restrictions for a couple of years and I wonder out loud if circumstances are ripe for a new rave scene.

“Well… the era of the great youth culture seems to have gone for now,” says Hartnoll. 

“Let’s start with the first big working-class kind of movement of rock ‘n’ roll, you know, that went through mods and rockers and into skinheads and punk and rave and things like that. There doesn’t seem to be these kind of youth cults anymore. 

“Although, funnily enough, I think dance music and raving… it’s a primal need and desire. Young people will always want to go and dance in some form or fashion. And so that thing is gonna continue. And I think what you speak of there, I think that started to happen during the lockdown. There were a lot of illegal raves, certainly up around the Downs around here, where young people were just saying ‘sod that’, and they were getting together anyway, out in the open and dancing to drum ‘n’ bass. So there was a bit of a kind of movement going on during the lockdown, it was just very quiet because of the nature of it having to be secretive.”

Orbital’s own audience these days, he says, is a “real mixture”.

“You see people around our age with their kids, and in Scotland last September we actually saw people and just thought ‘my god, that’s like someone who liked us first time around, their kid and their kid’. So that’s like three generations, you know. There were little kids at the front wearing torch glasses [for which the pair are famed for wearing on stage]. 

“If we end up turning into the Grateful Dead of dance music I’d be very happy, thank you very much, you know? It’s a kind of family affair. It’s incredible.”

In fact, marking three decades at the forefront of electronic music has made him reflect more widely. 

“The weird thing that I always think is this is a longer period, from when I first started making records in 1990, than from when rock ‘n’ roll first began… well, from when I first started making music around the mid-’80s, let’s say. 

“Rock ‘n’ roll would only have been 30 years old or something like that. I’ve been around for half the duration of, if you like, teenagerism, and working-class rock and that kind of thing, you know, which is pretty incredible. Or it shows how new that kind of thing is in lots of ways.”

One thing that’s had a big impact on the longevity of artists, he thinks, is streaming, with attitudes to older acts changing now music is no longer widely associated with physical products.

“Since everybody’s had the entire history of rock there, in their phone, it’s stopped that kind of ageist snobbery that we used to have,” he says. 

“I remember thinking things like, ‘the fourth Dead Kennedys album, they should stop, they’re like old men’, you know, as they were hitting 30. And I don’t think people really think like that any more. Because when they dial up music on Spotify or Apple Music or whatever streaming device, it’s kind of… it doesn’t matter how old it is, it all looks the same, it’s all there, on the shop floor, ready for you to explore anything in the history of recorded music. It seems to have flattened the age curve and means that anyone’s got a shout. 

“Look at Kate Bush. Wasn’t that brilliant? I remember loving that track [Running Up That Hill] when I was 16, you know, when I was the same age as the kids in Stranger Things.”

With his passion for music the same, it seems, as when he first started, one suspects Orbital may have another 30 years in them.

30 Something is released on July 29 via London Records. Orbital headline Kaleidoscope Festival at London’s Alexandra Palace on July 23 and Stowaway Festival in Buckinghamshire on August 19

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