BlackBook Interview: Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll on the Legacy of Rave, the Death of Youth Culture and the Joy of Making up w/ One’s Own Brother

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Of all the entities associated with the late-’80s-into-early-’90s rave phenomenon, Orbital decisively represented something beyond just the “Es and whizz,” – something surely more heady and thought-provoking than, say, “Ebeneezer Goode.” Though at the time it would have been cringe worthy to suggest it, they were really sort of the…Pink Floyd of dance music culture. (The expensive light shows were a common thread.)

Hardly surprisingly, then, they readily transcended that scene and kept going all the way until 2014, when the brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll suffered a quite significant falling out, which found them not speaking for more than three years. But time healed, and after at last patching things up in a pub (it’s the English way, innit?), they are back with a strikingly far-ranging new album, Monsters Exist, which could very well be their most accomplished to date.

Most notable are the wild mood swings and rollercoaster dynamics that make for such a riveting listen all the way through. And though the songs seem to be threaded together to tell a story, standouts include “Tiny Foldable Cities,” with its blip-bleep aesthetic recalling the earliest days of synth-pop; “The Raid,” flaunting ominous atmospherics and an eerily sampled voice warning that “life is a prison”; and the title track, replete with epic, foreboding soundscapes, which sounds like it could be plunked down onto Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration without a glitch.

This Friday they also launch a 15-date Europe/US/UK tour in Amsterdam, which takes them all the way to Manchester just in time for the Christmas break.

We caught up with Paul to chat about it all.

 

 

 

What was the mood around Orbital when you called it quits in 2014?

I couldn’t work with Phil anymore because of his unacceptable behavior – much to do with his hedonism, but also not pulling his weight. I just couldn’t deal with it, so I had to withdraw from it.

What made it the right time to come back in 2018?

A change of attitude. Funny, for a band that didn’t exist, we were getting some fabulous festival offers. So what did I have to do? I had to decide to communicate again with Phil. We’d fallen out quite badly, and hadn’t spoken for three years. To fall out with your own brother is terrible. So we got together for lunch in the pub and patched it up – and it’s much better now.

Do you believe the current musical zeitgeist is better for Orbital now? Or more challenging?

I think the fact that with technology, everyone now has the entire history of recorded music at their fingertips is a profound change. All time is now condensed into one moment – so the ageist attitude that existed around music before is gone; and there seems to be a genuine respect for the elder statesmen.

Do you feel as if the original rave revolution was genuinely a success?

Yeah, of course! We’re still doing this music thirty years later. Something was written in cultural stone back then, and it’s still going now. I also think it was the last great youth culture movement – there hasn’t been one since. Culture has dissipated, a lot of people are specializing in a lot of little things. In one way, it’s a shame, because I really liked those tribalistic youth culture movements. But at the same time, everyone is now able to just follow their own path.

Did it at last put electronic music on its proper pedestal?

No, I think people still consider electronic music as second class. As opposed to music made with guitars and real drums.

 

 

Some of the album – the title track, “The Raid” – feels sort of dark and ominous. Yet there are more playful tracks like “Buried Deep Within” and “Tiny Foldable Cities.” What was the overall mood when recording this album?

It was fantastic, I had a great time. But as for the mood of the songs…well, the track “Monsters Exist” came about earlier in the year, as a reflection on mankind’s desire to possibly destroy ourselves. And it seemed like a really good hook to hang the album on. We were getting into that political/socialistic thinking about the world, and the whole thing kind of fell into place.

Did you feel you were able to recapture the old vitality?

Absolutely! It felt like writing our first album again.

What surprised you most about the finished album?

Getting it done on time.

Your live shows were always sort of life-altering. Are you ready for another tour?

Definitely – we’re in the middle of programming the live set right now.

What can we expect from the shows?

We’ve got a lot of visual elements again, we’ve got a different stage set. We’re planning to play a mix of half new album tracks, and half old favorites.

How do you feel about the current state of electronic music?

Not much, really. I’m listening and not finding anything that I like. I’m actually more interested in the modern wave of British folk music now: The Unthanks, Lisa Knapp, Emily Portman, people like that. Actually, the reason I’m wanting to make electronic music again right now, is because I’m just not hearing what I want to listen to.