Orbital: Coming full circle

A decade after their career-defining Glastonbury show, Orbital prepare for a farewell festival tour. Kevin Harley meets them
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The Independent Culture

"Things going wrong," says Paul Hartnoll, one half of Orbital, in answer to what he remembers most from his band's landmark show at Glastonbury in 1994. "We were playing an almost entirely new set and we kept losing the snare drum here and there. I remember thinking, 'Oh, it's my fault, because my sequencer is supposed to be on pattern 43 rather than pattern 42.' So I changed patterns, but I'd turned one up far too much because I was trying to find the snare drum. I remember panicking and thinking to myself, 'Oh no!' But then the snare drum kicked in incredibly loud and the audience just went absolutely bonkers. And I thought: 'Oh, OK. They liked that.'"

"We couldn't have asked for more," his older brother, Phil, nods, lounging on the settee of his Brighton flat. "After all, it was a blag in the first place. We only got the gig because Leftfield pulled out."

For a band reflecting on a performance that put a seismic charge under 1990s pop, the Hartnolls are remarkably unassuming. That's Orbital for you: they're the sibling act of 1990s music that didn't lamp photographers or dunk Rolls-Royces in swimming-pools. Instead, they devoted their decade to industriously proving electronica's potential as a volcanic live force and uniting the great festival unwashed with ravers. Along the way, they stealthily dragged dance music away from the dancefloor and a culture based on 12-inch records into an exhilarating, album-based head-space, bringing out the inner pseud in even the most restrained of critics reviewing their records. And what did Orbital call their best-of album in 2002? Standing on the Sequencers of Giants, perhaps? No. They called it Work.

It's little wonder, then, that the news of Orbital's impending split has brought their fans out in a rush of love. Next week, they play two shows in London and their final gig in England, at Glastonbury, almost exactly 10 years since that gig; a few festival dates later, the brothers' trademark headlamp headsets will flicker out for good. They're headlining Glasto's second stage on the Sunday, and some enterprising individuals have even rustled up an online petition to see them promoted to headliners on the Pyramid Stage. The pomp-rockers Muse would be demoted, but where's the harm in that?

"We prefer the second stage, though," says Phil, enjoying the circularity of drawing a line under Orbital on the stage where it all took off for them. "We headlined the Pyramid Stage in 1995, and the distance between the band and the audience is too much. The sound's punchier on the second stage, too. But it's really sweet of people to get a petition going. The dedication is unbelievable. Some of the fans are even taking a coach to Glastonbury on the Thursday to set up camp, coming back to London for the Friday gig and then going back down to Glasto. It sounds a great idea, actually! If I could bend time, I'd be on that coach, just for the crack of it."

That's part of what makes Orbital so loved. Sure, their soundscapes veered toward the alien (particularly on their brilliant In Sides and The Middle of Nowhere albums), as did the sight of their headlamps bobbing like beady little space-insect eyes behind banks of equipment on stage. But they remained durably human, avoiding pretension and arrogance in favour of transforming electronic music through ambition, experiment and feeling.

Paul and Phil grew up in Sevenoaks, Kent, where their influences ranged from industrial Sheffield and second-generation punk to acid-house parties, hip hop and the rave scene. (They were named after the M25, the road that delivered hardy gurners to those early acid-house knees-ups.) When they first recorded their breakthrough single, a shimmeringly beautiful, oddly languid twist on acid-house basics called "Chime", it was on a cassette recorder in their bedroom. Were they aiming for a DIY punk ethos? "It did have that vibe to it," Phil nods: "of producing a record in your garage or wherever. It didn't have any sort of corporateness to it."

"So did all the stuff we were listening to at that time, though," Paul says. "All the Sheffield bands, like Cabaret Voltaire. Even the Detroit-house stuff was really cheap and dirty. Derrick May and all that."

Jazzie M, who ran a DJs' record shop on the Kings Road in London, loved "Chime" so much, he asked the Hartnolls to re-record it on metal tape for his fledgling record label, Oh-Zone. Since he managed to shift 2,000 copies of it by word of mouth alone, London Records soon snapped Orbital up. An officially released "Chime" duly took them to No 17 in the charts and a Top of the Pops appearance, where, endearingly, the duo refused to mime and used the occasion to show off "No poll tax" T-shirts. Festival crusties and ravers alike soon began to embrace them: after all, here were a band taking the rave scene overground.

Orbital soon proved their studio mettle. Their first three albums (the "yellow" one, the extraordinary "brown" one and 1994's Snivilisation) showed them stretching dance-influenced electronica into new territories, milking their machinery for a startling degree of breadth and depth. Part of the music's potency stemmed from an evident disregard for the factionalism of dance music: for example, their double A-side single "Belfast"/ "Satan" combined classic rave euphorics on the former track with powerhouse techno cum heavy-metal parodics on the latter. If one could get ravers hugging, the other could give them night terrors.

"We did like the contrast," Paul grins. "We said from day one that if we did different styles of music, it would always be under the Orbital name. People didn't do that at the time, which was partly so they could put out different records for different record companies but also so people would know where it sat in the sub-categories of dance. We wanted to take a more holistic view, which must have seemed obtuse at a time when buying a dance 12-inch would mean getting pretty much three slices of one style."

On those terms, Orbital found a "spiritual home" at the infamous Club Dog in London, where anything went. "That was like, 'Ah, this is what we've been looking for!'" Paul reminisces. "A place where you've got total crusties dancing next to neat-and-tidy ex-soul-boy types, Ozric Tentacles playing next to hardcore dance music, drum'n'bass in the corridor, house music in the next room..."

Suitably invigorated, Orbital integrated the anything-goes thinking into their live shows, and critics were soon labelling them "the best live band around (even if they're not a band)". They were great fun, for starters. Eighties cheese-rock samples (Bon Jovi, Belinda Carlisle) were mischievously woven into their "Halcyon" track, to the delight of already somewhat cheerful-looking ravers. In bridging the gap between dance and rock, they paved the way for the festival fireworks later delivered by The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers. They were genuinely live, too: by juggling sequencers, they proved that live electronica could be no less visceral and spontaneous than some hairy old rocker with a Gibson.

And they were spectacular. On their Are We Here? tour, Orbital played on top of a tower in the centre of the audience. "That was quite interesting," Phil muses. By 1996, they were touring with 40ft-high video screens; by the tour for their 2001 album, The Altogether, they even managed to reinvent the hoary old chestnut of the mirrorball on an "Ooh! Look at that" scale. That sense of occasion resulted in benchmark shows at Woodstock 1994, the Royal Albert Hall, Alexandra Palace, Edinburgh Festival Gardens and, as recently as 2002, Somerset House, London, where the stormclouds overhead couldn't compete with the band's good-time tumult. "The money we made on tour mostly went back into the production," Phil nods, debunking any hint of pretension by adding: "And the Albert Hall was just about being naughty. I mean, you're not supposed to have drum machines in places like that, are you?"

It seemed they could do no wrong, until The Altogether met with a critical drubbing. After 1996's In Sides and 1999's The Middle of Nowhere, the argument was that here, finally, this most forward-thinking of bands was starting to recycle former glories. Was a techno-rot setting in? "That was the beginning of the end," Paul nods. "It wasn't a difficult album to make but I did feel unclear about its purpose. Was it treading water? We've all liked bands where you love the first album, you like the second, the third's all right and the fourth is like, 'Hmmm. What's gone wrong?' You need to start afresh if that happens."

And that's what they're doing. From festival season onward, Phil will be DJing and scouring record racks for the kind of music that got him excited about making it 15 years ago. Paul wants to take time to read up on his software manuals and learn how to score for an orchestra. It's the same clubbing-and-composition synergy that made them so special in the first place.

Having decided in December 2002 to split this year, they're tying up "some loose ends", too, with a decent seventh record, the suitably titled Blue Album. It's not as good as the "brown" album or The Middle of Nowhere, of course, but it comes as close as anyone has any right to expect, from the lush "One Perfect Sunrise" to the thunderclouds of "You Lot" and the 303-fuelled rave romp of "Acid Pants". "It's like a last summing-up, and it's the first album we've had the full logo on," says Paul, referring to the intersecting circles that were always cropped or cut on earlier Orbital albums. "It's the old artwork, too, with the colours and all that. It feels like it's come full circle."

As does the return to Glastonbury. It's likely to be bit of a moment, so don't be shocked by reports of Orbital fans looking a little emotional in the healing fields. After all, it's their gigs that Orbital look back on with most pride. "Hearing the roar of people screaming at you around the world is just so amazing," Paul says. "I get a thrill out of seeing seven albums lined up on a shelf, too - it's a nice body of work. But to know that you've affected people, that's the best thing. To know that you've achieved what you set out to do."

And with typically endearing understatement, he adds: "And that it worked."

'Blue Album' is out on 21 June on Hti; Orbital play Brixton Academy, London SW9, on 24 and 25 June; Glastonbury Festival on 27 June; and T in the Park, Balado, near Kinross, Scotland, on 11 July