Round at Lee's place (or, how The Orb came full circle)
Alex Paterson of The Orb tells Simmy Richman how old ravers make a living, the link between Lancaster bombers and post-punk, and chasing Lee 'Scratch' Perry around his garden
As the man who has spent the past 25 years as the mainstay of the ambient-electronic act called The Orb, it is no surprise that Alex Paterson likes it when things come full circle.
We are sitting in a pub in Battersea, south London, that is a stone's throw from where he grew up and little further from where he now lives. Circuitous, too, is Paterson's latest project. Because while his passion for ambient music was sparked by Brian Eno and David Bowie's “Berlin Trilogy” of albums in the late 1970s, before that there was a love of dub. Which means that recording an album in Berlin with the Jamaican musical legend Lee “Scratch” Perry has got Paterson more energised and excited than he has been for some time.
Paterson is 52 now, and it is exactly 20 years since he flummoxed Top of the Pops viewers by sitting and playing chess as his single “Blue Room” bipped and bleeped away in the background. And if we no longer have to wonder what the likes of The Rolling Stones will be doing as age catches up with them, this still feels like a pertinent question for those who were there at the dawn of the electronic/dance-music culture that informs today's pop charts rather more than the hairy rock'n'rollers of yesteryear. Not that Paterson's music was ever intended for dancing to. Instead, what he and his early Orb collaborators pioneered was the music that has come to be known as “chill out” – which began life as a trippy collage of samples and electronics that acid-house ravers could still relate to while coming down from their dancefloor highs.
Orb collaborators in the past have included Jimmy Cauty (who left to concentrate on the KLF with Bill Drummond) and a host of like-mindedly mellow musicians including Dave Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Steve Hillage (Gong), Jah Wobble (PiL) and Robert Fripp (King Crimson). These days, The Orb is Paterson and the Swiss-born avant-garde-minded composer/ producer Thomas Fehlmann. “Look, for years I got slagged off for keeping it going,” Paterson says, “and now I'm patted on the head by people who respect [what we did] again. I'm still the same person doing the same thing, but I'm also older and wiser, so I understand that that's going to happen.
”These days, I've got maybe 5,000 fans worldwide who will go and buy anything I put out. Maybe 20 years ago that was 20,000 fans. But, hopefully, this Lee 'Scratch' Perry thing will get people talking about us again and realising that we haven't gone away. We just haven't been playing the superstars, like some other bands I could mention.“
From anyone else, such pronouncements could be construed as bitter. From Paterson, who started his musical career as a roadie for the post-punk band Killing Joke, it's just the straight talk of an ex-punk geezer, the honest (if often rambling) thoughts of a man who has not always had it easy. (”This was my dad's local,“ he tells me early on. ”He died when I was three and he was only 40. It was a lot to do with what we now call post-war syndrome. Dad flew Hurricanes, got shot down in the Second World War and ended up being a navigator in a Lancaster bomber. He was, by all accounts, devastated, and saw life in a different way when he realised what he'd done [the carpet-bombing of German cities]. I truly believe that's why he passed away so young.“)
That early loss saw the young Paterson sent to what a local vicar told his mother was ”a religious school for kids from one-parent families, broken-home kids and vicars' sons“.
It was here that Paterson met Martin ”Youth“ Glover, who would become the bass player with Killing Joke as well as a record producer for acts as diverse as P. M. Dawn and The Verve. Paterson and Glover still collaborate whenever they can and Paterson says they are still ”close but not best chums“. ”He's always got many fingers in many pies,“ Paterson elaborates. ”The older he gets, the bigger the pies, the bigger the fingers. Sausage fingers. Bless 'im. I'm not as busy as he is but I like to think I'm as busy as I want to be, though I want to keep everything else out of the way for the next three months so I can concentrate on this Lee 'Scratch' Perry thing.“
Ah yes. The reason we are here. The Orb Featuring Lee Scratch Perry Present The Orbserver in the Star House, a pulsating record that welds Paterson's gentle ambient music to the out-there vocals (”Tycoon, tycoon/ I'm living in the Moon/ I am the man in the stars/Speaking from the Moon“) of the man who produced many of Bob Marley's early recordings. Perry, it should be noted, is also the man who recently told a phone interviewer that ”I was travelling from BC to AD when you called“. So how hard was it for Paterson to secure this dream collaboration? ”I asked my manager to find him and it started off being difficult to get any time with him, but then we got lucky and found a week where we could get him on his own.“
So what was he like when you did get to spend time with him? Is he as barking as his reputation would have us believe? ”Well, if he's playing a really good game he's playing it with me as well. There are not many normal moments when he's around. He was doing handstands, mucking about in the garden.“ It is worth pointing out here that Lee ”Scratch“ Perry is 76 years old.
How did he and Thomas channel that energy into an album's worth of material? ”What's going on in his head at that moment is what you're going to get, so it was up to us to put a mic on him and make sure we recorded everything he was saying all the time. The man is a rhythm machine and we were just there to capture what were often field recordings. He'd come up with different things all the time and if you missed something you could never get him to repeat it in the studio. I was totally knocked out by it all. I personally think he's more spiritual than bonkers.
“And can we expect to see live dates any time soon? Paterson looks down into his beer, deflated for the first time in over an hour. ”We would have liked to do gigs and interviews together but dates got confused and we were dropped in favour of things like the 50th anniversary of Jamaica celebrations [of independence], which I totally understand,“ he says.
”Plus, he's a family man and I'm a family man, too, but I'm assuming he's a bit like myself in that he's got different children from different women.“
It can't be easy keeping relationships together when you're trying to keep your head above water in the music business, right? ”There was a time when Killing Joke got these American roadies, but they couldn't handle it so I got a call asking me to go back on the road with them. I said, 'Please can you tell my girlfriend,' because we didn't even have a phone in the flat in those days. And they never did let her know and she thought I'd disappeared for a week and that was the end of that. Another time I'd just come back from Australia and my ex asked me to look after our daughter. I pleaded with her to give me the day off, but she insisted. I went to sleep and woke up six hours later and there were 17 messages from the ex and the whole world had changed.“
Such are the trials in the life of Alex Paterson – the former church-going schoolboy, punk rocker and roadie whose love of ambient sounds (”See,“ he says, as a police car screams past the pub, ”that's what I grew up with: sirens, aeroplanes, the barrage of noises that are all over Orb records“) saw him forgo his many other interests in life (food – he trained as a chef; chess – he could checkmate me in five moves, apparently; and talent scouting – he was an A&R man for the independent record label EG) to become for ever linked to The Orb.
”A lot of journalists have been asking me what I'll do for a living now that the music industry is dead,“ he says. ”And that,“ he concludes, ”is an amusing conversation for another day.“
'The Orb Featuring Lee Scratch Perry Present the Orbserver in the Star House' is out on Cooking Vinyl tomorrow.
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