William Orbit: Coming back to Earth
The pressure of producing hit records for Madonna, Blur and No Doubt all became a bit much for William Orbit. He talks to Chris Mugan about how he got his groove back
Friday 07 August 2009
In a home studio in north London, monitors glow and pristine equipment hums quietly. All seems well, though its owner glances with concern at a more unruly corner. There lies a more random assortment of kit – a tiny busker-friendly amp, keyboard and drum machine. "Can I cram all that into the back of a taxi?" William Orbit muses. Not the sort of challenge the producer faced on Madonna's Ray of Light, Blur's 13 or even All Saints' "Pure Shores" and "Black Coffee". Now, though, he has been invited to join the online Black Cab Sessions, live sets played in London's iconic vehicles.
In 2006, Orbit returned after a six-year break with Hello Waveforms, an album in his trademark chilled style, familiar to fans of his Strange Cargo project or the classical reworkings Pieces in a Modern Style. (Orbit's take on Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings became a dancefloor smash after it was remixed by Ferry Corsten.) My Oracle Lives Uptown is a much more chipper work. Orbit's upcoming single, "Purdy", comes with all the propulsion of "Ray of Light", while the earlier single "Optical Illusions" shimmers like his All Saints tracks.
"And why not?" Orbit proudly asks. "I listen back to Ray of Light and I was in a pretty bad way. I had family crises and all sorts of things." Today he is talkative enough to expound on why tape is better than digital recording, how production benefits from military research and why he respects writers over musicians, but such ease has been hard won after being driven to distraction by production.
"It wasn't fun any more. I got very nervous and I was drinking a lot of ginseng and stuff like that, which made me very twitchy and manic. People couldn't understand what I was saying – and that's not good for a record producer. I burnt out on the Madonna thing and foolishly went straight back into production and away from my friends. Then I lost my confidence and couldn't bear to go into the studio.
"In music, no one reads from a script. Try and be a record producer and you're playing this passive-aggressive game with everybody, because you can't just say, 'Do it this way.'" But surely singers or groups come to Orbit wanting to pursue a particular path? "An artist might come and say they want to experiment and enter my world, and I get excited, but then they back off during the process. They get tempered by reality or by their people asking 'Are we going to make money doing it this way?' So they return to their ways and by the end feel a bit safer."
Things came to a head for Orbit while working with No Doubt, who wanted do some filming in the studio, a request that Orbit turned down. "I realised that I was suffering from something like agoraphobia – the world outside was the problem and I couldn't get out or communicate with people. I couldn't string words together. I needed to get back in control, so I just thought it was time to stop." Not that the ska-pop group deserve any blame. "They're a lovely bunch of people and Gwen [Stefani] is one of the most positive and kind people."
Nor is Orbit giving up producing other artists for good. "I might gripe about how singers bully producers, but I love working with them. And an artist that I really believe in, I'll take any amount of... I'll take it. They can be as diva-ish as they like with me and I won't take it personally. I know how hard it is being a singer, so I won't hold being stroppy against anybody, as long as they put their heart and soul into what they're doing. I'll only need to have a taste of success from my own work – I'll be pleasantly glowing from the fact that I've managed to do something on my own terms – and I'll want to go back."
For now, though, Orbit has cut back on the first-class flights and downsized from a massive house in Connaught Square, London, to a more homely residence in relatively laidback Islington. In terms of rediscovering his muse, the musician went back to DJing. He invested in a pair of CD decks and refuses to countenance playing MP3s on a laptop. "I won't do that, no. It doesn't seem right. I like the physicality of it all." Immersing himself in dance music has brought him back to beats. Lest we forget, before his ambient work, Orbit was an early mover in UK house with his band Bassomatic and their biggest hit, "Fascinating Rhythm".
"I'm feeling more outgoing these days. Getting out there and buying decks has made me listen to more electronic stuff. And it's easy to make an ambient reworking; to go all the way and then pull it back later." Not that Orbit was aiming to compose any all-out bangers here. "I always find it a challenge to make dance music," he admits. "I don't have that natural propensity to make grooves. It's hit and miss with me. I love working with singers; I love complexity and structure. I want music to yield its secrets over a period of time."
Oracle sounds delicate against the more prevalent strains of contemporary dance music which are harder, faster and louder. "I'm aware that if you put my records next to some of the stuff around today it sounds timid, but you get into that zone. People just need to leave behind that drug of emphasis – it's like having too much sugar and salt on food; afterwards anything without it tastes bland."
Orbit has also immersed himself in blogging, tweeting and creating his own promo video. The DIY ethos was something it took him time to get his head round. "It took me a while to warm to the idea, because the last time around, DIY meant something different. But everyone around me pointed out that I'd had not a great time with the corporate side of things, so I bought all the toys and realised I could do the tasks that would have previously needed whole teams of people."
He admits he is prone to prevaricate and needs people to ban him from more marginal activities when he should be completing the video for his single (the first one was for a remix), a session for BBC's Asian Network, and preparations for a trip to promote British culture in Russia. The back-of-a-taxi session has inspired him further. "If I can do it in a black cab, I can take drum pads to Siberia and build the set up so I don't have to think about doing a live show. I can do an enhanced DJ set and invent something new."
He also needs to finish off a sequel to Pieces in a Modern Style that he reckons is more dancefloor-friendly than the original, thanks to his DJing, and will be released in the coming months. There are plenty more Adagios to come, though he won't reveal them just yet. "If I let slip I was doing another one, it's going to be like, 'Orbit's backing that, is he?'" He may be more outgoing these days, but William Orbit realises the oracle always maintains some mystery.
William Orbit's single 'Purdy' is released on 21 Sept. 'My Oracle Lives Uptown' is out now on Kobalt
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