Living in Orblivion
By JoE Silva
Feb 1, 2001 12:00 PM
“The record company didn't have a clue what was going
on.” “We want to surprise people — we need to surprise
“The record company didn't have a clue what was going on.”
“We want to surprise people — we need to surprise people.”
With so many dead kings and queens and piles of pagan wreckage lying around, one can forgive the British their reflexive habit of putting almost any hoary trinket under glass. But the pair of furry black boots mounted in the reception area of Island Records' London offices is entirely another matter. According to the small plaque beneath them, the boots were once a key part of U2 leader Bono's “Fly” ensemble before he auctioned them for charity. Virtually everyone who passes through the offices' entry takes a quick gawk at them — except for one thuggish-looking fellow with a handful of piercings and wearing a neon-orange hockey jersey.
A moment later, when this fellow who doesn't give a shit about U2's discarded footwear steps under the full glow of the fluorescent office lights, it becomes instantly clear that he's not a football hooligan but actually the huge, pulsating and ever-growing brain at the center of the Orb — “Doctor” Alex Paterson, himself.
Upstairs in a vacated A&R; room that now serves as a storage closet for forgotten DJ promos, Paterson proceeds to mash part of an odd claylike cube meticulously into a small shuffle of rolling papers. “Nothing like a postbreakfast toke,” he says as he lights the tubular package and inhales deeply. Indeed. Relaxed demeanor aside, Paterson is — to use his own word — frustrated. The recent morphing of Island from entertainment behemoth to beverage subsidiary has left the Orb's new album, Cydonia — a major musical step forward for the band — in the can far longer than Paterson would have liked. That was the story at our initial meeting in fall 1999.
Fast-forward to more than a year later, and Paterson's frustration has graduated to keen angst. “If they don't put the album out in January, I'm just going to quit Island,” he says. “I'm going to go, ‘Fuck it!’ I can't handle any more of this delaying. They're just mucking with my life, really.”
Paterson still hopes for a simultaneous U.K. and U.S. release. But the Seagram-Universal merger and its subsequent cost-cutting measures — which resulted in the unceremonious dropping of many artists in the United States — have left the Orb without a stateside label to serve their American fan base. Also, a clause in the current contract allows Island to hold on to the rights for the Orb's next record for 30 days after its release, further muddying Paterson's hopes of having the record appear in a timely fashion.
“We have a few labels in the States that would like to release the album, but this is a one-album deal,” says Paterson. “The label will only get to release Cydonia. It's not like they're going to get three albums off the Orb. Over here [in the United Kingdom], the response to the new material seems to be very good. We've got some good club mixes put together by our A&R man at Island U.K., and I've got some good relationships there. But our whole situation has changed with the hierarchy of Island and Universal, and we've had to wait a few years for it to simmer down. It's almost the same kind of scenario that happened when we released Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld [the Orb's debut album] in America. It got pushed down into a single album the first time it got released because the American public supposedly would never understand it. Basically, the record company didn't have a clue what was going on.”
Both the scaled-back version and the full “director's cut” of Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (and its signature track, “Little Fluffy Clouds”) slotted perfectly into an era when techno seemed like an inevitable evolution. In 1991, the only electronic dance music familiar to most major record labels consisted of a few prime New Order cuts. Straightaway, critics and dance-music fans alike hailed Paterson and his various coconspirators as pioneers of the chilled-out fusion of ambient sounds and electronic dance. Brandishing swatches of dub, Eno, disco savvy, and a healthy sense of humor, the Orb's unique flavor stood out in a sea of anonymous Chicago house tracks and the electro-pop of Depeche Mode. Although the Orb emerged from the same aesthetic as most DJs, the strength of “Little Fluffy Clouds” lent Paterson and company mainstream oomph that other essentially faceless turntable jockeys lacked then. Derrick May may have been a godhead at the time, but he was nothing that Rolling Stone or its readers could latch on to.
DARK SIDE OF THE TUNE
The fallout from the recent corporate holdup has multiple facets. Many hard-core fans have probably downloaded MP3 versions of the new tracks from Napster. (After several impending release dates never materialized, Island made advance promo CDs of tracks, which subsequently were leaked to the Internet.) But the delay has spurred Paterson to replace some of the older tracks with new music. He's also in the midst of launching Bad Orb (www.badorb.com), a new label that should keep him almost as busy as has another of his recent concerns: Paterson, just past 40, and his partner brought home their first child last October.
Since the baby's birth, Paterson has had a month or so to forget about the stalled release of Cydonia and concentrate instead on being a new dad. A few other diversions have kept Paterson's mind off the Orb, such as making contributions to the latest Juno Reactor album, Shango, and producing music for a new version of the ’70s British television series Randall and Hopkirk — Deceased with Guy Pratt, former schoolmate and bassist (Pink Floyd, the Dream Academy).
Paterson may be involved in numerous side projects, but he hasn't given up working on Cydonia, though the album sits unattended in the Seagram-Universal cupboard. After the lukewarm reception for 1997's Orblivion, Paterson decided to reconsider the Orb's lack of vocal material. The result: the Orb recorded four new tracks with London-based vocalists Aki Amore and Nina Walsh.
“We want to surprise people — we need to surprise people,” says Paterson. “I worked out an Orb formula that is about not having a formula and about changing our goals as often as I've changed record labels. When we were doing ‘Higher Than the Sun’ with Primal Scream, I really wanted to find out what it would be like to have an Orb record with vocals on it. We have had tracks with vocals on them, but they've never been in a verse-chorus-verse-chorus form. In the early days, we used to turn up at gigs and people would say, ‘Where's the girl?’ because of the Rickie Lee Jones sample on ‘Little Fluffy Clouds.’ So why not do the real thing? It's quite weird because I've been living with these new vocal tracks for such a long time now, and no one's really heard them. That's why I am so frustrated.”
Paterson used to sing with a punk band during the safety-pin era, so he had no problem writing some of his own lyrics. “These old punk lyrics just sound a hell of a lot better coming out of this Japanese girl's mouth than out of a South Londoner's. I found it a challenge putting music to lyrics, as opposed to doing music and putting weird noises over everything.”
SET THE CONTROLS FOR THE HEART OF THE SUN
This new departure is another random outgrowth of the inspired twiddling that Paterson's and the Orb's various engineers and collaborators have always relied on. Although Cydonia once again moves Paterson's material to the extraterrestrial (it is named after the area on Mars where the Viking II space mission photographed pyramidal and sphinxlike formations), the real nature of the album is largely organic.
“It's just noodling, really,” says Paterson. “Apart from the vocal tracks, we don't really believe in a time or structure limit. Everything is flown in live, and then we just take bits of this and the other out. A lot of our creative process comes down to editing.”
If not for Paterson's casual attitude, he would seem almost guarded in his vague description of the production methods he uses. Despite his lack of a standard approach, Paterson did have a basic blueprint for some of the vocal tracks.
“‘Ghost Dancing’ started off with a tune that Guy Pratt and I recorded in Berlin,” he says. “Then I got the lyrics together with Aki, and she took them into her studio and sang along with them. I sampled her vocals through a mad sort of 72-track digital SSL mixing desk on [the island of] Capri during a monthlong session we held down there.”
Other tracks such as the album's closer, “Terminus,” were less involved. He says: “We literally did that in a day, taking a lot of Robert Fripp samples from the FFWD album. [FFWD — Fripp, Fehlmann, Weston, and Doctor — was a collaborative effort by the Orb's Paterson and Kris Weston, Orb contributor Thomas Fehlmann, and Fripp.] We did that song in a studio, and we recorded sounds by placing a mic out the window. There's even a hidden nose-blowing session on it. Most of that album's tracks were done with [Orb engineer] Andy Hughes, and I felt that a lot of this album was all heading in the same looped-up direction. I wanted to restructure a lot of things.”
Paterson wound up fabricating part of that reconfiguration, particularly vocal tracks like “Plum Island,” in a more traditional fashion. “‘Plum Island’ is basically harmonies and lyrics sung by Nina,” he says. “Then we recorded an acoustic guitar and added in little drum patterns from the Korg ER-1. We got someone to record a bass line, but that didn't work. Then we got a flute player in the studio, and that track became the melody. We took it all to an old analog studio and got a really warm sound for it — in contrast to a lot of the other all-digital mixes on the album. We double-tracked the vocals to make them sound very large.”
Paterson and company also relied on the Orb's more standard “bedroom techno” production approach. Korg's sibling Electribe modules, the EA-1 and ER-1, contributed significantly to Cydonia's sound. “They sound gorgeous when you run them through a Kaoss pad,” Paterson says. “These Korg machines save a lot of hassle. And we used a Red Sound Systems Federation, a British-designed DJ module with a joystick controller, like a VCS3. You've got a flanger, delay, and panner that you can have going all at the same time. We'll use that stuff live as well — it's not just studio-based gear. I've got a Vestax MW3000 mixing desk with a MIDI socket and a built-in drum machine. You can set up your own drum patterns and MIDI them up to the bpm counter, and it will match the tempo of the record you're playing.”
A SAMPLERFUL OF SECRETS
The Orb used to base their music heavily on samples, but Paterson has been ratcheting down his use of samples. The main reason is the sheer frustration of clearing them (he cleared all of the samples in Cydonia late last year) and their constant misidentification by fans.
“I'm fed up with people trying to tell me what they think they heard on the record and getting it completely wrong,” says Paterson. “If anyone actually knew where the drums on ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ came from, they'd all just die, but I'm not at liberty to tell. Record companies have always warned me, ‘Don't tell anyone where you got your samples until we get them cleared!’”
Samples will probably come into further play in Paterson's future, particularly in his plans to develop projects for his Bad Orb label as a sort of Warhol-esque executive producer. “I'll be working with people on EPs, as opposed to just a track on an Orb album. I'll be letting them take control, finding them lots of samples, and allowing them to structure the track. Then I'll go in the studio and mix some things with them. But it will not be just me — there will be a lot of other bands doing their own thing. I'll just be releasing it. It's not like I'm trying to get my fingers in everywhere. The label is currently involved with about six different projects, and I'm looking forward to experiencing people's reactions.”
GREAT GIGS IN THE SKY
While he's preparing for Bad Orb's liftoff, Paterson has spent a lot of time manning the decks in places as far-flung as Mexico, Japan, and Iceland. His attitude about arranging his DJ sets is just as forward-thinking as his vision of the Orb's output.
“I'm into very experimental hip-hop at the moment,” he says. “I've been playing some mad stuff — elements of electro — hip-hop with progressive house rhythms over the top and an underlying electro groove. A lot of people kept asking me to play some Orb records, so I started to play ‘Plateau’ very late in the set. But I don't play it the way they expect me to.
“I really surprised myself one Saturday night. I have some Vestax PDX-D3 decks, which let you adjust the pitch as much as ±12 percent. I played ‘Plateau’ at +12, and it sounded like a jungle tune. It was quite interesting. It has some nice rhythms, and I wondered what they would sound like really loud and really fast. I knew that the bass lines would sound a bit weird, but bass lines in jungle tunes sound weird anyway.
“I'd like to think there was more risk-taking in DJ culture, but some people work with a formula, stick to it, play their two hours, and that's all you get. Then they move on to the next city and play the same set. I like to create entirely new sounds when I DJ. I'll play ‘Plateau’ at +10 or +12 while playing another record backward through a flanger on the other turntable. I enjoy doing that because audiences like to hear new things. I'm doing it for them, not for me. When they go, ‘That's fuckin’ brilliant!’, it's not because they're hearing a brilliant record that everyone else is playing at the moment.”
American audiences recently got a taste of Paterson's on-the-fly ambience when Juno Reactor brought him on tour as an opening-act DJ. Provided that Cydonia receives enough support upon its eventual release, he'll have the same opportunity to expand audiences' minds with the Orb's live performances in 2001. The specifics will keep hovering in zero gravity, though, until Paterson gets the stabilizers firmly mounted on the Orb's future.
“I'll get over that hurdle when I get there,” he says, “because I want to take a different approach with the Orb's live shows. Maybe we'll get one of the girls to come out and do vocals, or maybe we'll use two DJs instead of an engineer and a DJ. Or we could incorporate a guitarist or a keyboard player. Until then, these are all just plans B, C, D, and E.”
JoE Silva is a freelance writer who lives in Athens, Georgia. He's currently eschewing much sleep to finish his first book for Simon & Schuster, titled Sex God: The Life of Robyn Hitchcock.
Alex Paterson's Equipment
Akai S3000XL and S2000 samplers
The Orb: A Selected Discography
For a comprehensive discography, check out www.swcp.com/lazlo-bin/discogs.
The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (Big Life,
SINGLES AND EPs
“A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the
Centre of the Ultraworld” (Wau! Mr. Modo, 1989)
“3 a.m. Eternal” (The KLF) (KLF Communications,
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