Late September brings us the resonant vectors of the ninth Decibel Festival. Giant sequencers are scanning the city canopy for ear-brains as we speak. Let us heed the vehiculum of beats, hook in, and swing with digital howlers amongst the strobes. A centerpiece of this year's Decibel series is Orbital at the Paramount Theater. Orbital are brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll from Sevenoaks, England. They're the fathers of rave, whose early-'90s run induced a UK acid house heyday. For seven full-lengths, their improvised instrumental electronic dance mixes governed, spilling sections into drum 'n' bass, techno, and jungle. In 2004, they paused to collect and refuel with other projects. This past April, they released their eighth studio album, Wonky, and now the brothers Hartnoll are once again conjoined in their cockpit, mixing live with goggle lights on. Phil spoke from his home studio, taking a break from the mastering phase of a soundtrack they had scored.
What's the score you're mastering for?
A British movie called Pusher. It's about a week in the life of a small-time drug dealer. It all goes wrong for him, then more wrong. We really enjoyed doing the soundtrack.
Who plays the drug dealer?
Richard Coyle. I like him. He keeps popping up in movies. They're not the best movies, but you get to know an actor, and like them, and even though the movie's not the best, the actor makes it bearable. He was in a dramatization of Terry Pratchett's book Going Postal that's definitely worth the watch.
Did the producer give you a strict set of instructions for the score?
They wanted us to do it like Drive, which was trendy at the time. Seems like everybody wanted soundtracks to be like Drive. Or The Social Network. But the movie we were working on was nothing like Drive, so we went with a retro thing, sort of a Giorgio Moroder angle.
How is doing a soundtrack different from doing an album?
It's like the difference between getting an assignment in school to write about what you did during the holidays as opposed to getting an assignment to write about being the first person on the moon. That's not that good a comparison, though [laughs]. There's a job to do. You've got to marry the image to a sound, and enhance it—you tussle with how you're going to either emphasize or underplay the scene, or exaggerate its emotion. For an Orbital album, it's more like we're satisfying our own emotions and expressions, and finding music that matches that.
How did you go about composing for specific scenes?
We did a lot of it on laptops actually, when we were recording Wonky up in London. We had lots of time on the trains going back and forth, so we'd watch the scenes and put ideas down. It was tricky because it's all about drug dealing and people doing coke all over the place. You forget that you're watching it with the headphones on and that you're on a commuter train with loads of people around [laughs]. You've got some dodgy scene going on, and there's a kid hanging over your shoulder trying to get a look at it.
Coke scenes mean the music is up-tempo and frenzied, right?
A lot of it is, yeah. Lots of throbbing bass.
Orbital has been off and on over the years. What brings you back?
When we stopped, we honestly thought that was the end. We weren't feeling it anymore. We were in a good position, but just knocking out the tunes isn't what we're about. We had come up with material we were disappointed with, and we didn't want to put out stuff we didn't genuinely believe in. My brother had always wanted to work with an orchestra, so he went off and did that. And I started DJing a lot more, which was good for me, to get inspired by other people's music. I started a project down in Brighton with other musicians called Long Range, and that lasted for an album, which was really fun. Then the Big Chill Festival asked us to do a reunion gig at the right time—we were enthused about writing music again with no grand scheme in mind. The response and warmth we got from the audience blew us away, and that led to a year and a half of reunion gigs. It was a wonderful and encouraging time. We were enjoying each other's company again and playing the live set again. Then it came to a point where we wanted to keep playing live, but we needed new music. That's where Wonky was born.
You're coming to Seattle for Decibel Festival. The atmosphere here is so elevated for electronic music, in large part because of Decibel.
Decibel in Seattle has definitely been on our radar. When we were asked to do it, we were excited. You can tell the festival comes from people who love the music—it's done well all the way around. And something about Seattle has a familiar European feel to it. Maybe it's the rain? We jumped at the chance to play there and based the rest of our little West Coast jaunt around the Decibel date. We are really looking forward to it.
Since 1989, you guys have been dialing in the gear for your setup and live show. What new gear have you integrated?
When we started, we didn't have a computer. We wrote music on little Alesis MMT-8 sequencers. When we played live, we basically set up a studio onstage. Each of these sequencers had eight buttons on them and every button contained a track, broken down into individual parts—high hat, bass drum, and so forth. There was no song format; we were improvising with the song structure, sending out MIDI messages and audio messages to the samplers. There are parameters we employ to feed off the audience's vibe, twisting and turning filters on the synths. Now the computer has taken the place of the sampler with the audio files. And we've got iPads instead of the sequencers. From gig to gig, the arrangements will differ. We read the audience, giving it to them, taking it away, then bringing it back. For America, we're working on a different system since the cost of bringing our whole studio over is tremendous. We're bringing some of the hardware stuff, but we're breaking down the synths into soft synths on the computer, and using controllers to manipulate the sounds. We're still improvising with the song structure, but in a slightly varied way. We love the soft synths. We were cynical about them five years ago, but the advancements that have been made with them have been so great.
What soft synths are you going with?
What's a piece of Orbital gear that hasn't changed over the years?
The 909. That's coming with us. That's been there from the beginning.
What makes a beat attractive to you?
Oooh, that's a hard one. It's got to have movement and feeling, on an emotional level. It's more of a subconscious thing, I think. That's why we split up, because we weren't feeling it.
When you're making a beat, how does the subconscious translate technically?
The beat grows. We usually start with a melody, or a bass line, or something musical. We could have a basic beat, metronome style, to get us going with the melody, and once the musical element starts to define itself, the beat grows around that. It's very rare that we'll start with a beat and then build a track around it. It's interesting—we have started with beats before, but those are the ones that tend to not get finished.
As brothers, do you bicker? Does it ever just devolve into wrestling? Like when you were on the train composing for Pusher, how often did you wrestle?
[Laughs] It won't get that far with us. We grew up enjoying similar music and enjoying talking about music. We have similar tastes. We respect each other's creativity and aren't upset if the other one doesn't enjoy it. We don't really bicker, not about music. It might do us some good to bicker [laughs]. We're symbiotic and constantly communicating and developing ideas, bouncing them off each other.
You guys recorded in the mobile solar-powered studio for Greenpeace?
Yes. Obviously, we use electricity to do what do what we do. They told about this articulated truck that goes around with solar panels all over it, promoting solar energy. It was an opportunity for us to use the energy from it and record a particular track. We wanted to help spread the word about solar energy.
Can you tell it's solar-powered?
Yeah, it's a lot warmer [laughs].
How do you go about finding samples?
It's more like they find us, really. We'll be watching the telly and something will stick out, and you think, "Oh, I gotta grab that." It's something that leaps out at you.
What's one of your favorite samples you've used?
Our Mom had this '70s-style ottoman or stand made out of wire, with all these plastic orange balls. When you picked it up and waved it around, the balls hit each other and made this interesting, weird noise. We sampled it and used it in between tracks.
You guys have weathered different faces and phases of electronic music. How is it different now as opposed to then?
I always have an analogy of an electronic tree. It's got its roots in the late '60s/early '70s. Then came disco music, then into the '80s with new wave, Gary Numan, New Order, and Kraftwerk. In the '90s, we got with house and techno—it just grows and grows and grows. All the different branches and genres. Drum 'n' bass, jungle, they're all connected. It's like a weeping willow that bows down with connections to what was there before. It's cool to see young rave bands doing their interpretation of the past. I can hear what's influencing their sound, and the earlier bands they're pulling from, but it's still their interpretation. I love it. The tree forever grows.
What newer bands and producers inspire you?
I like the Knife. And there's a label called Night Slugs that I'm into. Great stuff!
Are there any branches of electronic music that have sprung up that make you cringe?
Nothing makes me cringe too much. On Wonky, there's a track called "Beelzedub." It's actually a bastardization of the track "Satan," which we always play live. Like I was talking about with our live sets, they're constantly developing. And the more we've played "Satan," the faster it's gotten over the years. Then a few years ago, we thought we'd add some fat, insane bass and have a go at the dubstep. We weren't following a trend with it, we were just touching on a sound that was happening. It was a fun development for us. The bass in dubstep is so crazy, we thought we'd pop it in "Satan."
Why do you have a track called "Satan"? You don't seem satanic. Or maybe Satan likes acid-house raving? Or does it have to do with the Butthole Surfers sample on it? You're not satanic, are you?
It came from the idea about playing rock 'n' roll songs backward and hearing them talk about the devil. We were having some fun with that. It was like 1989–90, and we said, "Fuck it, let's do a hiphoppy/guitary sort of thing and call it 'Satan' [laughs]." Just a bit of antagonizing fun.
Have there been any religious protests about the song?
Something I'm proud of happened the last time we were in Poland. You know they've had a Polish pope fairly recently, Pope John Paul. Before the Nazi pope got in. So we were playing in Poland, and there was a demonstration outside the venue of people saying we were playing satanic music because of that track. These Bible bashers were trying to ban us, saying, "It's the devil's music." I think it's brilliant! [Laughs] I guess it did work.
What are the samples on Blue Album's "You Lot" dealing with? Genetic engineering?
It's about the second coming of Christ. A bit religious as well. It's a speech from a film called The Second Coming. It was Jesus having a go at the people, telling them that God is within, look what you've done to the world. We have a big beef with what humans have done and how ridiculous people are. We're not thinking straight. It's all about the here and now, and not caring about the consequences.
What's next for Orbital? What new sounds are you concocting?
It'll be with the software-based synthesizers. Granular sampling, stuff you can't do on an analog synthesizer. They're like toys. Remember when you were a kid, and there was the activity center of toys, where you push a button and it makes a noise? We haven't grown up from that, really [laughs]. We're older and wiser, but we're still like babies pushing buttons in a giant gear-based activity center.