The Orb's Alex Paterson on punk and reggae being two minorities fighting a majority
The Orb got its start in the second half of the '80s, inspired by dub and house music. Cited as an influence of many modern electronic music artists today, the act also had a major impact on ambient artists of the past few decades, including guitar bands like Seefeel and late-period Slowdive. Founded by Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty, who went on to form the KLF, the Orb came out of the post-punk world but took the elements of dub-bass and sampling to make a different kind of music.
The Orb's debut album, 1991's The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, was an immediate hit in clubs and even made a splash on alternative radio with its single, "Little Fluffy Clouds." But the group was never content to repeat itself. As a result, the outfit's subsequent albums across the next two decades displayed the proclivity of Paterson and his various collaborators for reinvention -- or even a mere inspired rejuvenation in revisiting roots.
Fusing those two impulses went into the now duo's two most recent albums, made in collaboration with legendary dub producer, Lee "Scratch" Perry. We recently spoke with the wryly humorous and sharp Paterson about his early experiments in making samples, working with Lee Perry and how embracing change is the best shot at longevity in music.
Westword: In the early days of being a roadie for Killing Joke, were you already making music of your own?
Alex Paterson: Yeah, I was in and out of bands, but never took ourselves very serious. I was in an experimental band called Bloodsport, which released some things on Malicious Damage in the late '70s and early '80s. The multi-track we recorded, Malicious Damage, didn't pay for it. The usual stuff with small independent labels and stuff. The band was somewhere between PiL meets Joy Division -- very abstract vocals, and I was doing the vocals, and the drums; we never had a drummer but we used to smash up bottles and sample them and make them into drum loops. Even in those days, I was weird.
So you were using samples very early on.
That was in the very early days, even with Killing Joke. Not many people know this, but at the very beginning of four or five of the tunes on Night Time, I was involved in the sampling techniques of miking up strange objects and dropping very big pieces of metal, and miking up the area where it was passing through the air, to record that noise, and then put all that noise together to make something unique. That was a really good time. We used to build these drum tunnels and mike up the drum tunnels to make the biggest drum sound at the time.
It seems like a natural progression to go from that to absolutely experimental music. How did you get into make the more electronic variety?
I knew my around a keyboard because I used to maintain Jaz Coleman's OBX, which is an Oberheim keyboard. It was a state of the art keyboard. The OBX is all over the second Killing Joke album What's THIS For...!. It has a dark and sinister sound. Jimmy Cauty went and bought one one day but he didn't he didn't know how to work it. So I switched it on and showed him a few things and we started making records and that's how the Orb came about. Little bits of knowledge can go a long way.
You knew Jimmy from school?
No, I knew Jimmy was in Brilliant with Youth. Youth is an old schoolmate.
What kind of gear did you and Jimmy use early on beyond the OBX?
In the early days it was a bass guitar and samples and those bottles and a vocalist. Occasionally Geordie from Killing Joke did guitars because I was always a really big fan of his. The Orb was using a twelve-track, a sampler, an 808, save save save, oh bugger I've lost it again. Then try to do it again. If only the youngsters knew what we had to go through for what we had so that they can now do on what's in their pockets. But that's cool, though. You can embrace technology or you can ignore it. No one is telling you to do it.
What radio broadcast science fiction did you sample and do you do that sort of thing now?
Well, the science fiction classics from the '50s. Really it was the Sputnik broadcasts and from when I went to Moscow and picked up a musical box that played these amazing tunes that I sampled. It was like a "Radio Moscow" kind of bloke talking and that's all on UFOrb. In terms of space stuff, we took loads of stuff from the Apollo missions. Growing up as a child, I sort of witnessed it firsthand whether it's an elaborate deception or not, but it's a good talking point.
In what ways would you say that King Tubby impacted the music you make?
Even now, especially with the Lee "Scratch" Perry stuff we've been putting out recently, he's a major influence. That's a nail on the head kind of question more so than most of the ambient or Eno or whatever might come to mind about house music. What we're all about is dub music. That really came to fruition in the last few years with Lee "Scratch." We could make an alternative Orb dub selection and we could get out twenty-thousand copies of that album in another day when people were buying music and now I don't think we could get rid of any of them. It's like living in a Philip K. Dick book. That's all I can say.
King Tubby's [Surrounded By the Dreads] at the National Arena is probably one of my all time favorite albums. I got a copy when I was seventeen years old, and it's been with me all my life. There's three cuts of "Come On Little Girlie," and a major cut of "I'll Be Back," put out on Trojan about five or six years ago.
I've have much respect for King Tubby and Majestic Dub series on Joe Gibbs. I grew up with this music, being in south London, having the right acquaintances and hanging around getting the right music at the right time. Again, in the punk scene, we embraced the whole reggae scene as much as they embraced the punk scene. We were two minorities fighting a majority which often happens.
Did you see King Tubby perform?
I think I did. Back in the day at Dingwalls or something like that.
How did you come to work with Lee "Scratch" Perry?
A lot of persuasion from management talking for about two years. And thank you to my last manager, Mike Gillespie, for realizing my dream with that. Before that, I worked with him as a DJ, strangely enough, on some of his gigs around the world. He kind of knew who the Orb was and he knew me. When we asked him he said, "Send me some demos."
Six months went by, and we sent him more demos and waited another three months, and then we got him for a week. We managed to do eighteen or nineteen tracks in that week. It was all done in an idyllic place with nothing to distract us. It would be like being in a barn in Kansas to you lot. But for me and Thomas, it was in a lovely location called Sternhagen in northeastern Germany, near the Baltic. Every morning, we would go walking to lakes or visit the animals or fields.
Is there anything you learned from him at that time?
Anything goes, pretty much. We [did] our first gig with him in Norway [this past weekend].
Do you operate mostly out of the box these days or a bit of that and hardware?
It's a bit of a mixture of both, really. Thomas is the man behind those kinds of instrumentations. But we have a couple of outboard keyboard effects including delays.
Are you doing the full band thing for this tour?
No, we've given up the full band thing. We're not trying to appease anybody or get a gig because we're a band now. We're a two piece and that's been going on for a while now. With EDM, again, part sixteen, I think, in America and I think we can get away with being a two-piece again.
In the past you drew some inspiration for your visuals from the collaborations between Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass. Have you drawn from other sources for your show now?
I think space itself and the space cameras out there. I was talking to our visuals guy about the visuals and we're going to be using a lot of the visuals from our first two or three albums and try to get them in synch with the tunes we're playing on stage. Maybe.
Thomas keeps the straight and narrow because he's got a big clock in his head. One day I'd love for us to do dance routines so people don't think we take ourselves that seriously. That would completely freak people out. Dressed up like English country gentlemen. I won't give it all away but I can see it now and it's funny.
The imagery of UFOS and space obviously informs your work. What is it about that sort of thing that captivates your imagination.
That kind of stopped after the first two albums. We tried to pull away from that with Orbus Terrarum, back to earth and all the rest of it. You guys in the States embraced Orbus Terrarum and I think everybody back in the UK told us that it was a pile of shite. We weren't really bothered because we expected a backlash at some point because that's always going to happen.
We survived and got back on track and we toured with Moby and we did Lollapalooza. In the twenty-first century we became more of a two-piece and more experimental and try to develop sounds we really liked and to do for people that wanted to like us, if you get my drift. Life is a big learning curve and life is about change all the time as well.
This morning, I turned on the radio and I heard "Little Fluffy Clouds." The irony of it all now is that twenty and more years you're still hearing that tune on the radio. If we'd written four or five tracks that all sounded like "Little Fluffy Clouds," that would have been the Orb dead and buried. That's not really wanted to do. I can bury myself. I don't need anyone else do that for me, thank you.
And all the Killing Joke boys and I faced a lot of adversity together back in the 70s and they've run through their own ideology of doing their own thing in music. And here we are still doing it. We did something right or someone put something nice in our porridge when we were little. Thank you, God. To youngsters, life is about hardships, but at the end of the day, if you look after yourself, someone out there is willing to look after you.
Could you please give a shout out to DJ Roswell? I met him about twenty-years ago. He had a label called Dojo. He worked at Wax Trax, I believe. I will try to pay a visit when I get there.
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