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Culture Clash

It's 10 p.m. on a Friday, and the Orb's Alex Paterson enjoys the beautiful view as he works his way through the evening's third interview. "It's almost a full moon tonight," he quietly interrupts. "It's a very clear night, and I'm standing in the garden."

At home with his girlfriend and year-old daughter, Paterson relishes such serene moments, knowing that the Orb's newest album, Cydonia, will soon send him off on another tour. Following the album's release in late spring, he did an international loop. This time, he's getting ready to travel with Moby and others involved in the mammoth Area:One Festival. Several months after the album's release, he's dead tired of explaining why it's been almost four years since the release of the Orb's previous album, Orblivion. ("My best answer is the record label, really, and that's why I just want to get off it," he answers dismissively.) And he's amused by some critics who have been comparing the album (unfavorably) to Enya and Van Morrison. "It just makes me laugh," he says. "On the other side, it's been Album of the Month in the major chains in the U.K., so it doesn't really bother me."

While Paterson might muse, "I don't know if any critic will be allowed in heaven," he's clearly an artist at peace with himself. Commenting on the critical reaction in general, he says, "It's either really good or really bad, which I always find tantalizingly good." Paterson has a wider vision, which is evident in the accessible yet adventurous textures of his gorgeous new album and in the way he tells his story.

As one of the creators of today's electronic dance music, he's amused yet frustrated by the media's tendency to refer to what he does as "ambient," an esoteric, high-art term. "It's quite odd, because I like ambient music, but I come from a different part of London," he explains. "I don't come from around the lights, the cinemas and clubland. I live on the other side of the river; it's very multiracial. A lot of my neighbors are black and Asian. I've been a reggae fan ever since I was fourteen, and I first went to the youth club and discovered this reggae music was being played there. I bought reggae records with my mates down there, and I taught them how to play chess. It was this cultural exchange, the world of the 21st century. And all of the media queens, they come up with their own line about anything."

On Paterson's very first tapes from the '70s and early '80s, he called himself Prince Alex (in the reggae tradition) and made dub mixes of records by industrial pioneers Killing Joke (for whom he was a roadie). Growing up, he loved such ambitious rock bands as T-Rex and King Crimson, and he was particularly grateful when he had the opportunity to work with Crimson's Robert Fripp in 1994. Though Paterson once worked for Fripp collaborator Brian Eno's ambient-music label, Paterson's creative roots have more to do with the variety of popular styles a band like the Clash represented, a band that outgrew the narrow label of "punk."

"I used to follow the Clash when I was about seventeen," Paterson says proudly. "They were the first band I ever slept in a cardboard box for, traveling around the country. The band would normally come out and give people a drink or a biscuit. Flash forward about fifteen years, and I get to remix Big Audio Dynamite and meet Mick Jones, and he is singing my praises. I know Paul Simenon as well. He goes way back from Brixton and that sort of thing. And Joe Strummer turns up in L.A., and he was singing my praises, and it's really odd."

In 1997, the Orb and Killing Joke played a festival with the Sex Pistols, and Paterson had the dubious opportunity to join that band. "They were looking for a bassist, and they saw me onstage with Joke during the encores, doing 'Bodies' and 'No Fun.'" In the midst of his own tour with a band as central to electronica as the Pistols were to punk, Paterson turned them down. But he embraces his punk past, particularly as a roadie with the Joke. "It was a quite intense six years of my life, and it learnt me a lot," he says.

He describes his new live show with little artistic pretense and with refreshingly good-natured showmanship. He seems genuinely eager to continue playing live, as if he can't wait to share the surprises that his performances hold. "We've become a three-piece again," he says. "We've got a bass player, almost like a DJ/band clash with a lot more effects. And I've found myself playing original versions of things we sampled, which ought to throw people off. You'll have to come and hear it."

Paterson's most recent tour offered a few other intriguing twists, such as its mysterious opening act, Bad, which draws its name from an Internet label and musical side project on which he's been working for the past four years. He also has another album in the works that should delight longtime Orb fans, as it marks a return to the project's early days. The group started in 1988 as a collaboration between Paterson and the KLF's Jimi Cauty. When the two split after two years, Cauty took Paterson's contributions from an album they'd worked on together titled Space. "I had a little chat with Jimmy Cauty this morning, and we might be doing a Space 2 album together," Paterson reveals.

As he gets off the phone, Paterson says he's heading inside to kick back, relax for a while and go to sleep. No doubt it will be a peaceful slumber. The full moon's in its heaven, Cydonia's still on the rise, and a few nasty critics mean very little in the boundless universe of the Orb.

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Danny Alexander