In Conversation with Orbital at Inner City Electronic

After their memorable performance at The Refectory, Stal sits down with Orbital to find out more about the brothers he’s admired for many years.

In front of me are Phil and Paul Hartnoll, alongside Jamie, their longstanding promoter and the perfect gentleman.   For me, Orbital are one of two reasons for electronica/techno/breakbeat music really taking hold in the UK, the other obviously being The Prodigy.  The calibre of artistry in the room here is sky high, and has been for decades, too.  A few years ago I’d have probably screamed, running round the chairs while ripping my shirt apart, but y’know, I’ve got the mastery over that starstruck feeling now.  Tell you something, though, I felt it a real artistic privilege to sit down with Phil and Paul and pick their brains for fifteen minutes or so.  

Offering to shake their hands to introduce myself and say thanks, I was met with Phil’s elbow.  He is officially the first person ever to offer me the ‘Coronavirus elbow-shake’.  A moment to treasure that.  I quickly reciprocated with mine and after we’d bumped elbows we all looked at each other with daft smirks like we were on some kind of alien craft.  I asked them if they just wanted to calm down a bit first as literally two minutes ago they were dropping Where Is It Going from their album Wonky, to two thousand people, I couldn’t quite get my head round this. 

Anyway, they were good to go.  Quite something how they can just clock on and off.  Rather than delve into their music directly, which I would have loved, given more time, I decided to go right back to the very beginning, long before there was any hint of them becoming part of the underground scene in Kent.  I wanted to know when they were kids what was it that triggered their interest in music. Paul gave it a little thought ‘…I can tell you exactly when it was: I was twelve.  Is that good enough?’, I laughed and assured him that was a good place to start.  Paul continued ‘I’ll tell you what was happening – I was in the bath, Sunday night.  I always used to listen to the chart rundown on my radio in there.  All my thoughts were about action men and toy soldiers, that kind of thing.  Then Tears Of A Clown by The Beat came on; it blew my head off.  I’d never heard the original, didn’t know it was a cover version.  I sh*t you not, everything changed in my life.  I wanted to dress in cool clothes, I wanted to meet girls, I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to do what they were doing.’  Paul was pretty much locked in the zone remembering how he felt, everything still pertinent to him.  I kept laughing though, because he looked puzzled ‘I didn’t know WHAT they were doing, but I wanted to do that.  I went in the bath a boy and came out a MAN!’  Paul is a funny, animated guy. 

Anyway, I asked about the first steps he took with any kind of music gear, but I was not expecting the answers I got “I was thinking about playing the saxophone, ’cause I was really in awe of all the two-tone saxophones.  But then I thought naah, guitar, it’s going to be more practical.  My mum and dad were really kind.  They said if you want to learn an instrument we’ll buy you an instrument.  I said electric guitar please…’. I made the point that this was parenting at its best. 

Moving forward a little I asked at what point did he get into the music gear that resembled what he has now “Phil got a drum machine and played it through my guitar amp; he enjoyed messing with that.  Then he got a synth, all of a sudden it was like New Order in our bedroom.” 

Aw man good lads, I could sense we were getting closer to 1989 now! I asked Phil  how he started out.  “I wasn’t really a musician; Paul was always in a band.  When I heard the sound of a synthesiser I was like what the f*@k made that!?  What happened there?!  That was my intrigue.”  I asked who it was that created the intrigue.  “Kraftwerk, when I was ten.  We’ve got an older brother, he’s a chief consultant doctor in Chelsea & Westminster hospital no less!’  I was totally enamoured with all these obscure facts coming out. Phil carried on “We come from a real drongo-like working class family.  Our older brother nearly committed suicide at Cambridge University, because he wasn’t ‘old-school tie’.”  I could tell that Phil felt an enormous amount of pride for his big brother, who was determined to power through Cambridge University despite not fitting in with the middle/upper classes – the working-class boy did good.  “Hats off to that.  Chief Consultant…..” Phil said with a lot of smiling pride for their big brother.  

Phil concluded on the family work ethic and got back to the music their big brother showed them “He introduced me to Kraftwerk and Deep Purple.  It was the prog rock,  so it was the idea that it wasn’t just the pop song – the verse chorus mid8, double chorus and out.  When Kraftwerk happened I was like what the f*@k, what’s happening to those sounds?  What is that?”  Phil went on to discuss how he and Paul started to connect musically in their mid teens  “I was just floating about, but Paul had a definite idea.  We got jobs and we bought a Korg drum machine, but it was the Latin percussion one, completely the wrong drum machine!  We had to go from Kent to Catford to sort it.’  Phil and Paul were laughing at themselves reminiscing over this little blip, but things were starting to come together quite quickly.  As Phil says, Paul had a definite idea…  

Phil continued “Then I got a Korg Poly 800 and I was going ‘Paul?! Paul?! How do you do this, how do you do that?’  He was a bit more musical, but then we realised that to link gear together we needed a sync box!’ After a little more discussion over geeking things out to make your setup work for you, I asked Phil about the sound they initially were aiming to create.  “I liked high energy dance music; just the sheer sound of that electronic music.  I was saying to Paul we need to keep doing this together.  Let’s make a track like New Order.” 

I then wanted to know how things panned out from their late teens, with the whole underground rave scene now taking place around the M25 Orbital motorway; how the gig penny finally dropped? Paul then proceeded to tell me the most intriguing part of this interview “Phil went to America.  He loaned his gear to a friend of his in London.  So I was left with my four track and my guitar, so I thought f*@k that, I’m going to need to get some gear then!  Our grandad left us some money.  He died of leukaemia when I was three – he’d left us £1000 for when we turned eighteen.  So my mum gave it to me a few months early and I bought my own Korg Poly 800 and a 909 drum machine ’cause they were going cheap hahaha!”  Man alive those were the days.  Paul goes on, this was a few sentences of music history that will stick with me for a while:  “Yeah, everyone wanted digital drum machines,so they were selling the analogue ones cheap.  So I’d got the 909, I got an MC202 (sequencer).  Phil came back from America, brought his stuff back from his mates.  So we had a few drum machines and all sorts then.  Then our mate stole a load of our gear, wanting heroin money.”  Phil with perfect comedy effect pitched in “Ah, was that what he was doing?”  “YEAH!” Paul confirmed.  “And of course with the insurance money and the way technology goes, we bought far better equipment.  So thanks to my mate, we got the sampler that Chimes was made on.”   Really? Really?! I was in nostalgia overload here.  I concluded our chat with the summary that their kind grandad, and the misdemeanours of their friendly drug addict were key players in the forming of Orbital.  Thank goodness for that.  

So my time with two people whose work I’ve respected, admired and loved for three decades had come to an end.  I’d learnt a lot more than I thought I would, with some real eye-openers to be fair.  They are two exceptionally clever, direct and artistically gifted gentlemen.  Don’t let Phil’s self-deprecating ‘working class drongo’ line fool you. 

Orbital play four more UK dates this year between now and mid August.  Please go and see them if you can.

Stal’s review of ICE on 7 March is here.

Photography by Mark Wheelwright.


Stal writes on contemporary music, covering gigs and festivals in and around Leeds with huge energy and enthusiasm, teasing out interesting snippets of information from the artists he interviews.

Do you have a story to tell?
We want to hear your stories and help you share them.