Artist To Artist: Phil Hartnoll Speaks To Timothy ‘Heretic’ Clerkin


In a little over a week I’ll be fulfilling a long held ambition and performing my live show alongside Phil Hartnoll, off of Orbital. As luck would have it, the very kind (or possibly very naive) chaps at Beyond The Tracks Festival have asked the only people stupid enough to put my records out (or indeed publish something I’ve written), The Ransom Note, to host the after party on the Friday night. Whilst this may seem like a wildly reckless play from Beyond The Tracks, I’ve chosen to keep schtum about R$N’s innate unprofessionalism, purely for personal gain. Fortunately, the line up is quite good; Phil Hartnoll, A Guy Called Gerald & Bawrut. How badly can it possibly go wrong? Only time will tell…

Timothy Clerkin: The well-known story goes that the Orbital name comes from the M25 motorway, which was key in the early South East rave scene. Were you going raving & making rave music first off, or were you making rave music and got involved in the party scene later?

Phillip Hartnoll: We were going raving at the time, we were going raving before raves were raves, really. They were still warehouse parties; the Mutoid Waste parties in Kings Cross were kicking off and the acid house parties down in Clink Street, there was loads of stuff. I used to go to warehouse parties before that which were playing hip-hop; I was really into electro and hip hip. I was going to Heaven to hear that electronic sound, it fascinated me – I was thinking what the hell makes that noise? We were living in Sevenoaks at the time and the orbital motorway cut right through our village. When the name Orbital was suggested it was like a bit of a zeitgeist – The Orb & William Orbit were all happening, it was all that flavour. More cerebrally, there are orbital loops & it’s loopy music; we love a bit of Star Trek & a bit of science fiction, so it all seemed to fit.

TC: So, many roads met to form the name?!

PH: Haha, yeah many roads! Only one road that you never get off, just go round and round! A bit like Orbital really, version three we’re on now haha! We’ve got that extension, got another lane put on.

TC: The first Orbital track I fell in love with many, many years ago, was Chime, and it’s one I still play out with startling regularity. Is the legend true that you made it on your dad’s tape recorder?

PH: Yeah, we had a four-track recorder, no computer or anything, just that & an MMT8 sequencer. Paul was experimenting with them and multi-tracking on little C90 tapes. Because it had 6 inputs, we would record all 6 to a C90, then flip it over and boil down a track that way. It was made very quickly because we were all waiting to go out to a party, so it was quite impulsive – we weren’t thinking about it really, and that was a good lesson to be learnt. Making that was basically a test for the new 4 track we had.

TC: That’s obviously worlds apart from how people just starting out today go about making music. Do you think your early work would have turned out vastly different if you had all of today’s tools at your disposal?

PH: Well, it’s hard to tell. But it’s funny, now we’re going back to some of the old samplers, which have got a very unique sound to them, like synthesisers really. We’re now beginning to realise ‘damn, why did we sell that’! Paul’s running around trying to buy the old E-mu Emax samplers that we lent to someone and never got back. Which is a shame because you’ve got to pay like fucking two grand for it now haha!

I love the fact that it’s quite intuitive now, Ableton’s much easier for people starting out, to have fun – it was a lot more complicated doing it on an MMT8. And the development of soft synths is fantastic. We’ve still got a studio full of old analogue synths and there is a difference, but it’s just a difference, it’s not that one’s better than the other. You can do things on soft synths you can’t do on outboard gear. But I think it’s great people can express themselves, whether it’s any good or not and they make a career out of it is a different story! And it really is difficult to make a living from it these days, as you probably know. On the one hand you’ve got something to thank the computer for, but on the other hand everybody can just download your shit instead of buying it.

TC: As a teenager, I was something of a lover of heavy metal and that version of Satan with Kirk Hammet [Metallica] on it was a big one for me. How did that come about, were you a fan of his beforehand?

PH: No, not really! I do love a bit of that sort of music though, it gets it out the system doesn’t it? We love punk music too, it's a similar emotion. Grahem Revell from SPK put the collaboration together, he noticed we were fans of SPK because we kept mentioning them in interviews. He was out in LA working on the Spawn film and he came up with the idea. We never actually met Kirk, but the idea for Satan came from the time Judas Priest were taken to court for allegedly hiding backwards devil worship in their records. We thought ‘fuck it, let’s just do an out and out rock track’ and we put that voice just repeating ‘Satan, Satan, Satan’ on it. The idea being that if you then play it backwards, it says jesus loves you. It was brilliant for us to have Kirk do his fancy guitar over the top. And when we were on tour in Poland we had these catholic nutters with banners demonstrating outside one of the gigs. It was perfect, just what we wanted.

TC: One of the things that got me interested in making electronic music was watching what you do on stage, though I’ve not seen you since Glastonbury 2004. I remember there being racks & racks of synths back then, how has the live show evolved since those gigs?

PH: This time we’ve whittled it down, we’ve got an [Access] Virus, a [Novation] Bass Station, a 303, a [Vermona] Perfourmer, a Sequential Circuits Pro4 and Ableton controlled via Lemur on iPads. We got rid of the mixing desk & EQ’s and we’re doing it all in Ableton, which I’m not sure I’m a fan of yet, we’re just trying it out. Everything’s in pattern play so we can still improvise the structure of the song. With all the big things like the [Roland] Jupiter 6 & 8, we’ve sampled them to make it more compact, no more big racks full of gear. I think we’ll revise it, this is a bit of a quick fix for this year.

TC: I was also a live act before I started DJing. The first time I properly DJ’ed, our manager put us on at a warehouse party in front of a thousand people, I was absolutely shitting myself! At what point did you decide to start DJing and do you think one compliments the other, or are they totally separate for you?

PH: I started DJing the first time we fist split up. I thought ‘fuck what am I going to do?’, so I bought myself some turntables and just learnt my trade – hours upon hours of practice on the turntables. Because when I DJ people expect a smattering of Orbital, I’ve dug out some old tracks that were never released. There’s one that’s really old school that seems to be going down well at the moment, which is funny.

TC: The line up for Beyond The Tracks Festival is kind of a who’s who of 90’s dance music, and there seems to be a bit of a 90’s revival currently happening. How do you feel you fit in with that?

PH: Quite well I would say! It’s a bit weird, I have a love hate relationship with it. I’ve got a few tunes that sample some of the old tracks but they’re updated. I’ve gone back to some of the old, old school tracks and they do sound old. I prefer more of a modern sound; I’m not very good with nostalgia. That might be a bit weird coming from a nostalgic band I suppose. It was good at the time and it’s nice to hear a track here and there, but a whole night of it does my head in!

TC: But the Orbital sound has progressed since the early days and you’ve always been very forward-looking. Do you still get the same buzz from playing the old stuff?

PH: Well that’s nice to hear. It's hard because I’m in it, I can’t tell how I’m perceived. I just did a gig in Derry and they absolutely loved the old stuff! They had Alison Limerick & Mr C – I played some of my new bits and it didn’t go down as well. The enthusiasm of these people, it was like going back to the 90’s. But it wasn't for me, I’ve been there and done that.

TC: Another important Orbital related track for me is Kinetic. Originally released as Pied Piper, then as Golden Girls on R&S and then remixed by you. Then you sampled it for Phrenetic and released a proper Orbital version earlier this year. That string riff has been incredibly important in the history of acid house, is it going to make an appearance on the new album?

PH: That’s going back to the technique of an old sampler, sampling a string stab and redoing it. I don't know, we’ll have to see! I’m going to have to tame Paul a bit on that, because if it does sound too old school… It’s quite tempting as you’ve only got a few seconds sample rate and it is one of our trademarks… but let’s see!

TC: The new single, Copenhagen, is classic Orbital, updated. Is that a broader taste of the sort of sound we can expect on the new album?

PH: I don't know yet, we haven’t started writing it! We decided to reform in February and I went off to Thailand doing some DJing. Since I got back, we’ve just been focussing on getting the live set together for the gigs we’ve had. Paul already had a demo of Copenhagen so we worked on that & then after Beyond The Tracks we’re going to go into the studio and start on some new stuff. How that’s going to develop I’m not sure, we’ve got some demos but I’d quite like to start afresh. But we’re getting on really well and the gigs are going amazingly well, better than I could have hoped for really, it’s just been great. I’m not sure how it’s going to sound yet… it’ll sound like Orbital, no doubt. I reckon there will be a few moody tracks and I want to get a little bit more dance floor flavour in there because I’ve been going out DJing, so I want to include some of that influence.

TC: Is there any rough date you’re working towards for release?

PH: Not yet, I think it’ll come quick quickly but you never know, we getting in the studio, we haven’t been working together for the last 4 years so I’m hoping it’ll go quickly – adopt that same attitude we had with Chime and just do it, rather than think about it too much because you can turn yourself mad! You can always change a track, it’s hard to say when it’s finished. They never are really, are they?

TC: Given the current socio-political climate and Orbital’s tendency to include themes of environment disaster in your music, can we expect the new album to touch on what’s happening at the moment?

PH: Hard to say! It’s part of us and our concern, obviously. It’s a bit too late now really I think, human beings have blown it to be honest haha, especially when you look at what’s going on in Houston!

They’ve got their cocks out, Trump and North Korea, it’s like we’ve gone back to the 80s. And people are refusing to accept that global warming is actually happening, but by the time they realise and have to do something… I think they’ve fucked it already, to be honest!

TC: A cheery note to end on… 😉

PH: Haha, yeah it is! But that’s what I believe; I thought that back when we made Snivilisation.

TC: Haha! Thanks for speaking to us, Phil.

PH: Cool man, I’ll see you in Birmingham.

Orbital will be at Beyond The Tracks Festival in Birmingham next week alongside Timothy 'Heretic' Clerkin. See more HERE

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