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Interview with Phil Hartnoll by Richard Gilpin

When I encounter Phil Hartnoll in a half-built room in Brighton´s Metway Studios, two things are instantly clear. First, he is a genuinely DIY musician. Surrounded by orange paint and plyboard, he is busy constructing a newly soundproofed musical office for himself. Orbital, of which he is one brotherly half, has always had a self-sufficient approach to making music but building your own studio as well, earns serious indie kudos in anyone´s book.

The second possibly connected thing about Phil Hartnoll is that he is disarmingly down-to-earth. For a unit-shifting, stadium-filling pro, with a bundle of top five singles and albums under his belt, he is unusually lacking even the merest hint of smugness or swagger. He much prefers anonymity over celebrity and is openly freaked out when I mention that his face may end up gracing the front cover of this magazine. He will be pleased to find it didn´t in the end.

Nor is he too chuffed to discover that Orbital websites display a host of his mug shots for public perusal. How refreshing to find a musician who, along with brother Paul, feels resolutely unself-important and prefers the music to speak for itself.

If you want to know anything about Orbital, don´t ask Phil Hartnoll. Modesty dictates he will give you only the scantiest outline, alluding to the odd album here, a few gigs there, a bit of success now and then and a good laugh all round. When he says: ´our singles tend to dip in and out of the charts but our albums do a bit better,´ what he means is: ´our singles hit the top of the charts every time and most of our albums have gone or are going gold.´

That is no mean feat for the Sevenoaks-born duo who came out of the relatively short-lived acid house scene of the late 80s to carve out their own perpetually popular brand of dance/electronica, which has been described as everything from organic-techno to modern chamber music. When they ´chimed´ in the 21st century during a headline slot at Cream2000 with a song they wrote ten years ago, it simply reaffirmed their position up there in the UK dance aristocracy, alongside Underworld, Leftfield and the Chemical Brothers.

In terms of durability, Orbital are definitely the elders of the club, yet their profile is markedly lower. This probably has as much to do with the Hartnolls´ particular musical direction as it does to their self-effacing natures. ´We do get influenced by current trends because that is what´s around but we have never thought to jump on a bandwagon and make, say, a big beat album because it´s popular at the time. To do that for contrived or commercial reasons wouldn´t wear with us. Our hearts wouldn´t be in it and we´d just end up not doing it.´ Orbital have also tended to be less radio-friendly than their musical compatriots, this mainly due to a lack of vocals in their songs. Consequently, Phil tends to play down their popularity at large. ´I think we´ve been around for so long because we´ve been consistently bubbling just under the surface all the time. We´ve also got a really strong fan base which has stuck by us. The problem some people can have is that they get massive and then have to sustain that or go down.´

The Hartnolls are not doing a bad gravity-defying act themselves. Their first single, Chime, went in at No. 17 in 1990. In 1997 their contrastingly titled releases, The Saint and Satan, both made it to No. 3, and their fifth album, The Middle of Nowhere, reached No. 4 last year. A new album is already on the way and their next single, taken from The Beach soundtrack, is already shaping up to be a spring anthem. ´It´s the first Danny Boyle film to be scored and we had a brilliant time working with Angelo Badalamenti, whom I admire very much. He did a lot of David Lynch´s movies, like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. We took Angelo´s theme for the film but it was up to us what we did next. So we reworked it, sped it up and had a lot of fun with the samples of orchestras.

´We´ve come up with a bit of a disco number of his theme tune, which features some of Leonardo DiCaprio´s voice-over from the film. I think it´s labelled ´Orbital featuring Leonardo´, which makes me chuckle.´ Never has anyone felt less inclined to bask in the reflected light of a Hollywood star than Phil Hartnoll right now as he sits there chuckling. Hobnobbing with celebs is just not his style. He admits to: ´never going to be seen where you should be seen, apart from odd Q party for a laugh every now and again.´

The Levellers-owned Metway studio in Brighton is more Phil´s environment. Operating since 1995 it thrives on a collaborative spirit as important to Orbital´s early forays in the rave scene as it was to the Levellers´ own formative years. By providing free or cheap operating space to various groups and individuals - from silversmiths and film-makers to DJs and record labels - the Metway has helped sustain some of today´s more creative and forward-thinking Brighton minds. Phil, who now lives here, is the latest musician to benefit. ´It´s been good down here getting my little room sorted. They´re really nice people. I now feel properly connected with Brighton.´

And there are indeed some odd little connections. In the same way as fellow Metway residents, Justice? the internationally renowned civil liberties/human rights collective, rose to prominence following the passing of 1994´s Criminal Justice Bill, so too did Orbital as a live techno act. The CJB´s anti-party legislation irrevocably damaged the dance scene while the appeal of live bands received an unexpected boost. Unlike many of their generic counterparts, Orbital had always considered themselves a live band with a performance as potent as any rock act. As Liam from Prodigy has pointed out, Orbital were able to bridge a gap between dance and rock at a time when dance was being squeezed out.

Live, Orbital are a kaleidoscopic mix of visuals, imagery, trademark laser goggles and a sound that is far from pre-programmed. Phil explains. ´It´s a bit like being a composer with an orchestra. We set up a little studio on stage and everything is sequenced from sequencers but nothing is arranged. So we can make a song last a minute or an hour if we want to. All the instruments take in MIDI information which we use to manipulate sounds. So we can actually play with an audience and feed off them. If they are really enjoying a certain bit we can sustain it for more bars or take it out and bring it back in later.´

´We are improvising all the time. There are no tapes or anything and we´re not restricted to a set time. If you saw us play from one night to the next there would be certain key moments that would be the same because certain arrangements work. But there´s so much that´s not the same.´ Their ethos is remarkably similar to any gigging rock band. ´It is playing live that we get to meet our audience, gauge reactions and test a few things out. We´ve built up a following this way of really great people aged from 16 to 50. They´re a really un-intimidating bunch. My favourite venue is something like an old theatre, where there are seats upstairs if you want to sit and watch the light show but there´s space downstairs if you fancy a bit of a jig.´

It is no coincidence that all the big crowd-pulling events ushering in the new Millennium were providing soundtracks from the Orbital-Chemical-Superstar DJ musical kingdom. The whole dance/electronica genre has truly come of age. As Phil says, ´Even if it all crumbled tomorrow, it´s still lodged its place in history.´ How does he answer the charge that computer music suffers from a lack of soul? ´There is some music that is stark and cold but I can appreciate it for its sterility. It still sparks off emotion in the listener but it has a different quality to it. Part of the issue is that people don´t know how electronic music is made. All the computer does is take the place of the recorder. You still play the keyboard, whether it be with one finger or ten, and then you record that on to a sequencer. These are all just tools. The fascinating thing about synths and samplers is that we can create quite unnatural sounds - sounds we haven´t heard before. Sound sculpture, as it is called, is what´s always pricked up my ears. It´s a bit like hearing types of ethnic music, like thumb pianos or Mongolian throat singing, for the first time and wondering how on earth those sounds are made.´

Like their songs, which cleverly infuse all manner of atmospheres, from dark trip suspense to hands-in-the-air euphoria, Orbital may now go off in all sorts of directions. Their instrumental format and fondness for ´allowing songs to be as long or as short as they warrant,´ has left them free to explore myriad musical landscapes. Phil particularly likes the challenge of making film music. ´We are given a title and asked to write a story instead of just writing any story we want.´ But Orbital are essentially grabbers of opportunities and where they head next depends on what comes their way. Just like when they recorded The Girl With The Sun In Her Hair they used Greenpeace´s mobile solar generator because a mate of theirs happened to be painting it at the time.

Opportunities look good for Phil at the Metway too. The paint is dry and he´s almost ready to go. ´I used to do stuff at home but I really needed a space like this for doing bits and bobs in the evenings. It´s sort of my little shed at the bottom of the garden.´ Just as I thought. He likes his DIY.

Orbital´s new single, taken from The Beach soundtrack, is released on 28th February.

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