With a legacy stretching back almost 30 years, Orbital are one of the most influential dance music acts the UK has produced. Emerging from the euphoria of the Second Summer Of Love, their singular brand of hypnotic electronica pre-empted the huge basslines of dubstep and the tightly-programmed syncopations of modern breakbeat. Taking inspiration from an embryonic rave culture, they grew to become one of its defining components, creating some instantly recognisable dance-floor and festival classics along the way. Phil and Paul Hartnoll have had their break-ups, pursued solo projects and faced the challenge of staying fresh in an ever-changing industry. Now, they return with a season of massive shows, and a new brace of material which sounds as contemporary as ever. “We don’t think about that,” says Phil. “That’s the best thing – not to be conscious of fitting in.” Arriving soon is their first new album in around five years. Released on Fri 14 Sept, Monsters Exist is a loose concept piece, gazing at a Britain beset by rhetoric and tension. Monsters might just exist, and they might just look like us.
Let’s not suggest the Hatnolls are pushing any partisan agenda, but there is a compelling argument for better considering consequence in modern society. “Our next single is trying to provoke people to think about the state of our nation. It’s that old rave thing of: ‘Look at the shit we’re in. Let’s sort it out. Let’s all join together.’ We’ve all got completely different opinions, but we’ve got to live here.” Named Please Help United Kingdom (or PH:UK if you’rean anxious BBC compliance officer), its video features poigant juxtapositions of crap social housing alongside glossy new luxury developments. It’s a call to action reminiscent of the original rave ethos, which demonstrated everyone is always stronger without social barriers and a shared ambition.
Back when Orbital started, that rave movement was unregulated and swiftly growing in momentum. It was becoming disruptive to the establishment and dealt with accordingly. “A lot of it, I felt, was a bit rebellious,”says Phil. “It said: ‘Fuck you. You’re not listening to us, so we’re going to go over there and do our own thing.’” The culmination was sanctioned police action against travelling communities and laws guarding against unapproved public gatherings, following a summer of massive free parties and a tidal wave of media outrage. Orbital reflected this by sampling John Major’s infamous ‘New age travellers? Not on my watch’ speech – ironically providing a defining moment in a Glastonbury slot the very day he resigned.
Like the duality of their working relationship, the brothers balance any political leanings with a mischievous sense of humour. At a live performance you might hear any number of cheeky references thrown in, particularly with their melding of You Give Love a Bad Name and Heaven Is a Place On Earth into one of their biggest hits. “It was just my way of putting two fingers up at the shaven-headed white-boy techno brigade in London, who’d be playing sandpaper and white noise,” says Paul. “Everyone was a musician because they could make noise on a laptop. They’d all stand around at the front scratching their chins.” He suddenly bursts into laughter. “I don’t know why I kept going to these things. Perhaps it was the hope someone would do something good.”
The pair’s live shows are a direct extension of studio practices they only abandoned recently, exploring melody, rhythm and harmony in epic work-outs. “We just used to jam our records. It was all about getting every synth and machine you’ve got, giving everything a job in your tiny robot band, then recording it.”
The live shows still capitalise on this ‘of the moment’ approach, allowing the brothers to respond to crowd reaction, instead of pressing play and posing. “People used to be really sad and try to recreate their records,” says Paul. “Like what the fuck? Why do you even do that? Have you heard The Ramones live compared to in the studio? It’s not the same and it doesn’t matter.” Thankfully new technology has made their hugely complicated shows a little easier to wrangle. “It’s still as hectic,” Phil reassures me. “But, that’s what we’re about. It’s like a beast that we’ve got to tame rather than just wake up.”
As we talk, the pair are busy preparing for a marathon of huge live shows, which includes an adopted home-town date at Brighton Racecourse on Fri 29 June. This is organised to be a festival-style jamboree, with Faithless DJs, Gentleman’s Dub Club, System 7 and local hero Steve Mac all lending a hand. Even if, for some inexplicable reason, you’re not going, everyone should be able to see flickers of the legendary Orbital light show across the city. It’s a reminder that the brothers are back. They’ve had their ups and downs, appeared with timelords, performed with iconic scientists (Brian Cox makes something of a return to rave on Monsters Exist), been feted as one of the most influential electronic acts ever, and still somehow remained inventive and relevant. Not bad after three decades containing so much cultural shift. “It’s amazing really, this whole coming back together and all these gigs happening” admits Paul. “It’s amazing that the love is still there. I listen to the new album and think: ‘Wow! I can’t wait to play this to people.’ That’s always the best sign.”
Orbital play Brighton Racecourse on Fri 29 June. Their new album Monsters Exist is out on Fri 14 Sept.