In a frenzy because of the imminent elections? The grand old spacemen of ambient music, the Orb, have the answer in the title of their new LP, COW/Chill Out World! As godfathered by Brian Eno and his 1978 Music For Airports album, the ambient style is designed to be just interesting enough to vaguely intrigue in the background, but not so dominant that it would overwhelm a conversation. The Orb often get quite interesting indeed, which is why they’re described as belonging to a somewhat livelier genre: ambient house. The group’s dreamy, dubby digital voyages helped launch the likes of Skrillex, Flying Lotus and Diplo.
The Orb have always set out to make the dancefloor a portal to transcendence. They are fond of found sound, in the style of the mid-twentieth century avant-garde’s Musique Concrete, who conjured gritty cities with brutalist abandon. But the Orb plunder playfully and have progressed from random street noise on a tape recorder and snippets of the BBC Radio Stereophonic Workshop to organized field trips in search of a sound that they can transform into something unguessable, unknowable.
Today’s Orb is a DJ/producer duo of the good Doctor Alex Paterson and his bespectacled Swiss-German cohort, Thomas Fehlmann, who sometimes steers their sound in a more industrial direction. Another frequent accomplice is long-time playmate Martin Glover, aka Youth, of London punks Killing Joke. A heavyweight bass player and producer, Youth was drenched in Jamaican reggae and dub just like Paterson; in fact, when Killing Joke began, Paterson was their omniscient roadie. And before that, they were mates at boarding school.
But as far back as humanity can recall, the Orb has basically revolved around Paterson, the craggy, burly DJ who for a quarter century has stubbornly stuck to his miasmic vision, as others cycled through his orbit.
COW is the Orb’s sixteenth release, as acknowledged by a recent UK box set, The History of the Future. In that time, naturally, the Orb have waxed and waned. But in every season, they find a way to shine. The vivid presence of COW and its predecessor, Moonbuilding, and their eager reception, indicate that the Orb will be traveling around us …. into infinity?
Here, Paterson talks Trump, UFOs, silver water and the myriad urges and tensions that went into COW.
Right now, the Orb are well enshrined in the dance–trance–ambient-chill-out cosmos, and no doubt the enthusiastic reception for COW/Chill Out World! will only fix your position. After all these years in the chill-out business, do you think that you’re more or less relaxed than when you started out?
I’m much more relaxed now. I was never an alcoholic, but I gave up drinking about four years ago and that really chilled me out. Alcohol was free all the time! When I decided to knock it on the head, I never looked back. I’ve got a much better clarity on what’s going on in my head, so that would be a good thing. And also, once you reach 50, it’s like you hit a barrier and you think, what the hell was that all about? Why was I getting wound up about so many things that are really trivial?
Why the title?
The world’s gone a bit mad, really, and, what with one leadership campaign and another, there’s a total confusion in the world, and we’ve got Brexit over here, you’ve got Trump doing his darndest to piss everybody off in America. Watch out, America: I mean, if we can Brexit, I’m sure Trump can get in control. That’s the scary bit. Even after the last bout of degrading women. He’s insulting to anybody who’s got a brain. That’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve done a chill-out album, along with all the other shit things that are going on in the world and the wars that have just been manmade by companies that want to sell weapons to each other.
Now corporations think they can own countries.
Yeah, sure, and not pay taxes as well while they’re doing it. You’d think it would be different now, 40 years on from when we were teenagers growing up in the ‘70s and the enlightenment we had through, let’s just say, the Rock Against Racism movement. They opened up a whole new level of radical ideas in England that said, well, actually, fucking get on and it don’t matter about the color. Unfortunately, that hasn’t gone through for the rest of the world. And that’s the really sad thing—that the music is embraced by everyone, but the cultures themselves are not embraced by certain civilizations. Our society is stuck. It’s so bad in the 21st century that there are “Heat or Eat” campaigns in England to support people—often the young and the elderly—stuck with the choice between feeding themselves or freezing to death. We’re playing an event for them in London in January.
The Orb have always made healing music. The drama and lushness of tracks like “9 Elms Over the River Eno” on “COW” can alter people’s mental states and attitudes and make them feel stronger. How did you construct it?
What we have on there is lots of field recordings. I went up to the River Eno in Durham, North Carolina and recorded the sounds of the river, the sounds of all the wildlife around it. A huge train passed through the center of town, and seeing we was there about four days, I got just a tiny bit wired to go and record it going through! And it honked! And that’s the beginning of “9 Elms.” My personal association with “9 Elms” is the Battersea Power Station near where I grew up [by 9 Elms in South London]. I thought that was quite nice, opening with a big train noise, because when I was little, there was lots of silhouettes of trains at night and signals sending out sparks. And you’d see the power station lurking in the distance from my mum’s sweet shop. I started sampling different noises because I grew up in a world of noises which I just thought could become, in my own little DJ world, a world of noises that I get to turn into musical noises, and that’s basically what we’ve been doing.
On COW, as on lots of your records over the years, there’s a leitmotif of old-school radio voices, English and American. I wonder what they mean to you and to the people now who hear them as really rare archive. It’s a quaint distancing device, but it also expands the sense of space and time.
Yeah, because the whole thing puts you in the place, especially if you’re in Europe, if you have this deep American voice talking about nonsense. Again, in Durham on the same day, I picked up these records which I then sampled and got on “9 Elms Over the River Eno,” There’s some male vocals at the end, but he’s actually talking about areas of flight patterns–and I had just got this flight pattern book.
When you say flight patterns, do you ever think of UFOs?
Our second album was called U.F.Orb. and we did a lot of UFOlogy quite intensely over a period of a year or so. We got put into serious situations, talked to people like [noted UFOlogist] Timothy Good and it was quite fascinating. There is definitely, definitely, definitely something there that we’re just not being told about because they like to control us through religion, unfortunately. It’s much easier that way. The technology is there for all to see, but we just don’t want to do it. If someone very ancient had created us and then put a face of a human on the moon to look down on us for time immortal, then call me an idiot, but what they call the Man on the Moon is not a natural structure on the moon. It’s there for a reason. It depends on which hemisphere you’re in, but then if you’re in the southern hemisphere, it looks like one of the rabbits from Playboy. [laughs]
Do you like this movement towards the incorporation of musical technology in healing?
Everything’s made of sound—oh, everything. You listen to my voice and then you might find my voice appealing because there’s a certain sound my voice makes. I’ve actually had scars healed by a friend of mine who’s got a machine that works out the frequency you need to be healed if you’ve got bad scar tissue or a small cut or abrasion, rather than getting stitches. You can heal with sound. There’s nothing hippy about this. This is technology at its best. If we all drank silver water, there would be no need for ill health in the world.
And what is silver water?
It’s water with silver in it. It’s like when you get a bottle of sake with gold leaf. It’s the best thing in the world to drink just a couple of grains of gold or silver. It really does detox the whole body naturally. I believe they’ve got, like, a running tap of silver water in Buckingham Palace where the Royal Family and other one-percent types drink it, just to keep well.
I have a soft spot for some of the more live collaborations you’ve done, like your 2006 record, Living in a Giant Candle Winking at God, playing as the Transit Kings with Guy Pratt, Johnny Marr and Jimmy Cauty.
That was a good album, yeah. “The Last Lighthouse Keeper” is definitely a crowd tickler in an ambient world. Jimmy Cauty and Guy Pratt were involved in that band, though they didn’t spend much time in the studio; they just came in and criticized what we were doing until they were happy! [laughs] They wanted more rock, because we really were looking at a much more hip-hop feel, but we never got that across. So we broke away and became HFB, High Frequency Bandwidth, another band, which is well worth investigating because we ended up with Dynamax, a vocalist from the Afrika Bambaataa group. We did an album of tracks like “High Flying Birds,” “Hot From Behind"—anything with HFB in it, we would turn into a tune.
You’re very prolific and conceptual, always ready with a new formation. But I think that dub and reggae are central to the Orb, aren’t they? Like how Lee Perry would go and mike up a crying baby or indeed a cow, then put it on a 45.
Yep. I would 100 percent say that. I grew up in South London, I squatted in Brixton, squatted up in Ladbroke Grove [both West Indian neighborhoods], so I was immersed in reggae. One of my favorite things happened when I was younger and getting into it. I was going to this youth club in Thornton Heath. I’m pretty shit hot at chess, even when I was little, I used to know these really crazy moves and I’d just kind of wipe people out. And these black kids were, like, "How did you play that?” I said, “Well, lend me some records and I’ll show you.” And they did. So I got into some Bob Marley and Ken Boothe records in the early 1970s. And I went—yeah.
Of course, at reggae clubs you would get to see great sound systems, DJ’s and selectors up close. That must have influenced you.
In the early days, we had a whole night to play the music; now you go on and perform for an hour and a half, and then go off stage. I used to be a DJ in the sense of a selector, so you’d be selecting the tunes for the night. But the difference was, when I was selecting, I’d be selecting six or seven tunes to play at the same time. Invariably there would be different noises, different soft textures, and then the main thumping reggae bassline. People in techno clubs liked that you could sit down to dub music. [Leading dance DJ/promoter] Paul Oakenfold had been to see my chill-out sessions at Trancentral with Jimmy Cauty, and when he asked me to do the first official chill-out scene, the White Room in '89, he said, “All right, I’ll take the bullet. You can come to do that in this room under the arches in Charing Cross. I want people to sit down in your room, please. I want people to chill out.” But what we’ve done with COW and the last album is we’ve really got ourselves back on the map in the sonic sense. The Orb always seems to shoot things out a little bit too far into the future, like the albums we did with Lee Perry. Ultraworld is the perfect example, because people are still into that album and it’s 25 years old.
Do you still enjoy listening to it now?
[Laughs] I get told off for listening to my music by my partner. I can see her point, because I’m at home and it doesn’t have to be all Orb all the time. And, you know, I can listen to it wherever I want. I can just take the whole thing up a hill or listen to the whole thing on big-booty speakers. But I get her what she wants to hear, and she wants to hear lots of girly singing vocal songs. And she just gets on with life in a really happy way and she’s like my heart and my soul, she’s my soulmate for that. And for everything else as well. We met at a Souxsie and the Banshees gig in Croydon in 1978.
That is very touching. Maybe it was a romantic outcome of the post-club social ritual you acknowledged in your LP series, Back to Mine. Do you still bring people back to yours?
That’s a really good question. Now I kind of reserve myself, reserve judgment, and then I bring them back. Because sometimes you might pick a right nutter and you don’t realize, and then it’s sort of three months down the line, and you’re losing it. You’ve got to go with your second sense, go with what you feel about somebody. And I don’t mean that like, oh, I don’t bring anybody back. Of course I bring people back, but I’ve got so many friends anyway that it’s…do I need any others, anyway? It’s not said in a horrible way either. It’s just very confusing.
Give us a really transcendent moment that the readers can think about as they listen to COW.
This year I did a set at the Fuji Rock Festival where the stage was just full of candles. I managed to play some new, very soft lover’s grime music and it all gelled really well. When you get locked into music, you can have a spiritual moment, something to do with death and life. The moon was fully over the stage, very clear, no rain. The whole dance floor was made out of tarpaulin, people were decked out with cushions, lying on the floor, looking at the stars. I was playing amongst all these candles, candles that were seven-foot-tall, candles that were only three foot tall. No lighting; just candles. Brilliant. And I’ve got to say that I played one of the tunes from the new album and I noticed one kid crying. It was that emotional. I was hitting strings that I wouldn’t normally even bother with, but it was just such a good vibe. I’m pitching for The Orb to do the COW album there next summer, because it’s a perfect scenario: lie down, look at the stars and just listen to ambient pulses. Blimey.