If anyone knows how to give the face of writer's block a proper knockout punch, it's brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll. Being stifled in the songwriting process often has to do with a crippling fear that what you create won't become a successful hit; will be slept on by your audience; or, worse, will just plain suck. But even bands such as Orbital, which has created seven full-length albums (and much more) in the past 15 years, are not exempt from writer's block.
“I find that 90 percent of writer's block is people taking themselves too seriously,” younger brother Paul says. In the case of “Style,” from the band's 1999 album, Middle of Nowhere (FFRR), Paul was seriously stuck. “It was Friday,” he says, “and I often don't do my best work on Friday because even though I'm working for myself and doing what I love, I can't shake that Friday feeling of, ‘Hey! It's the weekend!’ But I just picked up a Stylophone and was like, ‘I'm going to take this down to the studio. I'm only going to sample this — no other sound sources, just this sampled in any way or fashion — and just make up a bunch of sounds. That's how that track came about. And that was because I had such bad writer's block for a month beforehand, I had to do something silly to break out of it, something totally irrational. And it worked!”
Fortunately, it's been working for the duo since 1989, when Orbital released 1,000 copies of its first 12-inch, “Chime” (on Jazzy M's Oh-Zone label). The Hartnolls probably didn't suspect such a swift ride to the top of the electronic-music food chain. But quickly selling out of the release, FFRR signed the band, and the next thing that Paul and Phil knew, they were performing on Britain's Top of the Pops.
The Sevenoaks, England, natives swiftly released their self-titled debut album (1991), later known as Green Album, followed by their second self-titled release (Brown Album), a double LP (1992). Offers to do remixes, including Madonna's “Bedtime Stories,” flooded in. And after Orbital's third album, Snivilisation (1994), the duo dipped into doing music for films and video games, including the Sony Playstation game WipEout; a new version of the theme tune for the '60s TV show The Saint for the '90s film remake; a film score for the 2003 horror film Octane; and a score for U.S. TV series Keen Eddie. Continuing on the FFRR label, the Hartnolls' fourth album, In Sides (1996) made a slew of Best Album polls, and the siblings didn't slow down there. In between playing giant festivals and venues — including Woodstock 2, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, Royal Albert Hall and Alexandra Palace (New Year's 1997) — Paul and Phil released their fifth and sixth albums, The Middle of Nowhere (1999) and The Altogether (2001, including Orbital's first DVD with 5.1 surround sound), respectively.
Sadly, the brothers got to the 15-year mark and decided it was time to put Orbital to bed. Culling from a year's worth of unfinished material left over in their studio, the guys created their swan song, The Blue Album (ATO, 2004), and played their final gigs together during the summer of 2004, including stops at London's Brixton Academy and the Glastonbury Festival. The final Orbital event — held at the Maida Vale studios in London and broadcast on John Peele's BBC Radio 1 show — was July 24, 2004.
The Hartnoll brothers had intended to make their exit before the Blue Album, but something stopped them. “We said, ‘Hang on a minute: We've got all these ideas, and wouldn't it be a shame if they never came out, all these sort of bits and pieces lying around?’” Paul says. “You couldn't really take them away, and for me to finish them as a solo album or for Phil to finish them as a solo album wouldn't have been right, because they were done in the spirit of Orbital. So we basically made a list of all our favorite bits and pieces and half-finished tracks and mostly finished tracks and bits from films.”
And Blue is quite fitting in the context of film. Early-'90s Orbital tracks such as the solid, repetitive rhythms of “Chime” and “Choice,” were crafted for the dancefloor. But the brothers began to experiment with different styles — as on the rock, big-beat reinvention of their classic track “Satan” with Metallica's Kirk Hammett for the Spawn soundtrack (Sony, 1997) — and soon their penchant for cinematic sounds became apparent. A case in point is the Blue Album's “One Perfect Sunrise,” (featuring former Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard), which was originally intended for a sunrise scene in a movie. But also present are quirky dance tracks such as “Acid Pants,” with the peculiar theatrical group Sparks repeating the wise-ass line, “When the laugh track starts, then the fun starts!”
LOVE AT FIRST DEMO
Orbital has been fairly prolific throughout the years, due in part to its rough-and-ready method of fleshing out ideas. “The older I've got, I've realized you gotta make a rough demo,” Paul says. “You need to quickly arrange it into some kind of shape and record it so you can go back to it and check it out, because sometimes these things do have a habit of turning into something.”
The catch-22 in making a demo is that it's rarely release-ready, but it's also incredibly hard to recapture the same feeling that you caught in the initial recording. So the final version often doesn't stand up to the demo. “Nine times out of 10, I release the demo,” Paul admits. “That's what we've done a lot of the time in the past. But I did a really good version of ‘Style,’ and I knew it wasn't quite finished. So I had to do it again. And that always sort of annoyed me because it never quite came out the same. I did it on a pair of Yamaha 02Rs, and it was mostly coming out of one machine, so you'd imagine that all the levels and everything could be fail-safe. I save the settings on the desk always. So in theory, it'll always come back as the demo was. But it never quite came out the same. It never does. I don't know if it's an exception thing, because there's that initial excitement about something new. The demo is something you normally whip up quickly on a grand idea, isn't it? You have a good idea, and then you try to wrestle its sound into its final shape. Lots of people will come up with good ideas, but knowing how to finish them is a lot of the battle.”
With the group's first single, “Chime,” a rerecording was also in order. “I just realized, I have no idea if I'll ever find the original recording of ‘Chime,’” Paul says. “It's the one that didn't get released, but it's the one that got us the white label in the first place. The original recording was only on one cassette ever. And I think I gave it to someone else! It's got a weaker bass drum, but it's faster. I don't think I ever saw that chrome cassette again.”
Although many times the burst of an idea comes from one of the Hartnoll brothers, there's always a point at which both work together to flesh out a track in the arrangement stage. At that period in the game, according to Paul, the process is honest and quick: “You get that meeting of minds where you're not arguing with each other, but you're doing that fast backwards and forwards of ideas, like, ‘No, that sounds like shit. Why don't you try it like this?’ ‘What do you think?’ ‘I don't know.’ ‘What do you mean, you don't know?!’ ‘I don't know. I don't think you should go with those drums.’ ‘Well, what do you think we should do, then?’ ‘I don't know. How about a track that goes doodledoodledoodle?’ And that's how you are, isn't it, when you're working with someone? I'd be in front of the computer, sort of writing the bits and going, ‘What do you think about that?’ And he'd go, ‘Why don't you do a more squidgy bass line?’ And then it works like that.”
Sometimes, ideas come at random moments from one of the brothers. “A track like ‘Bath Time’ [from Blue Album], I did myself in San Francisco, lying in the bath singing to myself,” Paul says. “I was just humming and singing, and then I realized I was actually singing a repeated refrain over and over again. After a while, I was just inanely humming. And then I realized that I'd just made that up, and now it's solidified as a tune, and I had to get out of the bath and sort of scribble it down on a laptop, which I don't do very often. And I kept writing it between tours and gigs on a laptop in the backs of cars.”
Whenever an idea hit Paul, if he didn't have a laptop handy, his cell phone saved him. “Mobile phones that can record voice messages and that sort of thing are the best things that ever happened to me,” he says. “I've got a mobile phone with an 8MB chip, so I can sing to myself for ages on the phone and record it and come back to it later.”
MAKE WAY FOR FILTER FUN
“I'm not really much of a musical player,” Paul says. “Most of my friends are better. I've got instruments all over the house. But if any of my friends come visit, and they go, ‘You have a drum kit!’ they're a much better drummer than me. ‘Oh, look at this guitar!’ And they start playing it, and they're flamenco fantastic. And I'm like, ‘Oh, hell …’ But that's not what it's about for me. It's about composition. You've got to have good notes, obviously. But the whole point is knowing when you've got good notes and to not keep cluttering them. You can always add another layer of harmony; you can always add another countermelody; you can always add another verse, another chorus. But, God, there's been some long, boring, overcomplicated music in the past. But there's always the exception. You remember Ray Manzarek from The Doors? That “Light My Fire” solo is one in a million. That doesn't happen very often. But then again, his solos were very simple.”
Simplicity also opens things up for interesting sound treatments. Back in the early '90s, the brothers discovered that they could use an E-mu Emax II sampler as an analog synth. “You put a really juicy Beethoven chord into an Emax sampler, hit velocity-to-filter, crank up the resonance, and you've got this most incredible-sounding movement to a big sort of chordal sample, and you've twisted it into something else, which is ultimately the key to the early Orbital sound: big, chunky velocity-to-filter chord samples,” Paul says.
Paul also made some early experiments with granular sampling. “On an early S700 sampler, I'd draw a big velocity curve like a big ramp that lasts for one bar, play 32nds or 16ths — or whichever quantize you want — and, then, if you play that over a sample that's got velocity-to-start time, it just goes through the sample, and it's just a didididididi sort of a wave that goes from beginning to end at exactly the right time but doing it in a sort of gated way,” he says. “We did a track called ‘Crime’ where we did it all the way through. There was a vocal where you basically just leave the machine set up on an edit/start point, trigger it like a 16th and just dial through the start time of the sample. And you just get the most beautiful, gliding gated vocal. I love it now, because Kontakt and Reaktor are all based on granular sample stuff where you freeze a sample at one partial point and make an envelope pass backwards and forwards through the sample. It's something that we did early on, but only in recent times did I realize there are whole machines geared up for this kind of thing. Even Absynth does it, but the best one I've found is Kontakt.”
Getting ready to take Orbital's show on the road is a process, especially because every synth used in the studio doesn't get to go on tour with the guys. But instead of sampling the sounds from synths that they can't take along, Paul and Phil get a little creative. “We'd re-create a few sounds on different synths and go with the differences, because sometimes you get a different kind of sound, and you think, ‘Oh, I like that,’” Paul says.
Some things do get sampled, but not drum machines. “We've always taken drum machines live because I think a 909 just sounds better when you take a 909 rather than sampling it all up,” Paul says. “And we'll just sample strong synths that we've got and then take whatever we want to take — like an Expander or an SH-09 — and then dump the samples into MMT-8 sequencers as individual loops on three of them running in parallel, in pattern mode. So you're just literally punching sequencers in and out and changing loops as you go.” With two- to eight-bar loops coming and going, the guys can improvise to make for a more engaging performance. “You generally end up playing songs in a similar way every night, but you're free to choose,” Paul says. “On a Sunday night, when everyone looks hungover, you can play a more mellow-orientated set. And on Saturday night, you can really whoop it up and give more bass drums for their money.”
When playing shows, the duo feeds off of the energy of the crowd, and if the audience is dancing and smiling, so is Orbital. When that's the case, the job is fairly easy. But there are nights when work is work, and all Paul and Phil can do is try to pull it out the best that they can. “You've been on tour; it's the last gig in a run of five or six; you're feeling worn down; and you're like, ‘I feel like I can't be bothered,’” Paul says. “And then you go onstage, and 'cause you feel noncommittal, you start taking risks, and you actually end up getting into it more than you would normally. That's the daring kind of vibe that comes out. It works well sometimes, that attitude, because you're not so self-conscious.”
IN WITH THE NEW
With everything wrapped up for Orbital, the two brothers are starting their own projects. “The whole point about stopping Orbital is to stop the way we're working to try and get something fresh going,” Paul reveals. “We've been doing it for 15 years in the same room with him, and God bless him, but I don't want to spend another 15 years in a room with him anymore. I've really enjoyed his company for the last year because we haven't been doing that.”
On his own, Paul plans to focus on more film work, depending on what his L.A. agent can stir up. “I'd like to do film work because I like that sort of pushing and pulling of emotions,” he says. Meanwhile, Phil may be working on a solo album in the future. “I think it might be quite dancey because he's been doing a lot of DJing and he's been getting into the whole UK breaks sort of thing,” Paul says.
So off they go. “The pair of us should take good bits of Orbital and take them in different directions,” Paul says. “I want to work in a new way, and the best way to do that is to get a new job.”
STUDIO FOR BLUE
Computer, DAW, recording hardware:
Apple Logic Audio software, Mac G4 dual processor: “We had the dual processor part turned off because Logic was very unhappy with it,” Paul Hartnoll says.
MOTU 828mkII, 896HD interfaces
Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
Amek Media 51 console
Emagic Unitor8 MIDI interface
Yamaha O2R digital consoles (2)
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Alesis MMT-8 MIDI sequencers (3)
E-mu E64, Emax II, Emulator E4XT Turbo samplers
Korg ER-1 drum machine, ES-1 sampler
Roland TR-909 drum machine
Sony portable DAT and condenser mic (for field recording): “[We do] everything from smacking a big brass statue down at the local train station to [sampling] a lot of easy-listening records, because I'd find that they'd have a nice, warm, open quality,” Paul says.
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Alesis Andromeda synth
Native Instruments Absynth, Battery, FM7, Reaktor: “Things like Absynth are just mental, the amount of different subtly frequency-modulated things,” Paul says. “You can do all these sort of time-synched, really complex envelopes. Whenever you want one, just call up a new one and chuck it onto whatever parameter you want. It's proper modular synths as people who made old-fashioned modular synths would have loved them to be.”
Oberheim Expander synth
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Alesis Quadraverb reverb
Joemeek VC2 preamp/compressor: “We made four albums without ever knowing what a compressor was,” Paul admits. “Then, we discovered, ‘Oh, that's how the Chemical Brothers make their drum sounds sound so good!’ Even though we'd been explained it all before by Jack Dangers [of Meat Beat Manifesto] in 1991, we still went away and didn't think to get a compressor. But we were young and foolish. The one we've got is really good for breakbeats. It doesn't destroy the sound as much as you can with a more modern, beefier kind of thing. It's certainly really nice on drums; it's subtle, but it really lifts them in.”
TC Electronic M5000 reverb
Genelec 1031As, 1093A subwoofer