Few artists have created such visionary electronic music as Alex Paterson and The Orb. The Orb's blissed-out music, which helped define the emerging ambient-techno and -house genres, comprised nature sounds, spoken-word samples, dub bass lines and constantly shifting beats. Collage effects had been used before in avant-garde and dub music but never in UK dance clubs and its '90s outgrowth, rave culture.
Paterson founded The Orb in the late '80s while leading a double life. Working by day as the A&R rep for the progressive EG Records label, by night, he was spinning in London house clubs with selections from his increasingly eclectic recording collection. Shaping influences from Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and reggae master Joe Gibbs, Paterson dropped BBC samples, NASA broadcasts and dizzy special effects over elastic beats and homegrown loops initially created with cassette decks and turntables. Whereas most DJs simply played stock vinyl or elongated their mixes with multiple turntables, Paterson broadened the DJ's vocabulary by adding fresh elements to the mix. An Orb track was instantly recognizable for its sense of humor, rolling beats and exhilarating samples, which could be anything from a famous pop singer and a dead politician to galloping horses and a giggly vocal chorus praising LSD.
But The Orb's music is much more than a mixer's grab bag. Paterson (with a revolving cast of contributors, including Kris Weston, Jimmy Cauty, Andrew Hughes and Thomas Fehlmann) has the remarkable ability to permeate his samples and atmospheres with a feeling of wonder and exoticism. “It's an amazing labyrinth of sounds in The Orb; we created something brilliant,” Paterson says. “We were the first house band to put reggae bass lines on a track. And as for that quirkiness that will twist your head, that is all me. I took advice from those old-school guitarists-turned-computer-techs [such as Steve Hillage, an early Orb collaborator]. They said, ‘Alex, don't lose what you have got, 'cause that is unique, boy.’”
The Orb's 1989 debut single, “Loving You/A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Centre of the Ultraworld,” was a 22-minute epic that incorporated Minnie Riperton's hyperextended soprano over trippy sonics. The track was created on an Oberheim OB-8 synth, guitar pedals and an Akai sampler. Running horses, church bells, rain, wind and lifted KLF snippets rounded out the single, which scaled the UK pop charts.
In 1990, Paterson teamed up with Youth (from Killing Joke) to produce “Little Fluffy Clouds,” which again swirled disparate samples into a strikingly memorable track. Using an uncleared Rickie Lee Jones sample, U.S. gospel broadcasts and a Steve Reich melody, the single achieved massive dancefloor and pop success.
The Orb's 1991 debut, The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (Island Red), dazzled '90s rave culture with its ethereal mash of dub, techno, frazzled sound effects, classical music washes and spoken word. “For Beyond the Ultraworld, I took two weeks' holiday and mixed six of the tunes in two weeks,” Paterson says. “I went to New York, picked up some mad samples off the radio and used them. I was really proud of that.”
The Orb's fame grew, and the albums flowed out: U.F.Orb (Island Red, 1992) hit No. 1 in the UK; then came Live '93 (Island Red, 1994), which included samples of Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech and Grace Jones' “Slave to the Rhythm.” Incorporating a '60s-inspired light show, an Orb concert was more event than performance, as the audience fused with the dancing beams of light that emanated from the Wizard of Oz — like performers.
“Our live shows were like the soundtrack to a big visual organic entity; it was like a Pink Floyd show,” Paterson recalls. “We did those early tours off a DAT machine. We were experimenting with dub plates, samplers and turntables, putting effects over the top of the tracks to make them different every night. Then, we moved on to ADAT machines. We were using a huge Alesis 48-track desk onstage so we could use 24 tracks outboard for effects. It was a studio onstage, basically.”
Pomme Fritz (Island Red, 1994) followed, breaking new ground in steering The Orb away from its ambient-house roots. “Pomme Fritz was basically one track that we recorded six times,” Paterson says, “the first thing that we ever did completely in Emagic Logic. [He's used Logic ever since, with a Pioneer desk, an Apple Mac G4, a Pioneer DJM-600 sampler and a Vestax turntable.] Sadly, the English fans didn't understand the record. They wanted another ‘Little Fluffy Clouds,’ but this was just a collage of noises that had never been heard before in that sort of music.”
A UK critical backlash ensued, but The Orb soldiered onward, recording Orbus Terrarum (Polygram, 1995); Orblivion (Polygram, 1997); Cydonia (MCA, 2001); and the latest, Bicycles & Tricycles (Sanctuary, 2004). Creating music with a trademark personality and an innovative use of samples, The Orb opened the minds of millions of musicians (like Four Tet) and listeners alike to the endless possibilities of electronic music. And with upcoming projects including collaborations with Johnny Marr, Pink Floyd's Guy Pratt and Meat Beat Manifesto, The Orb continues to evolve and revolve.
But Paterson is evasive regarding The Orb's legacy, even as Bicycles & Tricycles confirms that he is still making singular music. “What has made us what we are is the organic side of The Orb, using those natural sounds and textures,” he says. “We are still very faceless; that is the beauty of The Orb. But I ran away from the spotlight 10 years ago. Though we still record, we really left the scene before the British press could tear us down. And we haven't finished yet.
“When you get The Orb's obituary,” Paterson concludes with a laugh, “then you can answer questions about our legacy.”