How The Orb came full circle - from criticising bands for not tackling world affairs to his love of escapism
He played chess live on Top of the Pops and likes to confuse people with his music. Yes, Alex Paterson of The Orb, who play here this month, is certainly a unique character
Being credited with inventing a music genre would probably be enough to turn the most unassuming person into somewhat of an oddball. However, one suspects that Alex Paterson, who to all intents and purposes is The Orb, has always been a little offbeat – even before making his name as the world's first 'ambient house' act in the late Eighties. As a youth he listened to "loads of different sounds and knew that I wanted to use them, to manipulate them in a way – but I didn't quite understand why or how".
From that confusing early stage onwards, the Londoner began to develop into a kind of mad electronic professor (he even sometimes calls himself a doctor), as he started to mix and splice different noises, from the music world or elsewhere, into a unique and melodic tone. As one journalist put it, this mishmash approach was perfect for clubbers coming down from a drug trip. For the record, Paterson says he used to work while on drugs, but hasn't done any "serious stuff for years. All I do now is the Class B drug that comes off trees and you smoke it".
As with most musical pioneers, Paterson – who together with Orb assistant Thomas Fehlmann is headlining Sunflowerfest in Hillsborough on August 22 – is adamant that he'll only go about his work "on my own terms", which partly explains The Orb's eye-catching performance of their single Blue Room on Top of the Pops in 1992. Paterson can surely say he's the only musician who's ever played chess live on the music show, to a soundtrack of wobbly bass.
"Yeah, we decided to do it our way," smirks Paterson, adding: "I don't think the BBC liked it very much." (That said, he believes TOTP should make a comeback on our screens.)
It's quickly evident during our chat today that, though perfectly polite, Paterson is not a man to play along with interview conventions or even answer questions directly. Naturally, this makes him an unpredictable presence (he says he's speaking down the line from his home in "West Nowhere"), and no more so than when he ponders the current state of the world. Yes, it's rather a broad topic.
"For your average person under 50, there's a lot of s**t going on, a lot of dysfunction," he begins, taking one of his many lengthy sighs. "You've all been boxed in, you've all got your own little mobile computers with apps and the like, and you can't look up from them. I think people are aware of what's going on around them, though; however, that's just all the things they want you to see. That's their news, their agenda. They're obviously doing something bigger than Palestine, but they're keeping Palestine on the front cover of the paper."
It sounds as though Paterson harbours a deep, almost paranoid distrust of the media, and I wonder if that's been informed by any bad press that may have come The Orb's way.
"The thing about critics is they can control your life," he replies. "But I'm not concerned about them anymore. We fill a niche and people come from all over the world to see us."
Maybe instead of an artist with an agenda, Paterson is simply a natural contrarian. He admits that it was always his intention "to confuse people" and by coining the 'ambient house' tag he made sure that his music was filed under his own definition rather than anybody else's. "We didn't want anyone to label us 'new age' or anything as f*****g horrible as that," he concedes. "We thought we'd be careful about labels and get the ambient thing in there pretty sharpish."
The Orb may set out to baffle onlookers, but it's nothing personal; in fact, Paterson adds that he himself often "gets weirded out" by his own music. "The whole set wouldn't work if we knew everything we were doing. We never know where we're going to go next, basically, and we really like that. Let's experiment, my dear!"
Perhaps The Orb's primary means of innovation is sampling; gathering sounds from various sources and creating fresh material out of them, most famously on one of their biggest hits, 1990's Little Fluffy Clouds, which became a staple of chill-out rooms across the land. Some have questioned the true musical value of merely recycling noise, but Paterson comes out fighting on the issue today.
"A lot of the music I was hearing back in the day, even from dare I say it Brian Eno, was all very highbrow. It was like 'Let's have some tea and cake and listen to music'.
"I really wanted to appeal to everyone, not just the middle-class, and to do this I had to use many different elements, which is how sampling comes into it.
"Anyway, a lot of the sounds we use are so disguised that you'd never know where they came from. We just take millions of samples and create just one tiny bar of music, and then we'll chop that up and stretch it out again. Nobody can tell where the sounds come from! Everyone uses the same sounds over history anyway. All everyone is doing is copying someone else. You're using slightly different chords but you still sound like Nirvana. Who's copying who? Anyone who copies me is complimenting me."
A more orthodox Orb collaboration was with legendary reggae producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry on their last two albums.
However, despite the mutual admiration between both the maverick musicians, their time together wasn't always harmonious.
"Lee didn't want to know about rehearsing, so our first gig with him was a disaster," recalls Peterson. "And then the few live shows we did with him just ended up becoming the Lee 'Scratch' Perry show. It took us about two months to get him on board in the first place, and then he rolled into the studio at 4am one night when I was asleep. The next day, we were told he wanted to work from 6pm to 6am. So we were working up until 2am, then leaving him alone for the next four hours. He was great in the end, though, he came through for us, and it was just inspiring to see him sitting there in the morning drinking carrot juice and randomly singing about different things in the room. He's a prophet, is Lee; he doesn't talk to you, he sings to you."
Paterson is also working on an "electronic opera" called Moon Building, based on Romeo and Juliet. The production was scheduled for performance in London's Royal Opera House before the government's recent funding cuts on arts. This setback leads Paterson back on to politics, and after comparing the present Gaza situation to the Nazi holocaust, he bemoans the lack of young bands singing about current affairs. "Nobody's doing it, and I don't know why! I released a peace record once, about the Gulf War, but I can't be expected to do that kind of thing all by myself."
Then Paterson offers up a glaring contradiction that is, frankly, pretty representative of his peculiar personality.
"We have no political attachments here, it's all about the music. It's pure escapism with us, and nothing else. It's like having your own package holiday on vinyl!"
It's a weird and wonderful world inside The Orb – and rather than questioning it, it's probably just better to go along with it.
The Orb headline Sunflowerfest in Hillsborough on August 22. For ticket and booking details, visit www.sunflowerfest.co.uk
Life beyond the cutting edge ...
As part of the ambient house scene, The Orb were at the forefront of dance music in the UK, But what became of their contemporaries ...?
- Orbital — brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll, from Kent, made techno and acid house music under the name Orbital from 1989 to 2004. Reuniting in 2009, they've since played at The Big Chill and Glastonbury festivals, as well as the opening of the 2012 Paralympic Games. Their last studio album, Wonky, was released in 2012
- The KLF — although only active for five years (1987-1992), The KLF were one of the key acts of the British Acid House movement, even recording a hit single with Country legend Tammy Wynette. Featuring former Orb member Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, The KLF earned notoriety in 1994 for setting fire to £1m of their own funds. The duo played reunion shows in 1995 and 1997
- Aphex Twin — producer Richard David James, aka Aphex Twin, was once described by The Guardian as “the most inventive and influential figure in contemporary electronic music”. However, James hasn't released an album as Aphex Twin since 2001