Interview: Phil Hartnoll - By Volume

What is this life, why do we strive? Fast on a wheel, too fast to feel. One day, my love, this life will slow. Sam Brookes - One Day
PhilHartnoll

Interview

Phil Hartnoll

Phil Hartnoll discusses Orbital’s Glastonbury ’94 gig, praises those who helped them there + talks their influence twenty-five years in.

Author: on June 25, 2014
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A lot can change in twenty years. On Saturday the 25th June, 1994, electronic music, at this point destined to rummage in the undergrowth of popular music, came rising up through the trapdoor like McCartney’s granddad in A Hard Day’s Night. At Glastonbury, a packed lineup, complete with Elvis Costello, Bjork, Rage Against The Machine, Blur and Radiohead suddenly found itself with an empty slot, and though at that time the rave and clubbing subculture fit like a square peg in a round hole, brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll of Orbital casually and gleefully swept in. In those days, there was no bureaucratic nonsense, no red tape, and like then, it was a simple off-the-cuff chat between band managers that led me to this point, sat cross legged on the carpet of Phil’s pristine home studio as he nonchalantly reclines on a floor cushion in front of me, reminiscing about what Q Magazine now describes as one of the 50 Greatest Gigs of All Time, one of those true were you there?! moments. Orbital at Glastonbury, 1994 — twenty years ago today.

Well, it’s more of a ‘phew, that’s good’ [moment]! I’m really happy to get acknowledgement for something I’ve done, but it’s more relief than anything. If I took any review, good or bad, too seriously, it would be pretty bad for me — I’m never going to turn round and say ‘don’t you know who I am?! I’m one of Q’s 50 Greatest… Whatever’. You know?“. Despite the enormity of Q’s highly flattering claim, he takes such lists in stride, with a modesty that almost verges on bashfulness, mitigating it with “in the same way, if I got a bad review and took it too seriously, I’d end up killing myself! It might niggle you a bit if someone says something negative, but it’s not like I go out celebrating if someone gives us a good review“. He pauses humorously for a moment and stares into space. “Yeah… I used to celebrate all the time…“.

 

 

Glastonbury had never truly seen the likes of Orbital before. While acts like The Shamen and The Orb had graced its hallowed ground for the previous few years, as the computer revolution tightened its grip, the pulsating melange of Phil and Paul’s live sequencing, born of warehouses across the UK, was unusual and alien to the festival. “Our aim was just to get through the gig. We’d been to Glastonbury before so we knew it was going to be a bit odd, but in the end we thought that it was about time they had something like this. I remember seeing Michael Eavis [founder of Glastonbury] in an interview once, and I’m not blowing my own trumpet or anything, but he did say when he saw it happening, I remember him saying it was quite ‘magical’. Everyone was going mad, probably coming up on their pills and wanted something big and loud like that. He said it really showed him it could work, and look at Glastonbury now: they’ve got a whole field dedicated to electronic music and DJs and all that stuff“.

By describing it through Eavis’ eyes rather than his own, he continues the trend of the interview thus far -– Phil seems keen to not take credit for the gig, and describes almost all elements of it with a pervading sense of humble pragmatism. I ask him whether he or his brother knew beforehand that they might’ve been about to blow the music scene wide open. “It might have helped electronic music, but that wasn’t our aim at all. We just wanted to play the gig and see what happened“.

Though Phil’s account of the gig is certainly a temperate one, it’s what he says next that makes me truly aware of the presence I’m in. “Before that, going round the clubs, when we had a hit with “Chime” in 1990, they used to have a lot of performers going round doing live shows, and we used to set up on stage with basically a studio like this one. We had a big mixing desk and everything was running live from 4 sequencers with 8 buttons on each, using pattern play. All the instruments lined up, MIDI sequenced, you press a button, it sends a message out to the drum machine, drum machine goes into the mixing desk and out to the PA, and there was no arrangement. You’d just improvise the arrangement, and songs could last a minute or an hour if you wanted“. It’s perhaps commonplace in today’s Ableton/Logic world, but this innovation of live sequencing was an earth-shattering one, and Orbital were certifiably one of its pioneers. “A lot of people at that time used to come into clubs and just do about three or four songs, where we’d insist we’d have to have half an hour at least because it took us practically all day to set up our system, and other performers used to just come in and mime because it wasn’t live.” That no-nonsense practicality rears its head as Phil jokes, with a hint of incredulity, “They’d set up a keyboard and pretend to press buttons. Or when there used to be a lot of vocals, a lot of those wailing divas around the time in house music, they used to set up an ‘air mic’, which I’d never even heard of, and just mime. They never really gave the audience much respect in my opinion. They thought they were getting away with it but they weren’t, the audience could always tell. I’m a music lover and I can definitely tell. Our music being live meant it was a lot more raw, and the audience could feel it“.

 

 

I’m sure he’s been asked these questions countless times, but his enthusiasm for both his music and music in general is still remarkable; he barely finishes talking about live music before suddenly hopping up to his knees and saying “This was our light show, actually!“. In the corner is a retro 1980s oscilloscope complete with that classic green-wave display screen, and in front of it a small Apple webcam. He reaches forward to his MacBook and hits play. A remix of “Halcyon” pumps through the speakers and the glitch-laden wobbling lines dance across the screen. Immediately, the zeitgeist of the early 90s rave culture pervades the atmosphere in the room, thrillingly alien to me, but commonplace to him. He shifts on his knees slightly to the right to reveal the Ableton Live interface on his laptop, and it hits me: of all the countless modern-day bedroom DJs that get where water can’t, how many of them realise that live mixing of this ilk was pioneered by the Hartnoll brothers? I tentatively ask him if he’s aware of the impact his judicious approach to the genre has had. A wry smile crosses his face. “Well… that was the only way we knew how to make music. I suppose we had some impact — we still use Ableton now and it’s pretty much the same as how we made music 20 years ago. There are audio loops instead of samplers, and modern software is far more complex, but I suppose you could put it that way. I’ve actually never thought about it before, but yeah, it is quite similar!

At this point, another little alarm goes off in my head: I’m gushing. I’ve known Phil for many years and usually a nod of the head and a “Hey, how you doing?” is the standard practice, but now, sat here as he describes his now-iconic opportunistic career, I find myself strangely enthralled like I’m meeting him for the first time. In an attempt to piece back together any semblance of professionalism, I get back to Glastonbury and how he felt it affected him personally, rather than the scene in general. “It was the first time the BBC had televised the festival, and obviously that helped the feeling of like ‘woah, we’re playing Glastonbury after Bjork!’, but it didn’t elevate us overnight. It did something, but I didn’t sit around after thinking ‘now we’ve played Glastonbury, we’re big now’…“. He pauses again as if he can’t quite remember.

Phil doesn’t rose-tint the past. He acknowledges the somewhat unusual size of the stepping stone that was Glastonbury ’94, but really, that’s all it appears to be for him — another stepping stone. “I guess maybe it did elevate us? I don’t really know. I think it was more of a… well… a kind of musical legend in the years after, like one of those gigs where people said ‘I was there’. It was still a sort of underground thing even though it was such a big festival.” I probe deeper, asking if he feels Orbital would be revered quite so fervently had it not been for the chance gig. “To be honest I don’t think it was Glastonbury in particular that really kicked everything off, it was more the touring and releasing albums that started it. We put a lot of time and effort into our production and our light show and hired renowned video artists to work with and the whole… caboodle really. I think what really helped were actually the torch glasses.” After a brief discussion about these simple creations comprised of gaffer tape and hardware store torches (which became Orbital’s undeniable trademark), I ask the low-hanging-fruit of easy questions: what was your favourite moment of the gig?To misquote Robert J. Oppenheimer, I am become Buzzfeed, destroyer of worlds.

 

 

It’s just the overall feeling of the gig. We’d just put out our weirdest album, Snivilisation, with all those voiceovers and stuff, it wasn’t like house music or anything. Nobody had heard it before ‘cos it had only just come out, but I remember being up there and – I’m gonna sound all hippie-ish now – but just feeling the love. Seeing the whites of people’s eyes and feeling their feedback just gave us this amazing feeling of ‘fucking hell, what is going on?! This is brilliant!’.” This answer won’t really come as a surprise to many; on the occasions I’ve seen the duo live, the party atmosphere is often seemingly instigated more through Phil, who gees up the crowd and dances a fair bit. “Yeah, Paul’s pressing the all the buttons!” he laughs, “He does the arrangements on Ableton or whatever sequencer we’re using at the time, so he is down there pressing a lot of buttons. I do all the mixing on stage — the 303s and the twiddling etc. — but I am a bit looser than him when I’m up there. We’re a bit chalk and cheese in that way; I personally love the communication with the crowd, which at Glastonbury that year was amazing.

Thus, one final question remains: Are there any Orbital plans to commemorate the 20 year anniversary? Judging by his somewhat un-romanticised view of the past, my guess is probably not. “No.” he answers forthrightly. “No, no plans this year. There’s nothing going on at the moment. I’m DJing a lot at the moment which I’m loving, and Paul’s doing some writing on his own, which is what he wants to do. I’m actually starting to write some stuff myself. I’ve been out in Thailand and South Korea… we went to Tokyo too.” It seems there was briefly hope of an extension to the reunion which started in 2009, though: “There was actually an idea that came up for this year. We were gonna do 25 gigs and we were gonna have a boxset and everything and… it was all too late in the end. The feeling wasn’t really there — not from me but from others. I won’t say much more but I will say that it takes two to tango, really.

Instead of drawing the interview to a more predictable close, Phil offers a potential reason why the Glastonbury gig was such a success. We discuss his DJing, and sitting in that room, for my ears only, he excitedly turns to his laptop again and plays a reworked set of some of my absolute favourite Orbital tracks. I sit and listen through “Halcyon” again (I can never get enough), but “Lush 3.1″ and that crunching bassline in particular remind me that Orbital have a deadly combination up their sleeve — having endless enthusiasm for what they do, and being eternal crowd-pleasers. Even 20 years on, when put together, they’re still destined to send people into the throes of wild celebration, as they did at Glastonbury on the 25th June, 1994. Here’s to one of the greatest electronic gigs of all time.

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