The Orb's Alex Paterson -
Pioneers of Live Dance interview in full
used for Pioneers of Live Dance feature (iDJ
magazine February 2007)
IR: If we could start at the very beginning, what was your first live gig like? Thinking about this question, you were obviously playing live before The Orb weren’t you?
AP: I was pretty live before The Orb, yeah. I mean, what was I doing? I was a Killing Joke roadie. My first gig impressions… gor blimey guvnor! It was seeing my brother play when I was about 15 at The Marquee supporting Blue Moon and then on my own was ’76 going to The Roundhouse and seeing Ultravox. They were supporting Eddie And The Hotrods and then it just sort of snowballed really. I’d just left boarding school; I was in boarding school for like six years. My Mum wanted me to stay on and do further education; I wanted to further my dick I think really, let’s be honest! Enjoying the liberalism of 70s London. But musically it started getting very interesting when I saw Adam & The Ants. When I say Adam & The Ants I’ve got to hasten to add that most people would understand that, you know, the other original members went off and formed Bow Wow Wow who were also quite a good band. Roadying, I did quite a lot of that as well, so I got to see a hell of a lot of bands.
IR: What about the first live gig you played as The Orb?
AP: That’s a bit muddled as well.
IR: Land Of Oz…?
AP: Land of Oz was '89, that was like DJing for six hours. Funny you should say that, funny we should mention that because I was thinking about how we used to do… We'd take a six hour DJ session and just find a couple of samples that were current and looped them within the structure of our set that night and it would be a complete mess the set because we were told basically 'You've got the job as long as nobody dances in your room’. The main reason we got a job in those clubs was that other DJs didn't have a quiet room to go and talk about business and they were after a little quiet moment where they could actually sit down and talk for once. That spoils the image somewhat but it's actually quite true. They gave us that space to do what we wanted and people actually enjoyed it and it was a stark removal from the intensity of Detroit techno that was really grabbing hold of everybody’s attention, 'French Kiss' and that kind of stuff in ‘88/’89.
I would say that The Orb actually played live for the first time around the same time again, in '89 at The Linford Studios with Steve Hillage and Miquette [Giraudy - both of System 7] playing keyboards and Steve playing guitar and me DJing. That was our first ever kind of Orb gig. We did a kind of official Orb gig but then we were offered a gig a week before in another secret location which, if we didn't tell anybody, we could do and we could earn some money so we did both of them. There's an official first ever Orb gig which was at The Town and Country 2 on Highbury Corner and we did a sneaky one just before that but I can't remember where it was due to the fact it was a bloomin' long time ago and I had to keep it a secret and I kept it so secret I've forgotten about it!
IR: I imagine that your live sets have always been quite complex because you’ve always got layer upon layer of sound and you’re always producing new versions of your tracks every time you play?
AP: That’s one of the beauties of our music. It’s not that confusing, it’s just trying to remember… I mean it’s difficult enough to try and remember the gigs that I’ve done this year let alone the gigs I did 15 years ago. I mean I’m actually getting a much better grip of it because A I don’t take so many drugs and B I don’t drink so much now, so I’m actually finding that there’s a handle out there that I can get hold of rather than just freefloat everywhere. Which isn’t a bad thing either, ignorance is bliss in a lot of respects. If people are in the same state of mind when they go to your gigs as you are then it tends that your gigs are pretty good as well because you're feeding off their psyches which is also quite good.
That's what was so amazingly… you'll never repeat it… with the Glastonbury gig. It was just such a one-off. I'd spiked myself, completely accidentally, went on stage, was wheeled on stage, went up there and did the gig and everyone was like 'Yeah, it's brilliant' and can I remember it?! What did I do? Haha! That is a pure example of doing a gig where you ride it, if you're having such a good time. Like if you remember the 60s you were never there as the old saying goes and that applies really to the 80s in a lot of respects. It was a time of experimentation and pretty open all which way round, rather than the threat of death defying diseases if you have it off or if you look at a woman, it was almost biblical in the way they’re sort of portraying that sort of disease. But it is an important thing to know that you do get diseases from sex now that can kill you. It’s definitely important to know but in my time, when I was a lad that wasn’t really the case. We didn’t have that stigma floating over the whole thing.
IR: So more freedom?
AP: Basically, more freedom yeah. It certainly wasn’t us but I mean it’s just one of those things, the degeneration of mankind anyway, it’s just falling to pieces rapidly before our eyes. We’re not going to have planet to live on soon at the rate we’re going.
IR: Yeah, I know.
AP: The amount of debates that we have about it and it’s bloody obvious.
IR: Yeah, we just sit down and talk and that’s it.
AP: Yeah, that’s it. Do something.
IR: Yeah, hot air.
AP: Yeah, anyway.
IR: With your sketchy memories of the past, I’ll try not to dwell too much on too long ago, but with your live sets, how did they gradually evolve over time? Did things gradually get more and more… was there more gear involved, it was more complicated to put on a live show?
AP: Well, the whole thing got more and more complicated. The originality of the original Orb shows was that they were done in such a sort of mad way that nothing really mattered if it didn't suit. We had this one bloke who went back to America, he was a kind of a student stroke living here for a while, and he was doing our lights. But he was doing our lights in such a way, I’ve never met anybody before or after him really – well, there was probably a couple of people who’ve got the same kind of ideas – but for me I found he was kind of an original for just getting mad ideas on a screen and that goes back to a Linford Studio gig with Steve Hillage. He was doing the lights there and I turned round and he had these skeletons dancing to 'Perpetual Dawn' and I just thought, 'He's fucking amazing, what's going on here?' Turns out his name's Dave Herman.
The complexity of it all wasn't so much 'Oh, what's going on here then' it was more we knew what we were doing at a really early point of what we were doing. It was kind of working really well without tripping over our own bootlaces, a bit like doing ambient house for the first time and realising that people liked it and we were just in it for the laugh half the time. Well if they get it great but no one's really gonna get this surely? You can't dance to this but people were chilling out. Then it just became massive. Two artics for the lights and backline and doing massive gigs in, dare I say it, Woodstock and going down to Glastonbury. It just got bigger, that’s the way it went, that was the beast itself.
IR: So was that a good thing? You were happy with things?
AP: Yeah, you're always happy when you've got huge tour support coming in from a major record label and everyone seems to like you and you're flavour of the week but in my roadie mind I was thinking, ‘Well, we ain’t gonna be flavour of the month that much longer if we don't der-der-der-der’, and 'Pomme Fritz' kind of settled it for everybody anyway. We made a really shit record and made our feelings felt that we weren’t going to go out and do another 'Little Fluffy Clouds' for anyone - not in the next 10 to 15 years anyway.
IR: And why should you anyway? Although I’m sure there was pressure on you to do that.
AP: We had a massive record deal and they were expecting us to start drawing back the money for them basically by putting out 'Little Fluffy Clouds'.
IR: But moving backwards is another way to help kill off a career anyway. You get some artists who do give into that and people want to hear something new. So in some ways you’re better off moving forwards aren’t you?
AP: It's almost like you can't win either way you go anyway half the time. People turn round and say 'You sound just like you did 10 years ago' or 'Your last album sounds like the last album' and that happens so much. They call it a 'winning formula' and, dare I say it, I used to A&R as well so I've got a finger in quite a lot of pies. Before The Orb and after Killing Joke I was A&Ring in a record company and it turned out a lot of people don't really actually understand music in the music business, which is fucking scary.
IR: What would you say the secret to a good live performance is? There may be many secrets of course. Is that something you ever think about?
AP: Errrr. The secrets to making a good gig? Don't fall back on your laurels on one essence. And another essence is… again, I’ve had this conversation with like… you can have an opinion on this yourself. In essence, when people come and see a band play live like the Orb and they expect to hear 'Little Fluffy Clouds', would they rather listen to a remix, a new interpretation or the original, how it's meant to be played? Which one?
IR: It’s tricky because…
AP: Would you be upset if you heard a Tenaglia type version of ‘Fluffy Clouds’ or a Kompakt version of ‘Fluffy Clouds’, which we’ve been doing quite successfully and mixing in things like…
IR: Well, it depends on the new version, that’s exactly it. I like to hear new interpretations. I’ve been to a few Orb gigs over the years and one thing that I’ve always appreciated is you’re not just gonna get things straight. You don’t just go, ‘Oh right, we’ll just put the album on and we’ll go off and have a cup of tea and a smoke or whatever and then come back’. You don’t do that.
IR: Whereas I remember about 10 years ago I went to see Goldie play and he played every single tune, in the same order that they were on the album ‘Timeless’ in exactly the same way it was on the album and for me it was alright because you were listening to music much louder than normal but that was the only thing that was going for it really. There wasn’t any experimentation or… there was no theme to it, he didn’t inject anything else into that music at all.
AP: Just going through the motions.
IR: If there was a new version of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, like I say it would depend on if that new version was enjoyable but it’s always good I think to experiment and to hear things reinterpreted personally.
AP: Hmmm. Thank you. Well, that’s exactly how I feel. If I go and listen to The Clash or something and… how this all changed again is working with one band for eight years with Killing Joke and watching them rehearse and rehearse to get that sound exactly the same as it was on the record to be played live and they would get really upset if it didn't sound the same. I’d always think, ‘It would be really cool if they’d just drop out a chorus or just did like a whole dub…’ And they were all really like, ‘No, no, we’ve got to do it this way, got to do it that way’. It wasn't me against them at all, but it was just something I saw and I thought, 'If I ever have a band, I'm gonna really dub my band up and do dub versions of the versions that I've done of whatever if anyone's interested'. Lo and behold people became interested and I did that.
I've been having these conversations with friends recently about, 'Why don't you go back out on the road and do like the classic versions of the Orb where people expect to hear 'Blue Room' for 40 minutes', but I'm like, 'But that's really boring'. OK, I've recently gone into the archives because Universal are re-releasing the Orb back catalogue next spring. What they're doing, well I'm doing them myself at the minute, I've done quite a lot of them, is recompiling new versions of each album to put with the old albums and get old out-takes and that's when it becomes more dubby again and you see the different versions that you can come up with. That was the thing about 'Blue Room', it was only 10 minutes of music but because we layered it with so many different sounds we could do four different versions and edit them together and there's your 40-minute version. People say, 'Oh, that's really difficult', it wasn't really that difficult but it was just using every sound that we had on something like 72 tracks to make it spread over 40 minutes.
IR: I think with your music moreso than anyone else’s, because there are so many different layers, it’s almost that the music encourages you to play with it anyway and to do different versions and to bring something out a bit more and let it fade away again or whatever and to sort of experiment, because there’s so much going on. Because I always found when I first… my sister introduced me to ‘Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’ when I was about 14, 15 and just sat there listening to that. I can still listen to that album and I can still get something new. And I’ve listened to it so often but there’s still something else that catches my ear that I hadn’t noticed before and likewise with your other work as well because there are so many different layers. So I think it encourages you to improvise and play around. But are you enjoying doing the new versions? Going into the archives and stuff?
AP: I think I’m up to the last one. I’ve gone backwards and forwards and upside down. I enjoyed doing 'Pomme Fritz' because 'Pomme Fritz' was really quite a nice album until we found out that we were being ripped off and then we just went into the studio and went, 'Fuck everyone, we hate everyone' and that was 'Pomme Fritz'. The beauty of that was watching the A&R man scratch his head listening to it. That was the most beautiful moment of that and he took it back to Island and they released it and that was like 'Touché!'
IR: It still got in the top 10 though didn't it?
Yeah, strangely enough.
IR: How did that feel?
Very odd, I think. Odd would be an apt way of putting it. Like, what the fuck is going on here? [Laughs] Forgot about that! Anyway, moving swiftly on then from numbers to…
IR: You did a gig on an island once didn’t you? You had to row out there?
AP: Yeah, we did a gig in a place called Tricona just outside, most people would say Copenhagen. It was an old Napoleonic island back in the day. We did one set at sunset and another set at sunrise and in between that we had Darren Emerson, Dreadzone, Lewis, myself and a few other people [inaudible] and that. There were all these little bunker things on one part of the island where you could go into all of these little techno rooms. R&S had a room in there as well. Lewis and [inaudible] and Ben Watkins and stuff like that were all down there.
It was to exorcise the island because it used to be like a Nazi… it's where the joy divisions used to hang out. Peter Gabriel was after the gig to exorcise it and they turned around and said 'No, we want the Orb' which I was eternally grateful for really.
Adding to the moments of Peter Gabrielism, we played on the Sunday night, the last slot on the main stage of Woodstock in ’94 and before that was? Peter Gabriel!
IR: Did he bear you a grudge for missing out on the island exorcism?
AP: No, I don’t think so. I just found that quite amusing that he’d come round… I don’t know. This Carlos geezer from Santana grooving on the side of the stage isn’t a bad moment either.
IR: Sounds quite surreal.
AP: Exactly mate! For a south London boy it’s very odd! If everyone knew half the things I knew what was going on… Still, that’s my little secret!
IR: I won’t press you on that one then.
AP: Hmmm. No problem.
IR: How important to you is the visual side of a gig? Of course you’re playing music so it’s normally going to come second…
AP: It’s a very good point. I’m very happy with our visuals this year, they’ve gone down quite well all over the place. We’ve managed to get into places we’d never got into before. We've got down to Thomas and myself, our lighting man and outfront man/tour manager/t-shirt seller, he does everything, bless him, that’s Steve Kinsey and Gary does the visuals.
We've managed to get into places we never could have before, especially as Le Petit Orb which is basically the same set up but without the visuals, so you get the option of ‘Do you want the Orb with the visuals do you want the Orb without the visuals?’ and we've had some amazing gigs without the visuals playing in castles in Naples, we've done 12 gigs in Italy this year and some of them have been amazing. We did this fort in Venice, which was Napoleon's fort and very odd locations and you could just get in there and squeeze them in and people didn't really care about the fact there were no visuals with them.
This is a classic moment in my little life, the only time I’ve had any complaints this year about visuals is from somebody who wasn’t even there, so there you go.
IR: How does that work?
AP: I don’t know, I’m still scratching my head as well. It was a dear friend and I won’t name names like he would do if he had an interview later on. A right plonker, just having a go at me about something he wasn’t even there to have a go at me about. ‘So which part of the visuals didn’t you like then?’ ‘Well, I wasn’t there.’ ‘Well…’ Ahhh, bless.
IR: I guess you just have to shrug that one off.
AP: Well, you have to take things on the chin but sometimes you take them on the chin in a very abstract way.
IR: What would you say the best thing about performing live was. What do you enjoy most about doing it?
AP: Loads of things went flashing through my mind. Probably just getting the whole thing, just seeing the reaction of people actually enjoying the music you've been writing yourself or been part of writing and that's what music's about isn't it, surely? It’s not really about the drink and the drugs and the birds, I’m a little bit too old for all that now. Maybe if you’d asked me that question 20 years ago it would’ve been a completely different answer, even 10 years ago. But I’m all loved up, I’ve got a little baby boy at the moment and I’ve got a beautiful six-year-old daughter and I don’t really need anything else in that department, I’m very happy.
The next album, if you listen to the thing we've been doing this year, we've been discussing the live elements on this album and I still want to keep it really small because we can get into places where previously we would have budgeted ourselves out of the equation. Where it would have ended up costing me money as opposed to earning a bit of money or breaking even, more than likely. This new album I think will hopefully put us back on some kind of map, Orbworld anyway.
IR: What has been your favourite or most memorable live performance?
AP: This will really throw everybody, it's the time I got up on stage with Killing Joke and sang a whole set with them in Paris in 1980 when they signed a deal with EG Records that day and basically their A&R man became my mate for life and got me a job at EG because of that gig. He saw me singing, told me I was the best thing that he's ever seen singing and I just basically made the decision myself very early on that I'd rather be a roadie than a singer and I think that's probably the best move I ever made in that sense because I didn't make a name for myself or have a past so when The Orb did come out it was me being this roadie who was with Killing Joke. That was about as near as they could get to someone who was in a band."
- Ian Roullier, 12/2006