Phil Hartnoll interview: Orbital On + On after 30 years

“No worries, I am officially nocturnal,” is Phil Hartnoll’s text assuring me it’s OK to call him for an interview at 11pm midweek. Later on, he jokes, “I can’t tell the time anyway”, when I thank him for getting on the phone when most sensible people are in bed or at least nearly there.

In fairness, it’s hardly a surprise. Since 1989, Phil and his younger brother Paul have been soundtracking the nocturnal lives of millions as Orbital, one of the true hall-of-fame electronic acts, with a string of iconic tracks almost as old as dance music itself, and roots in the UK illegal rave scene.

The interview is hatched at a chance meeting the Friday before, in the bar queue at the Barbican, waiting for the first ever live show by Juan Atkins’ iconic Cybotron project – with Phil as excited as I remember being at my first Orbital show at the Phoenix Festival in 1997. A few days later we’re talking about the tightrope of the growing nostalgia in dance music, and where he stands on it – especially in Orbital’s 30th anniversary year and a few days before he’s due to play an ‘Orbital Classics’ DJ set at Dublin’s Tengu.

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“I don’t really like retro but I get lumped into it because I’ve been around,” he says over the phone from his home in Brighton. “I go out DJing between my day job and you move on. OK, it’s nice to have a little reminder, maybe I’ll play Chime and people will go, ‘Ah fuck me, remember?’ But to go full nostalgia, it doesn’t excite me. I’m speaking as a 55-year-old, I can hardly relive it, can I?”

He’s offsetting the full-on retro buzz by throwing in a few exclusives and remixes, and there’s also the fact that an Orbital set on a bank holiday Sunday in a Dublin club is near impossible to fuck up.

“They requested an Orbital Classics set but the current vibe I’m into is modern dancefloor tracks and as Orbital we never really write for the dancefloor. But me and Paul have done a few remixes recently, stuff like a Plaid remix, an 808 State one for the dancefloor. There’ll be a lot of unreleased stuff, deeper tracks. They gave me an hour and a half and I said listen mate, give me two hours, then maybe I can shove a little disco track in here and there.

“It’s not just like, put on the Brown Album. Actually, that’s an idea! No, seriously with DJing the prime directive is to make the crowd dance and groove, it’s a very different vibe, it keeps me enthusiastic.”

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Anyone who’s been to an Orbital show in the last few decades won’t doubt Phil’s enthusiasm. Always the most, let’s say boisterous of the two Hartnolls, he’s often on stage sweating through a Bruce Willis Die Hard vest, punching the air. I recall a night in Shine in Belfast in 1999 when he jumped into the crowd for a 15-minute pogo at the front while Paul kept DJing and he roars laughing: “Was that in Belfast? Ah brilliant. Was that after in Orbital live gig? Ah who knows. I do that, I love a dance… Irish people are second to none for that too. I don’t wanna generalise, but I’m gonna – every time I go over there it’s wicked. The Irish really go out to enjoy themselves and they really appreciate music and make allowances. It’s almost like respect. It might not be their cuppa tea but they still respect the fact that there’s a piece of music and it’s somebody’s creation. Well, that’s the feeling I get anyway, you guys really go for it.”

Phil has a serious memory bank of classics at his disposal — from the initial euphoric DIY rave rush of their debut single ‘Chime’, to contemplative, lush masterpieces such as ‘Halcyon’ and the industrial jackhammer electro breakbeats of the Butthole Surfers-sampling ‘Satan’. And he’ll probably get barred from Ireland if he doesn’t play ‘Belfast’ — their lump-in-throat anthem famously recorded after a gig in the North during the Troubles.

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Orbital’s first 10 years captured and shaped the rise of dance music in the UK, hatched while the brothers were hitting outdoor raves on the outskirts of the M25, the ring road motorway around London that gave them their name. ‘Chime’ was recorded in a few hours on their dad’s cassette player in 1989, and a few months later they were awkwardly performing it on Top of the Pops, miming with their synths balanced on BBC canteen tables. Within five years they’d headlined the NME stage at Glastonbury in 1994, in what’s considered dance music’s biggest crossover up till then, a triumphant, pivotal moment in the year of the UK government’s Criminal Justice Bill that cracked down music “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.

And listen to the intricate electronic suites on The Brown Album, Snivilisation or In Sides – or indeed albums by Aphex Twin, Portishead, Leftfield, Chemical Brothers or Tricky and you realise the absurdity of the mid-90s being claimed for Britpop and its retrograde legacy of indie landfill and shite lad guitar bands.

It’s not all rave escapism and festival transcendence with Orbital, though. Behind the iconic LED torch specs and synth lines etched into the collective dance music memory, the brothers have had a subversive, political edge from day one, performing Chime on TOTP wearing ant-Poll Tax long-sleeves. Whether it’s an underlying eco message on tracks such as ‘The Girl With the Sun in Her Head’, the on-the-nose ‘Are We Here (Criminal Justice Bill)’, or the overall disdain for a deluded humanity on Snivilisation, Orbital have always been poking you on the shoulder as you’re coming up on one, reminding you it’s not all a big rush. Their new album includes a hymn-like track about the end of the Earth, narrated by Professor Brian Cox. Even take a look at their latest setlist –  titles such as title track ‘Monsters Exist’, ‘There Will Come a Time (We All Die Mix)’, ‘Impact (The Earth Is Burning)’ or the always-headfuck of SATANSATANSATANSATAN lets you know it won’t always be a good trip.

Phil laughs off the idea of starting a gig with Brian Cox describing how the planet’s going to die, adding that the We All Die remix really does go “on and on and on and on and on… just keeping it real man”.

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He adds: “But really, it’s things that get to you. We don’t really consider at the time what it’ll be like for other people. It’s a cliche but if we focus on what other people will like we’ll fuck it up. These things find us, if something comes along like a little sample, “the Earth is burning”, it’s like ‘I gotta have some of that’. It’s not like we’re telling people that the Earth is burning, we’re just making it up as we go along. Then again, with Snivilisation it really was, you humans are fucking silly billies, you had it all and you fucked it up, didn’t you?”

This is Orbital’s 30th anniversary year, and it really looked like they had given up at 25. Monsters Exist arrived last year after they announced their second split in 2014, with Paul saying they’d “stopped working properly”. It was an acrimonious break, with years of no talk between the pair. This return doesn’t look anything like a cash-grab though, with the brothers vibing off each other in interviews and seeming really relaxed with each other. Phil says he doesn’t want to “pick the scab too much” and go on about it, but he simply says: “It’s all a bit confusing really, we’re chalk and cheese. Like he didn’t talk to me for five years. It was five years of confusion. I never question it, I’m just happy we got back, I got my brother back, let’s just go along with it.

“It seems to me that now it’s a bit like when we started and we knew jack shit, and it’s like ‘of course we can do this, of course we can do that’. The jamming has been really relaxed. Paul can take it all a bit too serious, but I’m like, just do it and hope it works.”

When I tell him I’ve been to quite a few final gigs and reunion shows over the years he laughs: “Ah shit mate sorry about that! It’s my brother, tell him about it! I never wanted to split up in the first place. But this time I really believed him when he said we were finished and he didn’t wanna work with me again.

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“I was like, ‘Paul don’t split the band up again, people are just gonna laugh at us. But he did and, well that didn’t work out did it? It’s a bit embarrassing coming back as Orbital version 3, but we’ve got the best fans, they’re so fucking forgiving. We split up and it’s like ‘pffff yeah I believe that’. We’ve had two last tours!

“Tell you what, I’ve banned him from splitting us again, you ain’t doing that again, bruv. If you have a problem sort it out with me, don’t bottle it up. If he says we’ve split, I’ll just be like, “Did you say something Paul?’

“And anyway, no one really cares if bands split up, it’s like, next! Fans wanna hear good news, not, ‘Oh fuck me Orbital have split up again, they wanna hear, ‘Hold on, Orbital have a new album out, I wonder if it’s any good?’

“But the fans’ response to the last album, it’s blown me away, this is great, this is what I do and it’s so nice to be back with him, it really is. And he’s enjoying it so much, which is all I really wanted him to do. Like I never expected to be in a band, then I thought we’d last for a year, but here we are, fucking great.”

Maybe a family that raves together, stays together after all. Phil had his son at Cybotron last week, and he gets a real kick out of the families coming to Orbital shows, saying: “We’ve got fans our age who’ve stuck with us and now they’re bringing their teenage kids.

“It’s lovely to me, and this isn’t patronising at all – having a moment with us, you fucking can’t get much better than that. And I can’t wait to indoctrinate the grandchildren!”

  • Phil Hartnoll is playing a set of Orbital Classics at Tengu in Dublin tonight, with support from DJ Mog-Y anf Mark Kavanagh and DJ Pressure in Bar Keizen playing acid house all night. Tickets here.