- 14 Mar 23
Ahead of a long-awaited return to Ireland, techno daddies Orbital talk about Brexit, the influence of folk horror on their work and that time they blew The Stone Roses off stage in Cork
Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll was back in his native Kent recently when he ran into an old friend from school.
“Whenever I’m in the local pub I cannot believe over the years the amount of love for Boris Johnson and Brexit,” says Hartnoll, a father figure, along with brother Phil, of British rave thanks to dreamy bangers such as ‘Lush 3’ and ‘Halcyon’.
“And still it goes on,” he continues. “I have conversations with people who are builders. They say, ‘Oh my business is booming – I’m sorry about your business and all you have to go through in music but mine is going well.'”
Hartnoll wondered how anyone could possibly be thriving given the state of the British economy and the cost of living crisis.
“I said, ‘I’ve heard all the supplies are really expensive.' He said, ‘No, it’s great because all the Polish people have had to go back. All our competition is gone.’ I mean fair play to him for not hiding it. But Jesus Christ. That’s it in a nutshell. That’s where we are.”
Brexit is not mentioned on Optical Delusion, the pulsating tenth Orbital album that the Hartnolls released in February. It is, though, an ever-present spectre, haunting songs such as Sleaford Mods collaboration ‘Dirty Rat’ with its sneer of ‘You voted for em – look at ya/ you dirty rat’.
The lyrics are by Sleaford Mod leader Jason Williamson. The sentiment that Britain is having a reckoning is nonetheless one Paul endorses as he and Phil Zoom in from Orbital’s Brighton rehearsal space ahead of a live date at Dublin’s National Stadium on Friday March 17.
“All the people were saying it’s going to be so much better [after Brexit]. I don’t know why they’re banging about the fisherman [in terms of UK gaining better fishing rights post-Brexit]. What are you banging on about? You think you’re going to fish the entire sea? And now there are banging on about not having to follow the EU rules about the banking system. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute’ – now we’re getting into the nitty gritty.'”
The prospect of Brexit being an instrument by which to deregulate the British economy fills him with foreboding. But then rave has always been political – and always set itself in opposition to the establishment. In its earlier incarnation as a guerrilla moment in the late ’80s and ‘90s it became a locus of protest to a decade-plus of Conservative governance.
True, electronic music has come a long way since the Hartnolls started out playing illegal gatherings around Kent (“Orbital” refers to the motorway around London – a focus of the illegal rave scene). But British politics has changed too – and not in a good way.
“Look where we are now,” says Paul. “It’s worse than the '80s, with strikes and everything. They’re dismantling the NHS. The NHS has lost half its staff because of Brexit. It’s ridiculous. The general public believed in the bullshit that Murdoch was putting out. Why? They didn’t want to follow a lot of the rules. It’s chaos over here now. Chaos. You have to wait eight weeks for everything – they’re checking every package to charge import duty. We’ve got carnets [documentation relating to moving musical equipment across borders] to deal with now. Some of the airports, don’t even know what a carnet is. It’s really sad."
The sense of Britain as a country alienated from itself pulsates through Optical Delusion. You can hear it on ‘Home,’ a spooky collaboration with Donegal-based songwriter Anna B Savage. And on opener ‘Ringa Ringa’, which samples ’90s renaissance pop group The Mediæval Bæbes and which, with its claustrophobic grooves, graphically evokes lockdown angst.
Then there is the aforementioned ‘Dirty Rat’– released just as Liz Truss was ushering UK politics from comedy to farce. It’s a nail-spitter that marries Jason Williamson’s take-no-prisoners lyrics with the sort of yammering techno that Orbital perfected in the ’90s with favourites such as ‘Satan’.
“The Sleaford Mods asked us to do a remix. In lieu of payment, they said, ‘We’ll do you a track.' To be fair, lyrically that’s all down to Jason. Whatever he wanted to sing about. When I heard it, I was smiling. Yeah brilliant. He’s tapping in our anarcho-punk roots and slam-dunking the government. And the public – the people who vote for these people. It came out when Liz Truss resigned.”
The pandemic arrived at a weird moment for Orbital. The Hartnolls were about to celebrate 30 years of making music (on and off – they briefly broke up in 2004). The itinerary included a “best of” featuring extensive overhauls of their best-loved tunes (finally released in 2022 as 30 Something).
There was also to be a valedictory tour. Then the world stopped – though, as Orbital acknowledge on ‘Ringa Ringa’, plague and pestilence are hardly new. They go back to the Middle Ages and beyond, as we can see from traditional songs such as ‘Ring-a-ring-a-rosy’, the inspiration for ‘Ringa Ringa’.
“You write about what you know,” says Paul. “Things influence you as you go along. Once the pandemic happened, I didn't feel that the energetic or moody tracks were turning me on. It turned to a gushing, ecstasy type music.
“‘Requiem for the Pre-Apocalypse’ – that’s what it was,” he continues, referencing another tune on Optical Delusion. “The pandemic was happening and I didn’t know if the fall of civilisation was about to happen. In the meantime, I’m in the garden doing yoga. It’s utopia. All my Fomo is gone. I’m full of Jomo: the joy of missing out.”
With its creepy female vocals, ‘Ringa Ringa’, in particular, taps into the folk horror trend. Here, as with so much else, the pioneering Orbital were ahead of the curve. In 1995, with the single ‘The Box’ – the video for which featured a young Tilda Swinton – they championed the folk horror aesthetic of shows such as Children Of The Stones. Paul returns to the milieu with a soundtrack for the forthcoming Channel 4 series, Entitled, starring Stranger Things’ Brett Gelman as an American who inherits a grumbling Gothic mansion in the British countryside.
“I’ve been a fan of all those Hammer films. And of Children of the Stones. The Wicker Man. I love that. Always have done. As the BBC Radiophonic Workshop proved, it goes very well with electronics as well as with strange medieval singing. Funnily enough, the TV show I’ve just soundtracked, called Entitled, is a comedy folk horror drama. Lots of recorders, and Mediæval Bæbes. I’m pulling out my folk horror stops. Everyone’s making folk horror now. It’s everywhere.”
Orbital have been enthusiastic visitors to Ireland since the start of their careers. One of their most famous early shows was headlining Féile 95 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. They went on after The Stone Roses, who had run over with their Saturday night slot. Behind time before they’d even begun, Orbital started their haunting number ‘Belfast’ backstage and were wheeled on performing it.
“It was a very memorable gig. By that point we’d played a couple of Glastonburys. But not many massive festivals. In 1994, we’d only started on the festival circuit. Every festival from then is etched in our memory. I went for a holiday to Kinsale afterwards. With this tour, we’re going to Dublin but also to Limerick, which we’re never played before. It’s going to be fantastic.”
Optical Delusion is out now. Orbital play the Big Top Limerick March 16 and the National Stadium Dublin, Friday March 17