The Orb's Alex Paterson on punk and reggae being two minorities fighting a majority
The Orb got its start in the second half of the '80s, inspired by dub and house music. Cited as an influence of many modern electronic music artists today, the act also had a major impact on ambient artists of the past few decades, including guitar bands like Seefeel and late-period Slowdive. Founded by Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty, who went on to form the KLF, the Orb came out of the post-punk world but took the elements of dub-bass and sampling to make a different kind of music.
The Orb's debut album, 1991's The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, was an immediate hit in clubs and even made a splash on alternative radio with its single, "Little Fluffy Clouds." But the group was never content to repeat itself. As a result, the outfit's subsequent albums across the next two decades displayed the proclivity of Paterson and his various collaborators for reinvention -- or even a mere inspired rejuvenation in revisiting roots.
Fusing those two impulses went into the now duo's two most recent albums, made in collaboration with legendary dub producer, Lee "Scratch" Perry. We recently spoke with the wryly humorous and sharp Paterson about his early experiments in making samples, working with Lee Perry and how embracing change is the best shot at longevity in music.
Westword: In the early days of being a roadie for Killing Joke, were you already making music of your own?
Alex Paterson: Yeah, I was in and out of bands, but never took ourselves very serious. I was in an experimental band called Bloodsport, which released some things on Malicious Damage in the late '70s and early '80s. The multi-track we recorded, Malicious Damage, didn't pay for it. The usual stuff with small independent labels and stuff. The band was somewhere between PiL meets Joy Division -- very abstract vocals, and I was doing the vocals, and the drums; we never had a drummer but we used to smash up bottles and sample them and make them into drum loops. Even in those days, I was weird.
So you were using samples very early on.
That was in the very early days, even with Killing Joke. Not many people know this, but at the very beginning of four or five of the tunes on Night Time, I was involved in the sampling techniques of miking up strange objects and dropping very big pieces of metal, and miking up the area where it was passing through the air, to record that noise, and then put all that noise together to make something unique. That was a really good time. We used to build these drum tunnels and mike up the drum tunnels to make the biggest drum sound at the time.
It seems like a natural progression to go from that to absolutely experimental music. How did you get into make the more electronic variety?
I knew my around a keyboard because I used to maintain Jaz Coleman's OBX, which is an Oberheim keyboard. It was a state of the art keyboard. The OBX is all over the second Killing Joke album What's THIS For...!. It has a dark and sinister sound. Jimmy Cauty went and bought one one day but he didn't he didn't know how to work it. So I switched it on and showed him a few things and we started making records and that's how the Orb came about. Little bits of knowledge can go a long way.
You knew Jimmy from school?
No, I knew Jimmy was in Brilliant with Youth. Youth is an old schoolmate.
What kind of gear did you and Jimmy use early on beyond the OBX?
In the early days it was a bass guitar and samples and those bottles and a vocalist. Occasionally Geordie from Killing Joke did guitars because I was always a really big fan of his. The Orb was using a twelve-track, a sampler, an 808, save save save, oh bugger I've lost it again. Then try to do it again. If only the youngsters knew what we had to go through for what we had so that they can now do on what's in their pockets. But that's cool, though. You can embrace technology or you can ignore it. No one is telling you to do it.
What radio broadcast science fiction did you sample and do you do that sort of thing now?
Well, the science fiction classics from the '50s. Really it was the Sputnik broadcasts and from when I went to Moscow and picked up a musical box that played these amazing tunes that I sampled. It was like a "Radio Moscow" kind of bloke talking and that's all on UFOrb. In terms of space stuff, we took loads of stuff from the Apollo missions. Growing up as a child, I sort of witnessed it firsthand whether it's an elaborate deception or not, but it's a good talking point.