If you were listening to electronic music back in the 1990s, then you were no doubt a fan of The Orb, the musical duo comprising Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann. The band's debut album was The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, which kicks off with "Little Fluffy Clouds," an ambient classic with its instantly recognizible sample from Rickie Lee Jones talking about the dreamy skies of her childhood in Arizona (they even did a great spoof with comedian Simon Munnery called "Grey Clouds" about the much more dreary skies of Watford, UK).
Then, with an airplane soaring off it segues into "Earth (Gaia)" which merges Ming the Merciless' Flash Gordon quotes with doom-laden bible soothsaying and rich ambient sounds—and so begins a near-two hour progressive journey that doesn't do a disservice to the title. It was the first introduction in album form to a group who have seen numerous members over the years. The Orb's one constant was Alex Paterson, a former roadie for Killing Joke who used to DJ along with fellow Orb founder, the KLF's Jimmy Cauty, in the chillout room at Paul Oakenfield's Land of Oz acid house club night at Heaven in London, playing Brian Eno and Pink Floyd to people who loved up (or coming down) on ecstasy.
A new documentary, called Lunar Orbit, having its London premiere at the Doc 'n Roll Film Festival, takes a look at these pioneers of ambient music and the processes and stories behind their sound. The doc is directed by Patrick Buchanan who has been a fan of the group since the mid-90s.
"My relationship with The Orb’s music has bordered on obsessive over the years, I will admit," Buchanan explains to The Creators Project, detailing that he wanted to make a film that a fan like him would want to see. "There hasn’t been much media documenting The Orb so I took it upon myself. As a first time filmmaker I knew I was going to spend a lot of time on this so I picked a subject close to my heart: music. I knew their music very well but I didn’t know much about the creators themselves and their history."
Although this was Buchanan's inaugural feature, he's been involved with the TV industry as an editor for a number of years. He hit a low point during the summer of 2012 and, feeling uninspired, decided to make his own film, a doc about his musical heroes. So he approached The Orb with his idea and the project began. It took him around three years from beginning to end to make the doc, which is still looking for a distributor, hence why it's touring the film festivals.
The film features interviews with Paterson and Fehlmann and follows them as they record their 13th studio album in Berlin, Moonbuilding 2703AD, which was released last year.
"Alex and Thomas are very different from each other, and I think that really balances out their vibe," Buchanan says of the duo. "Alex comes from punk rock, and got his start in music with Youth and working for Killing Joke, Thomas is really into art and jazz and was part of Palais Schaumburg, also a key figure in the Berlin techno scene in Berlin in the late eighties. Helen Mead who was a live editor at NME in the early 90s and knows them both, compared them to Laurel and Hardy. Alex isn’t really into jazz and Thomas not so much into punk. They meet in the middle."
The film itself has interviews with not just the current members, Paterson and Fehlmann, but features archive live performances and interviews with key players and contributors throughout the group's decade-spanning career. Childhood friends who Paterson went to a Christian boarding school with, like Guy Pratt and Martin "Youth" Glover, bass player for Killing Joke ("Youth is a key interview in the film, his friendship and contributions are important to The Orb," notes Buchanan) have interviews in the film. There film also features Orb contributors Steve Hillage, Simon Philips, and Tom Green, and musical contemporaries like Mixmaster Morris and Matt Black from Coldcut.
Although like any film about a band and their history Buchanan looks at the band's past work and their musical inspirations ("Two key musical influences that are covered in the film are Chic and Steve Reich. I’d add that people like Brian Eno, and groups like Cluster and the work of Robert Fripp are key to them both," explains the director) he also wanted to focus on the now. The processes that informed the Moonbuilding 2703AD album and the studio sessions he sat in on, in particular, gave him a great insight into this and helped, for Buchanan, set the film apart.
"Here I am sitting on the floor with a mic and headphones listening to The Orb—but I’m in Berlin and I’m in their studio!" Buchanan notes. "This was an aspect that I really wanted to get, to explore the creative process and document it. The Orb have an interesting way of making records, its an exploratory way of jamming; they jam, they experiment and then they manipulate their sessions, sometimes unrecognizable. [In the doc] we tell the stories, we talk about the history but it’s very much rooted in the present, yes they had hits 25 years ago, but the music they make today is very strong and in some cases better. Moonbuilding 2703 AD is one of the best Orb albums in a decade, and we witness some of the magic. I think it takes this film to the next level as far as a documented event."
Check out an excerpt from Lunar Orbit below.
Doc 'n Roll Film Festival is on from November 2 to 13, 2016 in various venues across London. Lunar Orbit will premiere on 11 November at Picturehouse Central. Learn more about the film here. Learn more about The Orb at their website here, stream their latest album COW / Chill Out, World here, and catch them on tour throughout November and December across the UK.