All photos by Andrew Williamson
With a career that spans nearly a quarter of a century, 13 albums under their belt, and almost as many EPs, Orphx are Canada's undisputed industrial techno linchpins. The duo of Christina Sealey and Richard Oddie have evolved throughout the years from experimental noise to found sound concept albums and onto club-leaning techno musings. Whatever style they happened to be mastering at the time however, the pair have always had some thought out origin behind their recordings, which inevitably adds a certain level of depth to their music.
"Virtually every track has some kind of reference point: an idea or pointing to a concept, or maybe a book or film," Oddie tells THUMP. The last few years has seen Orphx release a slew of under-the-radar, but nevertheless essential, 12"s on Sonic Groove, a label run by NYC techno pioneer Adam X. Their recent ominous take on techno brought the duo back to the realm of body music, while still catering to the brain's darker, glitched out corners. The duo's latest record Pitch Black Mirror—which we're streaming today before it comes out Nov. 4 via HANDS/Sonic Groove—continues in that same stylistic vein, with the longer run-time affording Orphx a deeper narrative to explore. It's their first full-length since 2011's Radiotherapy, and just like many of their previous albums, it deals with themes of transformation and progression.
As much as Orphx's sound is rooted in concepts, it's also rooted in Hamilton, Ontario, a steel town about an hour away from Toronto. The crumbling aesthetic of an industrial city on the decline was an integral part of their music, and one that you can hear throughout these ten tracks (which also features contributions from founding member Aron West and Essaie Pas' Marie Davidson). We recently sat down with the duo in the basement of Sealey's cosy Hamilton studio to discuss thematic influences, personal struggles, and how the city's dilapidated backdrop spawned a 23-year career.
THUMP: You've been an act for over two decades now. What is it that keeps you making music together?
Christina Sealey: After so many years we have such a good working relationship, it's kind of hard to get that with somebody new, get a connection. Even today we were having a little debate about how we were gonna structure something, but I think we have an intuitive sense of what we want to do, and what kind of sound we want to go for.
Richard Oddie: It makes playing together easier. We don't have to talk too much about what we want to do.
How would you say you've both grown over that time period?
Oddie: I think we both have a wider range of interests, in terms of types of music, and a more broader range of things we're interested in, as opposed to when we were teenagers, and we were a bit more narrowly focused and maybe a little bit more overly critical. Well, at least I was anyway, certainly about anything that smelled commercial. Not that we've turned pop or anything, but we're just more open to different things now. We appreciate more music now than when we were younger.
Sealey: Rich had started studying philosophy and then did a doctorate in environmental studies, and I think in different time periods, different influences came in from that. Then certainly from my art as well. Different influences kind of come in and out, and filter into the music too.
With this new record, were there any preconceived themes going into it?
Sealey: Somewhat. I guess we started off with a poem by a Canadian writer that I had found and I started with some ideas for a painting. I had showed Richard the poem and it tied into ideas that he was already working on, and then we thought that might be a good starting point for the record.
What was the poem?
Oddie: It was called "Dark Pool" by somebody named P.B. Hunter. I wasn't able to find out much more than that. I think he might be from Burlington [Ontario]. The concept, as far as I understood it, was sort of like... there's a lot of water metaphors and he talks about diving into painful emotions, and painful experiences, and kind of transforming. And that was sort of the theme that has come up a lot for what we do, just that imagery.
We ended up using one of the last lines he uses in the poem for the album title, Pitch Black Mirror. He talks about a pitch-black mirror of unknowing, which I think was supposed to be about uncertainty, that we can't know what's ahead, but nevertheless, you continue.
Do you think you've successfully captured that theme with this record?
Oddie: Yeah, we took that theme and kind of ran with it. That was a way of shaping the material that we had. Like, we had this big archive of modular sounds and patterns, and frequently we'd be recording little segments while we're preparing for shows.
Sealey: I think choosing particular moods and then also, because it's a record, there are tracks like the 12"s that we've been doing for Adam [Adam X] recently that are very club-oriented in a lot of ways. To the extent we are anyway, which is not always super accessible. And then with the record, we're able to tell a little bit more of a narrative. We wanted to add vocals too and that sort of ties into the theme as well. We had Marie Davidson from Montreal, who we had been wanting to work with, so we got her in for some vocals and Rich did some too.
How did the collaboration with Marie Davidson come about?
Sealey: I went out to her show in Toronto. I can't remember exactly how I got linked up to her music, I had heard her once before and then I went to see her there. I think through the In The Loop [a non-profit electronic music workshop for women started by Sealey and Toronto producer Naomi Hocura] stuff too we had been talking. We just really hit it off, and she was saying what a huge Orphx fan she was, and I was like "Oh, really?"
Oddie: We had this idea to have Marie do vocals after hearing [Davidson's 2015 solo LP] Un Autre Voyage. It has this real cinematic quality, she's doing a lot of spoken word and stuff on it.
The press release mentioned that this album was inspired by personal and social turmoil. Could you explain how so?
Oddie: I'm reluctant to go into great detail, but I think that is sort of running through all our work. It's responding to personal struggles and there's a sense of tension or conflict in the music.
Sealey: You could take that on different levels that are more personal or like, that idea of transformation too: taking something negative and transforming it into something else. I think the idea of things that we see or I guess personal challenges as well, too, which I think everybody has to varying degrees.
When we started making music, the way we started making music and how it shaped how we work together, all these things came about because we were here in Hamilton.—Christina Sealey
Was Hamilton a particularly nurturing environment for the type of music you make?
Sealey: You know what? It really was.
Oddie: It's one of the things we like talking about anyway [laughs].
Sealey: He's such a poo-pooer on Hamilton. When we started making music, the way we started making music and how it shaped how we work together, all these things came about because we were here in Hamilton.
Oddie: Okay, that is true, I guess.
Sealey: It was so critical. First, the environment, like this industrial city with things falling apart. Hamilton was on the decay from our high school through university—we met in high school. There was this old factory in Dundas that we used to go to and record sounds, and we did a little video in there, remember that [laughs]?
I think one of you might be enjoying this reminiscing more than the other.
Sealey: [Laughs] It really had that whole vibe of industrial stuff that we were interested in at the time. And then we had met this couple in Dundas, just by chance, and they were doing these totally weird things. They started off these nights where they would just do weird improvised music, and it was very open to anyone who wanted to come in and hang out. They had this big building space in Dundas and we sort of ventured in, checked it out, and it was so weird and crazy and awesome. We ended up doing some stuff with this couple and it really influenced how we improvised, which we hadn't really done before.
Oddie: We started co-presenting shows with them. I think they might still be making music. I imagine Walter still makes music, and Zena kept making music under the same name, Sublimatus, and that's gone through all kinds of different incarnations.
It sounds like they were pretty crucial to your development.
Sealey: Yeah, in terms of electronic stuff too. Walter had this—
Sealey & Oddie: [Simultaneously] ARP Odyssey.
Oddie: It was one of the first analog synths that either of us played.
Sealey: We were just like "Whoa! What's this thing?" Well, we had the Mirage at that time, and you had that ESQ-1.
Oddie: And the Yamaha.
Sealey: Oh yeah, the Yamaha!
Oddie: That was key, man.
Sealey: That was my first keyboard. I saved up all of my farm work money and bought this Yamaha SY55, because I read in Keyboard Magazine that Trent Reznor said that this was the keyboard to buy, and I was like "Oh yeah, I'm gettin' this." [laughs]
This couple was obviously a big influence on you, but it really sounds like the industrial backdrop of Hamilton itself played a part too.
Oddie: There's some kind of aesthetic connection, sure. There were some sites in this town, and in Dundas, like this stone-crushing site that was on the escarpment that was just in ruins. You could just walk right into this thing, and other places had all this rusted machinery. In both cases, there was all this overgrown vegetation and there's just something really interesting about that.
Sealey: We did a lot of sound-recording at these places too. We recorded a lot of things on this reel-to-reel—old machinery, banging noises, that sort of thing, and then echoes from inside the spaces too. The one Rich was talking about, the stone-crusher, had these ramps that you could go up and down that were sort of falling apart, which was really dangerous in retrospect. One factory had this shower room, where all the workers would've showered and it was all decaying—it was kind of like a horror movie—but the sound inside the room was kind of like this echoey space.
Oddie: And there was a massive chamber below that. I don't know what the decay on the reverb was, maybe like 10 seconds or something. One of those shows with Sublimatus we did in there at night, so like a group of 10 of us or something snuck in there.
Is it still there?
Oddie: No, they've torn it down to build condos and a retirement home.
Sealey: After a long wait though, because it was an environmental hazard and in fact we were probably rolling around in a lot of chemicals, which was probably not such a good idea.
Have you ever left or thought of leaving Hamilton at any point?
Oddie: We've both lived elsewhere. We both lived in Scotland on separate occasions. I taught there for a year.
But you always found yourselves coming back here?
Sealey: Well, that's where the debate is. He'd like to go and move to Berlin, but I like the idea of building what we have here, where the space is an influence, but also we're doing something that not everybody is doing here. You go to Berlin and everybody and anybody is doing the exact same thing. And it's great because you have this whole atmosphere of artists to work with and play with, but then you're also out with them every night, and you're not actually getting any work done. You're just hanging out and going to clubs all the time.
Because I'm doing painting in the city too, maybe I'm looking at it in a different way. I see all of these spaces that I'm exploring visually as well. So, for me, I've got that attachment to Hamilton.
The industrial aspect of the city and these people you met got you into this of music, but what keeps you coming back to it after all these years?
Oddie: We'd been listening to both industrial music and techno since the beginning. In the early 90s when we started working on this together we were listening to Skinny Puppy and Hafler Trio and stuff, but also going to raves, and at that time there was a decent rave scene in Toronto, and to a lesser extent in Hamilton. There'd be warehouse parties to go to in Toronto every few weekends, and we were hearing Jeff Mills and Hawtin and stuff on Plus 8. That started influencing us in terms of music that we were making, and by about 1996/97, the first 10" on HANDS was a deliberate attempt to try and combine industrial and techno.
Do you think you'll always be making music as Orphx?
Oddie: Let's see [laughs].
Sealey: I think we like having the working relationship that we have. Certainly in some aspect we'll be doing stuff. There's been different time periods where one of us has pulled out for a bit, and then come back in, but I guess we've always done the live shows together.
There's been certain points where I'm like, "I can't do this anymore." Even with my painting too. I was teaching at OCAD [Ontario College of Art and Design], doing sessional stuff and I had no money, because you just don't get paid doing that and I was barely getting by. I thought, "I just can't keep this up. I'm going to quit everything and work with my brother, who's a computer engineer, and I'm just going to write code." [laughs] At the point I decided to quit my sessional job at OCAD, a permanent position opened up and I was able to stay. Things got better and then I had some breathing room to still do music. It kind of goes in and out, but even at that point of trying to quit, I'm still drawn back into the music. When you're involved so much in different forms of art, you can't really quit. It's a lifetime addiction. I don't think Rich will stop making music at any point either.
Oddie: No, I think I'd lose my mind. If a certain amount of days pass and I haven't done something, I start to lose it. I think it's therapeutic. Whether it's distracting me from things I don't want to think about or, more positively, sort of taking stuff that's troubling you and channeling it somewhere I don't know, but either way it's essential.
Pitch Black Mirror is out Nov. 4 via HANDS/Sonic Groove.
Daryl Keating is on Twitter.