Alex Paterson started The Orb as a duo with The KLF member Jimmy Cauty in 1989. "Ambient House for the E Generation," boasted the back cover of the second Orb single, "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld (Loving You)." The quip is a good summation of their early music, which airlifted a bubbling stew of samples into a sonic zone that owed equal amounts to Jamaican dub and acid-house groove. You could boogie to it but you could also space out entirely.
That remit expanded as the 90s progressed. Live, The Orb's immersive soundscapes enraptured audiences much the way prog-rock had in the 70s, something Paterson made winking reference to with the cover of Live 93—a parody-cum-homage to the sleeve of Pink Floyd's Animals that featured Flossie, Paterson's stuffed toy sheep, in the role of Floyd's flying pig.
Much the way that The Fall are Mark E. Smith and anybody he works with, The Orb has consisted of Paterson plus, over the years, more than a dozen other members. Most frequently and recently, that's been Swiss-born Berliner Thomas Fehlmann, a fabulous producer in his own right. The duo's latest, COW (Chill Out World!), is, per Paterson's statement in the album's press release, "a protest album in reverse." For a world seeming to spin off its axis politically and socially, The Orb offer their quietest and most contemplative music ever.
As befits a group who've built a live rep as well as a recorded one—and whose recordings have always been carefully art-directed—The Orb's legend has been as much about the physical objects associated with the group as their music. Below, Paterson tells us about seven of the most notable "ORBjects" that have marked their nearly three-decade-long career—from the unlabeled tape that carried the seeds of their breakthrough hit, "Little Fluffy Clouds," to the stuffed sheep that gave them their biggest-selling poster, and beyond.
1. The unlabeled cassette that inspired their first hit, "Little Fluffy Clouds" (1990).
Alex Paterson: "The Rickie Lee Jones sample on "Little Fluffy Clouds" was [on] a cassette. There weren't nothing written on it. A friend of mine from another part of England sent me the cassette and said, "This might be a good idea for a new Orb single." No shit. [laughs] It got better: On the other side of the cassette was Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint [the other key sample from "Little Fluffy Clouds"]. I didn't know either of them. We just went with it and released it, and the lawyers carried on afterwards—which was quite amicable, after all was said and done. It could have been a lot worse.
The joy in that track was, it showed me musicians actually like other musician's music as well, and the main people who are after the money are the lawyers and managers, not the artists themselves—especially if you do a good job. If you do a really stupid job, then you have to expect people to go after you, because you just [used] a sample and it sounds exactly like the [original] record. Whereas we used both those samples and put them into completely different worlds. Steve Reich was very happy when he heard it. He was shocked that someone had moved it into a different level, rather than just left it in this very highbrow [place]. Suddenly, it was being played to the masses, and they were loving it."
2. The AKAI sampler used on the first Orb recordings.
"That would have been an AKAI 750 or 700 — could have even been a 600. It was a really early one, real primitive compared to what you've got now.You could only get about eight seconds [of sampling time] if you were lucky, and it'd be crashing all the time. It's so much easier now, it's crazy. You can do it with your phone, almost. A lot of the samples you've heard throughout the new album—I got a lot of field recordings from the phone. Why take a field recorder out when you can just take the phone? It's just as good a mike; just keep it away from the wind."
3. The Orb's logo from 1989.
"It was a very simple logo using a very simple font. I felt quite euphoric, because it was a 12-inch single ["A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld (Loving You)"] that I knew no one else had even contemplated trying to make a record like that.
[While making that 12-inch single], I took a lot of mental strength from my mentors that were around me at E.G. [the Brian Eno-run record label where I worked]. Simon Jeffes from Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Robert Fripp from King Crimson: they're all going, "Matey, it's the best music we've heard in years." I'm just sitting in the office doing my own thing on a Sunday being told this music's really good. And John Peel kind of cracked it—so I got rid of me day job. Got rid of the security and went for the energy instead; made myself work a lot harder to say I know all about music as all them."
4. Flossie, the stuffed sheep on the cover of Live 93.
"Oh, Floss, he's fondly known as. I bought him on the King's Road years and years and years ago. He became our sortof mascot. He's probably been to more gigs than most people. He was even there at Woodstock 2 [in 1994]—figure that, mate. The funny thing was, we used his face as the live album in '93. That was the most popular poster we ever sold as The Orb—his picture on the poster. [laughs]
He had a friend called Sharksheep — it was a sheep with a shark's head, a sort of mutant sheep. That was his best friend on tour after a while. We retired them after a while, because they were getting very, very manky. He's upstairs; I live in this great big manor now, and I really don't want to hurt him."
5. The mud at Woodstock '94.
We weren't in the [rave] tent—we were on the main stage. We played on Sunday night; we closed the whole thing down after Peter Gabriel. That was really bizarre. I'm so used to mud—being from [the UK] and the festivals, it goes with the territory normally. We've had a few in the north of England that have been like watching cars slide downhill.
I've got very fond memories of Woodstock—doing this gig at 4 AM with all these tents and lights and fires. It was like they were trying to reenact Woodstock '69 in that sense. Smoking was very easy to come by—no one was paranoid, for once. It was quite nice.
[By contrast], Glastonbury was, back then, a different animal to what it is now. It wasn't so commercial. It wasn't in-your-face mobile phones everywhere, cash points everywhere, people trying to sell you things on credit cards—nothing like that.
Bez from Happy Mondays does the acid house tent, which I've played at a couple of times in the last five years. But it's not like it was in the 90s. If we did another Woodstock, it wouldn't be the same. Kids these days expect too much, that's the problem. They're all born with silver spoons up their bums. [laughs]
At festivals, it's young people. Drum & bass will never die. There's a big market for it—loads of people. I love it; I just see it as a different form of music. We tried it back in the 90s. I think The Orb really needs to settle down and just do ambient music now. We're old enough to know better now, anyway. [laughs]
6. A 2010 Fool's Gold Cassette called Michna and Dust La Rock Mix the Orb
"Yeah, it was Josh [Prince, AKA Dust La Rock]; sadly he passed away. He recorded for Fool's Gold—he was Knuckleduster. He also designed the Bicycles and Tricycles album for The Orb back in 2004. I'm just humbled that people are trying to do something we've done in a different style. There's so much out there, and they've chosen us. And the fact that I knew him might be a reason why he chose to do stuff from us. I found out about him passing away a year ago—another young'un gone too soon."
7. The sampler on the Pioneer DJM-600 mixer used on COW (Chill Out World!)
"Believe it or not, a Pioneer 600 [mixer with in-built sampler] suffices in the studio at the moment. Then we just take it into Logic and Ableton. That's really where it all kicks off, in there. But [I use it] to get the basic ideas down. Sometimes I can find a perfect loop, which will be a track, which I've done several times in the last few years. Not that I do it all the time, because then it would be very boring. It really works; that's where we get the samples. [In mock-announcer voice]: "No instruments were played during the making of this record, and no animals were harmed as well."
The Orb North American tour dates:
October 19 - Allston, MA - Brighton Music Hall
October 20 - New York, NY - Webster Hall
October 21 - Carrboro, NC - Cat'S Cradle
October 22 - Atlanta, GA - Variety Playhouse
October 23 - Asheville, NC - Mountain Theatre
October 26 - Seattle, WA - Neumos
October 27 - Portland, OR - Star Theater
October 28 - Denver, CO - Cervantes' Other Side
More Dates TBA
COW (Chill Out World!)is out now on Kompakt
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