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The Orb: History of the Future

They’re all getting old, all the musicians. Mick Jagger prances around Glasto like a splintered toothpick. David Bowie is now some kind of wizened gnome who fills his wrinkles with space dust. Lulu, The Who, Madonna: all as old as the universe itself. Because of the future-fuelled nature of dance music, it’s difficult to think of The Orb as getting old. It’s difficult to think of that most spherical of pulsating spheres becoming little more than a drooping ballsack of old-aged aches and pains. But with a 25-year anniversary box set and tour approaching, it’s fair to say The Orb have been around for a while. Glastonbury Festival let many old names rip up the stage this year: the Stones, Chic, Elvis Costello, Public Enemy. While experienced performers furrowed the same old grooves, The Orb changed the record by teaming up with the thundering Kakatsitsi drummers from southern Ghana. Imagine a chill-out room fitted with pneumatic drills. “They came in like a giant drum machine,” says The Orb’s Alex Paterson. “All in synch with each other. It’s just incredible, really. Wow. There was one guy playing with his feet.” The Orb are all about collaboration. Alex Paterson is its ever-growing brain – he describes himself as the “livewire within The Orb” – with various producers orbiting the line-up. Sun Electric producer Thomas Fehlmann is currently the other half of the band. That particular partnership has seen The Orb’s most prolific period in recent years. The beautifully-packaged Baghdad Batteries album was followed by Metallic Spheres with David Gilmour (“he came in one day, laid a load of guitars down – never saw him again”) and then two albums with dub pioneer Lee Scratch Perry. The latter had Pitchfork Magazine comparing Perry to Lil Wayne, which is kind of like comparing Shane McGowan to Dappy. “The most beautiful thing was Lee’s wife and manager turned up, made sure he was okay then decided to go home because there were no shops, which was brilliant because then we had him on his own. He became a free spirit for six days. With the Gilmour thing it was more ‘come down to a shack in Wandsworth and do some guitar’, whereas with Lee it was ‘come out to a country studio and we’ll get some chefs in and we’ll write some music’.” The studio was Berlin hideout Sternhagen Gut, co-owned by Fehlmann. The Orb would hang around during the day writing tracks, waiting for the nocturnal Perry to stir. And then the dubmeister would be off, late into the night. “You put anything in front of him and he’ll sing about it. I showed him this book on African mysteries. We’d have cooks come in so we’d have these German-style dinners with a big table, lots of chairs, and Lee would be on the corner watching Nigerian gangster films. And the next night, it’d be Bollywood.” Alex Paterson is speaking to me to promote the new four-disc album History Of The Future – The Island Years, an Orb compendium that includes hit singles ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, ‘Toxygene’ and ‘Blue Room’ alongside remixes, live performances and the first proper Orb DVD. Watch out for their great Top of the Pops appearances. It’s a collection that will bring the band’s ambient haze to a whole new generation – a whole new generation of illegal downloaders and content streamers. “When we played Glastonbury,” says Paterson, “we had lots of young kids jumping up and down. They were under ten. I was very happy with all that. I would like to aim for teenagers but at the end of the day, do they buy music? You’ve really got to think a bit like that now.” The Orb are somewhere between remixers and producers, so known are they for their sampling. Indeed their most famous track, ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, with the sunsets that were “purple and red and yellow and on fire”, landed them in a little legal hot water. Clearing the samples now is a “complete nightmare” and you may well hear the band using different samples when playing live. Still, Paterson is critical of bands that rely too much on software presets to produce their music, and especially of DJs that are little more than mp3 shufflers. “I took my daughter round a science museum a few years back and you know what she came across and started laughing? Decks and a mixer, like a DJ set-up in a frame. Part of science history. These days, I meet DJs that are doing sets on memory sticks and calling themselves DJs. It really pisses me off. The craft is to have a CD player and a deck so you can work off both if need be, but a memory stick? Come on! How easy do you want it to be? Knobs. They’re not really learning a trade.” History Of The Future and the silver jubilee tour will bring The Orb to Manchester this month, supported by guitar-toting ambienteers System 7. Being in Manchester should bring back some memories for Paterson, who DJed with post-punkers Killing Joke. “Killing Joke were invited onto a Factory tour back in February 1980 [with Joy Division, Section 25 and A Certain Ratio], and I remember some mad Orb gigs at the old Academy. We used to have an after-hours bar that went on until eight in the morning. I’ve got some really good mates in Manchester. Hello, Doctor D!” And with that shout-out to a long-time Manchester DJ, Alex invites me for a post-gig drink. He really is the livewire within The Orb. He doesn’t stop. “We haven’t broken up, retired, pulled ourselves out of retirement. We haven’t done what Orbital have done.” He’s referring to the headlamped Hartnoll brothers who brought techno to huge audiences before retiring then un-retiring themselves. “I thought it was quite amusing with Orbital, because I don’t know what the family was like at Christmas if they’d split up...” “I saw Paul from Orbital,” Paterson adds. “He came to see us do a warm-up gig for the Glastonbury gig with the Africans in Brighton, and I asked him if he’d like to do a remix of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’. He said to me, ‘You know, I’d love to: you don’t know how many times I get asked to play it.’” Is that another potential collaboration? Happy birthday, The Orb. May your shiny, unwrinkled spheres roll on for another 25 years. The Orb’s 25th anniversary show is at Manchester Academy 2 on Saturday 12th October. Photo by Janio Edwards )

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