Bangers. Mashes. Cosmic dreamscapes. Oddball abstractions. Collaborations with everyone from Sleaford Mods to Mediæval Bæbes. Welcome to the new Orbital album, ‘Optical Delusion’, a record sparked by the surreal and chaotic world events going on around us. Phil and Paul Hartnoll turn on their torch glasses and reveal all

Thanks to YouTube, we can now all revisit the precise moment when Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll realised he and his brother Phil had become part of what ITV’s ‘World In Action’ programme termed “either a musical movement or a dangerous cult”.

It was 1988 and the cameras for a documentary called ‘A Trip Round Acid House’ captured the aftermath of a police raid on a house party in Sevenoaks, Kent, where people had been committing the hardly heinous crime of dancing. At a distance of 35 years, it’s startling to hear the teenage Paul’s version of the events.

“They were beating me as they took me out,” he told the ‘World In Action’ reporter. “They weren’t just roughly handling me. Any policemen that I passed on the way were taking a good punch at me as well.”

All these decades on, his outrage is undimmed.

“They beat the shit out of everybody,” he says.

Today, his Orbital partner Phil also expresses amazement that such heavy-handed crackdowns took place.

“I think they felt more threatened by acid house than they had been by punk,” considers Phil, who at 58 is Paul’s senior by four years. “The amount of money they spent trying to stop those parties was ridiculous. I actually went to a seminar attended by one of the officers in charge of the Metropolitan Police. I really wasn’t expecting this, but he said, ‘I’m sorry that happened’. He was saying how absurd it was.”

The rest, of course, is history. Via illegal warehouse parties and outdoor raves at countless points around the M25 – the London Orbital Motorway – and across the north of England, acid house exploded from an underground scene to a Top 20 pop phenomenon. As rave culture turned into mainstream culture, clubs became superclubs and the people spinning the records became megastar DJs, while house and techno evolved into the wider genres of dance music and electronic music.

And if it hadn’t been for parties like the one in Sevenoaks, you most likely wouldn’t be reading this now.

Phil Hartnoll admits that he never expected such longevity, either for the movement or for Orbital.

“I gave it a year,” he laughs.

His brother disagrees – as brothers sometimes do.

“I thought, ‘Fucking this is it’,” insists Paul. “For me, it was all or nothing. I thought, ‘I’m on the path and I’m not getting off again’.”

So it has proved. Orbital – whose debut single, the seminal ‘Chime’, arrived in December 1989 – are now ‘30 Something’, as the title of last year’s fascinating collection of remixes and reinterpretations of their classic tracks declares. Along the way, the pair have gone from making music under the stairs at their parents’ house in Dunton Green, a small village on the outskirts of Sevenoaks, to such landmarks as their legendary 1994 Glastonbury performance.

“You do find yourself in some magical places,” notes Phil, speaking from his home in Brighton.

Sporting a downward-curling, Dalí-esque moustache, he’s sitting in front of a huge dragon artwork on the wall. He found it in a charity shop, but it originally came from a tattoo parlour.

“Like… we remixed Madonna,” he continues. “I remember I used to carry a copy of ‘Holiday’ with me into the local discos. I’d be going, ‘Play this! You’ve got to play this!’. And then we also remixed Kraftwerk. Oh my God!”

Perhaps the ultimate pinch-yourself moment was performing at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games, with Stephen Hawking sitting onstage in his wheelchair, adding his vocals to ‘Where Is It Going?’ while wearing Orbital’s famous torch glasses.

“Oh, that was so incredible,” grins Phil. “He had to take off his own glasses in order to wear ours. He couldn’t see anything with them off, but he was totally up for it. He was just brilliant. I wrote to him the next day, sending him the edit of the track. We’d recorded his vocals and I said, ‘I bet you didn’t realise you had such a good singing voice’, and he wrote back saying, ‘We’ve got to release this’. Sadly, Stephen didn’t live to see that happen. After he died, we had to go through his lawyers and his estate and everything like that, but we really pushed for it. It was so nice that it appeared on ‘30 Something’, because I know it was his wish for it to come out.”

Along the way, the Hartnoll brothers have argued and split up several times, but something always manages to pull them back together – perhaps a mix of family kinship and the music itself. And now the duo usher in 2023 with their 10th studio album, their first since 2018’s ‘Monsters Exist’ and their finest in years. ‘Optical Delusion’ is identifiably and inimitably Orbital, with the familiar shimmering synths and motorik dance grooves, but it’s more dreamy and reflective too.

“We started making it shortly before the pandemic,” explains a bespectacled Paul, speaking from his studio complex near Phil’s, with an old acid house smiley poster behind him. “When the pandemic hit, the moody and aggressive stuff I had been working on suddenly seemed to have no relevance. It just didn’t feel right anymore. There was this massive lull right across the world and my creativity gravitated to that. It was a terrifying time, you know, with people thinking, ‘Is this the beginning of the end?’. But then, as we started to come out of it and realise we weren’t all about to die – I know people did die, so I’m not belittling that – it was quite sobering. I felt the music needed to be more of a group hug.”

The title ‘Optical Delusion’ comes from an Albert Einstein quote.

“A human being experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest [of humanity]… an optical delusion of his consciousness,” wrote Einstein in a letter dated 1950. “This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison…”

Or rather, from a misquote.

“It’s something I found reading ‘How To Change Your Mind’, Michael Pollan’s book about psychedelic therapy,” reveals Paul. “As soon as I saw it I thought, ‘That’s the album title’. But since then, I’ve found that it’s commonly misquoted, but the misquote is more concise and Einstein’s original involves God, so that’s his optical delusion. I don’t think Einstein’s quote is as much fun and I like the idea that we all see things differently.”

The first single to be released from the album is ‘Dirty Rat’, which came out last October. It’s a collaboration with Sleaford Mods and it’s a punky, poetic, Fall-meets-Cabaret Voltaire-meets-Front 242 electronic blitzkrieg. Fantastic, basically. The track came about after Orbital had remixed the Mods’ ‘I Don’t Rate You’ and the Nottingham duo suggested “a swap”.

“You know, ‘If you do this, we’ll sing on one of your tunes’,” smiles Paul. “Wow. And that was it. Very clean and tidy. I’ve always loved Sleaford Mods and I suppose ‘Dirty Rat’ is us coming back to the more punchy and energetic vibe of what we do.”

Sleaford Mods vocalist Jason Williamson spits bars over the frenzied beats, lambasting the people who are “Blaming everyone in the hospitals / Blaming everyone at the bottom of the English Channel / Blaming everyone who doesn’t look like a fried animal”. One line that particularly stands out is “You voted for them anyway”, which seems to be directed at the current government.

“And then, of course, the single came out, Liz Truss resigned, and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, you voted for ’em, look at you!’,” sneers Paul. “I’ve no idea what the track is specifically about, though. You’d have to enter into the mind of Jason Williamson. He’s a lyric factory.”

Paul mentions Jason singing about “A fake card in a fake bank machine” and then refers to the line “Plastic buys more plastic” in ‘Home’, one of the more ravey tracks on the album, which features Anna B Savage on vocals. “Plastic buys more plastic” seems to sum up the way we live.

“It all connects to consumerism,” agrees Paul. “It’s just mad how much we’re bombarded by companies wanting to take our money from us in exchange for useless shit that we don’t need. It literally drives people crazy. They lose their minds and get into debt. If we could remove advertising from our system, it would be a quite different world, I think.”

This isn’t the first time that Orbital have referenced socio-political or environmental themes on their records. Albums such as 1994’s ‘Snivilisation’ and 1996’s ‘In Sides’, not to mention the 1992 track ‘Impact (The Earth Is Burning)’, now seem years ahead of their time in addressing climate change, especially within dance music. Do the pair feel vindicated, somehow?

“Well, if you keep your eyes open and watch what’s going on, you see this shit,” shrugs Paul. “The environment was on people’s minds a lot less back then. It’s far more pressing now. But we’ve always followed the trajectory of… a band, not a dance band, you know? Who wants to make music that can be played in the background at a cocktail party? There are plenty of albums for that, but I prefer albums that hold together as a piece, like Kraftwerk or Pink Floyd records. It should be like watching a film or going on a journey.”

“Something a bit more challenging,” adds Phil.

Orbital have often brought other people and other viewpoints into their work. In the past, their guest vocalists have included David Gray (Phil’s former brother-in-law), Alison Goldfrapp, Zola Jesus, Lady Leshurr and Professor Brian Cox. This time, as well as Sleaford Mods and Anna B Savage, the pair have recruited Mediæval Bæbes, the early music singing group usually seen in flowing gowns, whose dreamlike voices appear on the album’s striking opener, ‘Ringa Ringa (The Old Pandemic Folk Song)’. It’s probably the track most directly influenced by the Covid crisis, but the inspiration for it goes back further – as the choice of vocalists might indicate.

“We wrote ‘Ringa Ringa’ towards the end of the pandemic,” explains Paul. “It started as more of a rave track, but I kept thinking about ‘Ring A Ring O’ Roses’, the haunting song we all know as a childhood nursery rhyme, which actually has its roots in the Great Plague, when all this happened before. It seemed appropriate, but I thought, ‘You can’t have a nursery rhyme…’, and then I thought, ‘Yes you bloody can!’. I couldn’t get away from the resonance of it. I love time-twisting things anyway, so this is a combination of the modern – us now – and Mediæval Bæbes’ weird, witchy rendition of ‘Ring A Ring O’ Roses’.”

Paul goes on to note, perhaps slightly wistfully, that the Bæbes didn’t pop along to the studio in their dresses to sing with the Hartnolls in person.

“It was very tempting to invite them down,” he chuckles. “This studio does get very male-dominated. We could do with more of a female presence.”

The pandemic had another notable impact on the pair. They wrote the tracks for ‘Optical Delusion’ separately, which is something they’d never done before.

“Every time we do a new record, it’s nice when it’s a little different to what has happened before,” says Paul. “On this one, that’s what was different.”

Photo: Brian Rasic

As it goes, Paul has written twice as much material for the album as his brother. One of the reasons for this was because Phil had to shield during the first wave of Covid due to a lung problem and, perhaps not surprisingly, he found himself in no mood for music.

“I just couldn’t listen to anything, which was quite a shock,” he reveals. “The exception was Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer World’, funnily enough. I found it weirdly comforting. There was also the fact that I didn’t want to write songs about the pandemic.”

Neither did the younger Hartnoll – not directly, anyway. It’s why the period is mostly referenced obliquely, such as in the title of Paul’s ‘The New Abnormal’, which he suggests has a “public information film feel” about it. Ironically, it was written while he had the virus.

“I was not too bad, but I was a bit spaced out when I went down to my home studio and finished it off,” he recalls. “So it’s almost as much of a Covid track as you can get!”

Phil admits his creativity is mostly sparked by collaborating with other people, whether his brother or someone else, which made shielding during the lockdown even tougher on him. His urge to hear and make music returned after he did some work with Japanese performance artist Coppe. She sings on ‘Moon Princess’ on ‘Optical Delusion’ and also ‘Lost In Time’, a track on the bonus disc.

“She is amazing,” says Phil. “She’s a fantastic pianist and singer. And she thinks she’s a jellyfish from outer space. She did this stereo jam during lockdown and asked me to remix it for her. The thing is, she doesn’t believe in MIDI, timing… anything! In the end, I sampled around eight bars and built a whole new piece around it. Because it was all in lockdown, I was initially thinking, ‘Oh no, a lockdown track!’, and fighting against it. But then I started thinking about the idea of time being so messed up, like there was an out-of-time clock ticking, and that was really interesting.”

While Phil is happy to talk at some length about Coppe, he’s curiously cagey about the identity of The Little Pest, the most mysterious guest on the album. Named after a 1931 cartoon, he appears on ‘You Are The Frequency’ and ‘What A Surprise’. Phil apparently recorded The Little Pest’s strange, whispered vocals at 4am, while Mrs Hartnoll was asleep.

“He’s a real person,” declares Phil. “I suppose he could be described as my alter ego, but he won’t leave me alone. He’s a stalker. Honestly, if I tell you anything more about him, you’ll never get rid of him. You don’t wanna know!”

Ahem. More straightforward perhaps is Dina Ipavic, who fronts the track ‘Day One’. She’s someone that Paul hooked up with through a mate of his called Giles Walker, who does installations with robotics.

“He asked me to score his show,” says Paul. “I took a piano riff from that, put it with Dina’s vocals, and I thought, ‘Wow, they go really nicely together’. It just lent itself to a sort of soft Californian dance music vibe.

After that, I got her down and recorded lots of bits and pieces, including stuff that hasn’t ended up on the album. It’s been non-stop.”

Elsewhere on ‘Optical Delusion’, the funereally beautiful ‘Requiem For The Pre-Apocalypse’ could be described as having a post-pandemic feel, while ‘Are You Alive?’ features Brighton brother and sister duo Penelope Isles, who are studio mates of Paul’s. One line of the lyrics of the latter – “I really don’t want to get fucked in a working world” – leaps out somewhat. Not for daytime radio, then.

“It’s a break-up song, but I haven’t asked the details of what it’s about,” says Paul. “There is a radio edit, of course. It’s strange because you can hear ‘cunt’, ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ on the BBC iPlayer but, for some reason, 6 Music still won’t play the F-word. I don’t understand it.”

At least 6 Music was responsible for first bringing Anna B Savage to Paul’s attention. His wife heard her on the radio and suggested he give her a listen.

“Anna is one of our favourite new discoveries,” he says. “She’s young, but she channels that Scott Walker element of real darkness. And that vibrato! She is probably around the same age that Walker was when he was doing those classic albums. She sings about the minutiae of life and isn’t afraid of disharmony. I picked her up from the train station to sing on the track, and we quickly discovered we’re both obsessed with town planning and brutalism and why new towns don’t work. So we fed into that kind of atmosphere.”

A couple of months ago, a photo emerged of a very young Paul Hartnoll sitting alongside none other than a Jam-era Paul Weller. The Orbital man has no idea how the picture suddenly turned up on Twitter, but he says he was about 14 when it was taken.

“This was in 1982,” he begins. “I had a quite naughty friend and I was trying to start a punk band with him, so his social worker said she’d organise a trip to a recording studio. The Jam were in there, they were doing the B-side of ‘Beat Surrender’, so we spent the day with Paul Weller. Nobody knew this would be their last single, but it was brilliant. His dad [John Weller, who managed The Jam] had a quiet word with the social worker about us and wrote her a cheque for a thousand pounds.”

Which was a lot of money back then, even if The Jam were probably the biggest band in the UK at the time.

“His dad said, ‘Use this to buy some equipment or as a cash injection’,” continues Paul. “I think it was for youth projects and we never saw any of it ourselves, but it inspired us. A little later, we spotted this drum kit in someone’s garage in our village and said, ‘Oi mister, how much do you want for the drum kit?’. He sold it to us for pennies and that got us going. For me, that was the beginning.”

Paul played guitar in the punk outfit, who were called Penal Code, but the experience was short-lived. He was also briefly in a “Fall-type garage band”, Noddy And The Satellites, but then the Hartnolls started making music together after Phil acquired a drum machine.

“It was a bit easier than learning the drums,” confesses Phil. “Then I got a synthesiser, a Korg Poly-800. Having played guitar, Paul knew more than me, so I said to him, ‘Paul, come and look at this. Tell me what to do’. We just worked it out together.”

Among the pair’s earliest tracks was ‘Chime’. Initially issued on Jazzy M’s Oh’Zone label at the end of 1989, the track cost them £3.75 to record – the price of a metal cassette tape – and became a huge UK rave anthem after it was picked up by London Records’ FFRR imprint.

Photo: Kenny McCracken

By this point, Sevenoaks was one of the epicentres of the illegal party scene, not least because of its location close to the M25. But then parties had always been a big thing in the area.

“A bunch of older kids used to organise them in places like Oldbury Woods, which had a National Trust car park, or in big disused houses in the countryside,” says Paul. “This was 1986 or 1987, so the rare groove and hip hop era in London. The police would be there, but they’d just hang out in case anyone got too drunk or whatever. It was a really nice atmosphere… and then acid house came along and they started raiding us with police forces from eight different counties, including the Met. They were amazing times, though. I remember one rave in an old train station goods yard, with 2,000 people there.”

But while the early parties were generally pretty relaxed, some of the nightclubs around the Sevenoaks area could be “dangerous” places.

“We’d normally leave 10 minutes before the end,” says Paul. “We didn’t want to run the gauntlet of people going, ‘What are you looking at, you little cunt?’, and thumping you.”

“If you started talking to a girl, you’d be scared of getting a glass in your face,” says Phil.

It was a similar situation in many parts of the country, but the arrival of acid house – and the pills associated with it – altered the fabric of the club scene and even the nation.

“It was ecstasy that turned everything around,” remarks Phil. “It completely changed the testosterone-fuelled violence on the football terraces and all that. Men were dropping the machoism. When we started Orbital, we’d go to parties in five or six cars and we’d meet up with kids from the next county. Everyone would be hugging each other and asking, ‘Where are you from?’.”

Orbital revisited the late 80s acid revolution – the illegal gatherings, the police beatings and all – on last year’s ‘Smiley’ single, which is also included on ‘30 Something’. The excellent accompanying video features the Hartnolls as synth-playing puppets, with nodding heads and torch glasses.

“It was up for the UK Music Video Awards,” says Paul. “It was the lowest-budget video of the whole ceremony. It basically takes you from London to a rave in our village, in Dunton Green. There are so many reference points in there… even our mum and dad’s old pub.”

“There’s a National Express coach, but it’s renamed National Disgrace,” chortles Phil. “We also changed the place names on the road signs. It’s quite subtle, but we love it.”

Orbital had a significant role in popularising the rave scene, although their performance of ‘Chime’ on ‘Top Of The Pops’ – where they mimed with their keyboards unplugged and wore T-shirts protesting against the Poll Tax – was also one of the great subversive TV moments of our age.

Another pivotal point in the band’s story was their headline appearance at Glastonbury in 1994. It was broadcast live on Channel 4 and remains one of the most famous performances in the festival’s history. The sight of the duo’s torch glasses bobbing up and down under the night sky became instantly iconic. How did that show impact them?

“All of a sudden, we were allowed into the world of, you know, ‘rock bands’,” says Paul. “And it was good for us because our music worked really well in that environment. We also found our home with the Megadog people – a much more eclectic crowd and a bit weirder than your average nightclubbers – and we kind of pursued that with the festival circuit. I remember doing the Megadog Midi Circus Tour [along with Aphex Twin, The Drum Club and System 7] and that was probably the first UK tour with electronic acts to say, ‘Are you going to come and pay to see this in a regular rock venue?’.”

“We sort of bridged the divide between dance music and the indie kids,” says Phil. “It’s lovely when someone comes up and says they never really got dance music until they heard or saw us. I always think of it as an electronic tree, with the roots in experimental music back in the 1960s, after which came Kraftwerk, disco, hi-NRG and electro. Then there was house and techno, then branches such as jungle, drum ’n’ bass and happy hardcore. And somewhere around the early 90s, there was that crossover – the trunk! – which blazed the way towards the wider acceptance of electronic music. People wanted that electronic sound and thought, ‘Oh, two blokes pushing knobs can carry it off’.”

“Somebody such as Michael Eavis wasn’t a natural fan, for instance, but he was curious to see how it worked with us,” notes Paul. “And he summed it up beautifully on a Glastonbury documentary, where he gives us lots of compliments and right at the end says, ‘Yeah, and the music was… tolerable’.”

The Hartnolls erupt in laughter.

“Michael is terrific,” adds Paul. “Even if he knows something is not for him personally, he’s willing to give it a bash.”

Through it all, Orbital have maintained strong connections with the acts that came up with them – from Aphex Twin (who once visited them in Sevenoaks) and Underworld (who they say they’ve always got on with “like a house on fire”) to The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Meat Beat Manifesto.

The Hartnolls’ own relationship has continually ebbed and flowed, however, with the first of their separations and hiatuses coming in 2004, when they bowed out soon after a historic live John Peel session.

“It’s hard to think about it now,” muses Paul. “At the time, it was about us rethinking how things were and then regrouping. But that’s not what transpired. It fell apart for other reasons, you know. It just wasn’t working out.”

“There’s always a multitude of reasons whenever we do split up,” says Phil. “At that point, our individual lives were coming at us and we were finding the pace of everything quite difficult. Like Paul says, it was more than one thing. Then the next time it was something else, because we’ve both got families and the kids were growing up while this was going on. I mean, it still affects us, but it’s not as hectic as it used to be. We’re also very different people, Paul and I. Chalk and cheese, really. So the attraction is to… have a break. And if you’ve ever met The Little Pest, you’ll understand why.”

“I can’t get rid of the fucker!” yells Paul.

Phil flashes a broad smile and then points out that their elder brother is different again. He went to Cambridge University and became a neonatologist.

“I’d say he pushes the boundaries far more than we do. He’s out there, you know, from the same working-class family we come from.”

Orbital reformed for the first time in 2009 before they parted company again – “for the final time” – in 2014. They got back together in 2017… and now here we are once more. So is being in a band with a close sibling a more fulfilling experience than being in one without such family ties?

“Have you watched the Bros documentary?” sniggers Paul, referring to the notorious, hilarious and at times unwittingly ‘Spinal Tap’-like rockumentary about the highs, lows and feuds of Matt and Luke Goss.

“I love working with my brother,” says Phil, who by now is laughing like a drain. “I think Paul’s trying to say that there may be parallels between Orbital and Bros.”

“No, I don’t see that many parallels, actually,” insists Paul.

“But what about my blonde hair at the time?” retorts Phil.

“We’re probably more like the Gallaghers,” offers Paul.

Oasis have seemingly split up forever, though. And despite their numerous announcements and protestations, Orbital’s breaks have never been permanent.

“We’ve made a pact that, whatever goes wrong, we’ll never stop doing this,” asserts Paul. “Whatever might happen, we’ll sort it out. It’s about having that line we can throw at each other. You know, ‘Remember what we said… we’re not going to split up!’. The trouble is, even if we say it like that, nobody’s going to believe us. We’ve already done it several times. People will go, ‘Oh, we’re going to see Orbital’s last ever tour… again!’.”

Still, at 35 years and counting, they’re bang on form… again. The Hartnolls are no longer fervent clubbers and their original fans now bring their kids to Orbital’s shows. But the band have remained relevant where so many others from the acid house generation have fallen by the wayside. So perhaps the “chalk and cheese” duo really are going to be with us for the duration.

“All we can do is keep making the music we want to make and hope that it lands,” reflects Paul. “I heard almost exactly the same sentiments from Robert Smith of The Cure recently. Somebody’s always asking him, ‘What’s the secret of your success?’, and he said he just writes his music and tries not to worry about it. I’m the same in that I’m not going to second-guess people. I’m not going to think, ‘Is this stuff commercial?’ or ‘Should I tap into that scene?’.

“We just have to make the music we like and that’s all we can do, really. I don’t want to outstay our welcome, but I still find it exciting to be here. And the tell-tale sign is that there’s still a bunch of younger people enjoying what we’re doing, jumping around and connecting with us. That’s great to see.”

On this, at least, the two brothers both agree.

“What else are we going to do?” asks Phil.

Paul doesn’t miss a beat.

“Open a coffee shop!”

‘Optical Delusion’ is released by London

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