With new album ‘Abolition Of The Royal Familia’, The Orb have taken the blueprint of their 1991 ‘Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’ debut and given it a 21st century sheen. We meet Alex Paterson and Michael Rendall to talk Eno, ‘The Crown’ and all things orbicular

Something is stirring in a small south-east London enclave. West Norwood, in the Borough of Lambeth, might be a train stop you’ve passed through to get to someplace else, and yet, as with quantum particles, something extraordinary is taking place here while you’re not looking.

The cynosure of this stealthy activity is The Book And Record Bar on the corner of Norwood High Street. Stocked with recherché vinyl delights galore, and run by the friendly and encyclopedic Michael Johnson, the shop acts as something of a social hub where a raft of forward-thinking musicians come to drink coffee and plan sonic adventures. Local patrons who live in the area include Martin “Youth” Glover, Gaudi, DJ Food, Mixmaster Morris and the daddy of ambient house himself, Alex Paterson of The Orb. Norwood High Street is the Stella Street of chill-out.

The space doubles as a radio station, disseminating arcane sounds across the airwaves via a pair of turntables that take pride of place in the shop. Broadcasting via the internet, shows on WNBC (West Norwood Broadcasting Company, natch), include the ‘Vinyl Front Ear’, ‘Dub Rebels On Patrol’ and ‘Radio Orb’, recorded live on the premises on any given day of the week. And today, Dr Alex has his cans on and is administering at the wheels of steel, while punters browse through Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd records in the racks. Dub coalesces with dreamscapes; snippets of tunes you might recognise are swept away in a lysergic waterfall of sonic loveliness. And all the while, Alex stands there with a grin on his face and a woolly Chelsea hat on his head. 

As well as playing other people’s records, Alex has one of his own coming out soon, and he’d be well within his rights to have a massive grin on his face regarding the provocatively titled ‘Abolition Of The Royal Familia’. The new album is ebullient and teeming with fresh ideas, and it feels like the beginning of a renaissance for The Orb. At the risk of damning them with faint praise, it’s the most vital thing they’ve made in nearly three decades. Not that there’s been anything wrong with the output in recent years, it’s just that this outing is so essential, so indispensable, and so, well, sprightly. 

The press release mentions “a proudly pop element”, especially the first two tracks – ‘Daze (Missing & Messed Up Mix)’ and ‘House Of Narcotics (Opium Wars Mix)’ – though it’s fair to say the previous album, 2018’s ‘No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds’, was poppier still. The pop here, though, has undergone the full Orb distillation process and come out the other side stronger, weirder and more Orb-like. Fans may also be pleased to know that there are echoes of ‘Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’ right through this latest record, with the listener well aware that they’re being taken on an auditory journey in much the same way. 

“‘Ultraworld’ is a good calling card for me. If I can recreate something like that then I’m onto a winner, surely?” says Alex, taking a pew in the shop’s back yard following his stint on the radio. “People have said this to me for years. Maybe I just feel it’s the right time to do it. It’s the dawning of a new decade. That was 1991, and this is 2020, so even better.” 

Tracks like ‘Say Cheese (Siberian Tiger Cookie Mix)’ from the new record, and ‘Perpetual Dawn’ from ‘Ultraworld’ seem to mirror each other, and even the arrangement of sides has been specifically tailored to reflect the same symmetry. 

“I wanted to present it as a double vinyl album where you could put side one and side three together, and side two and side four together,” explains Alex. “It’s exactly the same principle as ‘Ultraworld’.” 

Photo: Flore Diamant

The past might have been summoned, but make no mistake about it, ‘Abolition Of The Royal Familia’ is a future-facing record. So, what’s changed? Personnel appears to be the answer. Sitting across from Alex is his new partner in crime, Michael Rendall, a charming and unassuming chap who looks younger than his 35 years. Michael has actually been circling The Orb’s orbit for the best part of a decade now, with his promotion coming after the departure of long-term wingman Thomas Fehlmann. 

Michael began his apprenticeship in 2010 working on ‘Metallic Spheres’, having met Alex, Youth and David Gilmour all within a few days of each other. Now he’s been bumped up to a fully fledged partner, which has undoubtedly brought fresh impetus. When asked why the new record sounds so vital, Alex nods in Michael’s general vicinity. 

“It’s him,” he says. “Not that I want him to get a big head! He’s young and enthusiastic, and he brings joy to the friends I have. People like to meet Michael…” 

He pauses for a moment to consider what he’s saying. 

“Not that they didn’t with Thomas…”

‘Lunar Orbit’, a film about The Orb, received a limited release in 2016 and bagged the Wild Card/Avante Garde 2017 award at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Director Patrick Buchanan is still hoping to get distribution for the film, which is a fascinating document of the dynamic between Alex and Thomas, the Swiss-born, Berlin-based musician who started his career in new wavers Palais Schaumburg. 

While the pair certainly appear to get along, there’s a moment in the movie that indicates creative tensions. While working on a Moon-related track, Alex suggests the use of a sample, which Thomas quickly dismisses as “not very moony”. The camera pans to Alex’s face, a frame which figurative artists should perhaps examine in future as an exemplary facial study in contempt.

“I’m not going to slag off Thomas in an interview,” states Alex, who fondly remembers their high jinks together, with random tales of downing Es and hanging out with Boy George. He has no such qualms speaking ill of Kris Weston (aka Thrash), his second partner in The Orb, who has launched his fair share of inflammatory attacks since his acrimonious departure in 1995. 

“That was four years of ball-ache, man,” he despairs. 

Michael, on the other hand, has been welcomed into La Famiglia as someone who bridges the age gap of the Paterson household. 

“Michael gets on with my daughter and her boyfriend, and she’s 19,” says Alex, looking chuffed. 

“When they show up when we’re on tour, I think to myself, ‘I’ve finally got people here my own age’,” adds Michael. “They’re 19 and I’m 35!” 

“It’s not that,” says Alex, dismissively. “It’s the energy this man’s got. We started off last August with a blank canvas and by Halloween we’d done two albums, three bonus tracks, and a remix.” 

Photo: Flore Diamant

A further dub version of ‘Abolition Of The Royal Familia’ is promised for the future. 

“The most important thing for me when making the record was to give Alex space,” adds Michael. “It’s the same when we were on the road. We toured solidly together for a whole year before we did the album, and the thing that Alex likes and enjoys is being allowed to do what he does.”

“There’s no limitations and if I fuck up, he fucks up with me,” enthuses Alex. “It’s fucking brilliant. Thomas wouldn’t be able to do that, it’s not within his ego. I’m fucking up only because I’m experimenting, because I love experimenting… usually you won’t hear the fuck up because I do get it right most of the time.”

At 60, Alex looks like one of those geezers you read about, who eschewed football dust-ups for raving after discovering ecstasy in the late 80s. But appearances can be deceptive. He is to ambient music what Lemmy is to noisy rock ’n’ roll. Alex has been involved in music since his teens, and despite his hard exterior, he’s definitely got a softer side. A vegetarian since 1983, he’s also devoted to his dog. When I ask him what gets him out of bed in the morning, he replies “dog”, monosyllabically and quick as a shot. 

Alex was an avid gig-goer in his younger days, with shows by Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers, Adam And The Ants and Tubeway Army etched into his memory, and he still sees himself as a punk now. He took up a position as a roadie for his mate Martin’s band during the original post-punk explosion. That band happened to be Killing Joke. Of the many revelations a job like that must bring, seeing Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 performing avant-garde dance at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith appears to trump them all. 

“Imagine going to see him, expecting him to do ‘Borstal Breakout’ and he’s standing on stage doing a bit of ballet.” 

Sham 69 also introduced Alex to frequent Orb collaborator Steve Hillage, in a roundabout kind of way. 

“It’s kind of weird, the first time I ever saw him he was playing guitar with them at Reading Festival in 1978, with a load of skinheads beating everyone up,” says Alex. “Work that one out. I wasn’t a skinhead by the way, I was just there because I liked the band.” 

Hillage, by the by, appears on the beautiful, epic, glistening ‘The Weekend It Rained Forever (Oseberg Buddha Mix (The Ravens Have Left The Tower))’ from the new album, without any of his trademark glissando. His partner, Miquette Giraudy, had just arrived at Sarm West Studios in Notting Hill to visit The Orb, when Hillage called her for a chat about a fishing trip. Alex captured his voice down the line and used it on the song. 

“It’s one of Steve’s greatest moments and he wasn’t even there,” chuckles Michael. 

Also by the by, the other collaborator on the track is Roger Eno, who dropped some simple, mesmerising piano notes on the existing soundscape, “transforming it”, according to The Orb’s newest member. 

In the mid-80s, realising that his favourite label EG (home notably to King Crimson, Killing Joke, Roxy Music and the spin-off career of one Brian Eno) was without an A&R man, Alex managed to talk himself into a job that they created for him. 

“I made them a proposition, ‘Can I be your A&R scout because you haven’t got one?’. Every record company in the 80s had one.” 

While in the job, it was suggested that he make a compilation of favourite Eno tunes. 

“It sounded great,” says Alex, who sent a copy to Eno as a courtesy. “But Eno had just put out the ‘More Blank Than Frank’ compilation of his early solo works. He told me to fuck off, or words to that effect, and stop nicking his ambient works. I knew I was onto a good thing then. I’m pissing my hero off here!” 

Toes must have really felt like they’d been trampled on when the snappily titled ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’ was released in 1989, unleashing ambient house unto the world. 

The track was written and conceived with the KLF’s Jimmy Cauty and produced by Youth, with the sampled vocals of the late soul singer Minnie Riperton. Then came ‘Ultraworld’ in 1991, and Dr Alex and his coterie continued to unlock cerebral hemispheres with tracks like ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, establishing The Orb as real contenders. As doyens of the chill-out room – established at Heaven in 1989 when Cauty was still on board – The Orb pioneered dance music that you don’t really dance to. 

If commercially The Orb’s career looks like a gradual comedown after the unexpected success of ‘UFOrb’, which topped the UK album charts in 1992, then that’s an oversimplification. For starters, they made inroads in the US with 1995’s ‘Orbus Terrarum’ (which was less well-received in the UK), then ‘Metallic Spheres’, featuring David Gilmour, peaked at Number 12 in the UK charts in 2010. 

If that can be considered a comedown, then expectations need to be managed. The fact a band as esoteric and left field as The Orb were topping charts in the first place is surely the aberration here. Theirs is a music that lurks in the hinterlands of dreams, inhabiting a space between soundtracks and library music. The Orb shouldn’t be a band that rubs shoulders with Hanson and NSYNC on ‘Top Of The Pops’. In the 1990s, it might be fair to say they were punching above their weight(lessness). 

“We got nominated for a BRIT Award for ‘UFOrb’ in 1992,” says Alex. “And I think that was the start of the decline. We told the powers that be to take all the BRIT stickers off the record because we didn’t want to be part of that charade.” 

You may recall that 1992 was the year Seal cleaned up, and The KLF delivered a dead sheep to the after-party. 

The 90s proved to be a fertile time for remixing, with Alex much in demand from some of pop’s biggest names at the time, including Lisa Stansfield, The Cranberries and Nine Inch Nails, as well as some more esoteric commissions like Serge Gainsbourg, Louis Armstrong and YMO.

“We refused Kylie Minogue, but we did U2. We should have refused them both, but we needed the money,” he grins. 

Things didn’t work out as planned with the Irish superstars on their track ‘Numb’, which Alex refers to as “Numb And Numb-er”. 

“We couldn’t get into those big studios unless we were doing a remix, so what we used to say was, ‘Let’s do our own track and put whatever we have to over the top’. The only people who got pissed off, never paid us and never released it were U2.” 

Easy money from remixing is scarcer in the 21st century, and Alex is disappointed that tracks like ‘Daze’ and ‘House Of Narcotics’ from the new album haven’t been reworked. 

“Those tracks could have benefitted from some heavy remixes, but apparently they’re not the done thing, and this generation doesn’t do remixes,” he says, laughing. “I think it’s probably that the record label doesn’t want to dip into its pocket.” 

Photo: Flore Diamant

The aforementioned ‘House Of Narcotics (Opium Wars Mix)’ is thematically woven into the title concept of the new album, a reference to a nickname the Royal Family acquired during the 19th century. 

“This is what they were called by normal people,” says Alex. “Opium! Poppies! Why do you think everyone’s been trying to get into Afghanistan for the last 200 years?” 

Alex lowers the tone further by bringing up the post of Groom Of The Stool. 

“If you clean my bottom then I’ll make you a Duke and your wife a Duchess,” he says in his poshest mocking accent. The Groom Of The Stool, for the uninitiated, was a respectable vocation where, as the job description suggests, the servant was required to help the King with his intimate ablutions. 

And yet, despite his republican leanings and his disdain for the Royal Family, Alex has been unable to stop watching ‘The Crown’ on Netflix. 

“I saw the one last night about the pea soup fog of 1952, my brother was two when that happened,” he says. “He had a really bad cough and he nearly died from it. It wasn’t long before the Coronation and it nearly took down the government.” 

Alex claims he only watches ‘The Crown’ because his partner enjoys it. 

“They’re telling you in this programme that Philip and Elizabeth are trying very hard to become modern. Really? They don’t appear very fucking modern at the moment, love. And they didn’t ever want to live in Buckingham Palace? Well, they haven’t moved out, have they?”

On the last Orb album, Alex says he sampled a phone-in that took place on live TV in Australia with Prince Charles, during which an abusive caller told the heir to the throne to stick his head up the arse of a kangaroo. Youth surprised everyone by coming out as a royalist, telling Alex to remove the sample. 

“That might be another reason why I’ve called this album what it is,” he says, mischievously. “It’s the punk in me.”

I wonder if he has any thoughts about the differing treatment of Prince Andrew and Meghan Markle by the tabloids. 

“I wish they’d leave them all alone,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s not news. It’s what they want you to read, they being the 72 people who rule the world.” 

Suddenly, aware that we’re in the territory of conspiracies, we swiftly move on to speed-guzzling Nazis, the inspiration for the track ‘Pervitin (Empire Culling & The Hemlock Stone Version)’. Anyone who’s read Norman Ohler’s ‘Blitzed’ will be aware, and no doubt grimly fascinated, by the image of German soldiers rolling tanks over enemy lines as they chew their faces off on powerful amphetamines. 

“My dad worked for Cable & Wireless in the 60s,” reveals Alex. “He would be talking to people around the world late into the night and he did amphetamines to stay awake. I only found that out from my brothers after my dad died.”

Swipes at the Royal Family and samples about America being under martial law – is this The Orb’s most political record? 

“I s’pose so,” says Alex, pondering. “I can’t think of anything else that was political.” 

Alex Paterson is a curious interviewee in that he’s very personable, but he also spontaneously bats off questions that threaten to delve into the superego. Kris Needs, who is writing the first proper book about The Orb, has reportedly had more luck delving into the musician’s past, although luck may not be the right word for it. 

“I wasn’t prepared for the hellish nightmare of Alex’s childhood and his six-year ordeal at an oppressive Christian-military boarding school,” he wrote in his Needs Must column for Electronic Sound last month. 

Why does Alex flit about so much musically? Michael answers this one.

“He grew up in south London in the 60s. It’s the same with Youth. They’re both from similar backgrounds and had a similar education in music – it is everything from Can to the Sex Pistols to every dub record that I’d never heard of, until I met Alex.” 

“Why do we have curry as our national dish?” adds Alex. “Why is reggae the world’s favourite music? There are loads of questions I couldn’t answer for you, but there they are.” 

What about The Orb’s legacy? Has he got his dues helping to define and create an entire genre of music?

“I can’t be more proud than that,” he says, finally giving a straight answer as we begin to wind up. “It’s difficult from my perspective looking at it all. I’ve got a dog, I’ve got a girlfriend, I have a shit now and again. I’m nothing special. I just make music, and that’s how I want to be perceived.” 

He thinks a bit more about his place in the world, and finds time to have a little pop at one of his contemporaries while he’s at it.

“I wanted the music to be different, and it is different. It’s Planet Orb, and I can back it up with 16 other albums. Dare I say it, Madonna’s done fewer albums than The Orb. I won’t mention The Chemical Brothers because I don’t consider that real music.” 

I’m reminded of a quote from Alex, told to Electronic Sound’s editor Push in 1992, when the latter was working at Melody Maker.

“The last thing we want is to be put on a pedestal. That’s not what The Orb is all about. The Orb is just this strange little sphere, which keeps popping up in various guises to annoy the fuck out of everybody, from time to time.” 

Does that all still hold true?

“Yep, that’s solid as a rock really, isn’t it?” he says, chuckling. “Not trying to climb on any pedestal or win any medal. Mind you… I signed my first passport the other day. A girl came up to me and said, ‘Can you sign my passport?’. I said, ‘Come again?’. She said, ‘I’m not English anymore, I’ve got an Irish passport, if you can sign it you’ll make my day’.” 

Radio DJ on WNBC by day, musician in The Orb by night, Alex is also planning a label to put out his other projects; Chocolate Hills, OSS, HFB and Transit Kings. 

“And we’re already talking about the next album,” he enthuses, “and Michael is into the ideas, and that’s proving to me that I’m not resting on me fucking laurels now!” 

Great Britain might have withdrawn back into itself in blue passport ignominy, but Planet Orb is on the rise again, and it’s coming to annoy the fuck out of you in its various guises any day soon.

‘Abolition Of The Royal Familia’ is released by Cooking Vinyl

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