Thomas Fehlmann

Thomas Fehlmann recounts how The Orb managed a surprise return to the top of the UK charts… by way of a rejection from Jean-Michel Jarre

Thomas Fehlmann, Swiss-born composer/producer and enduring Orb staple, joined the band in the 1990s after Jimmy Cauty’s departure. Early in his lengthy tenure, he produced ‘Orbus Terrarum’ (1995) and, after Kris “Thrash” Weston’s departure, Fehlmann worked with Alex Paterson and the late Andy Hughes on ‘Orblivion’ (1997), both for Island Records.

Throughout their history, The Orb have functioned much like a wiggly bit of mercury, constantly evading the thumb of the music industry as it tried to pin the band down into something it could sell.

By the end of 1995, the group had shed long-time member Thrash, and the gorgeously layered double LP ‘Orbus Terrarum’ resulted in a noticeable migration of their fanbase. Part of the fallout also included the loss of their Back Passage studio, which left Alex Paterson and co momentarily floating weightless in space. Where they’d dock next was Soho’s Trident Studios.

“Trident became our base for a bit, even though we weren’t there full-time,” recalls Fehlmann. “We had quite a bit of time rented out there, and that was a big change in the sense that you had to keep focus while working. Previously, in our own studio, time was just floating by, but studios – especially in London – were still very expensive.”

Trident Studios – home to legendary sessions for The Beatles, Queen and David Bowie (who earned the studio its blue plaque) – had been given a second lease of life and renamed Trident 2 in the 1980s. It was there that The Orb once again found solid footing and began working on the material that would be released on the ‘Orblivion’ album.

“The tracks were very much developed on the spot there with Alex, Andy and myself,” says Fehlmann. “We were always pretty fast at developing the basic ideas. Andy, who sort of replaced Kris Weston, had already been involved in ‘Orbus’ and in that sense the changeover was fluid.”

Located a few miles from Alex Paterson’s Battersea home, sessions at Trident were central enough to the London music world that all manner of pals like Steve Hillage and bassist Guy Pratt would drop in on sessions.

“It was definitely a meeting spot,” remembers Fehlmann. “We had loads of friends there, and it was always good for Alex to be connected with them and with the city. Someone would be coming in and doing a bassline or suggesting a certain title for a tune or joking around. And through the joking, some new results came out of it.

“For me, with ‘Orblivion’, a certain element of friendship and peace reappeared in The Orb, whereas in the ‘Orbus Terrarum’ sessions, often there was much friction going on. There was kind of a coherent vibe within the band again – of knowing what we wanted to do, agreeing that we wanted to do this, and just fucking doing it.”

Feeling more settled, the threesome began assembling sounds for ‘Orblivion’, building from samples or using whatever musical ideas came to mind – the segment of David Thewlis’ semi-manic dialogue from Mike Leigh’s 1993 film ‘Naked’, for example, acts as the basis for the track, ‘SALT’.

“Basically, it was Alex jamming with himself on record decks and me picking up from there,” says Fehlmann.

“But Andy was very important for that album. He was a keyboard-oriented person and would play certain sequences. The final production phase would be the same as before, but the actual ‘creation’ moment was pretty happy and quick. We did quite a bit of work at Trident, like remixing jobs and various other bits.”

One of those “bits” turned out to be a remix request from Jean-Michel Jarre. The French electronic heavyweight was marking the 20th anniversary of his landmark ‘Oxygène’ album with a new collection of similarly themed tracks. Jarre was hunting around for remixers to put a modern spin on the results and, at some point, The Orb got the call. But Jarre didn’t much like what they did to his work, and the track was sent back, red-stamped “Non!”.

“I was still living in Berlin and going back and forth, so Alex and Andy finished it, and it got rejected by Jean-Michel. Let’s put it this way… when you get a remix turned down, normally that’s a frustrating situation. But then we asked for permission to use it as an Orb track, and he gave us the OK.”

Rechristened ‘Toxygene’, it was pure Orb – a juddering dancefloor filler with an undeniable hook, swathed in clever samples and psychedelic incidentals. Just to be on the safe side, the band even had their version checked out by a musicologist who gave them the requisite assurances, so they could issue the track without having to credit anyone else as writers.

And despite the album being held up for an age while Island Records busied themselves trying to turn U2 into a dance band, the single went Top Five in the UK in early 1997. Jean-Michel Jarre might not have been able to stick it at the time, but The Orb had collaged whatever he had handed back to them into a bona fide hit.

“When we got permission to use it on a track, we were slapping one another on the shoulder saying, ‘This could go someplace’, because it was very poppy,” says Fehlmann. “So that was a really happy accident.”

Thomas Fehlmann’s ‘Böser Herbst’ album is out on Kompakt

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