The Orb’s Alex Paterson talks us through the making of the stone-cold chill-out classic ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’
“Youth and I were sharing a flat on Wandsworth Common in 1989, and he had a little studio in his bedroom, which carried on through the door into mine. The more keyboards and kit that were coming in, the bigger it got. It was an old-school bedroom studio, no two ways about it.
“There was a little writing room and that’s where he was doing all the drum programming for Yazz’s ‘The Only Way Is Up’. I got to know her really well – she was coming round quite regularly doing music in the very same room where we wrote ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’. We started in our flat and ended up finishing the track at Do Not Erase in south London, which is where Thrash engineered and did the drum programming on the final mix.
“I’d known Youth from back when he was in Killing Joke, and I’d grown into the role of being a roadie for them. At the beginning I was more of a mate. It was a bit like the early Joy Division days, or any band that started in their teenage years – they’ve always got a mate that comes along to vibe them up a bit, to give them confidence, and I’d always been pretty good at that. I was under the mixing desk when the first Killing Joke single was being recorded in Berwick Street in 1979 with Mark Lusardi, who ended up engineering ‘Blue Room’.
“For ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, we used an Roland S-750 sampler. It felt like I’d come up a level from when I did ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’ with Jimmy Cauty from The KLF, because a lot of the samples on that track weren’t cleared. For ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, we managed to get Rickie Lee Jones’ vocal sample approved because it was a spoken word section rather than being taken from a song. The bloke who asked, ‘What were the skies like when you were young?’ was LeVar Burton, who played Geordi La Forge from ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. I’m a massive ‘Next Generation’ fan. For him to help me out with a song, that’s pretty fucking cosmic.
“Youth’s management paid Rickie Lee off and she was really happy. Even so, we didn’t understand the politics of music publishing back then. We’d come from a world of The KLF, that idea of the Kopyright Liberation Front, which I still believe in. There’s so many things in the world that you can just take and, if you’re clever enough with how you manipulate it, it becomes a different sound and you wouldn’t even know where it’d come from in the first place.
“We sampled Pat Metheny performing Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint: III. Fast’ for ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’. When Steve Reich first heard it, he didn’t even recognise there was guitar in our track at all. He wanted 20 per cent of the publishing, but only from the day he found us, not from when it was released, and he also asked us to remix a track for him in exchange. We obliged, very courteously. I have so much faith in artists like that.
“We also used part of Jim Gordon’s drum solo from Harry Nilsson’s ‘Jump Into The Fire’. No one would have ever known that if I hadn’t told someone when I was really drunk one night. My brother was a big Harry Nilsson fan, and I always wet myself when the drum solo came on. When we were sampling things for ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, Youth said, ‘Do you know any good drum breaks?’. I said, ‘Actually, I do – this one’. It’s just a short section programmed to work in such a way that it gives whatever else you want to put over the top even more oomph. The whole structure of the song is based on that loop really.
“But I have another one up my sleeve that no one knows. Has anyone ever noticed there’s a bit of ‘Police & Thieves’ by Junior Murvin and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry on ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’? I hear it every time, obviously, but no one else does. You don’t expect it, so your ear doesn’t hear it. It hears something else. I learned that many, many years ago. It’s only when it’s been pulled out that you recognise it. Danny Tenaglia did some remixes in 1998, and they’re pretty much my favourite remixes that have ever been done of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’. Those mixes went up to a whopping 127 BPM and it became a proper house tune. You can hear the Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry section really well there, because he went through the tape and listened to all the samples.
“The English guy talking at the beginning is a broadcaster called John Waite. In the summer of 1989, BBC Radio 4 did a 10-minute slot about ambient music that was then up-and-coming in the clubs. They used that as the beginning of their chat, so we sampled it and used it ourselves. It was too good to miss!
“I’m still in love with the song. When we play it live, there’s so much more that you can do with it. We just pitch it up so it’s 110 or 112 BPM and we stick in a bit of Chic, but the coup de grâce is that we’ll finish with a mix of ‘This Is Not America’ by Bowie. That fits perfectly into ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ because you can easily pitch that down to 112 so it fits. The guitarist on that Bowie song is none other than Pat Metheny. I get my kicks out of those coincidences.
“I remember that Radio 5 did a really good pisstake of The Orb once. It was called The Bulb, and they did this version in a Brummie accent about driving round in a Ford Cortina. It was called ‘Little Fluffy Dice’. It’s fucking genius. Honestly, I don’t think you can top that.”
Chocolate Hills’ ‘A Pail Of Air’ is out on Painted Word. For more visit theorb.com