Orbital: ‘We can’t fall out with each other for ever. It would make Christmas awkward’

The Glastonbury legends, returning with a new album, answer your questions on embarrassing festival memories, their breakup and makeup – and being mistaken for the Orb

It’s Glastonbury this weekend. What do you remember of your legendary 1994 performance and why was it so important? Jamesis47

Paul Hartnoll: There we were, hammering it out on 909s and 303s [Roland’s TR-909 drum machine and TB-303 bass synthesiser], and people just went mental. It didn’t just bring dance music to Glastonbury; it brought us to the rock arena. Afterwards, we were booked to play all these rock festivals.

Phil Hartnoll: People were gagging for the electronic sound. We were touring [their third studio album] Snivilisation – which, due to a delay by the record company, hadn’t actually been released – so nobody had heard it anyway. But, even so, the vibe from the crowd was just incredible.

What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you at Glastonbury? TurangaLeela2

Phil: I’ve got lots of memories of taking my kids to the kids’ field after Orbital had performed and wanting to join in because I’d regressed to their level by that time of night/morning.

Paul: I was off my face at the cinema screen and I needed the loo. I went staggering off into the darkness, had a wee, turned around and realised I was facing the entire audience, as I had just peed directly under the cinema screen in front of everybody.

Bobbing your heads up and down, pressing buttons and looking up every now and again to see a massive field of ravers going mental … how much of your live shows is programmed and how much is ad-libbed? MarcoPoloMint and djw300

Orbital playing the Other Stage at Glastonbury in 2002
Playing the Other Stage at Glastonbury, Somerset, in 2002. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Paul: We don’t play keyboards, as we don’t in the studio. On stage, we’re arranging the track, readjusting the sounds and playing with the synths. What you’re getting is an improv arrangement, mix and sound sculpture. So it is live, but you can’t compare it to, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We can surprise each other, which is part of the fun, but we can’t hear each other, as we’re wearing ear monitors, so there’s a lot of sign language. The other day, I was trying to say to Phil: “That went really well,” and had to keep doing the OK sign until I got a smile.

What did your parents say when you first started making music together? deathisnotheend

Paul: I used to play in punk bands, so all our dad ever used to say was: “I don’t mind how much racket you make, but tone the fucking swearing down.”

Phil: Our mum was very encouraging. Our parents had mostly moved out of the house to run a pub in the local village, but once we became Orbital, they became our biggest fans.

Orbital, the Orb, William Orbit … have you ever been booked as the wrong band? catchytitled

Watch the video for Halcyon.

Paul: Not booked as the wrong band, but if I had a pound for every time someone comes up to me and says: “I love your song [the Orb’s] Little Fluffy Clouds …”

Phil: I was having a drink with my dad at his local and this guy – I assumed a big Orbital fan – went home to get his CDs for me to sign. And bless him, he came back with Little Fluffy Clouds. I was so embarrassed for him; I nearly signed it anyway.

What’s been your strangest gig? merkadroid

Paul: We were booked to play on the top of this huge metal tower at this weird country park in the Black Forest. It had just started raining, so there were only about six people watching from inside this tiny bus shelter next to the swimming pool. Then it started thundering and we could see the lightning striking the ground 50 metres away. So we were told to stop and get off.

What are your memories of playing Chime on Top of the Pops, with the plugs to your keyboards clearly visible, gently mocking TOTP’s miming policy? bhunabhoy

Orbital at Womad festival, Malmesbury, in 2019
At Womad festival, Malmesbury, in 2019. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

Paul: We asked to play live, but they wouldn’t let us. So I said: “I’ll play with the on/off buttons, but that’s it.”

Phil: I think we got banned for being too boring after that.

Paul: We should have done it like Madness or Bad Manners, taken on plastic saxophones and really hammed it up.

You’ve fallen out a few times, but not as much as a certain other pair of musical brothers. Was it over hair? TopTramp

Phil: No. That fell out a long time ago!

Paul: I seem to be follically winning in the entire family. Every one else is bald apart from me.

Phil: You can’t carry on falling out for ever, can you? It would make Christmases really awkward.

Paul: Liam and Noel should get over each other.

Phil: Would we like to work with the Gallaghers? Why not?

Paul: I think I’d have to work with Noel and Phil would work with Liam. That’s the natural fit.

Bon Jovi or Belinda Carlisle? DeJongandtherestless

Orbital at Traffic festival, Turin, in 2012
At Traffic festival, Turin, in 2012. Photograph: A Astes/Alamy

Paul: That’s for the audience to decide. I think there was a lawsuit [Bon Jovi sued Carlisle for plagiarism], so we pit them together in a Judge-Rinder-type trial, because they fit over each other perfectly. You start with Belinda, add Bon Jovi, reverse Belinda and that’s the manoeuvre.

Growing up, what was your most memorable orbital rave? mattion

Paul: Did you go to any, Phil?

Phil: I never went to any orbital raves, really. The best raves I went to were the Mutoid Waste ones, run by the waste company in King’s Cross [in London]. There would be fire jugglers, huge smiley faces, strobes, huge weeping willow sculptures made out of shards of metal – all with this Mad Max vibe. I remember this dustcart that had been turned into a woolly mammoth, with oil drums on fire. It was like they have in Arcadia in Glastonbury now, but in the middle of London in the early 90s. I don’t know how they got away with it.

Now that you’re getting on a bit, do your torch glasses come with prescription lenses? Do you ever wear them just for reading a book in bed? TopTramp and vammy

Paul: You have to read a lot of tiny little things on the instruments, so that has crossed my mind, because I do need glasses for reading. Originally, the glasses were designed for plumbers. Robert De Niro wears a similar pair in the Terry Gilliam film Brazil. But no, I’ve never used them to read in bed.

I lost my wallet at an Orbital gig at the Cambridge Corn Exchange in 1994. Did you happen to find it? stinky

Paul: Yes, we all went down to the Eagle and had at least two pints of real ale on you, so thanks very much. Ha!

You’re obviously named after the M25 – but what is your favourite service station, M25 or otherwise? Mrblancmange

Phil: They all blend into one for me. Have you got a favourite, Paul?

Paul. Yes. Leicester Forest East on the M1. It’s one of the originals from the 60s, with all the shops and restaurants on the bridge. [It’s now a Welcome Break.]

I was a big fan, living at home with my very strict Christian parents in the early 90s. One day, I received a promotional postcard for [the Orbital single] Satan and had to answer some very awkward questions. Did you ever get into any such trouble? Oedi71

Phil: Once, in Poland, we did get the Catholic Women’s Council turning up outside the venue with banners and posters, accusing us of devil worship. So I’m very proud of that.

• Orbital’s album 30 Something is released on 15 July on London Records. They headline Kaleidoscope festival, London, on 23 July and Stowaway festival, Buckinghamshire, on 19 August


As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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