Throughout their long-standing and renowned career, the twin brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll who make up Orbital have headlined the biggest stages in the world, while establishing themselves as bonafide electronic music pioneers.
The brother’s extensive back catalog ranges from Punk anthems like ‘Satan’, to Techno classics like ‘Chime’, ‘The Saint’, and ‘The Box’, as well as the seminal Rave anthem ‘Halcyon+on+on’, which have featured across classic albums and soundtracks from the early 1990s up until today.
Now, after a six-year hiatus, Orbital is back with their new album, “Monsters Exist”. On shelves, and via streaming platforms, “Monsters Exist” is an opus on the darkness that inhibits each of us. In this tumultuous current world, where there may be monsters and seemingly uncontrollable figures, there is also resilience. Conflicted, torn by reflections on our society and political disparities, the album ultimately reaches ataraxis with the brothers’ surge for creativity untarnished as always, and beaming with absolute resolve.
Here, we caught up with Paul Hartnoll to discuss the album’s messaging and how it fits into a wider electronic music spectrum of activism and awareness
“Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un aren’t the only monsters around”
What was the original seed for the complete project, ‘Monsters Exist’?
The initial thoughts were, shall we make an angry album hitting back at the current state of politics or shall we do something that was a respite from that, which was what early rave music tended to be. I was also working on a documentary about animal weapons and the way they fight and defend themselves. There was a bit about the most dangerous animal of all, which is, of course, the human being, and our use of nuclear weapons. I had a piece of music that I put over this section and it worked very well. It felt bigger than just the one scene. I then came up with a track really quickly, which became the lynchpin for the album. The title, “Monsters Exist”, also came straight away. At this point, the rest fell into the place. I always have hundreds of bits of music ready to go at any given point. When I went through my sketchbook, I immediately identified many ideas that would fit on the album.
What was the name of the original documentary?
It was a BBC documentary. I believe it was called “Animal Weapons”.
Would you say “Monster’s Exist” is Orbital’s political album?
I would say it is a socially, or globally aware album. It asks the question, what are we doing? I believe Dr. Brian Cox sums it up beautifully at the end of it with his talk about our own mortality and what we are doing with it.
This album is neither one or the other. It is neither an aggressive, angry album or a turning away from the issues album. It scoring the current world climate. It is an observation and more of a warning sign rather than finger pointing. Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un aren’t the only monsters around, it’s up to you to decide who, or what is. I was talking to someone recently who said Google was the monster. I hadn’t thought of it but, if they are your monster, then go for it as different people will have different monsters.
How do you strategize keeping this message consistent with the singles and videos you are releasing from the album? Do each play a singular role in its overall message? When I watch the videos I see strong micro-narratives in each. How much input did you guys have in the themes behind the videos?
The process tends to be guided by instinct. The first single, ‘Tiny Foldable Cities’, felt like an honest track. We figured, as honesty is the best policy, this was a good way to introduce people to the album. We reached out to a talented filmmaker, Felix Green, who had a drone and we liked the footage he shot with it very much. From there, we got him to do the ‘PHUK’ video also.
‘PHUK’ stands for “Please Help UK”. It is about the eternal struggle of the UK, so it’s not a globally conscious piece as it’s very territorial to our country and the shitty state we are in now with Brexit and such. The track has two parts to it so, whether you are a Brexiteer or a remainer, you can look at whichever part fits you best. Felix came up with the montage as the BBC used to do a lot of such content. It felt very British to do it in this way. It also sums up Britain very completely without poking anyone. Whether you believe in Brexit or not, we are all in a shit position as no one is getting what they wanted.
For the last video, ‘The End is Nigh’, we got Felix back on board. It started with an idea I had and then we let him run it in his direction. The original idea was to do a video of people dancing in a triangle toward a cliff while they were asleep. It was meant to represent people sleeping toward oblivion without any care or attention; another metaphor for the state of the world.
You describe the album as being socially aware, which I believe is stronger than being an overtly political album as it allows for interpretation, as well as covers more conversational ground. What are your general impressions of how socially aware the overall electronic and dance music industry is? Do you feel like there is a real place for activism in an industry rooted in escape?
I obviously can’t listen to everything that exists within the spectrum of electronic music so I apologize to anyone doing this who I haven’t heard or heard about, yet. Generally speaking, if I was looking for political awareness I wouldn’t look to the dance music scene. This is no criticism of dance music. By definition, it is a niche that started as a tribalistic activity that brings people together. The joy of dancing is that it brings people together in a non-political way so whatever is going on in the world, dancing can always be the escape from it.
Orbital came from the background of bands that used to sing about issues when we didn’t see many others doing so, like Cabaret Voltaire and Front 242. These were artists brought awareness to the state of the world, the technology of war, and things like that. That is how you find a place for yourself. You like something but find a hole in it and fill that hole, so we wanted to bring a socially aware element to music where we didn’t necessarily see it before.
As for non-dance, electronic music, it tends to be experimental. It is more of an exploration of the human’s inner sanctions than a wider critique or awareness.
Social Media is one way for artists to get an activist message out to a wider audience. Do you see yourselves getting more involved in the social media aspect of things?
I have gotten into social media conversations with people but I’m really not that interested in it. I like it as it is democratic when it comes to your work. If people like your Facebook page and they come to see you, they come to see you. If they don’t, then they don’t, and I like that simple dynamic. It’s like setting up your stall in a marketplace. People will come if they want to.
As for spreading my political views, I don’t really have any answers. I am a musician. Politics is a game, and it’s not a game I play. I prefer to exist in a world that is right in front of me. I’ve done Facebook, Twitter, and have been obsessed with them. At some point, I asked myself, “What the fuck am I doing?” I do it for work but, when it comes to human interaction, I prefer the real thing.
Who are some electronic acts that excite you now, simply on the basis of their music?
There is no one super young at the moment. I have been checking stuff out but nothing really blows me away. Going back a little, three of my favorites are Nathan Fake, Jon Hopkins, and Deadmau5. I don’t like the American EDM style of dance music but I think Deadmau5 is far more interesting than most.
With the new album, and its performances, are there any dates that you are particularly looking forward to?
It will sound like a setup but we have two dates at Paradiso for ADE. Playing in Amsterdam is always a big thing for us because it was one of the first places we ever played. We were brought over in 1990 by the Roxy. We couldn’t afford it at the time so the promoter set up a little tour so that we could. We did 4 dates in Amsterdam and local areas. There are certain countries where people consistently tend to like us and Holland is one of them.
I am actually looking forward to the whole tour. After Holland, we go to Germany where we actually don’t do very well, so it will be nice to go back and change that. Then, we go to Scandinavia where, again, we normally do quite well. Finally, at the end of their summer, we go to Australia and New Zealand. I have never been to New Zealand so I am quite looking forward to it. They have two great festivals there.
Finally, also related to touring, do you have any processes, rituals, or protocols to maintain mindfulness while on the road?
I practice mindfulness all the time. I read a book a while ago called The Happiness Trap and it changed my life. I tend to view my career from a sense of gratefulness. I don’t feel entitled to anything. I think every moment is to be grateful for and appreciate.
When you go on the road as a young person it’s a constant party. You are living the dream. Now, I have a more meditative approach. I make sure to eat well, go to bed early, and be in top shape for every gig. It does wear you out especially when there are big travels in between.
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