‘Babble’ Rouser – The Orb’s Alex Paterson on his autobiography and his new label Orbscure Recordings…
The Orb’s Alex Paterson on finally leading a life of Orbscurity
The Orb’s Alex Paterson is not pulling any punches. “Criminals in suits, that’s in control” he says at the start of our conversation, in reply to the customary warm up question about the pandemic. “They’re about lining their own pockets, they’re not bothered about looking after humanity as we know it.”
One thing is certain. However sublime, relaxed and chilled the music that Alex Paterson has made over the years – and, seeing as he’s just launched a new label called Orbscure, will continue to – the fire of anti-establishment feeling is never far from his surface. With the last Orb album being titled ‘Abolition of the Royal Familia’, not to mention the subsequent album of reworkings called the ‘Guillotine Mixes’, it never looked as though mellowing of any significant sort was truly on the cards.
That said, Alex does seem in a happy place all in all. He actually reigns himself in, saying “anyway, we’re not here to discuss that” after a quick declaration of disgust at the spin and underhand tactic of the Johnson government.
At least his beloved Chelsea FC are doing well. The club are another staple of any interview with Paterson, who famous walked out of a Guardian interview when the Leeds-supporting reporter rubbed salt into the wounds of a recent loss at the then struggling Championship side’s hand.
“That’s another world,” he laughs, the grin almost visible down the phone, “my Chelsea world is extremely happy at the moment. The bubble might burst but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this was going to happen at the end of the season. The whole thing’s been a lifelong love affair, and I’m just glad to have a team that’s fulfilling my dream as a kid. It makes me feel like I’m 12 years old again a very bizarre feeling!”
Paterson says one of his earliest memories of hearing reggae, the sound that has underpinned The Orb’s cosmic musical adventures alongside house and ambient music, was when visiting Stamford Bridge with his father as a small boy and witnessing the team make their entrance to The Harry J All Stars’ anthemic ‘Liquidator’. As, indeed, they still do to this day.
The first decade of his life, growing up in Battersea, South London, is just one of many lesser explored subjects that he decided to shine a spotlight on in his forthcoming autobiography ‘Babble On An Ting’ – a reference to the Victor Lewis Smith prank call that opens UFOrb’s ‘Tower of Dub’ – written in conjunction with veteran writer and sometime Orb remixer Kris Needs. “Nobody really talks about my upbringing,” he says “but it shows anyone can do what I did, if you put your mind to it.”
Having spent in his formative years in such multi-racial environs definitely shaped the future Paterson’s music and wider cultural tastes. “You can either ignore it or embrace it. I took the latter path – musically, it’s done me no world of harm whatsoever.”
He finds racism perplexing as well as abhorrent. “The whole thing with black people – I don’t see them as black people, I see them as people. I grew up with black people.” Cultural divisions like race and religion, as a result, run naturally against the Paterson grain.
“These are the things that we should be trying to stamp out – that whole idea that one race is better than another,” he says, while pointing out that the amount of people who’ve died from Covid is ‘a drop in the ocean’ compared to those who’ve perished in religious conflict. He suggests a worldwide televised debate between the religious leaders of the world, because that might “just show how ridiculous it really is.”
The book also explores the massive culture shock he underwent at the age of 10 when he was uprooted from London and packed off to boarding school – or “leaving Battersea and going to the evil forest of the Cotswolds” as he puts it. The experience contained its very dark moments – we understand the book will contain serious revelations about his treatment – but it was here that he met Youth and Guy Pratt, two musicians who remain to this day close friends and close collaborators.
“This is part of the yin and yang of life,” he says of these sometimes difficult but also crucial years, “It’s about what you embrace around it, what you take from it.” As well as super producer and Killing Joke bassist Youth and Pratt, who has played with stadium fillers like Pink Floyd and The Power Station as well as The Orb, he remembers the future Labour minister and architect of the HS2 rail programme Lord Adonis also being among his classmates. “There was something very weird in our water, that’s for sure,” he reckons.
The whole experience of recalling and cataloguing events with Kris Needs was a therapeutic in itself, as well being an attempt to get to something close the definitive facts. “The processing of the memories is something that I’m pretty good at,” he says, before adding with the loving ridicule that only lifelong friends share… “Youth, he’s terrible! He’s always making tall stories out of stories. But they sound good, so therefore they become urban myths. But I take my hat off to him, because he tells them like they actually happened to him!”
Ultimately he wants the books to inspire others rather than simply glorify himself. “What comes out of what I’m saying in the end is The Orb – it’s my path through real life, it’s no big deal. But it might be a deal to someone having the same passage as me who’s stuck in a rut…”
Paterson has experienced every type of high and low in his career, from hitting number one with second album UFOrb to being cleaned out by unscrupulous management, but age and experience have made him philosophical and more determined not to fall out with people if it can be avoided. He’s still on good terms with longtime Orb collaborator Thomas Fehlmann, who departed the band in fairly recent times to be replaced by Michael Rendall. Even the notoriously testy Killing Joke, with whom he cut his musical teeth as a roadie, he says are “lovely people Individually, even Jaz (Colman, singer) He’s had his moments with everyone but he’s a lovely chap. I’ve always respected what he’s done.”
For someone who has collaborated with everyone from Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to Steve Hillage, Jah Wobble, Roger Eno and countless others, it seems only natural that this should continue and if anything, expand as he enters this new part of the Orb story. As well as he Orb, he has his project with former Dorado beatsmith A.P.E., Chocolate Hills, whose second album is on the Orbscure schedule for later in the year. “We’re definitely in a happy place with Chocolate Hills” he insists, after previous frustrations finding a deal for the project with labels which only seemed interested in the selling power of the Orb brand.
The solution is Orbscure, funded by the Cooking Vinyl empire, which gives Paterson the freedom to pursue his own musical agendas free from interference. “Primarily to stop me releasing music on other people’s labels,” he says in all seriousness of its raison d’etre, adding that this arrangement is a little more conducive to his current lifestyle than dealing with the attendant pressures and stresses of the music industry.
Then there’s the inaugural release – out today. The Heavens by Sedibus sees Paterson reunited, after nearly 30 years, with engineer of The Orb’s debut album ‘Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’ Andy Falconer after the pair hooked up again at a party hosted by Youth in Spain. Spread, in trademark Orb style across four sides of vinyl, the album is distinctively Orb-like, full of expansive sumptuous, rich ambient tones and layers of found sound and field recordings.
“The first thing I got asked at the first interview is ‘why didn’t you call this The Orb?'” admits Paterson, “Well, because it’s not The Orb.” However, there is an acknowledgement on his behalf that the use of space-related samples on tracks like ‘Toi 1338b’ is a knowing return to the band’s fertile roots.
“That’s where The Orb really took off, no pun intended, when we started using the space samples. No-one was really using space samples, no-one had really had spacemen talking on records – the nearest thing would have been the ‘For All Mankind’ video that Eno put together, where he had spaceman talking over his music when they were in space. Have you seen that film? That’s like a template for The Orb in many ways, but it came out in the 80s – it’s on YouTube though. Then you’ll hear all the space samples and you’ll hear all the samples that The Orb used – that’s where we got them all from!”
How was the experience and chemistry of getting back into the studio with Falconer? Was it like you’d never been away? “Not really,” he sniggers, ” because he’s in German and I’m in London. The majority was done in Munich, and I OK-ed it from London He got shitloads of stuff from me and he would put loads of these little sketches into one tune As Andy has said to me many times, ‘you’re an engineer’s dream’. Come up with a loop and let’s go. Someone who’s not afraid to do things and muck about within my own sampling world and then present them to him. He hasn’t the foggiest idea that, say that bass drum is A Guy Called Gerald – which it isn’t but it might be. You’ll never know. That’s the enjoyment of it all.”
Beyond that, other plans for Orbscure include a re-release of 2006 Transit Kings album Living In A Giant Candle Winking At God’ ,. made with Guy Pratt, Dom Beken and The KLF’s Jimmy Cauty, an LP which came and went without garnering the attention it deserved at the time, he says. “I think a lot of people don’t know that we did a track with Johnny Marr and there’s another one with (Fast Show comedy king) Simon Day on it too.”
In any case, with 300 plus live Orb shows in his Paterson tape vault, there’s no shortage of material for Orbscure. “Don’t worry, he says, “I’ve got DATs coming out of me ears!”
Having moved from Battersea – “it was getting like Vietnam with all the helicopters and noise” he had previously commented – a little south of central London to Norwood, there’s also his very regular appearances on the West Norwood Broadcasting Corporation , often actually performed in the shop, that the station calls home, the West Norwood Book And Record Bar , to keep him busy. Plus, The Orb are working on the soundtrack to a film about Smiles – one of the biggest LSD dealers the UK has ever known – with a view to presenting the drug’s positive side.
“There’s a weird connection about that,” he admits. “After he got busted in Operation Julie, Smiles was in prison and my brother went and bought the cottage where he’d been based off him. That’s where my niece grew up.”
Weird, yes, but it doesn’t surprise us. From his schooldays to the era of Orbscurity, Paterson has always fostered his relations with interesting people operating outside the normal confines of conformity. After all these years, they’ve paid dividends in creative and, by Paterson’s mellowed out vibe, in lifestyle terms too. Excuse the colossal pun, but for The Orb, it’s a case of what goes around coming around. Long may it continue.