Orbital’s Time Is Now

Reunited for ‘version three,’ co-leader Phil Hartnoll shares details about the duo’s past, present, and future.

Orbital. Photo by Kenny McCracken

As a bold force behind the evolution of electronic dance music as we know it today, Orbital’s monumental influence on the art form cannot be understated. The pioneering electronic duo, brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll, have cemented their legacy by releasing signature albums like 1993’s Orbital 2 (which many people consider to be one of the greatest techno albums of all time) and stunning thousands with mind-blowing headline performances at Glastonbury and other seminal music festivals.

“For me, I could play to two people or 20,000 people — as long as I can see the whites of their eyes and I can feel their energy, that’s all that matters,” Phil Hartnoll tells SF Weekly.

The brothers reunited last year after a three-year hiatus and released their ninth album, Monsters Exist, in September. It’s an album that Hartnoll says was long in the making.

“When we were putting this all together, it started to form a shape or an idea,” he says of the album’s creative process. “In ‘The Box’ video with Tilda Swinton, there in the TV through the window it flashes ‘Monsters Exist.’ It’s been around for a long time, this idea.”

For Monsters Exist’s album art, Orbital enlisted longtime collaborator John Greenwood. As Hartnoll explains, “It sort of reminded us a bit like a cross of In Sides or Snivilisation, and with a title like Monsters Exist and all the stuff he’s doing, it was very fitting.”

 

The album’s politically influenced themes are heard in standout track “P.H.U.K.,” a tongue-in-cheek acronym for Please Help United Kingdom.

“With everything that’s going on over here, it’s almost like one step forward and five steps back,” Hartnoll says. “All over the world, really!”

Orbital is currently on tour supporting Monsters Exist, playing a dynamic mix of new and classic material coupled with dramatic, custom visual elements.

“There’s a track off the album, ‘There Will Come a Time,’ and we have a dancier remix that we are playing live and we plan to release it in the future with a title along the lines of ‘We Will Die.’ Something really cheery,” Hartnoll laughs. “We just came off our European tour, and what we plan on bringing over here is the same set we’ve been developing over there. It’s really great and I’m really excited to play over in the States.”

The duo returns to San Francisco for the first time since 2012 at The Midway on Thursday, Dec. 6.

“There’s a whole crew of people I know there, just from DJing and whatnot,” Hartnoll says of the city. “I’ve played with [acid house virtuoso] Lee Coombs and he is playing with us at the gig, so it’s like a little reunion of sorts.”

“I DJ often as well, especially in between our little hiatuses,” he adds. “I love to dance and all sorts of stuff, really.”

When speaking of current artists on his radar, Hartnoll praises producers Claude VonStroke, Chris Lake, and Billy Kenny, saying,

“This Ain’t Bristol and Dirtybird are two of the great labels at the moment. And those are the tracks that I love to play in addition to remixed and unreleased Orbital material.”

A track that may never see the light of day again due to complicated licensing issues is the collaboration remix of Wonky single “Where Is It Going” that the duo made with physicist Stephen Hawking for the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony.

“That was a big moment,” Hartnoll recalls. “We got his speech beforehand, which was actually from him, and we vocoded that and essentially made Stephen Hawking sing!”

“He’s such a lovely person,” Hartnoll says of Hawking, who remained in contact with the musicians following the ceremony. “And he was really up for releasing the single for charity. He asked me, ‘When are we going to release it?’ He got super-excited about being a pop star!”

Orbital have proven that no stage or feature is beyond their capabilities throughout their remarkable career, which makes it one that is worth celebrating.

 

“It’s our 30th anniversary next year, and there’s nothing concrete yet, but we would like to do an ‘Orbital 30’ album — and we essentially want to get a lot of our peers to do remixes of our classic tracks, and we want to record our tracks how we play them live now, because they’re very different from when we first recorded them because the way we improvise live sort of rearranges the structure of the song,” Hartnoll says. “When we play ‘Halcyon’ live, we don’t even realize how different it is from when we first recorded it, almost like it went through a game of Chinese whispers.

“Next year, 2019, will be more of a celebration for us,” Hartnoll adds, “and for 2020, my vision is that we will have another album out.”

Above all else, Hartnoll values the consistent love and support from longtime fans.

“During live shows, when I see the enjoyment on everyone’s faces, in Dutch it’s called a gezellig moment,” he explains, “which is like a bigger-than-the-moment feeling that’s not really translatable, at least according to my Dutch friends.

“The biggest achievement I feel is when I see that somebody else has got enjoyment out of something I produced,” he says.

Orbital, Thursday, Dec. 6, 8 p.m., The Midway, 900 Marin St. $39.50; themidwaysf.com

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