Despite what annoying journalists insist on telling Dr Alex Paterson, The Orb have never been away. After a string of diverse projects, remixes and collaborations, they have now teamed up with the great Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry for The Orbserver in the Star House, an album of psychedelic dub. We sat down with Dr Paterson to discuss recording, respect, Top of the Pops and the frustrating mislabelling of dubstep.
When were you first aware of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry?
It would have been as The Upstetter. Super Ape on Island in 77, 78. I was 16 at that point. The Scientist, King Tubby… I got into the dub thing. It wasn’t to do with the vocals, it was the dub thing. I’m showing my age. And yet when I was talking to Adrian Sherwood, who is one of my heroes, and being asked about dub music, I was like “Me? Let him carry on.”
So do you feel like a bit of an imposter in that world?
There’s hierarchy isn’t there? There’s hierarchy and there’s hierarchy. There’s purists and there’s un-purists.
Do you think there’s a lot of snobbery in that world?
Purism, not snobbery, purism. There’s a difference. A big difference.
And where do you consider that you lie within that world?
Bringing the white man into listening to reggae music and making him aware that we have roots, even though we are white. Simple really. Some black people can’t dance either, did you know that? There’s this ‘white man can’t dance’ thing. You know, some black people can’t dance either. Let’s not go there, but I did. You are what you are and the rhythm is within yourself. If you’ve got that rhythm, it’s going to happen.
Mr Perry must have had some amazing tales, did he regale you with anything while you were working with him?
The trouble with Lee is that a lot of it is mumbling and a lot of it is heavy Jamaican accents and it’s only so often that you can say ‘pardon’ to him. Not only did he have a Jamaican accent, but he has now created a Swiss accent to go with it.
Did he ever go into what his lyrics mean?
I think you can understand them apart from the dirty words. There are a couple of dirty words I missed. But my Jamaican friends have told me, ‘You know what that means, right?’ It means his penis. And it’s not a derogatory term for penis it’s just ‘my penis’.
It wasn’t as easy as that, making the record. We had four tracks. We were given six days and we thought ‘four tracks in six days, we’ll do an EP, perfect. And we’ll get on to do the album later’. He turned up on Monday night at four o’clock in the morning. Tuesday, Wednesday, we finished those four tracks. Gone. Thursday, ‘Ok, we need some new tracks or he’s going to get really bored’. He’s a nocturnal creature, he works from six to six. 6pm to 6am, so we realised that we had all day free, so we started writing new songs. And blow me down, we made 13!
Was it exciting to do that sort of collaboration where it’s someone else’s energy forcing you to change the way you work?
Yeah, because he’s a vocalist. We’d never done a vocal album before. We’d done vocals before, obviously. But tell me if you’ve got an Orb album with vocals on every track. I don’t think you have. We’d never done that before. And that was a big challenge in itself. Also the fact that we were looking at tracks that were probably between four and five minutes on average. Because it was a vocal track we didn’t want to bore people stupid with the tunes. They are not like opus ambient things that go on for like 19 minutes and you’re like ‘yeah I’ll listen to that again in a couple of years’.
The track Golden Clouds feels like a call-back to your other famous cloud song.
It was meant to be. And it’s one in the eye to Universal, one in the eye to Polygram, it’s one in the eye to Big Life, because all they wanted us to do, when we were The Orb in 1994, was do another version of Little Fluffy Clouds. And now we’ve managed it. But on our own terms. And it’s not like ‘oh we’ve come back’. And thank you for not saying that ‘oh you’ve come back’. I was at this interview earlier where they were like ‘you’ve come back’. I’ve never been away! ‘What have you been doing for the last 20 years since UFOrb?’ A lot obviously. I don’t expect people to hang on my every fucking word either. But if you’re going to do an interview with me mate, do a bit of research.
How do you feel about that? Do you feel as if… I don’t want to say you’ve not been recognised but do you feel that maybe you haven’t been given the sort of respect that you deserve?
It’s because we haven’t played the right game. What’s the word?
Not selling out. Better than selling out. It’s retiring and then doing the gig, the reforming gig. Which, naming names, a name very similar to the Orb, they do that. At least we haven’t done that.
What do you put that respect thing down to? Is it merely because you don’t play the game?
I think it’s because I don’t take the right drugs. I’m not on the same drugs, all these prescribed drugs that everyone else takes. That’s basically it, to be honest. They tell you that illegal drugs kill you. But they don’t tell you about all the legal drugs that kill you, do they?
It seems endemic at the moment, people can’t cope and they are turning to…
It’s the multi-billionaires doing crack that’s the scary one. What the fuck is that all about?
I guess everyone thinks that if you have that amount of money you’d be so happy and all your problems will be solved.
Not necessarily. I’ve been it that situation where I’ve had loads of money and I was never really happy. I’m actually very, very happy at the moment, even though I’ve not got that much money. I’ve found a very happy sort of balance. Just music, travelling, keeping everybody happy. It takes you a while to actually get to that level. And when you’re younger you don’t know what that means. You have no idea what that means ‘keeping everybody happy’. When you get to my age you do understand that. You can either sink or swim. And I think the Orb’s come up with a really good album and we’re into that swimming malarkey and we’re looking for a marathon at the moment.
There feel likes there is a certain nostalgia for the rave era at the moment, how do you feel about all that?
They say that if you were there then you wouldn’t be able to remember it. A bit like the 60’s apparently. What do I feel about it? I feel that we should celebrate the fact that we’re all alive, we managed to make it through. The trouble with music these days is that it’s the same thing and they just like to rebrand it with a different name. I could kill people who say ‘this is dubstep’ and you go out and buy it and it’s got 4/4 beats in it. What the fuck is that on about? Excuse my French, but it’s really kind of disturbing. It’s like buying loads of substandard Beatles records thinking they are the Beatles.
Do you put that down to naiveté by those people doing it? They just don’t have the chops, as it were?
Call it what you want, it’s mis-marketing as far as I’m concerned. When I went out and bought a punk record I knew I was buying a punk record. When I went out and bought a disco record I knew I was getting a disco record. When I went out to buy a reggae record, I knew I was getting a reggae record. Get to dubstep what am I going to get? Oh you might get a dubstep record, but you might just get something influenced by dubstep or you might get something that’s vaguely something to do with dance music. But we’ll call it dubstep anyway. It’s not a big problem, but it’s kind of annoying when you go out and buy something and you expect to get what you want and you get something completely different.
Do you think that is down to…
Ministry of Sound.
We can blame them for everything.
A lot. I also miss Top of the Pops, I don’t know about you.
So do I!
I think loads of people do. And I think all the young kids are really missing out on something that was ludicrously stupid. It was a bit like us playing chess on Top of the Pops…
That was well remembered, I expect that will turn up on Top of the Pops 2 eventually.
One day. After the Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry thing and everyone’s gone, ‘Oh The Orb, The Orb The Orb’. Maybe it will turn up. This is the usual thing with the media, once there’s a buzz going they want to be seen to be doing the buzz.
So are you going to go to tour with Lee?
No, but we are writing an opera for the Royal Opera House.
What’s it going to be about?
In my head it’s about who built the moon. It’s called Moonbuilding. It’s a love story between the Earth and the moon. A mother child thing. It’s been going on for about 3 years. We have discovered in the last 3 months because it’s an ongoing thing we discovered a 14th century German nursery rhyme about the moon which fits perfectly. It’s totally copyright free.
So in a way you’re going to be sampling it?
What else are we going to do? Don’t we always anyway? [Into microphone] Checkpoint 23114. That is what I’m trying to do is get that point across so that any budding DJ who wants to make music and feels he can’t make music. You can. There’s a technology out there for you to do that. And probably do it a lot better than a musician. What do musicians do? They only copy their heroes at the end of the day.
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