From punk rock roadie and ambient A&R man to steering the good ship Orb through three decades of sometimes stormy waters, Alex Paterson has done it all…
Ben Willmott
12:17 6th June 2018

“You have to know me,” says Alex Paterson, the man synonymous with the now 30-year electronica phenomenon that is The Orb, “but you don't have to dig very deep to get to my punk roots.”

On the surface, to those with a limited knowledge of the man and also a rather restricted view of punk culture, this might be construed as a rather strange concept. The Orb, in many ways, are the polar opposites of punk's agitational and agitated vibe. They pioneered the ambient house revolution at the turn of the 1990s, one of the very first acts to envisage a life for electronic music beyond danceloor-slanted house and techno. Massive chart hits like ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, ‘The Blue Room’ and their number one ‘UFOrb’ album were all unashamedly chilled out affairs. They’re a clever mix of futurism and nostalgia - “I’ve always said The Orb is like a holiday in the future” says Alex – together with dashes of daft stoner humour and gently idealistic politics.

But chatting to him in the back yard of the West Norwood Book and Record Bar, where he broadcasts a regular radio show, and hearing him talk about his close involvement with post punk mavericks Killing Joke and you begin to catch on. Very much like Killing Joke, the band which his schoolfriend Youth joined as bassist and which Alex was a longtime roadie and occasional vocal contributor to, The Orb also seized on the reggae sound system aspect of punk culture and set about remaking the sounds of Jamaica in their own much more British image. For Alex, who’d grown up in the multi-cultural environs of Lavender Hill near Clapham Junction, it made total sense. He remembers being smitten with reggae after his older brother returning home with a Prince Far-I album in the early 70s, although thinks he was probably already open to the music because his beloved Chelsea FC would come out of the tunnel at Stamford Bridge to the sound of ‘Liquidator’ The Harry J All Stars.

But his punk-ness is most apparent in his no-nonsense lack of sentimentality when it comes to discussing his career. For instance, he drops the news that his longtime collaborator, the German producer Thomas Fehlmann, has decided he won’t be playing live with The Orb any longer, and makes no attempt to sugar coat the issue. He cites “ego clashes” between Fehlman and Youth, who has rejoined the band, and declares pretty bluntly: “If I say to Youth ‘I’ve done a track with Thomas’, then he says ‘I don’t want to hear it’” and if I tell Thomas I’ve done a track with Youth he says ‘I don’t want to hear it. So yeah, Thomas will be ducking out of the live line up.”

He’s similarly unguarded about his time with the Killing Joke crew, saying he still thinks of the band as his “brothers”, but learnt a lot about the music industry by costly mistakes such as fostering a downright combative relationship with the music press, and famously disappearing to Iceland just as the band were about to break big. “They got back to that point in the end,” he recalls, “but it took them another two years.

His fondest memory of life on the road with KJ, perhaps more than anything, shows where he was headed after being a roadie. With very little hesitation, he remembers the band supporting Joy Division at London’s punk palace The Lyceum and being able to quiz their drummer (now New Order drummer Stephen Gilbert) on the downright futuristic electronic drums that had very recently emerged on their pioneering and technologically visionary second album ‘Closer’.

Having initially paired up with Jimmy Cauty of The KLF – the much celebrated KLF/JAMMS album ‘Chill Out’ was largely built around a recording of one of Paterson’s sets in the back room of Shoom - and then started the Wau Mr Modo label with Youth, it was together with Kris ‘Thrash’ Weston that The Orb truly began to make big waves. In the early 90s they proved that electronic music acts could everything a rock band could do, namely become a major pull as a live act, make albums with longevity and establish themselves without having to import guest vocalists or pander to rock audiences. Quite the opposite in fact. Having had their breakthrough moment with the Andy Weatherall-produced 'Loaded', Primal Scream turned to Paterson to help them piece together one of the other key singles from their classic 'Screamadelica' album, the decadent and orgasmic sounding 'Higher Than The Sun'.

Paterson is understandably proud of their achievements, as well as honest about when things didn't go right. “We were the first to do that,” he says about their technique of using an Apple Mac alone to record albums, now it's pretty much the standard way for electronic musicians to create these days. As for the more experimental, and less critically applauded albums that followed in the latter part of their relationship with Island Records, such as the perhaps aptly named ‘Orblivion’ in 1997, he's equally unbridled in expressing his opinion.

“There's a reason those albums sound so mad,” he admits. “We were going mad at the time.” Financial wrangles with a manager meant £850,000 disappeared from the band's coffers, and the highly respected Island, a label which Paterson says they were proud to be associated with because of foresighted signings, was suddenly absorbed by the mega-conglomerate Universal. Arguments over creative control with Thrash, who had traditionally engineered the material with Paterson providing DJ-based contributions, led to a split. Paterson shows genuine concern over the fact that Thrash has been creatively silent since leaving The Orb. “He needs to make some music – he's not done anything since he left The Orb. He's got an immense amount of talent and there are people out there who are still interested in hearing what he can do, but the audience for it is decreasing almost by the moment.”

But Paterson refused to let the band die, and the constant succession of albums that they've released since goes to make a true story of survival against the odds. “Not bad for a little old DJ,” he chuckles.

Among the roll call of eminent talent that Paterson has worked with across that timescale, you can include Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, who collaborated on an entire album ‘The Observer In The Star House’ and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who along with comedian Simon Day and Jimmy Cauty put together the album ‘Living In A Giant Candle Winking At God’ album under the name Knights In Transit.

Having recently released two albums which were the product of working very closely with Thomas Fehlmann, ‘Moonbuilding 2703 AD’ and ‘COW / Chill Out World!’, the latest Orb album is a highly collaborative affair with numerous contributions from names both famous and less so. Titling the LP very much in keeping with its ethos, ‘No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds’ features input numerous musicians. Hollie Cook, daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, provides vocals to the irrepressibly catchy ‘Rush Hill Road’, which echoes the bubbly reggae vibe of much celebrated Orb anthem ‘Perpetual Dawn’. Prolific session musician and latterly Pink Floyd bassist Guy Pratt, who was at school with Paterson and Youth, features largely too. Roger Eno, pianist brother of Brian, was known to Paterson from his pre-Orb days working as an A&R man at ambient label E.G., and is pitted here against the mighty bassbin rattling b-lines of Pil’s original bassist Jah Wobble. Additional supporting roles come from Gaudi, Roney FM and Michael Rendall, plus vocalists Brother Culture, Mary Pearce, Emma Gillespie, Rianna, and Andy Cain, best known for voicing Mark Ernestus and Moritz Von Oswald’s deep house gems ‘I’m Your Brother’ and ‘A New Day’.

“I wanted to try something with more musicians and more voices. More contributors essentially - similar to the conditions our first album ‘Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’ were recorded in”, explains Alex, “Thomas and I made two streamlined, techno-style albums for Kompakt which I love, but this time I wanted a change to expand the palate, and to bring in other elements that will keep people guessing and keep them confused.” Like the much celebrated ‘Ultraworld…’, the new album concludes with a space-themed epic, this time called ‘Soul Planet’, which Alex proudly proclaims is “like an album in its own right.”

‘No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds’ grew out of a show at London’s Festival Hall last Spring to promote ‘C.O.W./Chill Out World!’, which eschewed the normal spartan Orb live line up to incorporate everything from Youth painting massive canvasses on stage between plucking out basslines, poetry readings between sets and live instrumentation from a plethora of musicians. Part of this more open, social side to The Orb’s live shows surely also stems from Paterson’s move from his longstanding home in Battersea out to the relatively relaxed environs of West Norwood, still in South London but a little more of a suburban, laid back haven.

“That’s a pretty rare sound round here,” he says, picking up on the sound of a relatively distant police siren, compared to Battersea which, with a huge train station, main road, executive helipad and the flight path to Heathrow all on the doorstep, became pretty exhausting. ”It's like Vietnam happening outside the window all the time,” he admits.

Having moved out to West Norwood to be with his girlfriend, he soon discovered the Book and Record Bar, and the community of very different artists who pass through its doors on a regular basis. The plummy, faux vintage BBC voice of Roney FM, for example, which adds drama to several of the album’s tracks, came through a hook up here. Roney, he discovered, now lives in a flat in the building which was formerly the church his girlfriend had been confirmed in. Other people who he’d not seen for years had ended up here too. “A lot of bells started ringing,” he says, clearly convinced it was the right thing to do.

As well as the radio show, which sees him playing everything from Alice Cooper to obscure electronica across three hour sessions that all archived on Mixcloud, he also helps to host a monthly Cake Lab party (in conjunction with the area’s 100-stall Feast event) where some of the area’s better cake bakers get to sell their wares to the accompaniment of cutting edge sounds. Less the Great British Bake off, then, than the Great West Norwood Chill Out maybe.

Like the Roman god Janus, who was pictured with one face facing the future and another looking back to the past, Paterson plans to pore through mountains of DAT tapes of The Orb he discovered at his mother’s house when she died in November of last year. But he’s also got an entirely new project under the banner Chocolate Hills well underway. “It’s hard for me to think back to ‘No Sounds…’,” he admits at one point, “because the Chocolate Hills material is what I’ve been working on recently.”

Nevertheless, The Orb continues to roll on regardless, celebrating its 30th anniversary this month with the impressive Orbfest at the Roundhouse on June 23. As well as an all-star line up, there’s support from Leftfield, Gas, Tangerine Dream’s Ulrich Schnauss and longtime friends System 7, at what should be a fitting birthday knees up. Asked if there’s anything else he’d like to do to celebrate three decades of this legendary outfit, he can only think that a show with his old comrades Killing Joke might be fitting. “It's The Orb's 30th anniversary and apparently it's Killing Joke's 40th - although that's not quite how I remember it - so come on, let's do a gig together,” he suggests. “I'm not bothered about who goes on first and who goes on last.”
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The Orb’s ‘No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds’ album is out on Cooking Vinyl on June 22.
Check the Radio Orb show, among a host of other quality radio output, on www.wnbc.london

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Photo: Roney FM