Phil Hartnoll, Orbital

We caught up with Phil to get his take on dance music circa 2013 and hear how he first fell in love with electronica.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 13 Nov 2013
  • min read
Phil Hartnoll is one half of Kentish duo Orbital, a genre and era defining electronic outfit that emerged all bright eyed and bushy tailed at the height of the acid house movement in 1989.

Through a string of seminal tracks, including first release Chime, the pair went on to shape the British musical landscape forever.

Merging analogue synth sounds with rave and hip-hop influences, they quickly went from playing small local gigs to headlining stages at Glastonbury and festivals around the world.

Their 1994 Glastonbury slot is regularly cited as the festival's most memorable performance ever, and is credited with altering the traditional love-hate relationship between guitar-based indie fans and dance music aficionados.

Orbital went on to produce eight acclaimed studio albums including their latest, Wonky, which was released last year. Paul and Phil have also scored soundtracks for films such as Luis Prieto’s UK remake of Nicholas Winding Refn’s gritty crime thriller Pusher.

Today they receive a PRS for Music Heritage Award at The Garage, Highbury, London (formerly Town & Country II), where they performed their first full live gig on 18 March 1990.

We caught up with Phil to get his take on dance music circa 2013 and hear how he first fell in love with electronica.

I had a love of anything electronic. My ears used to prick up whenever I heard any. My elder brother listened to Kraftwerk and stuff like that. His tastes influenced me, especially when he played me Autobahn. The whole concept blew me away. It was the sound that really grabbed me. The synthesiser used to have a bad name for itself – god knows why it would try to emulate really instruments when it had its own voice completely, which it’s obviously found over the years.

Was there a big synth backlash in the late eighties then?
I remember doing an interview with the NME and some other traditional rock ‘n’ roll mags and sensing some defensiveness. I thought, ‘Look, chill out!’ A lot of hip-hop, electro and Hi NRG music was predominately electronic, then there was Caberet Voltaire and the Sheffield scene – there was so much happening that I didn’t understand the resistance.

What were you dabbling with then?
My brother was always messing about with guitars and drums in school and college bands but me, I loved dancing. I loved the grooves and the rhythms. When I got my first job I was spurred on to by synthesisers and drum machines, just because I wanted to have a go at doing it. Not because I thought of being in a band or anything like that.

Do you remember the first music you made?
Well, one thing led to another really, with me and my brother living in the same house and my parents moving out to run a pub round the corner. We had a huge house with loads of rooms to make noise in, so that’s what we did!

It was after our track Chime – Paul knew Jazzy M who ran a music shop that mainly stocked DJ stuff. On Friday nights DJs used to go down there and it’d be like an auction. He’d get a few white labels in and play them there and you’d see these DJs putting their hand up asking for copies. Then he put our cassette copy of Chime now and the response was amazing. Everyone wanted a copy but they couldn’t because it wasn’t even out yet! He wanted to start a label up and that became his first release, which really pleased us, coming from the independent world.

So Chime took off overnight?
Well, when Jazzy M was onto his 3,000th white label he decided to license the track to Pete Tong’s FFRR label. Nothing had been signed with anybody or anything and we were really disappointed at the time because we thought we were part of this growing independent thing. London Records released it without us signing anything and it went straight in at number 17 in the charts. We found ourselves on Top of the Pops without a contract signed.

What happened next?
We weren’t in a very good position – it’s all politics – so we asked London Records to look at us more like a band. We wanted a career out of it. Chime was very dancefloor orientated but then you get a track like Satan, which was much more hip-hop based. We wanted to be a band so they gave us an album deal and that’s how it all started. They never released us from the deal so we just carried on with them.

Chime is still one of your best loved tracks. Are you surprised by that?
I can’t see it myself!

You can’t say that!
It’s a very good friend, because it opened a door that never got closed, but it’s not my favourite. It obviously had something that was distinctive. I see it like a photograph – it’s a very distinctive track that people can latch on to and remember where they were when they first heard it.

Do you think that helped the track to go on to define UK dance music in the nineties?
Well, it was English acid. A lot of the stuff you were getting at the time was American so there was a big difference - it was us trying to do acid house!

How did you make it?
It was done very quickly. My brother Paul did it actually. We’d just bought a new four-track and we were just testing out how we could use it as a mixer to record onto my dad’s cassette deck. Everyone was waiting for him to go out on a Friday night so we could use it. Paul then knocked it up in about 10 minutes – boom! I think that was quite crucial in making the track – we weren’t really thinking about it. The creative god was in, if you like – we weren’t conscious of the creative process. As soon as you become conscious of it you start intellectualising about what you’ve done and it all goes wrong. It was so instinctual and fast because we didn’t have long and everyone wanted to go to the pub.

What kind of musical legacy has the nineties dance scene left on British culture?
Have you heard Lady Gaga?! Hello? You couldn’t get much bigger than Calvin Harris and EDM has become American pop. That’s the legacy of nineties dance music.

What do you think of that?
Fantastic! It’s about time! We battled for this.