by David Downs
“What were the skies like when you were young?”
It evokes an entire era of '90s electronic music, when dance parties were called raves, and The Orb were the undisputed leaders of the “chill-out room” — a downtempo, oft-weed-saturated section of the rave offering a counter-point to the high-energy techno and house in the main room.
After 13 albums and more than 700,000 records sold, The Orb's Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann have returned this year to 'Fluffy' - as it's colloquially known - with an even more legendary partner:
- reggae icon Lee “Scratch” Perry, the 76-year-old producer of Bob Marley, Keith Richards, George Clinton and the Beastie Boys, who helped pioneer dub in the late '60s.
A half-crazy, half-brilliant, sun-baked weirdo that Rolling Stone wagers is among the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time — Scratch still tours and records, and The Orb got him alone for six days in the East German boondocks, where they jammed and recorded to create LP The Orbserver in the Star House, released Sept. 3 on The End Records.
[Cue dreamy guitar loop and stony downtempo beats.]
“So, Mr. Perry /”
'Oh yeah, oh yeah'
“What were the skies like when you were young?" /
'The white clouds / Some of the are golden clouds / Blue, blue space / White clouds / Some of them got rain, some of them got a rainbow / and the shining sun' ...
Scratch sings in terse, heavily accented declarations alternatively sophisticated and mad. Is the famed 'Upsetter' sane?
“Um, I think he is,” said Alex Paterson, via phone from London. “He's up to mischief. He's not up to nothing. He's still got the old mischief in there. To be that mature in age is something that, totally — wow."
Perry showed up at 4 a.m. the first day of scheduled production.
See, Scratch wakes at 6 p.m. each day and works through the night.
The team plowed through six songs in two nights - enough for a planned EP - but kept going.
Lee would sleep during the day as the Orb roughed up beats, and the group would start at dusk around a campfire, sometimes using an iPhone to record Scratch improvising vocals and rhythms before going into the studio till dawn.
“We were lucky we had him for six days,” Paterson said.
The Orb knew they didn't want to do a straight reggae record with Lee. Lee said he wanted to do some disco and soul.
The Orb and Lee's re-recording of 1976 reggae track “Police and Thieves” offers the most traditional reggae. The other nine songs on the LP offer experimental afro-beat, house, disco, all of it downtempo, groovy, and punctuated with Perry's sparse verse, and braided with The Orb's impeccable production.
“Golden Clouds” is an afterthought that should have happened a long time ago, Paterson said. The Orb has remixed 1991's 'Fluffs' for years. (“Golden Clouds” remixes here)
“We're kicking ourselves,” Paterson said. “I literally [asked Lee, 'What were the skies like when you were young?'] in the outtakes. He took to it really well. With a lot of editing and balancing, there it was. Beautiful.”
The Orb's U.F.Orb LP turns 20 this year, which is a bit disconcerting, Paterson said. But experience provides perspective, as well. He yawns at this third wave of electronic music sweeping America.
“It's the same wall, it's just a different coating. Been there, done that. What's the difference? And stop calling it "dubstep" when it's got a four-four in it, you twats. That's what really fucks me off. They can't get the fucking name right for it. It's got a techno beat over the top and they're calling it dubstep.”
Paterson's definition of dubstep?
“My take on it is it's people that smoke too much skunk.”
Speaking of which heavy use of skunk (high potency UK cannabis) was synonymous with The Orb in its heyday.
“I've cut back on that. Weekends maybe. It's dodgy, too much of that, to be honest," he said. "Your brain could be used for a lot better purposes. If you want it as a party thing going out at night, it's cool. But 24-7, not cool. Stupid. ... I've lost a mate over it who got really depressed and committed suicide. It can be really, really life-threatening.”
Other Orb proclamations:
- Dub legend Mad Professor will handle the remix album of "The Orbserver..."
- The Orb has been asked to write an opera, which will debut in June 2013 at the Royal Opera House.
Entitled “Moon Building 2703 A.D.”, it's textual source is a 16th century German nursery rhyme about the moon and may be the first opera we'd want to go to.
“I had to go to my first opera to see what I was up against,” Paterson said. “I think that's what they're trying to do. Get more people in to spruce up the opera.”
- Paterson also has a weekly Internet radio show on FNOOB.com called Chewy Choosedays where he plays his favorite records from the past and present, and some rare Orb outtakes in honor of the 20th anniversary.
Lastly: "Love to S.F." Paterson said. "I hope it's nice and sunny."
The Orbserver 'Timelapse Artpiece'