With a special 25th Anniversary gig coming up in Brixton this weekend, iDJ finds Alex Paterson in a nostalgic mood...
"They say the older you get, the more you remember the past," Alex Paterson muses down the phone from his West Norwood home. "You get recall, and it's quite good. I remember things from the punk days I thought I'd never remember. Only yesterday, I was speaking to somebody who'd heard me DJ before a Killing Joke gig in the early 80s. He said I was playing all these old Shep Pettibone mastermixes from Kiss FM in New York, which I used to do just to wind the audience up. I thought it would be amusing."
Paterson is one of electronic music's survivors. One of the key figures behind the ambient house revolution that developed between late 1988 and 1993, the Battersea-born DJ/producer has lost none of his notorious cheekiness. He's always an entertaining interviewee, even if he does have a tendency to wander off the point, or randomly change direction mid-sentence. We're supposed to be discussing the 25th anniversary of The Orb's debut album, The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, and the special gig he's putting on to mark the occasion. As usual, though, he's reticent to stay on any subject for too long, offering up a mix of anecdotes, random thoughts, jokey asides, rants about the gentrification of Battersea ("It's supposedly progress, just like turning the old South London Hospital into a branch of Tesco," he complains) and well-practised promotional lines.
iDJ, though, is keen to keep on track, so we ask how he feels about Aventures Beyond The Ultraworld, a quarter of a century after it was initially released. There's an uncharacteristic pause before he answers: "Very satisfied. It has far exceeded any expectations I had for it when I first did it. The album was a group effort, mainly with mates from London, though obviously I did go to work with Thomas Fehlmann in Berlin. That helped me and Thomas develop a working relationship that's still going now".
Paterson initially founded The Orb at the tail end of 1988 with friend Jimmy Cauty, scoring a major underground hit with the preposterously titled A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld (Loving You). Marketed as "ambient house for the E generation", it paved the way for The KLF's legendary ambient house album Chill Out, which Paterson also worked on (uncredited), and the chill-out boom that followed.
There's no doubt, though, that Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld was ambient house's artistic peak (despite the obvious qualities of Chill Out). It would go on to become one of the best selling electronic albums of the early 90s, soundtracking countless post-club sessions during the rave revolution.
"Everyone thinks that …Ultraworld was a big hit, but when it first came out it only stayed in the charts for a week," Paterson remembers. "It just vanished, but then returned to the Top 100 a month or two later, and was there for years. By the time we did the remix album, The Aubrey Mixes, we were able to shift 50,000 copies in one day, which paved the way for our second album, U.F.Orb, to top the album charts."
A classic revisited
The success of Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld was due, in part, to the album's then unique blend of head-nodding grooves (often recycled from old hip-hop and dub reggae records), horizontal ambience, and all manner of tongue-in-cheek spoken word samples. During the production process, Paterson worked with a number of notable collaborators, including old Killing Joke pal Martin ‘Youth' Glover, future chill-out maestro Tom Green (AKA Another Fine Day), German techno producer Thomas Fehlmann (now Paterson's right-hand man in The Orb), and former Gong guitarist Steve Hillage.
As part of the 25th anniversary celebrations, Paterson is gathering together these musicians for a very special Orb gig at Electric Brixton this Friday (29 July). They will play Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld in its entirety, ably assisted on drums by Paul Cook, formerly of The Sex Pistols. "He's a lovely bloke, and nothing like you read about in the newspapers," Paterson enthuses. "He's the first one to offer you a cup of tea when you walk into the room. He's a gentleman."
During the ambient house boom of the early 90s, The Orb became famous for their live shows. They wowed Glastonbury numerous times, and even released a successful double live album – a nod to Paterson's love of progressive rock – entitled Live 93.
Intriguingly, the first Orb live shows were small, improvised affairs at a little-known venue in Clapham around 1990, and consisted of Paterson, Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy improvising with drum machines, decks, guitars and synths. It's perhaps fitting, then, that the latter two will take centre stage on Saturday. "The early gigs with Steve and Miquette were very serious in their own way," Paterson remembers. "Me and Steve had a very strong relationship for a few years. Musically, we hit it off straight away. He ended up doing two tracks on the first Orb album, and I ended up doing three tracks on the first System 7 album, including the debut single, Sunburst. I helped give him the confidence to move on, and push him in the right direction."
Our time is starting to run out, so I ask Paterson what else he's up to. He quickly slips into promotional mode to discuss a couple of projects dear to his heart. "I've started a monthly Sunday event at the Book & Record Bar in West Norwood, called Cakelab," he says. "It's free to get in, and you can get booze, coffee and cake. I also do a live show on WNBC.london, which is every Thursday from 12 midday until 6pm."
iDJ congratulates Paterson on his smooth plug, which sets him off again. "I'll just mention that we also have a new single out this week, the Prins Thomas remixes of Alpine," he says. "We've done some remixes for him, as well, which will be out later in the year on Smalltown Supersound."
Words: Matt Anniss
The Orb play The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld live at Electric Brixton on Friday 29 July