For all intents and purposes, the Orb created
Two Brits — Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty — cofounded the group in 1989 but parted ways in 1990, with Paterson maintaining the name and keeping the group alive via satellite members, innovative collaborations, and 12 studio albums to date.
Swiss-born, Berlin-based producer Thomas Fehlmann was the first and most consistent satellite member. He's been so involved with the Orb's development that the term "satellite" is just celestial poeticism at this point. The pair met in London in 1989. "It took a day or so for our [working] relationship to venture into friendship," Fehlmann says via phone from Berlin. "These were the early days of the techno-house 'revolution,' I'd like to call it."
After offering his techno sensibilities to the track "Outlands," Fehlmann worked sporadically with Paterson on various tracks. But they've been "pretty uninterrupted" collaborators over the past 12 years.
The Orb adheres to at least one principle of production: physical contact. "That's a crucial point because we decided a long time ago that we're not going to work through file sharing," Fehlmann says. "We make the Orb music when we sit together in the studio... We pretty much exclude the outside world from what we do so we don't get distracted. We care for some tea and some good food and make some music."
This old school, humanistic approach to production both complements and contradicts The Orb’s music. The group's purely synth and sampled style, its sci-fi themes and spacey melodies often sound distinctly un-human. NASA transmissions can be heard scattered throughout the album U.F.Orb and on the most recent recent Moonbuilding 2703 AD, an eventful album with, four “long-ass” tracks. And yet, despite the way Orb's music seems fixated on technology, the artists still rely on the authenticity of human contact.
To Fehlmann, technological advancement "has to be taken with a pinch of salt."
What seems to be his biggest beef with the conveniences of contemporary technology is that it stifles creativity. Rather than challenge themselves to develop something fresh, many musicians are content to reproduce something safe and familiar. "It's more re-creating than creating something new," Fehlmann says of today's music. Its another reason he's so glad he gets a chance to collaborate with an artist like Patterson.
"The oddity of such a character as Alex Patterson – working with him, for me, is just an endless source of inspiration," Fehlmann says. "I don’t work as lightly or as speedily if I work on my own. It’s great to work with humans. At the same time, I like happy accidents, when the machine starts doing things that we don’t expect it to do."
Fehlmann is not bitter with technology, but stresses the importance of the connection to the man behind the machine. "Look at Brian Eno’s technique with music that recreates itself within a certain framework that the programmer has given the instruments – that’s also interesting. But it comes down to the person who actually set up the parameters in which the instrument is creating sounds."
This is the fundamental message of Moonbuilding 2703 AD: the clash between creation and consumption, innovation and derivation.
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"The important part [of the title] is the building. Actually doing something, not leaning back and escaping. That is something we’d like to impart on all interested people – that the creation [of music] is as important as its consumption."
In their 50s, Fehlmann and Paterson still pack houses of gyrating bodies with their eclectic ambiance. And it's still essential to them to be there in person to see the reaction of their audience. "We see the social mingling and the social confrontation as an integral part," Fehlmann says. "So we like to go to America and play 18 shows on this leg of the tour and don't do it digitally via a Boiler Room set."