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Chinese Whispers: Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll talks 8:58


PAUL HARTNOLL by steve double-1

Last October, Britain shed a tear for iconic duo, Orbital, as brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll announced they had split for the final time. Over the course of 25 years, the pair had gone from playing the clubs of Kent to the opening ceremony of the London Paralympic Games, and – despite a four year hiatus in the mid-’00s – seemed set for a bright future following the release of their 2012 album Wonky.

“I didn’t intend for that to be the last Orbital album, it’s just the creative process kind of broke down after that really,” Paul tells Data Transmission. “There’s lots of different reasons that I just think it would be a bit crass to go into, but y’know let’s just say it didn’t work out.” But what may seem a loss to many, Paul saw as an opportunity; it was decision time – what he would call an 8:58 moment…

“That’s a thing that’s always stuck with me since I was a kid onwards,” explains Paul, “I’d always make my mind up when you’re just about to go into school, or go into college, or go into a job that you can’t stand. And it’s that sort of 8:58 moment of ‘Am I gonna keep doing this? Why am I doing this? Is it really what I want to do?’”

And thus, as Orbital came to an end, Paul adopted 8:58 as the name of his new project, dropping a self-titled, debut LP at the end of March. Although Paul admits the album could potentially have been released by Orbital, he insists his approach was different to that which he took on Wonky. “I’m trying to get back into more film and TV scores, which is something I love doing, so on this album I was trying to explore more of that,” he tells us. It’s obvious too; each track on 8:58 has a narrative feel, evolving through peaks and troughs. Paul compares the sound to Orbital’s 1996 album, In Sides. “[It] kind of tells a story and drags you in in a different way … more film score, less dancefloor,” he says. “I know I’ve kind of danced them all up for playing live, so I’ve kind of got the best of both worlds now.”

In keeping with this filmic direction, Paul recruited actor Cillian Murphy for vocal parts on two tracks, ‘8:58’ and ‘The Clock’. Having worked together on the BBC 2 series, Peaky Blinders (Paul writes the score, whilst Cillian plays the lead, Brummy crime boss, Tommy Shelby), the actor was an obvious choice according to Hartnoll. We probe further. “Just go and ask any woman that’s listened to him speak,” Paul chuckles, “they just love his voice. Just watch women melt when he speaks, d’you know what I mean, with this kind of soft Irish accent, they love it. He’s got such a fabulous voice.

“I mean basically I needed an actor to read that out; I wanted someone with a good voice who could put some feeling into it,” he adds, correcting us on our pronunciation of Cillian (it’s a hard C). Talk of the actor brings us neatly round to Paul’s plans to potentially run a theatrical live 8:58 show. The concept, he explains, is to create an office space onstage, dominated by a large clock. Paul meanwhile, would play from a desk, with additional performers either side. “It’s what I do all day long,” he says, “it’s funny, y’know, I’m kind of mocking the life I’ve always tried to leave behind; the one that I don’t like. I sit there in my studio behind a desk and think ‘I thought you were trying to get away from this?’”.

Paul confesses the show is still only an idea at the moment; the reality of losing the world famous Orbital title has struck hard. “It’s quite bizarre really, ’cause if you change your brand name it changes everything,” he muses. “I’m not boiling it down to a product or anything, but you know what I mean, if you change the name of a band, people don’t know what they’re coming to. We’ve basically cancelled my, if you like, production tour … people just weren’t coming. The promoters were all: ‘Great, let’s postpone it until the autumn’ or something like that. [It’s] a shame ’cause there was a handful of really dedicated people who were really looking forward to it.” It’s not all doom and gloom though, Paul’s festival calendar is still looking healthy, including appearances at the Isle of Wight Festival and DT favourite, Secret Garden Party.

We steer the conversation back to the current matter of Paul’s new 8:58 album; with tracks ranging from futuristic tech house and summertime rave to lumbering, cinematic monsters, Data Transmission is keen to know if Paul’s interest in time includes celebrating his past. “I think sort of, well it’s accumulative isn’t it,” he replies. “When I first started making music I hadn’t made music before, but now I’ve done it for, y’know, actually professionally for 25 years. So you’ve got 25 years to draw on.” Paul pauses, letting out a contemplative sigh. “Electronic music is often under the microscope a lot more because it’s a bit… it’s kind of quite new isn’t it, y’know? Especially this kind of electronic music that came out of disco, it’s kind of its own little funny thing, and people are kind of, quite observant to if you’re referring to older things or not. It is odd.”

Paul continues: “’Cause if you did what a rock band did, nine times out of ten, people would just say ‘Well you can’t do that!’ What I mean is, if you used the same guitars, the same drum kit, the same drum sound and the same vocalist on every track, people would say: ‘Oh thats mad!’ You’re kind of expected to mix it up and change everything on every track with electronic music, and often you do because it’s kind of what you wanna do, it’s kind of the fun of it … you do just kind of reference all sorts don’t you? Something new and the old as well.”


Being the music nerds that we are, Paul’s response reminds Data Transmission of Simon Reynold’s book, Retromania, which discusses how modern culture is obsessively nostalgic. Does Paul agree that modern technology has effectively collapsed history by giving us access the past? Is that is that even a bad thing? “I don’t think it’s a blessing or a curse, it’s just what is,” lays out Paul. “Things change; things change all the time, nothing stays the same. We’ve got access to history now, so y’know what they always say: history is written by the victors … The only victors when I first used to go to HMV were the big rock bands, because they were the ones who won, they were the most popular. They were the sort of democratised band, so all you could buy in your local record shop was a load of old, middle-of-the-road crap.

“When you wanted something new and cutting edge; when you wanted all the records you could hear on John Peel, you couldn’t get them because they weren’t available,” he adds, recalling his days spent hunting down film scores by the likes of Lalo Shifrin (Enter The Dragon, Dirty Harry) and John Barry (James Bond). “Now all you’ve gotta do is click on Spotify, YouTube, and it’s all there,” he continues. “I would say, on the one hand I love it, because now my music is accessible to anybody at any time; and Orbital aren’t a super rock band or anything like that, we could of easily disappeared out of the traces of history, but, because we’re available we’ve not! But of course with that comes exactly what you just said, that people can imitate the past, and culturally it means the past becomes the present, y’know. … There’s no past and present because it’s meaningless.”

Paul believes there is always something to be taken from the past. He refers to maniacal duo, Autechre, whose attempts, he says, to dispel that idea have had interesting – if not always pleasing – results. “They’re true experimentalists,” Paul enthuses, “but that’s no good. You can’t be truly experimental in music all the time, otherwise we don’t have it; we don’t have the joy of music anymore.” Paul mentions a personal favourite of his, Northumbrian folk band The Unthanks, who appear on 8:58 track, ‘A Forest’. He finds their blend of the ancient and the modern enthralling. “They’re popular because they are original; in their strange, mirrored way of doing old fashioned music in a new way, it’s kind of created something new.”

As the interview draws to a close, Paul concludes with musings on the oddities of time, in particular, how his album track ‘Cemetery’ has a classic new groove feel, yet the singer who features on it, 19-year-old Fable, wasn’t even born when Paul started his career. “Music is a Chinese Whisper,” he says, “we copy and echo everything that everybody else does; otherwise it wouldn’t be music, it would be noise. The reason it’s music is cause we recognise it as such, because we’ve all decided we like these twelve notes in a scale and we like our rhythms to be regular; within that framework we just copy each other. But occasionally, when someone strives to do something just fun or interesting, then all of a sudden something original comes of it.”

Watch the video to 8:58’s ‘The Clock’ below and head over to iTunes to grab a copy of the full album. Plus you can keep up-to-date with the project via the 8:58 Facebook page or catch him live at Isle Of Wight Festival, Secret Garden Party and Beat Herder this summer.

Photos: Steve Double

Words: Ben Hindle