The Orb: the interview

Alex Paterson talks Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Tokyo pubs

The Orb: the interview

Alex Paterson with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Photo by Tom Thiel

'"Keep smoking the weed, you'll remember everything, boy!" "Okay, then!"' Yeah, Alex Paterson has had a few doobies in his time. As the driving force behind seminal ambient dance unit The Orb, it's practically a job requirement – and one that left the 52-year-old producer particularly well equipped when he found himself collaborating with one of the collie herb's most famous exponents. This year's The Orbserver in The Star House album, which Paterson produced with frequent Orb co-pilot Thomas Fehlmann, features vocals from none other than Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the legendary – and legendarily loopy – dub-reggae producer. Listen to it once, and you might wonder why nobody thought to do this sooner, so naturally do the two fit together. Yet when The Orb head to Japan later this month, they'll be playing without their star vocalist – not for the first time this year, they've literally just missed him...

Have you been in England for the whole summer?
It's kind of the usual thing now: you go off and you do something at the weekend somewhere. It could be in England, it could be abroad. By and large it's in Europe, though. Since 9/11, I've kind of put my foot down and made very, very rare visits to the United States. I think I'm going to start embarking again, really, because there's people that are saying, 'Look, come back and play', and I can't really just use the government as an excuse not to go. [Pauses.] I could. [Laughs.] That'd be very valid to use it as well.

So you're going back?
That's going to be starting again. After probably a six year break, from America, we're hoping to do [a tour] in January or February. And start off with a really unique one, actually: playing with a reformed Jefferson Airplane. I think somebody's come up with a bright idea about this, because we did some stuff with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.

When you say you'd be playing with them, what would that involve?
They want me to do an ambient landscape sound, and then I would imagine it would be right up that kind of experimental music stylee… the word I'm looking for is 'improvisation'. A bit like Keith Tippett, that kind of, 'Off we go!' [Laughs.] I enjoy those kinds of challenges anyway. It's something to look forward to.

I understand that you had to do quite a lot of the Lee Perry album on the fly…
The very beginnings, yeah – the actual beats, the rhythms that he had to do his vocals to, were all really… blimey, it was like two days. We really don't know how we did it, we just did it: you go into this zone, and eleven tracks have suddenly appeared. And then we took the whole thing back to Berlin, and spent a good four, five sessions – it wasn't all done in a weekend. If that had been the case, we would've been putting it out in February this year. It took some time to mix it and all, and get the right balance with the vocals.

Do you think it benefitted from that initial spontaneity?
Yeah, because what we had was a bunch of vocals that all meant something different each take. We had to take the really good ones that had the purpose, the meaning, and work around that. The beautiful thing was, Volker [Schaner] – who's a lovely man – came out to film Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, because he's making a film about him at the moment. So we just asked him kindly, could we use anything that he got? Because he [Lee Perry] was just singing everywhere. It was like having a little bird on his shoulder, tweeting away, but all in this kind of Jamaican patois, giving it large and making you feel really funny, and then next minute he's into 'Jah Rastafari' and 'Haile Selassie' and blessing things in the field. Just constantly. And as luck would have it, he was miked up for this film, and it was all done digitally, so we just took the field mic recordings and took them into the studio, and started adding these other dimensions to the tunes.

How did you find actually working with him?
He's very eccentric, as you're probably going to ask me. He loves his wife very much so, but he's made her his manager, and in many ways that can be very complicated when you're trying to do business with him, in terms of, 'Okay, we've done an album and we're going to release it next September. Please clear the decks so we can do some gigs.' That never happened, unfortunately. We put that down to – maybe on both parts – management just didn't talk to each other enough. But then we found out that he was actually doing festivals here. He did a festival the same weekend as I did, up in Yorkshire: Beat-Hearder. I was playing on the Saturday night and he was on the Sunday night…

You're not going to overlap when you're in Japan, are you?
When's he in Japan?

He's here about a week before you are.
Well, there you go. No. Good for him. [Laughs.] Brilliant. It's all good fun. Although he could be doing the dubs and singing along to them – you never know… That's the kind of thing that was happening all through the summer, but we didn't get these gigs. What we did realise was that we had a magical week with him, on his own in a studio, making a beautiful album. And we know that he likes it, we know we like it, and there's a really good chance that we could do a second, more oblique album – in the dub world, where people expected us to go, but not dub as you know it. It would be something like the Missing Brazilians or something like that from On-U Sound: very, very odd, jazzy-type, eclectic dub. And he rose to all those challenges: when we talked about doing the album, we specifically said that we're not going to do a reggae album. The heart and soul of the album might come from there, but the actual album isn't going to be classed as a reggae album.

People are describing it as the best Orb album in a long time. Would you agree with that?
Mmmm… I've got a soft spot for [1994 album] Pomme Fritz. I think Pomme Fritz is probably the best album we've ever done, and it's been sort of scraped off the earth. We released an album, it got to number 6 in the charts, and loads of people really hated it – which made me, as a punk, like it more. I've always been in love with that album, and it's now not an album. If you look at the 13 studio albums that The Orb have done, I bet Pomme Fritz isn't on it with the journalists when they write that crap. As I pointed out at the time – and it really pissed people off – the first album was a double album, and the second album was 72 minutes, bang on the button, with a 40 minute single. We just wanted to reverse that psychology and do a 41 minute album, and say, 'What's the difference?' But people didn't get that. They wanted another album of 70 minutes of music rather than 41. Now we're stuck around the hour mark, and everybody just doesn't bother moaning about anything. So that's all right. By the way. [Laughs.]

Is there anything you're looking forward to doing while you're here?
It's the Aldgate pub in Shibuya that I enjoy the most, actually, when I go there now. Just a cold pint of Guinness, and you get a good game of football in there. And I've been known to be one of the only people to be allowed to go behind [the bar] and choose records, rather than request them.

That's a privilege and a half.
Yeah it is, really. And he [owner Hiroyuki Hanaka] always bows. He's really sweet when I meet him, and we like each other because I buy a drink off him. I've met many funny people there.

The Orb Japan Tour 2012, October 20 at Eleven, Nishi-Azabu. The Orb featuring Lee Scratch Perry present ‘The Orbserver In The Star House’ is out now on Beat Records/Cooking Vinyl

By James Hadfield
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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