The Return of William Orbit
"This is more of a party record than the previous ones," says William Orbit of his new album, My Oracle Lives Uptown. "It's not a serious, po-faced record, it's not ambient - although it has its ambient moments. One of the things about being eclectic is that people don't know what they are going to get. But I would say that it's upbeat with a bit of glitter on it."
William Orbit has been in high demand as a producer and remixer for well over a decade, most famously working with Madonna on her 1998 album Ray Of Light, as well as Blur, Britney Spears, Sugababes, Pink and scores of other artists. Consequently, his own music has often taken a back seat, with long gaps between releases. His last solo album, 2006's Hello Waveforms, was his first in six years, and only his second in 11. This recent renewal of activity came out of a radical rethink of his working methods.
"I don't have insane deadlines now because I gave up producing," Orbit reveals. "I haven't been involved with anybody for a few years - although I'm constantly getting asked - which gives me a chance to work on my own stuff.
"I got into a state of overwork after the Madonna thing. I shouldn't have, but I see this all the time with other artists. I had a bit of success, made some money and then proceeded to work my ass off. It's like a drug - you keep working so you don't have to think about where you are going. But the penny dropped and now I'm doing the records I wanted to make."
My Oracle Lives Uptown, Orbit's eighth under his own name, was recorded at his own Guerilla Studios, in a succession of home locations since the late 90s. Home from 2002-5 was the Leonard Hotel, off Oxford Street, where at "fantastic rates" he was able to rent two top-floor suites and a floor in an adjoining building.
"Kids now can sit on a pile of dirty clothes in the corner with a laptop making beautiful tracks. Personally, I've got a nice swivel chair, a table and a couple of Macs," he laughs. "But that's all. The album was done over the last ten years, but didn't really start to ramp up until recently. Some things were ideas and seeds that I'd long wanted to realise and get right."
Growing up in a household where there was a passion for classical music, Orbit began his musical life as a drummer before switching to guitar. "Then when I was 16, I had a go on a synth for the first time and was hooked," he recalls. A period bumming around in the late 70s, including living in Holland, left him frustrated. "I dreamed of being involved with sound but didn't know how to do it," he says.
He first started experimenting with tape recorders in a squat in an empty school building on the Harrow Road, where he first set up Guerilla Studios in 1979. Into the 80s, he formed the group Torch Song with vocalist Laurie Mayer. Torch Song were eventually signed up by IRS and the advance helped Orbit buy studio equipment. He decamped to Little Venice where he managed Guerilla Studios as a commercial concern from 1982. It became a local studio for Mute records, where Orbit initially did 12" remixes and also worked on his own material in down-time. He points out that Guerilla, now located in Hoxton Square, has been running for nearly 30 years in various locations, making it, for him, "a very real place to record, but also a state of mind".
Orbit's music has ranged in style from the progressive House of his early 90s group Bassomatic, to the mix of songs and exotic ambience of his Strange Cargo series of the 80s and 90s, to his electronic reworkings of classical compositions, Pieces In A Modern Style from 2000. The banging Ferry Corsten remix of Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings" from that album became a surprise number four hit that year.
On My Oracle Lives Uptown, Orbit's signature sound - sleek and lush, but leaving a cool slipstream in its wake - is immediately recognisable. Within it one can detect traces of influences like the analogue electronica of Tangerine Dream, the textural mood pieces and pop unorthodoxy of David Bowie's Low, and a fascination with the sonics of dub.
Helped out here and there by guest musicians - including rising jazz star Byron Wallen on trumpet - Orbit plays keyboards, guitar, bass and samples. Most of tracks on the album feature vocals, even if they are only textures in the mix. But all the tracks, even the more ambient ones, have a concision about them and seem to follow a song-like structure.
"There is an architecture there," Orbit confirms. "It needs some strong shapes holding it up just like a building. That's essential for me, but I like the idea that it's not always obvious."
It's most obvious on the multilayered electro-pop of "Purdy", with its rhythmic grid patterns that nod towards House music and Kraftwerk. And the spangly "White Night", the album's most fully-realised song, certainly has a bit of glitter on it, with a lead vocal by Laurie Mayer and backing vocals by Karen Poole and Sabrina Chyld. "I enjoyed doing that track because I didn't get too fussy with it," says Orbit.
Although his music is largely instrumental, Orbit particularly loves to work with singers. And their placement within the track is planned with a remixer's ear for shifts of perspective, of taking peripheral elements and forefronting them so they become the focus of the track. On "Optical Illusions", Poole's contribution is just one vocodered line, "Call my name", which could have been the hook of a dance tune, but set amongst acoustic guitar chords and melancholic, layered keyboards it takes on a peculiar poignancy.
The beatless "Drift So Far" is "more of a bleak song," Orbit reckons. Here, after a minute, Mayer's voice drifts weightlessly across the soundfield for a single verse before disappearing again, while Orbit's trademark backgrounded, minor key string chords give it a three dimensional sense of depth.
Although My Oracle Lives Uptown is probably William Orbit's most immediate album, it's so subtly layered that it only reveals itself fully after a number of plays. And like his other solo albums, it will surely be resistant to the ageing process. His vision is idiosyncratic and original enough to not to have to try to play catch-up with anyone else, which gives his music a curiously timeless feel.
"I've actually tried to sound like certain types of genre," Orbit admits. "Many times. I can't do it, though. I don't know why, it just doesn't happen that way. And I don't want to. I like music that stands up without having to just remind you of your first date, to be linked to memories. I'd like to think I do tracks that stand up as long-term music."