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Photo by Rankin
British musician and record producer William Orbit is well known for bringing a Ray Of Light in Madonna‘s career back in 1998 and more recently for creating an Alien on Britney Spears‘ latest album Britney Jean. What often goes unsaid is the influence he had in establishing progressive house and ambient music as a genre that could embrace the pop world and, at the same time, be as emotional as a symphony. William made his latest album, Strange Cargo 5, available on SoundCloud and it features singer-songwriter Beth Orton and longtime friend/collaborator Laurie Mayer, who encouraged him to build the first of his many Guerilla Studios. It was within those walls that William started remixing The Cure, Peter Gabriel, Prince and Depeche Mode before venturing on countless collaborations including U2, Blur, Beck, All Saints and Pink. What we call ‘recording studio’ is for William Orbit a longing, a place to call home and a laboratory, where molecules of sound are accurately created and filtered through his witty personality and gentle sensibility. After all, only an experienced musical chemist like him could have arranged Pieces in a Modern Style, an album where classical pieces by Beethoven, Vivaldi and Handel are given a good dose of electronica. As he enjoys a cup of coffee in LA, Hunger TV has an in-depth chat with the talented musician about his 35 years-long career, the ups and downs of success and the only collaboration that can equal the ones with Queen of pop: a Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury unreleased track.
HELLO WILLIAM, IT’S GOOD TO HAVE YOU ON HUNGER TV!
Hi there! It’s a pleasure, I like Hunger‘s “visually and culturally hungry” thing and I love Rankin; he’s such a character and a unique man. One of the last times I saw him he was taking photos of me. He had me emerging from some sort of chest-of-drawers with a plastic dog on my head or something like that. The very last time, was at a party that I threw for Madonna at China White. My girlfriend had obtained a beautiful beaded xxx Jean Paul Gaultier kilt, before kilts briefly became all the rage I hasten to add, and M said that if I wore it that night, she’d give me all the royalties for the song we were working on that day. Well I didn’t hold her to her bet, bless her, but wore the kilt with pride. I noticed that I was constantly being goosed by the girls… and Rankin! There are certain people like Rankin and Will.i.am that we have to cherish. I hear people say: “there are no popstars anymore” but when they look back 20 years from now and start to say the same thing about the current artists in 2034, they might proclaim that “it was great in 2014, why can’t we have it like that now?”
YOU RECENTLY RELEASED STRANGE CARGO 5 ON SOUNDCLOUD. HOW DOES IT FEEL TO RELEASE AN ALBUM DIGITALLY AND SHARE YOUR MUSIC IN THIS WAY?
First of all, well done for spotting it! Yes, I’ve put it out in the lowest possible profile. Music business is changing so fast that I decided to just do my own thing; you’ll drive yourself mad otherwise, unless you are an adventure capitalist but it’s creativity that we are talking about. You do what you do, hoping that people will come around to it eventually. I’m really good at making music but I’m really bad at selling it; I just cannot do that. It has been such a disappointment in the past, marketing and press wise, with the records I’ve done on my own and it always left me thinking “why did I do that?” I feel terrible afterwards and though I understand that you have to make a living, I know that it’s not going to come from my music and selling downloads so, why going through the indignity? Also, the professional reviewing elite don’t really apply and what I do is to see what fans say. They are brilliant and always very polite. If you read through the lines of what they are saying about your music, you’ll find out whether you’ve done a decent track or not. That’s what fans do, they’re going to let you know in a way that is impossible to challenge. It can hurt sometimes but it’s the best way to release this kind of music and in due course you’ll see what happens. Water From A Vine Leaf is a track that I released many years ago and everybody is talking about it all over the internet but, believe me, when that came out, it did very silently so I’m glad that you found out about Strange Cargo 5. The response I’m getting is certainly fulfilling. You see, I’ve just released a symphony and it only got 6 listens but I’m happy. I’m going to be living somehow, I’m perfectly capable and of course producing artist pays well.
THE ALBUM HAS BEEN RECORDED ALL OVER THE WORLD AND IN SEVERAL OF YOUR GUERILLA STUDIOS. WAS THIS INTENTIONAL OR IT’S JUST YOUR MODUS OPERANDI?
Going around the world is my life, I’m a nomadic and I have so many studios. As a result of that, to answer your question as you’ve asked it, I didn’t go around the world specifically to make the album. I travel and make music, in Palm Spring or Las Vegas or you name it! There’s always a studio everywhere I go and I’m always in them with these pieces of music with no identity yet. I love studios, they are very valuable places but there are also homes and laptops. Somehow I always feel at home whenever I’m in a studio.
WAS THERE ANYTHING IN PARTICULAR THAT YOU WANTED TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS ALBUM?
I wouldn’t be able to make the album without my longtime friend and collaborator Laurie Mayer and that is absolutely true. I was actually in a quite difficult place because of a drinking issue that I overcame and I had a management company that I left. She basically got me healthy again and got me feeling inspired. She’s somebody I write with so it was important. There’s also Rico Conning, another member of our little group, and I’m really enjoying making a robot with him. He has been developing this musical robot and we’re planning to use it on stage in London in the autumn, it’s a big deal and a technical challenge for us; literally time consuming. We’re going to film it on YouTube in June so all sorts of interesting thing are happening that keep me busy. I’m also writing a book but I’m keeping this to myself at the moment because if I mention it on my Facebook page, people wouldn’t believe me. They know me for somebody that works with Britney or Madonna but there’s room for everything in my world. The book is biographical in a way but it’s more of a social commentary. I’ve been writing and writing compulsively and I’ve never published anything so, let’s see how it goes. As for music I’m working with Queen on an unreleased Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury track, Rico has done a beautiful remix, he’s so talented. They had a track they recorded in the early 80s but nothing happened to the song and it didn’t make it down to any release. I’ve developed it with Brian May who added more guitars and it has been an enjoyable process; they were such incredible singers. When you work on a track with a vocalist, you really start to get inside of his or her soul.
I GUESS THE VOICE IS A PECULIAR ELEMENT WHEN YOU DECIDE TO START A COLLABORATION OR PRODUCTION…
Absolutely, I get so into it. It’s the best thing in the world and, probably, the first thing human beings ever did that you could call music, had to do with either the voice or banging a stick to a wall. It’s a fundamental core to music creativity. The voice does something and when you like it, obviously you listen to it over and over again, especially if you are paying attention to details as I do. Bono, Madonna, Britney, Michael Jackson or Freddie Mercury are all so special and they didn’t get so big just because they put on great shows; they got to be that way because their voices are unique: you hear two words and you know who is singing. This is fascinating to me because you get so much emotional information just from that. When I have the voice and melody in place, I’m the happiest person in the world! On the other hand, I can’t stand the marketing’s bullshit, I’m really bad at it, it’s probably the reason why I’m not more famous than I am. I don’t disdain it by the way, it is pop music we’re doing and it’s always been that way. You can’t put on a circus from nothing, you got to tell everybody, it’s important but I’m just not able to do it myself.
IT MUST HAVE BEEN OVERWHELMING WHEN YOUR PRODUCTION WITH MADONNA ON RAY OF LIGHT RESULTED IN 4 GRAMMY AWARDS…
After the Ray Of Light experience, success tore me up to be honest. The force that makes you strive to do better becomes even more powerful and you don’t need anybody to motivate or question you. This is why I’m happy to do my own things and even when you just put something out on SoundCloud, I feel exactly the same sort of fear of failure and hunger for excellence. The amount of time you have to spend promoting music is enormous. It’s good if it works for you or, if you are like Katy Perry for instance, you have to go and promote your work otherwise it loses the whole point. If you do a symphony on the other hand, there’s no point in promoting it because you can’t persuade people to like it. This is why I really love doing the Facebook page, it’s a very good platform and it integrates with SoundCloud and I love it. I just hope that we won’t see adverts on there. Interacting with fans is great and surreal. I wake up in the morning, check their comments and they always say interesting things about music and they also criticize. It’s a great source of information, I don’t like Twitter as much.
I PAINT WHAT I SEE IS A TRACK AS BEAUTIFUL AS BETH ORTON’S VOCALS. I KNOW YOU LIKE DRAWING, WORKING ON CARTOONS AND PHOTOGRAPHY. WHAT DOES INSPIRE YOUR MUSIC VISUALLY?
Light. The way it plays on things. This is how I see music, it’s totally visual. The context informs the music like a candle in a painting; the way it is placed and what the light reflects. I often start with a visual image in my head and music forms around that. In my mind they are the same.
THE TRACK MY FRIEND MORPHEUS IS ADAPTED FROM THE ARIA “AH! NON CREDEA MIRARTI” CONTAINED IN VINCENZO BELLINI’S OPERA LA SONNAMBULA. IT MEANS “I DID NOT BELIEVE YOU WOULD FADE SO SOON, OH FLOWER!” AND IT IS INSCRIBED ON BELLINI’S GRAVE. WHAT WOULD YOU WRITE ON YOURS?
Oh gosh! I hope I won’t be forgotten but let me think… It would probably be “I Am Still Here”
BEFORE YOU BECAME A MUSICIAN YOU HAVE DONE MANY DIFFERENT JOBS AND LIVED I. SQUATS ALL AROUND EUROPE. DO YOU THINK THESE EXPERIENCES SHAPED YOU AS A MUSICIAN?
As a musician I’m not sure, I’ve done everything in my life and I guess it shaped me as a person. I so desperately wanted to make music and if I started earlier, before I was 23, maybe I would have been better, I don’t know. I think it made me value the fact that I can do music for a living; you know exactly how it’s like to not be able to. It gave me a chance to relate to people out there who would love to do it but, at the same time, they have to get a job and feed their families. Sometimes their passion for music is even greater than mine! I understand people who write to me and maybe they’re working in the bank and as soon as they go back home they make music and it’s the thing they’ve longed to do the whole day. I can’t help them making a record but I do understand that longing. I don’t want to sound like one of these guys who say how difficult it was in the old days; it sounds old-fashioned but it was, for me anyway.
LAURIE MAYER FEATURES IN A COUPLE OF TRACKS ON YOUR ALBUM. YOU TWO FOUNDED THE FIRST GUERILLA STUDIO IN LONDON. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE FEELING OF BEING IN A STUDIO?
It feels great because it’s like collecting memories. When you finish an album, months go by as you master it and you reach a point where there are no more ifs and buts. It’s done, for better or worse, so you go back home relaxed and listen to it with a different set of speakers for example, and it all comes back to you. All of the sounds of the record are like reminders and memories of the places where you’ve been recording. You don’t listen to it as music but as a scrapbook of all those experiences. Memories come floating back and that’s great, especially the ones from Las Vegas! It’s pretty crazy there and I can tell you that your imagination is probably nothing compared to how crazy it was there.
YOUR MUSIC IS HIGHLY EMOTIONAL AND CINEMATIC. HAVE YOU EVER CONSIDERED COMPOSING A SOUNDTRACK?
People use my music for movies sometimes but creating an entire score is a different story. You have to be a certain kind of person with the ability to be very quick and on your feet in order to change ideas; it’s something I don’t think I posses. I think I’m better as a producer because you put yourself at the service of the artist. I’m an artist myself but when it comes to producing someone, I literally take my hat off and I become somebody who is at the service of the artist’s vision. It’s all about the artist, not me. I only bring my skills and I’m really good at it; I enjoy working with this willingness. It’s the same with movies, the composer has to put himself at disposal of the director and be very musically adept; it’s like being in a limbo and that’s not me. I have not the ability of composing music as it is done. I know how to make a good record and when people ask me why I don’t score movies, the answer is that I probably can’t. I’m happy to kind of create the movie in my head when I make music; music and the lights in a picture are exactly one and the same to me. Don’t get me wrong I’m a movie buff! I also watch movies about directors and therefore I’m aware that I’d probably disappoint somebody if I’d compose a score! I’d have trouble changing things and not because of my ego, it’s just the way I work. I’m not a painter like Michelangelo who could reproduce anything. I’d love to supervise a score on the other hand, finding the right people and going in the studio with the composer but I don’t know. I guess that world is closed for me.
I WOULD TAKE THAT RISK! ISN’T IT ALL ABOUT TRANSLATING YOUR EMOTIONS IN THE END OF THE DAY?
Oh thank you! Yes it’s got to do with that and I know it’s not easy to write about music because it’s so impressionable compared to writing about movies for example. What I’m trying to say is that I usually don’t get asked much about my emotions during interviews, and it’s good that you did. I don’t get asked because I’m not a singer I guess, I’m not bearing my soul with singing lyrics but I can assure you that every sound and every aspect of what I do is extremely tied up within myself. If it doesn’t fit emotionally then it’s not happening: it’s all about that. I am not comparing myself to Shostakovich, I’m nowhere near that. Except that after he had composed one of his wondrous symphonies and announced its title, he’d be asked to explain some bits of his music or why something sounded in a certain way in the scenario he had created. About the siege of St. Petersburg he would later say that the music itself inspired him to write the music. It’s impossible to convey this to people. They need something tangible and that’s the difficulty in facing music. A visual artist will deliver paragraphs of exposition but musician can’t do that, it’s not in our DNA.
We want our music to be heard in the end of the day and the reason why I admire film composer and I collect all the records is because a lot of the most exciting music comes from them. Alberto Iglesias and Yann Tiersen for example, anyone who is not Hans Zimmer! I don’t want to hear another Hans Zimmer, I don’t even think he does scores anymore. He just has a team of people, like Howard Shore who did The Hobbit trilogy; he goes in there and gives us two hours of the same old stuff. What the fuck? There are some brilliant people out there who get less money than they do. The classical world is in disarray. They are still struggling with the legacy serialism and they’re afraid of melodies. They spurn the film world. However, I find very exciting what’s happening in modern choral music. There is tremendous innovation happening there. Innovation and beauty.
I THINK THAT AS LONG AS PEOPLE WILL BE EAGER TO LISTEN TO SOMETHING MORE PROFOUND, THERE WILL BE ARTISTS WHO MAKE INTERESTING MUSIC. FOR EXAMPLE, YOUR PRODUCTIONS ALWAYS PRESENT THE POPSTARS WE KNOW SO WELL UNDER A DIFFERENT LIGHT…
What’s interesting is to identify something within the artist that hasn’t necessarily flown free before. You can do this brilliantly and surprise yourself but you have to trust. Actors have to do this! The first thing they do is the trust game, consisting in leaning back with your eyes closed and let somebody catch you. It’s crucial. When Anthony Hopkins goes on set he’s told what to do by the director and there’s a script to follow. What he then does brilliantly is bringing his talent within this framework and it’s very effective. It’s different in the music industry because everybody’s got their own individuality. We don’t work in a big set and record producers’ role is to be passive aggressive; we are different individuals and it makes it hard to work sometimes. People are hesitant to give you a chance or at least try something out and I find it a bit exhausting. Actors are not given enough credit for their talent; you don’t realize how good they are until you see someone acting really badly. If it was up to me, to executive produce and overview the whole process of Madonna’s MDNA and Britney’s Britney Jean, I do feel I could have done an absolutely exceptional job. Something as powerful as Ray Of Light but I guess I don’t have the ability to inspire this kind of managerial level of confidence.
I went through a period where I convinced myself that I was rich because I was lucky with Ray Of Light and its big success and then I spent all of that money. You can’t be rich and do the music that you want. Once you become one with that choice and you don’t drive around, looking at big houses and wishing to have them, then you realize how fortunate and blessed you are to be able to make music. You can’t have everything; I’m in my fifties and it took me decades to get to this point and most of the people I work with professionally are half my age…
ARTISTS ARE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR SOMETHING NEW AND DIFFERENT. HOW DO YOU BALANCE IT WITH YOUR ARTISTIC INTEGRITY?
Well, it is not your record, it’s their record. I can get frustrated with artists when they have a pure and passionate vision for something unique and special at the beginning which then becomes watered down by commercial pressure, or trendiness. You should never go down that road because you will end up sounding and looking dated. It’s like torturing yourself. I’m a very trustworthy person but I find it impossible to inspire a kind of trust in the music scene. Recently people are suspicious, they thought I was messing up with All Saints and then it went on top of the charts. I see the look in their eyes, they think I am mad but I always say “what are we doing here? Do you want a record that will last forever or what?” I’m happy anyway, I’ve just released the album and kept fans happy uploading different versions of the Madonna and Britney albums. Let’s give the fans what they want! No one told me off yet.
PEOPLE GOT SO EXCITED WHEN THEY KNEW YOU WERE INVOLVED IN MADONNA’S MDNA. FANS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN WAITING FOR ANOTHER RAY OF LIGHT TO COME ALONG. HOW DIFFERENT WAS IT TO COLLABORATE WITH HER ON THESE TWO DIFFERENT PROJECTS?
I knew people were excited, they ask me about a new Ray Of Light every minute of the day. Think of it this way: Ray Of Light came about very spontaneously. We were in this studio in a rather unfashionable part of LA where nobody came. The record company guy came down only once and made some comments and I do remember Madonna telling him “This is art. This is how we are doing it. We’ll let you come and have a good listen but we’ll see you in two months when it’s done.” It was a very pure experience; it was all about making that record and nothing else. I wasn’t sure how this was going to work out at the very beginning but the moment I saw her jumping into the tracks in such an artistic way, I instantly thought how great it was going to be. She’s an amazing person, producer and it was a true collaboration. It’s important to get this across; I don’t like it when people assume that I was the clever one doing the whole job. It has been a bit of a curse and I’d feel mortified if I was her because on the album there is written “produced by Madonna and William Orbit” and that’s what happened! She didn’t put her name there out of vanity, she was fucking in there with me and it wouldn’t have happened without the two of us. As for MDNA it’s important to say that I jumped on the project later; she had already started it. She had a lot of stuff going on, I honestly don’t know how any human being could cope with making an album, directing and producing a movie, launching products and everything that comes with just being her. I mean, I had to cancel a couple of appointments this morning because I was overbooked! She’s so organized and such an incredible time manager, just like a general. Anyway, we were just not really able to lock the door and everybody out for MDNA. She was having such a great time at first but it somehow became very complex for everybody. I would have mixed it myself if I could, or only together with Madonna in front of the mixing desk because she’s a great mixer. We have spirited debates about things but we both always end up in the same direction because we’re good at mixing. Moreover, I should have told her that technically I did more album than she did and even though there’s nothing I can ever do to even come close to what she achieved, I know she can trust me on the technical side of things. Just let me fucking be in charge of the technical, it’s so important! I would have dropped three of the six tracks that she had already made with the other guys. They were not good enough in my opinion; too puerile. As for the remaining three I would have suggested to put more depth and make them more special. I had the best team and other brilliant songs and this is why I am still a bit puzzled to these days. It’s not that I ever give it a second thought; I’m only talking about this because you’ve asked of course. Life is too busy to worry about stuff, you have to move on. Any saying I had on my part are down to me, so if I have made some mistakes then it’s my fault.
ACTUALLY THE SIX TRACKS YOU PRODUCED ARE UNQUESTIONABLY THE MOST POWERFUL ONES. I GUESS MADONNA WAS IN A DIFFERENT EMOTIONAL PLACE DURING THE RAY OF LIGHT ERA…
It was definitely an important time when a lot of things happened. The day we were recording Swim in the studio, Madonna got a call from her friend Donatella, informing her about that terrible thing that happened to her brother. We kept on recording and of course it had some effects on the song. On a more positive side she had a daughter, her first child, this tiny little thing. What a perfect time to be writing and recording! What she does in the studio is fantastic and as I’ve said, her involvement in that album is much greater than what she has ever been given credit for. We did not have a plan but she’s good in driving things along, in fact when we finished Ray Of Light she immediately set up a listening party for the people at Warner. As we were waiting outside in a little sitting room, picking on strawberries and biting our nails, I realized “shit, Madonna has no idea about how they’re going to respond! She’s nervous! Madonna does no nervous!” I did not expect her to feel that way because she never shows it. As it turned out everybody loved it and started jumping and to me it was a really great example on how making a really good record. I mean, that woman has never lost any money even on a bad year but still… It’s different with Britney for instance, because Madonna is a different kind of artist of course, but nevertheless she deserves to be given a chance and I wish I had the possibility to do what I can do for her. Maybe let’s talk about this in ten years, I’m here to stay. I feel reborn and excited so don’t look at me as a seasoned producer because I am ready to go with the same zeal I had for the first record. If you manage to live on music for 35 years, it means that you’re a hard worker, smart and that you’ll definitely carry on until your death. It’s a long horizon, there’s no rush.
ALIEN, THE TRACK YOU PRODUCED FOR BRITNEY, OPENS HER LATEST ALBUM AND IT SETS A WONDERFUL VIBE. DON’T YOU THINK THAT THE REST OF THE ALBUM IS A BIT OF A LET DOWN?
Oh God, yes. When I thought I might be involved, I made a point of listening to every track I could find. And the ‘Britney Army’ would send me links to obscure numbers via my Twitter and Facebook. I became a super fan at that point and her voice was superb. I joined the ‘Army’! For some reasons, nobody can really understand these things, she just has that special ‘thing’. If you listen to the remix of Alien I recently uploaded, it’s more indie pop and I did it for fun but hey, listen to that voice! It’s special. My specialty with artists is to make it seem like we’re not working and quite often they’d say “we’d better start recording” and I tell them “you just did!” They insist to do it again properly but I try to let me understand that if I’m smiling, it means I’m happy with what we’ve just recorded; it means they touched my soul. When artists unconsciously bring this out, I’m the happiest man in the world. I’m slow to make a record, you probably wouldn’t hire me if you had to have something done by tomorrow but when it comes to be in the studio and recording vocals, everything runs quickly and it’s fun. I know what I want technically and what I can work on later, so there is no point for the artist to do it over and over. I know what I can fix and I’m not talking about auto-tune but rather about spontaneity; that something great and special.
WHAT ARE YOU HUNGRY FOR?
Knowledge. I’m brought up that way, I’m addicted to knowledge. I’m starving for it, aren’t we all? I always need to know more, particularly things of a scientific nature, or philosophical. If I had all the time in the world and someone would tell me that music will completely cease to exist, or I went deaf, I would definitely take a degree course in philosophy. I have no education and I left school at a very young age and would just spend all my time reading the classics and messing around with inks and paints.
As musicians we can’t be social activists but there’s no reason why any human being can’t help each other. I’d love to have more knowledge and make things better. I probably sound like a beauty pageant contestant when asked: “what do you want to do in life?” and the answer is “I want to make the world a better place.” Anyhow, maybe despise is a strong word but greed is something I really loathe. It’s all about money and people do terrible things for it. They think they always need more money in the bank and more influence than they have.
William Orbit on Facebook / Twitter