The brothers behind Orbital are back with their first album in eight years and fans are impressed, writes Stephen Dalton
On a blustery day in central London, two brothers gaze down from a hotel rooftop on to the faded imperial splendour of Trafalgar Square below. Few of the swarming mass of tourists would recognise them today, but Paul and Phil Hartnoll were once Britain's most unlikely pop stars. At the peak of the 1990s Britpop boom, the fraternal duo behind the techno oddballs Orbital regularly blasted their gleaming electronic mini-symphonies high into the singles chart alongside the likes of Blur, Pulp and Oasis.
Now, Paul and Phil are about to release their first new album in eight years, Wonky. Rock reunions have reached saturation point in recent years, of course, with endless washed-up veteran bands squeezing back into their dancing trousers. But judging by the rapturous reviews that have greeted Orbital's new music and recent comeback shows, this is one pop reunion that fans and critics alike are ready to embrace with open arms.
"It's just getting better and better," says Phil, the older Hartnoll brother at 48. "Mostly it's been like picking up a conversation where we left off, which is really nice, but there is freshness to it as well because things have moved on. We have changed as musicians and people, so this is like revisiting somewhere with a different perspective."
Defying conventional wisdom that machine-made music must be cold and soulless, Orbital have always loaded their emphatically English brand of electro-pop with humanity, humour and warmth. Wonky features several guest vocalists, including the cultish New York alt-rock siren Zola Jesus and the rising British rap star Lady Leshurr, but even the purely electronic tracks deliver a powerful emotional charge.
"When I'm writing music, if it doesn't move you emotionally, it's not working," explains 43-year-old Paul. "It has to give me butterflies, I have to make myself cry in the studio. For me, it is the harmony that really pulls at your heartstrings. That's why I always try to get that warmth into our music."
The Hartnolls formed Orbital in the late 1980s, initially recording in a bedroom studio in the family home in their sleepy southern suburbs of London, close to the circular M25 motorway that inspired their name. In the 1990s they released a string of anthemic electro-pop singles and earned an unrivalled reputation for high-energy live shows. Their legendary appearances at Britain's most famous pop festival, Glastonbury, united huge armies of rock and dance music fans.
Their fame peaked in the late 1990s, when they remixed Madonna and their musical heroes Kraftwerk, recorded a techno version of the celebrated theme tune to the BBC series Dr Who, and worked with the film soundtrack composer Angelo Badalamenti. But Paul and Phil disbanded Orbital in 2004 after seven albums and more than 15 years together, partly due to fraternal friction but also because both felt the music had become stale. A long sabbatical of low-key solo projects followed.
"We needed a break from each other, but mostly from what Orbital had become," recalls Paul. "During that five or six years apart I learnt to recharge my batteries. Orbital obviously hadn't run its course, because we are here doing it again, but it was really good to stop and take stock and slow down a bit. We hadn't really slowed down for about 15 years."
Eventually, the brothers patched up their differences and bowed to demand for a live comeback in 2009, playing a string of festival shows including a triumphant return to Glastonbury. A further year of globe-trotting DJ sets followed, allowing the brothers to road-test new tunes in raw form, then tweak them in studio "correction sessions" in response to crowd reactions. "That was really beneficial to our writing," Phil says. "Trying out tracks in front of audiences, listening through their ears. That's been a really good string to our bow."
After launching Wonky with a gala show at London's Royal Albert Hall later this month, Paul and Phil are gearing up for another busy summer of tours and festivals across the world. But beyond that, the next chapter in Orbital's comeback story remains unwritten.
"The thing I love about Orbital now is I really don't know where it's going," laughs Paul. " I don't know where the music industry's going - and to be quite honest I really don't care, as long as we can keep going. It's fun learning it all again, it's brilliant. From a stale ending before to a whole new fresh beginning, with loads of unknowns, it feels like we've just started again. There is so much more inside, ready to explode out."
Wonky is released this week on ACP Recordings.