the Hartnoll brothers talk dance and politics as they release their new album Optical Delusions

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Brothers always squabble, even when they were in their 50s. When we meet, Phil and Paul Hartnoll, aka Orbital, are arguing over who dropped Belinda Carlisle. More specifically: who put a stop to the Halcyon x Heaven Is a Place on Earth mashup that closed almost every show they did in the Nineties.

The answer, it seems, was Phil. Halcyon, the 1993 single named after the antidepressant to which the Hartnolls’ mother was addicted, blended equally nicely, he found, with Bon Jovi. Eventually he got rid of that too and You Give Love a Bad Name gave way to Wannabe. Those lucky enough to attend one of the band’s gigs today were treated to an Orbital x Spice Girls encore. “Whenever we mix them in, the men in the crowd grimace and the women scream with joy,” Phil laughs.

Orbital’s own encore has been quite the story. After saying goodbye once in the early 2000s and compared again in 2014, the electronic music duo reunited again five years ago. While the Nineties nostalgia circuit has given way to one hung up on the Noughties, Orbital’s star power remains undiminished and their new album, Optical Delusions, is out on Friday.

“We have a song on it called Requiem for The Pre-Apocalypse,” Paul says. That’s also an apt summary for the album’s overall ethos. It was largely produced during lockdown, when much of the world was at a stand still, and, as Paul puts it, thinking: “What the hell is happening?”

The band now operates out of sleek studios on Commercial Road in east London, with high ceilings and large windows overlooking Spitalfields market. Paul welcomes me in while Phil, the rockier of the two, is signing records at his desk.

Their stage name is an allusion to the M25, a former conveyor belt of raves until the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 shut them down. However, the brothers preferred to party in King’s Cross with the performance collective Mutoid Waste Company.

Orbital’s debut single, Chime, cost £3.75 to produce, in a cupboard under the stairs of their parents’ house in 1989. They were invited to perform the track on Top of The Pops – or rather, as was custom, to mime it. The Hartnolls didn’t want this. “We were known for bringing our entire studio on stage with us,” Phil smiles. “We always mixed live and that drew people in who had never properly listened to electronic music before.” So the brothers placed the main plugs on top of their instruments so that everyone could see they weren’t really playing.

The footage is on YouTube and is hilarious; the brothers look determinedly disinterested while a dancer sporting a black bodysuit, bowl cut and metallic silver jacket bobs alongside them, swaying her arms and pushing her knees every three bars like an aerobics instructor. It’s so Eighties – so not Orbital. But the track reached number 17 on the UK charts and became, Phil says with some trepidation, “an anthem”.

Many bookings followed, leading to the highlight that was their 1994 performance at Glastonbury. “It wasn’t easy,” Paul tells me, “They put us on after Björk on the second stage. But we knew what the people at Glastonbury wanted, because we were two of them.”

What they wanted was dance music. The Hartnolls had previously been to Glastonbury and seen The Orb, a band with whom Orbital is frequently confused. Phil was once approached in a pub by a misguided fan who brought him his vinyl copy of Little Fluffy Clouds: “I was so embarrassed for him, I nearly signed it anyway.”

So when the Hartnolls came to Glasto in 1994, they brought their 909 and 303 bass synthesizers on stage and “riffed acid hell.” It was a smash – indie kids who rejected all things disco were suddenly pushed together with fans of electronica. Such was the magic of Orbital: bridging the gap between raves and radio airwaves but also between different audiences. though Paul gives credit to other British techno duos who came up alongside them, setting apart from their American contemporaries with their sound rooted in the soul music of Detroit: “That sound – that fusion – it wasn’t unique to us. The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Underworld, also has a background in more riffy rock music, and that comes through.”

As the boundaries between music genres were dissolving, so too were those between social classes. Post-Thatcherite malaise was giving way to ecstatic raves that saw kids from Dartford split pills with those from Chelsea, but that sense of lingering fury still comes through in Orbital’s music.

The lead single off their new album, Dirty Rat, is a collaboration with Sleaford Mods, a duo known for their juggernaut takes on austerity-era Britain and working-class life. It came out the day of Liz Truss’ resignation. Amid several expletives, Phil manages to note the ironically good timing.

Dirty Rat is “the most direct social commentary” the band has ever attempted, says Paul. The lyrics offer a hard-hitting diatribe against the omnishambles of the Conservative government and the “self-saboteurs” who voted it in.

“There’s a lot of clues about what went on recently,” Paul laughs. No kidding. Their clapback at those who blame “hospitals” or “everyone at the bottom of the English Channel” could hardly be more pointed.

But Orbital’s music has always had a political edge. When the Hartnolls started clubbing in the Eighties, they gravitated not towards dance, but towards post-punk. “The best electronic music was being produced by Factory Records,” Paul says, “groups like Cabaret Voltaire, the darker stuff coming from Manchester and Sheffield: we really wanted to bring that flavor to house music.”

That punk piquancy hasn’t diminished, with Orbital refusing to gentrify their act. “I’ve never changed my attitude,” Paul says. Phil, meanwhile, releases against the venues that have outpriced dance music for many. “We’re going on tour soon and trying to keep ticket prices as low as possible,” he insisted. “They’re already selling for 40 quid which I think is a lot.”

The Hartnolls are acutely aware of the cost-of-living crisis: both fathers of three, they worry about the toll austerity will take on the next generation. “We were lucky to get into music around the time electronic equipment was becoming cheap,” Paul notes. “You could buy synthesizers as a couple of Herberts living in a Kent village.” That access is becoming rarer.

Also on their upcoming album is Ringa Ringa, a track Orbital recorded during lockdown and named after Ring a Ring o’ Roses, the old plague song. Phil couldn’t deal with writing music during lockdown, he says, afraid that this might be “it”. An unlikely hero took him out of his creative inertia: Coppé, a Japanese singer-songwriter and electronic musician. “She thinks she’s a jellyfish from outer space,” Phil smiles, enthralled by his quirky collaborator.

Coppé reached out to ask Phil to remix a track he’d produced, but he sent in something that was “only three bars long”. Phil laughs: “She tricked me into a collab, and it turned out to be the most cathartic thing I’d done in years.” The resulting track, Lost In Time, will be released as the album’s bonus.

For Paul, the pandemic became a time for introspection, meditating on the ambient music of John Hopkins. He describes having his three children back home as “going through the looking glass”.

“You watch them and see yourself at that point in your own life,” he says. It was the point when he first realized music’s potential for effecting change.

While his own kids have got heavily into Nirvana, Kate Bush and the Cocteau Twins, Paul’s owes much of his education to the anarcho-punk records he grew up with. “Those were upbringing me, my social awareness,” he says. He became fascinated by feminism after listening to Crass’ Penis Envy album when it came out in 1981. “It opened up another world to me,” Paul says.

But his and his older brother’s lives weren’t all that sheltered. Music had already, by that point, introduced them to a world beyond Dartford. Their cousins ​​on their mother’s side collected Trojan Records and they listened for hours on end to ska and to reggae – genres foreign to most white kids in the Seventies. Phil remembers being confused when he encountered racism for the first time as a teenager: “I didn’t understand it,” he confesses. It had never occurred to him that others had been brought up to believe in division.

Alongside their celebrated live shows, perhaps this is what makes the Hartnolls’ legacy so enduring. While electronic music isn’t a genre typically known for grappling with social issues, the Hartnolls have always championed unity and other values ​​close to their hearts. Their most popular albums, Civilization and In Sides, were already addressing the themes of ecological collapse in the mid-Nineties. They feel more poignant than ever today.

Optical Delusion is out on Orbital Recordings on February 17