Interview with Thomas Fehlmann of The Orb

If you haven’t noticed recently, we talk a lot about our love of ambient music.  The internet is bursting with endless lists, stores are bleeding with perpetual re-issues, and arguments sprout from our never-quenching thirst for that ambient magic that continues to evolve, only bringing more attention and respect to the original artists who paved the way down the shining paths of blissed-out euphoria.  Inarguably, The Orb are one of the premier artists in this evolution of electronics and atmosphere, involving themselves in some of the seminal works in the genre, such as “Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld” and The KLF’s “Chill Out”.  While Dr. Alex Patterson has been the one continuous member of the group, there lies another important piece to the machine who goes by the name of Thomas Fehlmann. 

Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Fehlmann has been there almost since the very beginning — if you check the credits of that first album you will see his name involved with production.  He started recording way before The Orb was even an idea,  and over the years he has produced top-notch solo albums along with delivering some of the best remixes and productions in the world of electronics for bands like Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Sigur Ros, just to name a few. 

Fehlmann and Patterson’s working relationship has been a long one, and has found the two forming what we now know as the Orb while watching many members come and go over the years.  The Orb has primarily consisted of just these two members since their “Okie Dokie” album on Kompakt, extending into their dub excursions with Lee Perry, and most recently their excellent “Moonbuilding 2703 AD” record from last year.  Given the deep respect they command in the world of ambience, it comes as no surprise that they have a new album out this week, “Chill Out, World!”, once again, on Kompakt Records.  As much as their albums are seen as ambient masterpieces, “Chill Out, World!” might be their most pure ambient album ever, awash with synthetic pastures, bizarre samples, and even some mooing cows to remind us of those KLF days.  One thing noticeably absent are beats, making the new record an excellent companion piece to the dance-heavy structures of “Moonbuilding”.

Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann of The Orb

Thomas Fehlmann (right) and Alex Paterson

I met with Fehlmann via Skype to chat about the new album, the 25th anniversary of “Adventures…”, their current tour, and what makes The Orb so special:

It seems to be a common misconception that you’re a more recent member of The Orb, but you’ve been there since the beginning more or less. 

That’s right!  I joined Alex on the first album to co-produce the track “Outlands”, and that was just shortly after the time we first met which was in 1988.  We really hit it off on a friendly level straight away, and he began telling me about his fantasies of The Orb even at that time.  When we met to practice the first time, he asked me to join him in the band, and in Berlin we produced the first basic ideas for “Outlands”. 

I do remember making the connection with your name on that first Orb album to a record you made with Holger Hiller who was a big producer for Mute artists at the time. 

That’s right, that is the first band I was ever in which I founded with Holger.  The name of that band was Palais Schaumburg which started as a duo, but then transformed into a quartet. 

Was Fischerman’s Friend a starting point to what Sun Electric would become?

Yes indeed it was.  I was never really part of Sun Electric other than being a good warm soul for them.  I was always sort of executive producing the music in the back, and later on my name probably wasn’t as prominent in the credits, but I was just around to give them business advice and also in a musical direction.  The main force in that band for the most part was Max Loderbauer, of course. 

Your recent remix for his Ambiq project is fantastic. 

I am big fan of Ambiq which is his jazz trio project.  I am happy you checked that out already!

I am just as much a fan of your solo work as I am The Orb!  Do you have any plans to release any solo records after this current Orb tour?

Ha, well, the plans are always there!  I have to say, not only does The Orb take up a lot of time, but it is very fulfilling for me as an artist to work with Alex.  I feel I have taken a few steps forward in terms of how productions work, how I see myself, and how I like to try and evolve.  In the past three or four years, I’ve been very happy to explore these things with Alex, and I really don’t have anything in the back pocket to churn out by myself.  Like anything, my involvement with The Orb is not definite, so there is very likely to be a time where I go back to working solo, but right now I very much like recording with Alex.  For instance, “Chill Out, World!” is just something I’m very happy to be a part of because it’s just been a very special experience for me, you know?

How do you and Alex primarily record?  Is it important to be in the same room together or do you ever dabble with file trading over email, etc.? 

We only record together in the studio; this is very important to us.  There are never any file exchanges.  We’ll inspire each other sometimes by sending images of things like sunsets, or I’ll send him images of my cup of tea or something, but we rarely ever talk about any musical ideas at all.  There is definitely a little bit of non-verbal communication going on because we have done so many gigs together in recent years that we both really admire this magic that comes up by just doing it.  Rather than over-analyze things we set ourselves a task, and the task this time was to make an ambient album.  But then things just happen regardless of the task set.  This time out we had a lot of groove ideas that we felt we couldn’t just leave away, but we tried to stay focused on that original spark of an idea to make an ambient record.  More than anything, we just wanted to see how a straight ambient album would turn out with us. 

That’s interesting to hear you say that because I’ve always felt that ambient music is more a product of being inspired by nature and environment more so than music in a way.  Ambient music has become a bit more bastardized, with house and techno being incorporated in to the sound a long time ago, which is a good thing. 

The discussion of whether drums belong in ambient music is probably a little tedious since we’ve always had “ambient house” written on our flag — we’ve basically had a good way out by bringing beats in while not being seen as traitors to our concept.  We’ve made many single tracks that were purely ambient, and this time we wanted to make an entire album of it which we’ve actually never done before. 

It is kind of funny to think that The Orb has never released a purely ambient album until now.  The Orb has become synonymous with ambient at this point. 

When we go into the studio and come up with concepts it’s very playful, you know?  We just forget about any restrictions or technological issues and stuff, we just have learned to work very quickly and smoothly.  With programs like Ableton Live, the processes can literally go by with the speed of thought.  So we end up wanting to take advantage of these things because at the end, it might not be true perfection but it’s where our current passions and creative processes are.

The Orb Chill Out World

One of the most charming things about The Orb is that trademark sense of humor and spontaneity.  With “Chill Out, World!” it does hark back to albums like “Chill Out” with funny samples and bleating sheep, for example.  And back to your point of drums, there’s nary a drum on the new album until the very end.

Yeah, there’s sort of a light chugging.  But I find it interesting to hear your take on the album as it’s a personal impression.  For instance, there are a couple of bongoes on the first track, there’s a tiny drum going on in the fourth track, but it’s never dominant like a typical drum track would be. 

Did I hear some pedal steel guitar in there as well?

No, but I played some lap steel guitar on the album.  I was playing around with some samples and combined it with me playing.  I was at Moogfest a few months back and Daniel Lanois was there playing his pedal steel which I really enjoyed.  It really is one of my favorite instruments.  You may remember one of my tracks having some lap steel on it, what was it called….

Little Big Horn”? 

Yes!  I released that single on Kompakt. 

One of the reasons I love your music so much is that you have such a unique sound.  If I’m standing in a room and hear your tracks there is no doubt who it is. 

I take this as a huge compliment because that was always the most important thing to me regarding the artists I liked.  I love the artists that find their own language and voice.  When Carlos Santana picks up a guitar you know it’s Carlos Santana without a doubt, like it or not. 

Can you explain the elements of how you and Alex perform live?

From the audience’s point of view it might not seem so much like a live performance, but we do add very improvisational elements to our live gigs.  Alex is always bringing in new ideas by sampling CDs or taking bits of grooves of records he’s playing, and I more or less have a 24 track machine with all of the elements of the basic song we’re playing and mix the levels and effects in terms of the overall arrangement.  No Orb gig is ever the same as the last one.  Alex is always surprising me with new stuff because his collection is so vast the results are always different.  When we’re in whatever city we’re playing, we like to do some record shopping beforehand, and often times whatever Alex finds that day becomes the centerpiece of the entire show.  It makes it fun for us because we’re constantly doing something we haven’t tried before.  It would just be too boring for us to do the same thing every night.  In the past three or four years we’ve played over 300 gigs, so it’s important to keep it fresh!

So is “Chill Out, World!” the focus of the current tour?  I ask this because the “Adventures” album has had its 25th anniversary this year, and “Moonbuilding” is only a year old, so it seems there’s quite a lot of options there.  In addition to Alex playing certain records, will you try to pull sounds from the new album?

Alex will still have his records as a focal point, and I just go from there really.  It’s not really a priority for us to play any known tracks beforehand, you know?  He’ll pull a song in, I’ll react to it, and from that comes an entirely new thing.  Regarding “Adventures”, I’m quite happy it’s garnered so much attention over the years and the anniversary is very nice.  But we also have the new album and aren’t interested in milking our own history.  We’re much happier to riff off the new stuff, but I will say that the first hour we’re likely to play old stuff, and the second hour we’ll play new stuff. 

I’m happy to hear there is an emphasis on the new stuff as I feel like “Moonbuilding” was the best Orb album since “U.F.Orb”.  It seems to merge your talents with Alex’s skills more so than any other Orb album.

It really is an album we can call our own, you know?  I come into action on the production side of things where you hear my trademark, but the actual stuff I’m producing is stuff we’ve developed together.  Alex is a very sparkling person in the studio and we are totally constructive with each other.  There is never any criticism at all, and this is an experience with a partner I’ve never had before.  Going back to my partnership with Hiller for instance, it was always psychological war.  I think plenty of bands and musical partnerships can attest that very often finding an artistic balance can be quite painful, and I’m very happy to report that with Alex there is a blind trust there.  That’s a quality I don’t have with myself — there is always a doubtfulness and shit, just fucking awful stuff where you have to deal with your own psyche.  With Alex, all of those problems are resolved by the fact we are together in the studio. 

Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann of The Orb

When you think of purely ambient music that inspired you and Alex, what are some of the first artists that come to you?

Well, I go back to Daniel Lanois for sure, his guitar work is a great example of music I like to put on at home.  And obviously our friend Brian Eno is way up there as well.  A new artist I really enjoy is Jan Jelinek — he makes groovy tunes, and more psychedelic, almost Kraut-y stuff.  I also have to mention Wolfgang Voigt.

I am very excited about the Gas box set coming up! 

Gas is super influential to us for sure.  That’s a great example of a grand bastardization like you mentioned earlier, with the drums and chugginess of the music there.  But that “pure ambient” discussion is a bit tired, you know?  Sometimes you have industrial influences in there or whatever.

I wrote a list of the ten best ambient albums last year, and you definitely cannot win when writing lists as there are just too many iterations and branches on that tree to cover it all.  It all comes down to the overall mood.

Exactly.  Did you see the recent top 50 list by Pitchfork? 

I scanned it quickly and we all talked about it in the Discogs office, but didn’t spend a lot of time on it.  I know they chose an Orb album, of course….

We made it to #19 with “Orbus Terrarum”, which I thought was a weird choice, but never mind! 

Hah, that is an odd choice!  What was your involvement with that album? 

Here’s my history with the first few years of The Orb: first album I was on one track, second album I was on “Towers Of Dub” and “O.O.B.E.”, I was part of “Pommes Fritz”, then I moved to London and we worked on “Orbus” for about two years.  During this time we also did the album with Robert Fripp (FFWD).

Whatever happened to Thrash?  He was a big part of The Orb during that period, yes? 

That’s right.  We must say that we are very disappointed with the way he left.  He doesn’t have a very healthy soul when it comes to The Orb.  As you say, he was a big part of The Orb, not so much in the early days, but during the second phase with the second album, but unfortunately he sort of lost it.  I can’t really find any other words for it, and he hasn’t released any records since. 

It’s nice to see The Orb’s relationship with Kompakt flourish as you always released your own solo work on the label. 

We’re already working on a remix 12” for “Chill Out, World” which will be “Sin In Space, Pt. 3”.

The other two Sin In Space records are so good, especially the Prins Thomas remixes.  Speaking of which, I read earlier this year you have remixed Thomas?

Yes, we have done two remixes for his latest album: we chose the track “H” to remix.  I know the record is already cut as we saw Prins just a few weeks ago and he told us it’s coming soon!  And to the point, I must tell you that just last week Alex and I did a remix for the track “Albatross”.

The Fleetwood Mac tune??

Yes!  We listened to all the bits of the song on a 24-track because obviously it’s an instrumental guitar track, but there are many other elements the listener might now hear.  We added a lot of new things to the remix, but we ultimately wanted to create a vibe that’s respectful of the original riff.  We just delivered the remix this week so it should be released sometime soon. 

It’s fun to see everything come full circle in a way there — “Albatross” was featured heavily on “Chill Out”, and now here you are remixing it during your “C.O.W.” phase!  So, do you use Discogs?  How do you like the site?

Yes, the last thing I bought was a Lenny White record.  And recently I also bought a French vinyl edition of Miles Davis’ Isle of Wight gig.  The b-side of that record has 7-inch versions of “Bitches Brew”, each edit about three and a half minutes long.  Most of these things are re-issues as well, it seems that everything gets re-issued these days.  I was looking all over for that Davis record and a friend of mine recommended I look on Discogs.  Someone was selling it for 12 euros in Finland which I felt was a great deal!

Seven inch versions of “Bitches Brew”?  It’s hard to imagine any of those tracks under ten minutes!

If you check out the box set you will see that there are a lot of these edited versions on there, and I thought it was certainly interesting as a variation. 

How do you feel about this glut of re-issues lately?  Do you feel The Orb’s back catalog should get re-issues?  They did do a grand re-issue of “Adventures” earlier this year.

I don’t know so much about this sort of thing, and to be honest with you, I don’t care so much either.  I’m much more interested in the new shit.  I can tell you that the “Adventures” anniversary gig we did, with all the musicians live on stage, was a very nice experience.  We had Steve Hillage there, Andy Falconer, Youth

So everyone but Thrash was there basically.

You got it.  And as an extra addition we had Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols playing with us.  It was a great big happy family, I must tell you!

The Orb are currently on tour in the States — you can see more details here.

Click below to stream The Orb’s new album, “COW / Chill Out, World!”.


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1 Comment
  • Oct 18,2016 at 00:56

    Great article, MarbleheadJohnson, and super new album. Love the insights on the production and some history, too. Thanks for this!

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