The North American debut of Lunar Orbit, a documentary about ambient house-music pioneers the Orb took place at this year’s Moogfest festival in Durham, North Carolina. The film offers insight into the unique process the Orb duo of Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann have come to be known for, takes the viewer on a journey of their personal histories, and includes everything from their living spaces to their pizza recipes. We sat down with the duo and Lunar Orbit director Patrick Buchanan to discuss the film, along with their feelings on sampling and the mystery inherent in collaboration.
“I’ve worked in film and television for years, but never did my own project,” says Buchanan. “This is the first. The last ten years have been a lot of post-production and editing, and I got to a point where I wanted to do something I was passionate about. I had an epiphany after the birth of my second child, and just said to myself ‘I’m not old, but I’m not young. This is the time for me to do this.’ I realized there’s not a film being made about them, and that’s a film I’d like to see. So I spent several months researching and coming up with various concepts. It’s important to be prepared before you approach someone with a project in mind. You have to know what you’re going to ask and what you want. When I approached their management, I had a proper proposal together, but it was still just a hope and a prayer. This is me, this is what I want to do. What do you think?”
The Orb at Work
After several months of conversations, Buchanan decided the project wasn’t going any further unless he went to Berlin to meet the guys. “I got there and went to Alex’s flat, and then he invited me to go with him to his internet radio show. We were just feeling each other out and getting comfortable. That’s one thing I’d emphasize when doing this kind of project: if your subject’s not comfortable, they’re not going to welcome you into their world. They are difficult people to interview. They take a while to get to know, and that was the challenge of the project. It was many months before I felt like they trusted me.”
The film is comprised of concert and backstage footage, as well as interviews with Paterson, Fehlmann, childhood friends, and collaborators, but the most interesting moments are in the studio, which is just a small room in Fehlmann’s flat. At one point, they break for lunch, and Fehlmann makes a homemade pizza for the two to share. Paterson is walking around barefoot. It’s intimate. “Alex made it clear early on that he didn’t want cameras in his face, and my DP Darryl Augustine, was very careful when filming them. We wanted to give them space. Honestly, we struck gold when they asked us to come into the studio. It gave the film a substance that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.”
Paterson and Fehlmann have been at this a long time. They’re salty, but they want you to have a great time. They don’t mind sitting on the floor to do an interview, but they’re picky about which floor. Paterson refers to himself as a “dickhead” in a room full of people, but does it so we can all laugh. The duo’s music relies heavily on sampling, a technique fraught with legal issues — but the Orb don’t care. In fact, they seem to like the controversy.
“The people who get pissed off about sampling are mainly people who don’t understand music and are after money,” says Paterson. “Let’s take our song ‘Little Fluffy Clouds.’ When Rikki Lee Jones heard her voice on the record, she adored it. And do you know what she wanted? $5,000. That’s all she wanted, just for using her voice. Her management wanted a lot more, but she told them, ‘no.’ And the same thing happened to Steve Reich ten years after he managed to track us down. He’d heard ‘Fluffy Clouds’ for the first time and realized it was his own guitar on it, but he never imagined it would be in that context, and therefore he took his hat off. Managers and publishers and the people who aren’t musicians but are making money are the ones who get mad.”
The Orb Live
Having come up in an era of punk rock and wearing a “Disobey” shirt, it seems likely those are the people he’s trying to piss off anyway. “I don’t see negative connotations with it,” adds Fehlmann. “From an artistic side, the appropriation of different ideas in your own life, inspiring you to create new stuff, is a form of art, a form of inspiration.”
The film portrays the duo in Fehlmann’s modest Berlin flat. You see Paterson on the decks and Fehlmann using Ableton Live. “When I was watching the film, I sometimes felt we were giving away too much,” says Fehlmann. “There’s a need for a little mystery to what we do. Not so much toward the outside world; it’s also between us. It’s a childlike attitude. Ableton Live gives you an openness and ease to play like a child, but if we start to analyze it and give too much of it away, it loses the magic. As artists, we have to be always asking questions. We have to be wanderers, and if you have all the answers it can get boring. But I will say, I love Ableton Live.”