Earlier today, Red Bull Music Academy Daily posted an in-depth article I wrote last autumn, accompanied by a mix I put together in celebration. Both were labours of love, and saw me re-visit a style of music that genuinely changed my life back in the early 1990s: Ambient House.
Recently, I’ve mentioned the article – and the style – to younger friends, and got a lot of blank looks. Many have forgotten the style, which was always a little tricky to describe. By reading the RBMA Daily article, you can find more about the story of Ambient House, its’ role in Britain’s rave revolution, how it helped spawn the “chill out” movement of the early ‘90s, and how many of today’s most hyped labels and artists – Mood Hut, 1080p, Acting Press, Future Times, and so on – are releasing records that consciously, or sub-consciously, are exploring similar sonic pastures. It’s this link to the present that persuaded Red Bull Music Academy’s editorial staff to allow me a little indulgence to tell the story of the style in vivid detail – or, as much detail as you can cram into 7,000 words.
Here, I’d like to explain why writing this particular Red Bull Music Academy feature felt more significant than almost anything else I’ve worked on over the last decade and a half.
You see, it was the discovery of Ambient House – and, in particular, the music of The Orb – that pushed me towards a life collecting, playing, and writing about electronic music.
I can still remember the exact moment when I first encountered The Orb. It was a Sunday afternoon in early June 1992, and I was listening to the BBC Radio 1 chart rundown while doing my school homework. Amongst all of the baggy indie music, cheesy pop and crossover dance hits, one track in particular caught my attention. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It sounded like it had been beamed down from some far-away galaxy – an aural alien invasion by way of South London. It featured a heavy, undulating bassline, watery guitar textures, a rock solid 4/4 beat, all manner of odd noises and vocal snippets, and a singer whose exotic wail appeared to dart between the left and right speakers.
I rushed over to the hi-fi unit and turned it up. This, Mark Goodier explained, was “Blue Room” by The Orb, and the full version was a whopping 40 minutes long. I had never been this excited by a record before. I had absolutely no idea what the style of music was, who the Orb were, or even that they had links with The KLF – a band whose earlier Ambient House classic, Chill Out, I had previously bought on cassette and really couldn’t understand (something that, of course, changed once I began to explore the style further). I just knew I had to have this record.
A few weeks later, I opened my 14th birthday presents to find a copy of the CD single of “Blue Room” from my brother. The next week, while staying with my Grandparents in Great Yarmouth, I walked into Woolworths and bought a copy of the U.F.Orb album. When we got back to their small terraced house in Gorlseston-On-Sea, I rushed upstairs, lay on the bed, and listened to it on headphones. It was a mind-blowing experience. If this was “Ambient House”, then I was a fan of “Ambient House” music.
Over the weeks, months and years that followed, I became an obsessive collector of Orb records. I read the sleeve credits in great detail, and tracked down music by artists that they’d worked with. I bought compilations that featured their tracks, which in turn introduced me to “intelligent techno”, IDM and other forms of electronic music. I even ventured into the Warp Records shop in Sheffield – not the friendliest place for a clueless 14 year-old wannabe electronic music nerd – and flicked through racks containing records filed under such exotic genre names as “Detroit Techno” and “Chicago House”. I daydreamed of going to music festivals and these mysterious “all night raves” to see The Orb live and listen to DJs play other electronic music. To feed my addition, I spent any spare money I had on records, CDs and band t-shirts. In time, I became almost as addicted to the music press, religiously buying the NME, Select, Vox and Melody Maker, and then complaining because their coverage of electronic music was rubbish. If I couldn’t be a graphic designer – my first choice of career as a daydreaming, slightly awkward teenager – then I’d be a music journalist.
By the time I had to apply to University, I’d decided that I’d never make it as a designer or illustrator, and that journalism might be a better option. I secured a place at Bournemouth University studying “Multi-Media Journalism”. During my first year, I was introduced to DJing by a housemate and began to create ambient house “journeys” by blending records and CDs with samples I’d recorded off the television or radio. I even booked out the university’s radio studio – designed for students to record radio journalism projects – in order to create Stockhausen like music concrete by editing odd bits of tape together. That in turn led to hosting a late night ambient radio show on the student station, and the chance to record my first ever interview with a band. Yep, you guessed: it was The Orb.
It was February 1997 when I was ushered back stage at the Portsmouth Pyramids for an audience with the Orb’s Alex Paterson and then studio/live partner Andy Hughes. I was a bag of nerves, probably asked terrible questions, and had to put up with Paterson taking the Mickey out of me from start to finish. In hindsight, I did look like I’d been dressed by my mum, had probably never been raving (I had been to clubs, but largely sober) and hadn’t opened the doors of perception via the use of mind-altering chemicals (I hadn’t). To make matters worse, after the interview and subsequent gig I managed to miss the last train out of Portsmouth and got stranded. I made it back to Bournemouth at 4.30am, having paid a kindly taxi driver 20 quid to drive me home. In hindsight, that was probably a bit of a steal, though at the time it seemed like the most money in the world.
As bad as that Orb interview was, it will always be a significant first step on my journey to professional music journalism, and of course the Ambient House feature posted today. Of course, for this new RBMA feature I spoke to Paterson; this time, we got on quite well, and these days I’m old enough, wise enough and experienced enough to “get” his sense of humour. At the end of the interview, I told him about our previous meeting. Of course, he didn’t remember, but then why would he? It was just another interview during a long and probably rather druggy tour.
Working on the RBMA feature allowed me the chance to fall in love with Ambient House, and the other related styles I listened to at the time, all over again. It rekindled my passion for creating musical journeys layered up with field recordings, dub effects, odd samples and silly bits from comedy records. It was for this reason that I decided to do a mix that paid tribute to the style, and contained recorded excerpts from my interviews with Paterson, Thomas Fehlmann, Coldcut’s Matt Black, Jonah Sharp, DJ Food and Steve Hillage, amongst others. It took ages – partly because I edited and overdubbed every track included – but for the two days I spent on it (pretty much literally, as it happens), I was a teenager again, playing around with sound in a bid to emulate my Ambient House heroes.
Happily, the RBMA Radio crew really enjoyed it, and offered to host it. For that, I will always be grateful. You can listen to it here. It’s not the definitive aural story of Ambient House and the Chill Out revolution, but it definitely tells a story. I hope that you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.