Orbital from behind - on stage

AVA London (Printworks, 13-14 March 2020). Conference and Club showcase (culminating in an epic virus-defying live set from Orbital).

Well done to AVA London for pulling off, in the light of the Coronavirus pandemic, a two-day conference-and-club showcase at the enormous Printworks complex in south-east London. Friday the 13th was dedicated to a series of conferences and interviews spearheaded by music industry leaders, held in four different rooms simultaneously. Saturday was dedicated to electronic music, both DJ and live, with ample chances to network further and mingle with like-minded members of the EDM tribe.

Conference delegates

We start our review with the Friday conference. Please scroll down if you are solely interested in Orbital, though we’d love it if you can read about all the fantastic industry-specific sessions as well!

Everything hinged upon Thursday’s COBRA meeting, and AVA London and the guys at Broadwick Live, as well as those who had been looking forward to the event, must have been very relieved when Public Health England gave the go-ahead for mass gatherings to carry on as normal. It was certainly touch-and-go (no pun intended). Gratitude must also be bestowed upon the organisers for ensuring that the toilets were plentiful and kept clean, staff did not use their fingers to open cans, and there were fully-stocked hand sanitiser dispensers on almost every wall. We were surprised by how easily people had got into the custom of touching elbows instead of shaking hands; something that looked so alien when seen at the start of football matches a couple of weeks ago this weekend seemed second nature.

Point Blank Music School (stall)

Friday morning began with registrations and a chance to get one’s bearings around the various rooms in Printworks, and visit the various stalls run by the likes of Denon DJ, Noatune Studios and Point Blank Music School, among others. The opening keynote talk was about 30 Years of Ninja Tune, with Coldcut, Actress and Jayda G. Sadly, Coldcut had had to pull out, as they were feeling ill so it was a sensible decision, but there was still a full house to listen to what Actress and Jayda G had to say and they did not disappoint.

Actress (real name Darren J Cunningham) became a music producer at a young age, his footballing career with West Brom having been curtailed following an injury. He set up his own label, Werkdiscs, in 2004, but soon became bored with genre-specific nights (eg techno, drum’n’bass). Nowadays, genre-collision is commonplace, but when he started doing it it was liberating and, in his words, quite groundbreaking. Winning numerous accolades for his second album, Splazsh, it was not long before he began working in 2014 with Ninja Tune, the famous label originally set up by Coldcut in 1990, feeling immediately at ease with their ninja-style logo, which resonated with Actress’s jujitsu dabblings in his youth.

Joe Muggs, Jayda G and Actress (Ninja Tune keynote talk)
(from left to right: host Joe Muggs, Jayda G, and Actress)

Actress has also been innovative in the field of artificial intelligence and music, in a musical project called Young Paint. Recently, having been unable to make a flight to Sónar Istambul for a gig (Coronavirus, again), he was able to send co-ordinates over to a stand-in so that a gig he was scheduled to perform there could still go ahead as planned. The program he uses re-interprets his own sounds, so this was not as daunting a task as one would first imagine. (We touched upon AI and music in our review of Y△CHT’s gig last month – this is clearly becoming a hot topic in the music industry right now!)

Canadian Jayda G is a relative newcomer both to the music world and to Ninja Tune. Having completed a masters degree in environmental toxicology in Vancouver just a couple of years ago, Jayda admits that he has been learning as she goes. ‘The best thing in this industry is to know yourself as an artist and be really grounded in that’, she confides to host Joe Muggs. She loved the fact that Ninja Tune respected this and did not treat her any differently because of her choices.

Muggs reflected on just how diverse Ninja Tune’s repertoire of talent really is, especially when one considers they also have huge names such as Bonobo on their books, who sells out stadia in the US, occasionally accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra. He fondly remembered bumping into Matt Black in the chill-out room of the old squatted DSS office on Coldharbour Lane in the mid-90s. He was in awe at seeing how Matt and Hex were able to come up with sophisticated visuals using an old Amiga computer, everything working perfectly among the high-spirited mayhem that surrounded them. We too were at these legendary parties (Brixton CoolTan Arts Collective), and can fortunately share in his happy recollections of these special events. (See the Urban 75 website’s page on CoolTan for more information about this amazing place.)

Following the opening keynote event, we tried to attend as many of the simultaneous streams as possible, though of course we couldn’t be everywhere at the same time, so we probably missed quite a lot.

Festivals: The Power of Brand (discussion)

Upstairs, Oliver Hackett chaired a discussion about the power of the brand in the festival world. Branding is so important when it comes to festivals, especially as it can mean that tickets can be sold even before line-ups are announced, as customers become loyal when they have a good experience.

Discussion about festivals and the power of the brand

The panel discussed all manner of things, from how they look after the schedules of their residents, through to the need to change the various support acts, so as to keep things fresh but familiar at the same time.

Meanwhile, Tristan Hunt was moderating a discussion on the climate crisis. This was a very lively talk, reflecting on how we all need to become more responsible, from the fans to the event organisers to the artists themselves. Artists should learn the science, not post fake news on their social media, and certainly refrain from posting photos on their Insta accounts of them jetting off to perform at gigs: the glorification of flying needs to end. We learned that the culture industry is the second largest in the UK after finance, and that we all need to play our bit.

Tackling the Climate Crisis (discussion)

With regards merch, we need to be aware that a single kilo of cotton needs twenty tons of water in its manufacture. We need to stop using single-use plastics. We should sign up on the Music Declares Emergency website, which calls for immediate governmental responses. Those who sign up acknowledge the environmental impact the music industry has and commit themselves to promote cultural change. We need to analyse how we travel to festivals, discourage punters from driving or, if there is no viable option via public transport, encourage lift-sharing. There is no specific problem that we cannot solve – it is all about the mindset.

The panel praised Glastonbury’s recent efforts, not just in their banning of plastic bottles last year, but in the creation of the Gas Tower stage in the Shangri-La area, made out of 10 tonnes of plastic collected from beaches in south west England, an initiative that really makes the fans feel they are making a tangible difference. But when we see festivals falling short on sustainability, we need to call them out. Lobby them about their lack of green credentials, write a letter to the local politician if you’re so inclined, or even to your own politician. Keep the pressure on! Be inventive! The panel referred to a recent festival which used an Australian animal as their logo; they were lobbied to raise money for the bushfires in Australia.

Other suggestions included a call to start your own movement and have a real impact on your local community. If you are well-organised, you could easily impact 200-300 people without too much effort. Also, make an effort to invest only in ethical, sustainable companies that you believe in. When it comes to festivals, support events that really make an effort to be greener, even if they are a little more expensive because of their sustainability credentials.

Finally, the panel endorsed Giki, an app that helps you shop more sustainably in the UK and cut down your own environmental impact. Giki’s website is here.

For us, the best discussion came next: “The Art of Self Care”, chaired by Tom Middleton, the legendary recording artist and DJ, and one half of course of Global Communication among many other projects (do try to catch Global Communication on 19 September at the Jazz Café in their much-anticipated rescheduled concert, where Middleton will be joined by Ross Sampson and a string quartet to perform live classics from their 76:14 album, among others).

Tom Middleton

We had no idea that he was also a sleep expert, an issue very close to our own hearts. This was by far and away the best discussion of the day, and included two mental health professionals (Lara Cullen from The People Person, as well as music support counsellor, singer and trained psychotherapist Denise Sherwood) who were joined by Tristan Hunt again, fresh from his discussions on climate change.

The music industry is not an easy one and is tough on artists’ and producers’ mental health. This should come as no surprise to anyone, given the amount of high-profile people we have lost prematurely in recent years. What can we do, as a community, to help not just our own mental health but those around us?

Cullen admitted that there is a perception that people in the music industry feel they must always put on a happy face, however implausible their constant happiness must be. She is however hopeful for the future, as there is nowadays much more openness about mental health; artists are on the whole happier to talk about it than in the past. Hunt agreed with this, and showed how the very existence of this discussion shows how far we have come in destigmatising mental health.

Sherwood said that it should be ‘okay to say that you’re not okay’, and bigged up the great work done by the independent charity Help Musicians UK, highly recommending their academic study on the incidence of mental health and musicians called Can Music Make You Sick?, and the report can be downloaded for free from here.

Hunt revealed that suicide is four times higher in the music community than in society as a whole. Electronic music creation can be a lonely job, particularly when starting out. Pay can be low, and invariably you would need to hold down another job as well. When you factor in time spent working your day-job, time performing and time in the studio, as well as dealing with social media, there’s very little time left to sleep, and because one’s life is so topsy-turvy, said sleep can be very poor quality indeed. This leads invariably to poor mental health.

Social media is a particular bug-bear for Tom Middleton, so much so that he deleted all social media apps from his mobile phone, dedicating just a single night a week (Fridays) to reply to his various messages. It is so different to the ‘faceless techno’ of the 90s. Nowadays, it is all about getting one’s followers (and, sadly, having to read online hatred from trolls, some of the time). This means huge added pressure, both emotional and physical. Mental health must come first. Switch off those apps! (Most mobile phones will show you how many hours a day you use social media. If you do not know, do check it out. You may be surprised!)

Unlike your typical 9-to-5 job, the music industry is anything but. It does not get any easier once you are more successful! Constantly flying across time-zones to perform, plays havoc on one’s body clock. This, coupled with the constant oscillations of seratonin, dopamine and oxytocin: the euphoria of the DJ booth or the stage, followed by the isolation of the hotel room.

Hunt recommended some simple techniques to help bring about a kind of routine, even something small such as doing stretching exercises before turning on the WiFi after waking up. Middleton agreed: ‘We are normalised by routine as a species’. He tells us how we are in fact the only species to disrupt that innate normalisation. We don’t give ourselves a chance to stop. We need to recalibrate. Cullen chipped in to explain how important it is to look after ourselves physically too. Make changes that work for you. For her, it was giving up alcohol, which she did nine months ago. Not that she is suggesting anyone else should do that: ‘Alcohol is fun’, she chuckled. But it worked for her.

Middleton has some other techniques, to trick the body into thinking it’s night-time when it isn’t; using things such as SleepSound ear plugs (which reduce sleep-disrupting noise by 36dB but still allow you to hear alarms or crying babies) and high-quality eye-masks. If on tour, go out in the morning without sunglasses, and wear shades only in the afternoon. When going to bed, simulate a sunset by using red bedside lights – he recommended Himalayan crystal salt lamps. Drink 8-10 cups of water a day, avoid caffeine after midday, and aim for 7.5 hours’ sleep if possible. Alcohol can also be a disruptor of REM sleep. He then spoke about the four sleep Chronotypes (wolf, bear, lion and dolphin). Google it for more information!

Tom Middleton (frontal view)

Another tip was using CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) to remove negative thought. Write down the things stressing you out onto a piece of paper, then throw it away (as though you are symbolically throwing away your negativity). Then write down a new list, of all the things you need to do the following day. Practice gratitude, and try to crack a smile. Get the tech out of the bedroom, no browsing just before bed, and switch on that red lamp.

Those who have difficulty sleeping can try a variety of substances, including magnesium, passion flower and chamomile tea. Kiwi fruit, as well as tryptophan-heavy foods such as turkey, can also be very helpful. Listening to recordings of nature, especially waterfalls and the sea, can be very useful too. (Middleton’s latest album is a scientifically-tested album of soundcapes, Sleep Soundly, which saw him collaborate with cognitive neuroscientists and is so effective it has to have a disclaimer not to listen to it while driving or operating machinery). We will have to give it a listen!

Of course, it doesn’t have to be music or sounds of the sea. There are plenty of sleepcasts out there, many of which can be found for free on YouTube. These are spoken word audio-files, told in a deadpan way, showing that bed-time stories needn’t solely be the remit of the young child.

How appropriate that this discussion took place on 13th March 2020, World Sleep Day!

Time to move to another room. We chose the interesting discussion moderated by Sarah McBriar from AVA, asking innovators in immersive technology what actually makes an experience truly immersive. Should we start with the creative concept or with the technology? Many examples were given on the screens throughout the discussion, including some of the panellists’ fantastic visuals at Glastonbury, including Dan Tombs’s projections which accompanied Jon Hopkins’s show at The Park stage among others. For a show to be truly immersive, ‘You need to be transported from somewhere else’, said Tombs.

Speakers at the talk about immersive technology

They also gave some great examples of great practice, such as the recent Punchdrunk production (Beyond the Road: Journeys in Sound and Space) at the Saatchi Gallery, which used music by James Lavelle. If you missed it, it’s impossible to describe. They also mentioned the awesome Four Tet gig at Alexandra Palace, a surround-sound immersive experience which also featured tens of thousands of light-bulbs (installed by Squidsoup). The panellists were jealous they hadn’t thought of doing something similar themselves.

So, as you can see, It’s not just about the visuals any more. So much is happening now with binaural technology, a feeling of really being immersed inside the sound. The future is really limited only by one’s imagination. And, of course, by technology. The advent of 5G will help, but right now the biggest stumbling block is interoperability: getting devices to talk to one another, quickly, to make the show more efficient.

We were unable to get even 4G on our phones inside Printworks, so we concur absolutely with these thoughts!

GIGsoup readers may remember we reviewed Bit-Phalanx’s 24rpm EDM festival last October, which included an opportunity to try out Björk’s immersive virtual reality experience of her Vulnicura album. We asked the panel whether they could foresee VR being used in large-scale settings, eg as another way of immersing oneself at a live concert. Sadly, they did not believe the technology is really there yet. Much more plausible would be possibly integrating augmented reality instead: people bring their phones to record their own memories of gigs anyway so, since they are already pointing their screens up to the stage, it isn’t inconceivable that AR could be integrated to make a concert seem more immersive – at least the technology is already there for this!

It goes without saying that we think that Björk has really nailed something here: so impressed were we, that we foresee more artists’ albums coming out in VR in the future, perhaps even re-issues like Vulnicura, for people to immerse themselves into the music in the comforts of their own homes. But as for using it in a large-scale crowd setting, we ‘re not quite there yet!

We then learned that Orbital sadly were not going to be able to give the closing keynote speech. Again, Coronavirus had intervened, this time affecting their travel arrangements. We were relieved to learn that at least they were still due to be performing on the Saturday, which you can read about later on in this review. The Hartnoll brothers were replaced by a chat with Maribou State (Chris Davids and Liam Ivory).

They gave us an engaging talk about how they produce music together. Whereas they used to have a studio, circumstances have now changed for them, and geography has meant that lately they have needed to collaborate remotely. This is the first time they are in this situation, though have some studio-time booked up from next May so as to work on their upcoming album, in places as diverse as Devon, Derby and (Coronavirus permitting) Hamburg.

Maribou State (closing keynote)

When they are in the studio they do like to be in places where there are as few distractions as possible. In the countryside, you sometimes cannot even get a mobile phone signal, which helps. Now they can often put in 20-hour sessions. (At this point, we really should remind our readers of Tom Middleton’s warnings about this kind of lifestyle, see above!)

Maribou State then joked (or were they?) that if they do have to self-isolate because of the ongoing pandemic, this will be a wonderful excuse to make even more music, undisturbed. Let’s hope that things don’t get so bad!

Close-up, Maribou State

There wasn’t really anything too deep about this session, no doubt because it had been put together in a hurry. Some of the questions would have seemed more ideally suited for Orbital. For example, the host (Observer columnist Séamas O’Reilly) asked the duo about how they felt about the dwindling London club scene, with so many venues shutting down (notwithstanding the fabulous Printworks, an unusual recent welcome addition). While it would have been fascinating to hear the Hartnolls’ response, having been there right from the beginning, Maribou State made us feel rather old by saying that when they first moved to London, most of the clubs were already closed or closing (they just caught the final nights at The End and Canvas). Therefore, they’ve never known anything else, having ‘missed the golden era. So it seems the norm now’.

Ah, to be young again! And with this, the Friday conference was over, though there was some music and final cocktails to enjoy in the backstage bar. All in all, a fantastic day out; though, if we were to have any criticism, it would be to try to have a little more gender diversity on the panels in future. Female faces were few and far between. Of course, this is largely a problem with the industry as a whole, and the discussion panels were simply reflective of this. Hopefully next year we will see more gender diversity everywhere.

Saturday was a brand new day and our minds were getting excited about Orbital. When we turned up we were immediately disorientated, as the Printworks venue was laid out in a completely different way to how it was on the Friday. We were of course worried about how many people would even be there given the barrage of scary rolling news. We knew that 3,700 tickets had been sold. In the end, almost 2,000 people decided to take one for Team #Herd-Immunity which was amazing. Not that we were at all worried. Having been there on the Friday we knew that Printworks were taking hygiene extremely seriously. We were probably safer than in our own sitting room.

We normally only cover live music so we were rushing to get there for Overmono, but we were happy we got there early and caught the tail-end of Ross from Friends’ DJ set. Real name: Felix Clary Weatherall – no relation to the much-missed Andy Weatherall who was initially scheduled to be here this weekend before he was cruelly taken from us last month. Felix is the son of Jamie Clary, who for the older GIGsoup readers here is 1980s squat-party royalty. In the past few years, Felix/Ross has been making a huge name for himself ever since being taken under the wing of Flying Lotus. We loved his Balearic-tinged lo-fi set, which was appreciated fully by the congregated masses.


We made sure we were in pole position for two brothers named Tom and Ed. No, it wasn’t Tom and Ed Chemical, who aren’t even brothers anyway, but the aforementioned bona fide siblings known as Overmono (also known as Truss and Tessela), who played a beautiful downtempo techno set (we’re not sure how else to describe it) which included all their hits, including “The Mabe” and “Machine Love”, though it was “Daisy Chain” that succeeded in blissing us out.

Overmono from behind

Such a clean sound, and wonderful to see them playing it all live – it was a real privilege. Overmono have been entertaining the crowds everywhere, from Moscow to Osaka, so it was great to see them up-close here in London.

Joy Orbison adequately filled the subsequent 90-minute gap until the headline act, the wonderful Phil and Paul Hartnoll, in other words the legendary duo that is Orbital. Oh, Orbital. We have seen them live so many times we have lost count, from New Year’s Eve at Alexandra Palace in 1996 to countless raves and parties and, of course, their era-defining performances at Glastonbury Festival (where they are strongly rumoured to be headlining in the Dance Field later this year).

Standing backstage, we were watching them get ready, making sure the batteries were working in their famous head-lights, egging one another on, prepping themselves like wrestlers about to enter the ring. It was just fabulous to see these two legends prepare, knowing what was going to come next. Please indulge us as we share some of the photos – unless you are truly an Orbital fan, like we are, this will mean nothing to you….

Phil Hartnoll's headlamp

Those headlights have a special place in our hearts. It took us right back to when we were in a nightclub called Arsenal in Oliva, near Valencia in Spain, in 1990, and we chatted in the car-park to the super-approachable legendary DJ Chimo Bayo, world-famous for his groundbreaking and genre-defining mákina hit “Así me gusta a mí (X-Ta Sí X-Ta No)” (yes, we are showing our age here). The double headlamp was a beautiful gimmick that Bayo started but Orbital redoubled and took to stratospheric levels. Normally, when we are at festivals for Orbital concerts, we never actually see the Hartnoll brothers’ faces, but instead see four lights bobbing up and down in the smoky haze. We were more excited to see these headlamps up close than we were to see any item in the British Museum in recent visits. Even though Orbital have probably gone through hundreds if not thousands of headlamps since the early 90s. We are not ashamed of this.

A collage of Phil and Paul getting ready to go on stage

Anyhow, enough of the sycophancy, we have a review to get on with writing. To rapturous applause, Phil and Paul came on stage. Phil had his sweater rolled up over his mouth to begin with, a cheeky nod to the Coronavirus pandemic. They began with “Monsters Exist”, the title track to their recent album of the same name, which is utterly suggestive of a bleak dystopian future. It is an amazing prelude to an outstanding album that is up there with their classics. You cannot help feel that you are in the middle of a video game trying to escape monsters. What a start!

Orbital from the front

A sample of Professor Brian Cox’s voice, telling us about how the universe will one day come to an end, meant that the Hartnoll brothers were going to regale us with their challenging song “There will come a time”. This would surely not be an obvious choice were it not for the unusual situation with which we are currently faced. If you are unfamiliar with the track, it is basically a monologue specially recorded by Professor Cox for the band about the future, with an ultimately encouraging message that the time is now to embrace curiosity and love.

Orbital from behind

Orbital continued with this theme, playing the famous sample ‘It’s, it’s, it’s like a cry for survival’ which segued into that famous 303 sound and those instantly recognisable dissonant horns; we were transported back to the early 90s for one of their most celebrated songs, “Impact (The Earth is Burning)” from their Orbital 2 album (chromatically identified by everyone as the “brown” album). From thereon in, the brothers treated us to hit after hit, plucked from their 30-year back-catalogue, dipping only occasionally into some of their newer stuff. We knew that this was an extraordinary concert, perhaps the last live gig for some time before the government invariably stops mass gatherings. The point about our ongoing fight for survival had been made. Now it was time to lighten the mood.

Mat Horne and friends, backstage at Orbital

Orbital started to play “Wonky”, the title track from the album of the same name. We hadn’t danced so much in ages. Everyone we met was so lovely. A surreal moment then happened when we bumped backstage into comedian and actor Mat Horne (Gavin from Gavin and Stacey, and the grandson to Catherine Tate’s wonderful Nan character). You couldn’t meet a nicer chap.

Mathew Horne

He is a close friend of the Hartnoll brothers and, as any Orbital anorak will tell you, gets tormented and ultimately killed by a cat in the actual musical video for “Wonky”. Time to share one of Orbital’s best videos (and songs) from the current millennium:

Having seen Orbital so many times over the years decades, we were relieved that this was a very adult set, for the cognoscenti. It was without a doubt one of their best. They didn’t bother with the over-commercial fodder like their remix of the theme-tune to The Saint or, God help us, Doctor Who; songs which, while fun, are a little bit cringey when you consider their back catalogue. Okay, we did get a very short spurt of “Heaven is a Place of Earth”, mixed as usual into their highly personal track from 1992, “Halcyon” (dedicated to their mother’s addiction to benzodiazepines). Talking of mothers, they duly reminded us to tell her “Satan” this weekend, and the band also played (of course) their outstanding crowdpleaser “Belfast”. How could they not?

Orbital brothers

Pretending their set had come to an end, which prompted ‘one more tune!’ to resonate around the packed-out main Press Hall, they played their classic tune “Chime” which transported us right back to that Ally Pally New Year’s Eve party some twenty-five years ago (which was the tune they chose to play at midnight). They ended with “Where is it Going?” from their Wonky album.

Orbital on stage

Was their time for one more tune? They looked over towards their manager, who was getting fidgety. The crowd wanted more. Phil definitely wanted more. He was loving it on stage, spinning round and fist-pumping throughout the set. He gesticulated to Paul: we still have five minutes… And then came a genuine extra song, the 1993 classic “Lush 3”. What a perfect way to end a great set.

And then… it was all over. Will this be the last major gig anyone will see for a while in the UK? At the time of writing this review, we don’t know. If it is, it was certainly one to remember.

We also met some lovely people during the night (remembering always to bump elbows instead of shake hands!) Here’s one particularly fun-loving foursome we met on our travels to the smoking area.

We really want to highlight just how fantastic a venue Printworks is. It is clean, the staff are extremely friendly, water and earplugs are freely available, hygiene is of the utmost concern. The toilets were always spotless and fully stocked with toilet paper and hand gel (no mean feat given the current climate of panic-buying and subsequent shortages). The aforementioned hand sanitiser dispensers on every wall were constantly topped up throughout the two-day event. This is a well-run club, and a welcome breath of fresh air.

We also want to give a special shout-out to Jack Docherty from Broadwick Live, who was the party’s publicist and therefore our main port of call over the weekend festivities. We have been in this reviewing lark for many years, but when it came to providing information, helping out with everything from backstage access and hospitality to tech, we have not come across a team as professional and helpful as they were. No, we had never heard of Jack or Broadwick Live before this weekend, and they have not asked us to mention them in this review. But credit where it’s due. We thank you.

If we are going to be facing a long break from live gigs, we couldn’t have possibly ended of a higher high than we did on Saturday 14th March 2020. Hopefully our next gig review will not be too far away. And, again hopefully, you will all stay safe out there, whatever you are doing.

We knew we took a risk coming out. But, a funny thing about regret is, that it’s better to regret something you have done, than to regret something you haven’t done. And by the way….