(First published in Electronic Sound magazine #80, August 2021)
Before fame beckoned, they were on nodding terms at the most notorious Secondary Modern school in Kent. Then Murray Lachlan Young became one of the UK’s most celebrated poets, and Paul Hartnoll enjoyed chart success with Orbital. Four decades on, they’ve finally collaborated on an album that takes a light-hearted but reassuring tour around the “dusty corners” of British lockdown…
Words: Bob Fischer
“I was in the less violent year, below Paul,” recalls Murray Lachlan Young, moustache bristling in the afternoon sunlight. “Still a very violent year, but Paul was in an ultra-violent year”.
“I just kept my head down,” sighs Paul Hartnoll in the adjacent Zoom window. “I was the Crass-loving pacifist anarchist type. I even went round for half a year in a big, second-hand mac, where someone had gobbed a huge Mars Bar of spit on the back of it. I wore it like a badge of honour. I didn’t give a fuck. People would say ‘Why haven’t you washed that off?’ And I’d say ‘It’s more embarrassing for the bully that did it’.”
We’re discussing their less than idyllic 1980s schooldays at the now-defunct Wildernesse School in Sevenoaks, Kent. Almost four decades after seeking mutual refuge from “donkey jacket-wearing, football hooligan skinheads”, BBC 6 Music’s resident poet and the younger half of Orbital have joined musical forces to create The Virus Diaries, a witty and touching account of the minutiae of lockdown. Fifteen of Murray’s wry spoken word observations haven been woven by Paul into a joyously eclectic range of musical settings. ‘Home Schooling’ feels like Grandmaster Flash booting up the laptop for an unruly Key Stage 1 numeracy lesson; ‘Bedtime Again’ is a beautiful ambient evocation of silent, emotionless ennui. It’s the culmination of a friendship that began with their teenage immersion in a thriving local music scene.
“I got a job when I was 16, working at the Ace cinema in Sevenoaks as a screen sweeper,” recalls Murray. “And there was this guy, John Sandicombe – he was like an old 1950s dude with a quiff, a proper film projectionist. He had a great love of rock and roll, and he rented the screens out to bands. And then he opened up what had been a storage room at the back of the cinema as a video game arcade, and I graduated from being the screen sweeper to the arcade attendant. I remember Ronnie Corbett’s daughter’s band played there once, and Ronnie came and sat on a bench at the back of the room – it was too high for his feet to touch the ground!
“I did two murals on the walls. One of Keith Richards, one of Lou Reed, and I wrote ‘The Cavern’ on the back wall. And it became this absolute hub of the creative culture in the area. I was in a band, Paul was in a band, and that’s where we played. We actually supported Paul’s band…”
“Which was a mistake,” laughs Paul, “Because they were far better than we were! We were a crap band, essentially.”
Paul was the guitarist in Noddy and the Satellites, a garage-rock band with a resident clarinetist. Murray was frontman with the fairly self-explanatory Matthew Long Blues Experience. Despite their protests, both acts sound fantastic.
“You were a good crap band!” insists Murray. “I think you had legs. We were just doing R‘n’B covers, really. We’d start the whole thing off as a kind of voodoo ceremony, and this guy Matthew Long would appear. We’d load up a bottle of Jack Daniels with tea, and he’d drink the whole thing in front of the audience as we built up to him playing a note… and it would be a bum note. Funny, really. Paul’s band could have gone somewhere, they were for real, whereas we were a kind of cabaret R‘n’B showband.
“But this creative scene ran into the burgeoning rave culture. I remember hearing that Paul was making beats and I did a little bit with him, then we all started going to this place called The Grasshopper, where everyone was suddenly getting funky and wanting to dance. And then there was the night that Paul and Phil’s record charted… that was very exciting. They put us on the map”.
As a double act, they’re an easy interview. Murray is contemplative with a languid charm, Paul is forthright and funny. I sometimes feel like I’m eavesdropping on their private reminiscing, but it’s a pretty damn joyous experience for an avowed fan of both artists.
“I remember going to the Buck’s Head on the Friday, after doing ‘Chime’ on Top of the Pops,” remembers Paul. “It was like something from a mad film. Like being a returning hero. I walked in the pub, and everyone was shouting at me. I went in with a bunch of friends and they all bought a pint and walked off to the far corner. It took me half an hour to get to them, and by the time I did I’d lost my voice from repeating the same things. It was my first and only sense of what it’s like to be paparazzied!”
So had they lost touch as stardom beckoned for them both? By the mid-1990s, Orbital were racking up Top 5 albums with a nifty sideline in Madonna remixes. And Murray – infamously – had signed an unprecedented recording deal to become EMI’s first “million pound poet”.
“I’d done poetry on the main stage at Glastonbury and T In The Park, which was the most harrowing experience,” he laughs. “I went on before Black Grape! I’ve never known anything so terrifying in my life. It was like going onstage and looking down at the scene from Lord of the Rings when the new type of Orc appears. I remember thinking ‘If I fall off this stage, they will actually kill me…’”
“And we always bumped into each other, because we’d both migrated to London,” remembers Paul. “I remember seeing him all over the place… backstage at the Phoenix Festival, or in the Coach and Horses in Soho. And we’d said it a few times over the years: ‘Oh, we should do something together.’ But it just never transpired. It took a global pandemic to make it happen.”
The album began life as a series of weekly vignettes on Sean Keaveny’s BBC 6 Music show, intended to reflect the cultural and social changes of lockdown. Who made the first move?
“I think I did,” says Murray.
“I thought I did!” laughs Paul. “I said something along the lines of ‘Maybe we should chronicle where we are now…’ And you said ‘That’s funny, because that’s what I’m doing every week with Shaun Keaveny. Why don’t you score what I’m doing?’ That’s where it started, and we progressed onto writing a track a week. Murray would deliver it on Tuesday or Wednesday, I had Wednesday or Thursday to do the music, and then Shaun would play it on Friday and I’d be sat in the garden with a cup of tea thinking ‘I can’t remember what it sounds like…’
“The turnaround was so fast, and based on gut feelings. It was great. I fitted the music around him and tried wherever possible to always utilise my first idea. First ideas are often the best. And we had to deliver them by the end of play on Thursday, otherwise Shaun couldn’t play them on the show.”
“That’s very Zen,” nods Murray. “The Zen concept is about communicating directly with your essential nature. The moment you start arguing the toss with yourself creatively, it means that your mind and your ego have started to infiltrate the process, which casts doubt and lowers the creativity level. Whereas with something that comes straight out of the essential consciousness, you immediately have something. And so, as a creative process, for me it was incredibly valuable. It put me back in touch with that element of ‘Just Do It’. Have an idea, focus on it, and don’t think too hard. Become a channel for the creativity rather than considering that you are the creativity.”
“I’d think ‘This sounds like a very Teutonic techno track’, and I’d just do it,” he nods. “Often, I’d go to bed and think ‘I’m not sure about that…’ But then I’d listen again in the morning, and there it was – job done. It’s certainly informed the way I’ve worked since, it was a really good creative exercise throughout lockdown.
“Like you say, Murray – I’m trying to sack ego and mind from the solo band in my head. They can fuck off!”
The album doesn’t dwell upon the genuine tragedies of the pandemic. It pulls back from the bigger, almost overwhelming picture to raise an affectionate eyebrow at the more ridiculous mores of a very British lockdown. It’s actually pretty reassuring.
“There was this enormous negotiation period where we asked – ‘How do we feel about this?’,” remembers Murray. “And for me, it was very much based in the gut: ‘There’s a bunch of shit going down here, with some very scared people and huge amounts of confusion’. It felt like we were almost called upon to add some groundedness to it. Some humour, but without adding flippancy to terror. That’s what I felt I was doing as the lyricist – just trying to say ‘It’s not OK, but it’s OK’.”
“That’s reflected in the music,” agrees Paul. “There are poignant, sad moments. ‘Bedtime Again’… that got to me, so the music reflects that. But then you’ve got the total madness of ‘I’ve Got A Delivery Coming’, and everybody’s obsession with ordering stuff online. That was the highlight of the day!
“I feel like it’s a bit of a time capsule album. It’s like looking at photos on your phone. The recent ones are really boring, but the photos from 10 years ago are fascinating. I know the subject matter is big, and the fact that everyone got into jogging and baking is not the most obvious thing to talk about when you think about a global pandemic. But because those things aren’t going to be particularly well remembered, it’ll be really interesting to remind people. It’s like looking into the corners of a hotel room – you don’t do it, do you? But let’s celebrate those dusty corners. The bits nobody likes. The bits below that funny table under the telephone that nobody uses. Those weird corners of humanity during this whole pandemic.”
Has the lockdown experience changed them, I wonder? Paul nods.
“My FOMO has gone down a notch or two”, he says. “I had to think about what I’m doing, and make sure I’m living the life I want, for me and my family. Before this happened, we were set to fly to South America for two gigs. They were paying us enough, but it was going to cost all that money to get us there and back. So why were we doing it?
“The world was going into that whole ecology and global warming thing anyway, and now the two things have coalesced for me. If I’m going to go somewhere like that, I’ll go for a month and do it properly. But flying around the world for one single promotional item is just ridiculous.
“I’ve definitely changed for the better, I hope. It’s having the time to think that’s been really good.”
“For me, it’s been a really amazing experience,” adds Murray. “It’s been the confrontation of the ego. From having big freak-outs early on, to being with a partner who was having massive freak-outs as well, to then finding some equilibrium. And I think I had a wake-up, in the sense of understanding that the majority of chatter that goes on in my head is absolutely false. There’s no truth to it whatsoever. So it was realising that a huge amount of who I thought I was isn’t actually me. And that’s quite a big jolt! Now I’m just trying to concentrate on thinking a lot less and being a lot more.”
That’s quite profound. I ask if I can lower the tone and finish with some utterly facile questions, and they both laugh.
“I was waiting for you to get round to that!” exclaims Paul. We discuss the vintage EMS VC3 analogue synthesizer used in the album’s publicity photos, and also their favourite 1980s video games in John Sandicombe’s makeshift arcade (Murray: “Phoenix”; Paul: “Gorf”). And I ask them to describe themselves at school, and judge how much they’ve changed since those first adolescent encounters. Go on, I tell them, do each other. It’s more fun that way. Then I’ll leave you both alone.
“He hasn’t really changed that much,” insists Murray. “He’s not the exuberant youth he once was – he used to kiss people of both sexes quite a lot, in a very friendly way! But otherwise very little, bar the miles on the clock. Like any vehicle, it’s not going to run at top speed when it’s 53 years old. So just a little bit slower, but the same…”
Paul is chuckling throughout.
“I always remember feeling sorry for Murray,” he recalls. “I thought ‘Mate, you’ve got to stop going around looking like King Charles II. You’re going to get the shit kicked out of you!’ He had long, black curly hair with ringlets. And although I know this isn’t true, in my mind he was wearing a smoking jacket and cravat, and talking like Noël Coward.
“But he was like a lotus flower! He just blossomed. As soon as a scene appeared where he could be the frontman of a band, all that flamboyance came out. And before you knew it, you were seeing him on Virgin adverts on the telly. So that King Charles II hair paid off in the end…”
‘The Virus Diaries’ is available here:
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