Tit was a time in the early ’00s when William Orbit was on the verge of going interstellar. He was one of the great pop architects of the 2000 era, the Mark Ronson or Jack Antonoff of his day. He produced Madonna’s Ray of Light, with his magnetic techno-lite, in 1998; Blur turns 13 a year later; and made hits for some of the biggest movies of the new millennium: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, The Next Best Thing and The Beach.
The latter’s flagship track Pure Shores, recorded by British pop group All Saints, was the second most successful UK single of 2000. Echoes of its gasping acoustics and bleepy-bloopy electronics can still be heard in the tracks. charts; it was recently championed by Lorde, who said the song was an inspiration for this year’s highly anticipated album Solar Power.
Every now and then Orbit, 65, will be at his local Whole Foods branch in Kensington, west London, and Pure Shores will float on the speakers. These days he’ll be thinking, âOh yeah, this song is fine, I get it now. At the time, it had taken so long to do that he thought it was “pure shit. When you are truly a slave to something, it takes years before you can really listen to it with pleasure.” That or a few bottles of wine, âhe hoots.
In the ’80s, Orbit was part of the synth-pop group Torch Song and launched Guerilla Studios, working with some of the most daring artists of the decade – Gary Numan, Cabaret Voltaire and Laibach among them. The following decade, he made house music as a bassomatic. But in 2000, as the chillout gained in popularity, you couldn’t budge for the ambient pop flicker of Orbit. Yielding to his other great love, orchestral music, Orbit’s classical-electronic fusion album Pieces in a Modern Style rose to number 2 in 2000, following a successful remix of the Adagio for Samuel Barber’s thongs by Dutch trance DJ Ferry Corsten.
Orbit was so successful that between 2002 and 2005 he made his home at the Leonard Hotel near Hyde Park, where he recorded Bono’s voice for the U2 song Electrical Storm. âI had a lot of money and bought a big house in Connaught Square and renovated it – and I couldn’t bear to move in,â he says. âSo the hotel that I particularly liked, I just moved in. It was like: this is life. It’s like the Chelsea hotel [in New York], but in London.
He could have been a super-producer turned star, the British Rick Rubin passing by Moby. But that didn’t quite happen. “It should have,” he nods quietly, long gray hair falling around his face.
WAs we speak, Orbit is in another hotel room, at an upscale spa in Austria, where he’s gone to “tone up a bit”. He’s pushed his body to the limit to complete his new album, his first since 2014. It’s a triumphant end point after a difficult period, about which he’s surprisingly candid. âI did my rock’n’roll binge about four years ago when I was 61,â he says. âI have waited so long. I went a little too far, I learned my lesson. I got a little crazy. Drugs will do that to you, you know, if you have a certain predisposition to be in the clouds, like I guess I do … “
Today, Orbit seems more down to earth. He’s terribly chatty, in a whimsical and conspiratorial way, pulling stories about his work with Pink (“one of the crankiest singers, but one of the best”), hanging out with billionaires (“they’ll be like : is your dog helicopter trained? â) and why he is considering buying a Gandalf stick (â my limbs don’t work because they’re crap â).
He talks at length about Madonna, with whom he has produced three albums – her unique musicality, her tenacity, how much better she is an arranger than him – and about whom illuminating anecdotes spring out of nowhere. âWe were at the Hit Factory [studio in New York] once and I ran into her on the toilet – she hadn’t locked it, âOrbit says. “She’s doing a number 2 and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry.’ She said, ‘William, listen, I grew up in a family of six with a toilet, so don’t worry.’ “
The first time they worked together, on Ray of Light, “killed me,” Orbit says. âI was in crisis with my family, which I put on hold. I remember getting very sick that winter; at 43, I was physically done. It took months to complete. Madonna, who was a new mom at the time, cracked the whip. As harsh as it was, it was an atmosphere in which he thrived. âI thrive under it,â he says. âShe is a fabulous producer. When it says “produced by Madonna and William Orbit” people don’t always give it credit for it. But she is as responsible as I am.
However, after its initial streak of success, Orbit went on to become a shill pop for Ricky Martin, Mel C, and Chris Brown (and those are just the songs that have been released). âI walked into that songwriting scene in America and I was like, ‘I’m not cut out for this,’â he says. âThe inner voice was like, ‘You did Ray of Light, why are you remixing now? You should be the gift. I did not listen. My inner voice was stifled by my own mistake and I felt more and more powerless to do anything about it.
He’s made a few of his own albums, âbut they really fell apart. I have not had any return to my calls. It’s been a long time since I made a proper statement, rather than trying to make a song for a pop artist who has 10 other people on speed dial.
In the end, he became “more and more frustrated, believing that I was useless and washed out.” The last album he worked on with Madonna, MDNA powered by EDM in 2012, was a commercial and critical failure. “It was disappointing,” Orbit said, adding that he thinks ageism had “a profound negative effect” on his reception.
Britney Spears’ 2013 album Britney Jean arrived shortly thereafter. Produced by will.i.am, the album received mixed reviews, little to no promotion, and felt oddly impersonal, although it claims to be the opposite. Orbit worked on her opening track, Alien, in which she compares herself to a lonely alien. In light of what we now know of his tutelage, did the album feel similarly controlled?
âThis end of the pop spectrum is more controlled, if you will,â says Orbit, who says they created Alien from a distance. âHere’s the hard thing, because I’m friends with Will and with Britney. All I will say is that there was a thrill there. If I work with an artist, it’s the goddess, it’s the boss. If I want to be the boss, I’ll make my own records. You are here to serve a real pop star – if you don’t have that attitude, you shouldn’t be in the game.
Eeventually, Orbit took a bad turn. Four years ago, he returned to England from Los Angeles and joined a crowd of revelers. He takes up painting, but especially cocaine. âInstead of worrying about my career, I could just be a hedonist,â he says. âI had never had coke before and in a short time, I would be the guy who could do the most. And then I went to festivals and did LSD, mushrooms, MDMA, coke, hormones that everyone was experimenting with. Codeine. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing and ended up having a psychotic episode.
Even that wasn’t enough to stop him. âI cringe when I think about it. I was in a bad space, but not terminally ill. Then I got to the point where I started smoking tons of weed – eight joints a day. This was never okay with me and I became manic.
Result, last March, “I had a second breakdown,” he says. He lay in the street, convinced that he was a secret agent tasked with saving the royal family. He was severed. âFortunately, once the drugs were removed from my system, I finally returned to normal – and I was,â he said mercilessly.
Almost as soon as he was released from the mental hospital, however, the first UK lockdown was announced. âI was deeply disappointed in myself and there was a fucking Covid at the same time,â he says. Her new manager put Orbit in touch with a rising alt-pop singer called Maeve, and Orbit taught herself how to use Pro Tools on her laptop, via online tutorials, to produce songs. He hadn’t made music for ages “and little by little I started to like him”. Now a new Orbit album is almost done: “The best thing I’ve done in 20 years!” he enthuses. âYou caught me around a corner. You can have a turning point at any age and it’s mine.
But first there is an EP, next month, for the electronic label Anjunadeep. It looks like what he should have done after Pieces in a Modern Style: symphonic trance crescendos, chillout meanders, a major ambient-rave tune. Colombian-Canadian artist Lido Pimienta appears on vocals, hinting at the direction his full album could take next year (guest singers in abundance).
He doesn’t care about being an old man in the world of a young gun; he is excited to see that his sound has a moment once again. âBackground music has become widespread,â he says. âRadio 1 has fallen in the cold – I’m doing a Wind Down mix for them. Someone sent me a link to one of my tracks [in a video] on Instagram and he said, “Music to calm the dogs on Bonfire Night.”
He is really delighted, sparkling with enthusiasm. âI realized that I had to grow up a bit,â he says. âI just came out of my teenage years. It’s great to be 65 – it’s easier than to be 40, because you’re old and you don’t have a calendar anymore. It’s a young game, the game of pop music. But I think there is room for a Bill Nighy. It’s not like it’s a crowded lot.
Maybe not an agenda, but at least he has hopes for his music. âI really want it – and reinventing is very difficult,â says Orbit. âWhen you are young, you don’t realize it at the time, but everything is handed over to you. I like challenges. I desperately want this music to be heard. Nothing will stop me now.
William Orbit’s Starbeam EP Releases December 1 On Anjunadeep