MOTZ: Orphx Interview – ‘We were often considered ”too industrial” for most techno promoters and labels’

Hailing from Canada, together Rich Oddie and Christina Sealey formed the music duo Orphx in 1993, and have been at the forefront of the experimental music scene ever since. Their sound has been heavily influenced by their studio equipment: in the early nineties their productions were dense, gritty and tactile but later on as they combined this with software, they began to fuse their industrial, experimental sound with techno, creating a blueprint for the industrial-techno which has risen to prominence today. Listening to their tracks, it conjures the landscape of Ontario, Hamilton where Sealey and Oddie grew up and first began producing together. They have amassed a list of releases as long as my arm, collaborating with independent labels such as Adam X’s Sonic Groove and Hymen Records, as well as providing remixes for artists such as DrumcellOscar MuleroPerc and Svreca. High in international demand, they have toured all over North America and Europe, playing live improvised performances in BerghainTresorMutek and Labyrinth amongst others. In this interview, Orphx gets technical, talking us through the tools they use to create their ‘rhythmic noise’ and the external influences for the tracks.

In recent years, Orphx has stepped away from the virtual and turned to using analog modular synthesizers. What sparked that change and how does it change your live performances?

Christie: When we started making music in the early 1990s, we were using hardware: synths, a sampler, drum machines, contact microphones and reel to reel tape machines. We soon started using computers to sequence our music and by the 2000s we were using computers to record and perform. After a while, I started to feel restricted by the use of the computer and I didn’t feel as connected to the music when preforming or creating as I did with our earlier hands-on approach. Around 2008, I began exploring modular synthesizers as a way of developing a more engaging approach to live performance. Now they have become central to our studio recordings as well.

Rich: The modular also led us back toward improvisation. All of our early work was based on improvisation but over time we moved toward more carefully arranged recordings and performances. There was always an improvisational element but the computer software during the early 2000s did not allow much room for improvising with the basic structures of the music. We started using Ableton Live around 2005 and this allowed us to be much more flexible and intuitive with live performance. The modular synthesizers pushed us back towards a fully improvisational approach because it is virtually impossible to pre-plan and predict exactly how the system will behave. All of the elements of the sound can be changed in real-time and this makes the modular the perfect improvisational instrument. Now all of our sets are created in the moment, with a very rough plan of where things will go.

The music scene and in particular music production has changed a lot since 1993 when Orphx released its first record. In your opinion, what impact does this have on the quality and quantity of sounds being produced today?

Christie: It is much easier and faster today to produce and record high quality sounds from home now but that doesn’t necessarily make higher quality music. I still have a fondness for the stripped down production, harshness, and noise of a simple analog setup, and the shifting timings that occur when sounds are not tightly sequenced and quantized.

Rich: When we began, software was limited to basic sequencing programs and it was difficult to afford instruments, effects, and recording equipment on a limited budget. Today, it is much easier to access very powerful software for every aspect of the music making process. Many more people now have the ability to create music. As Christie said, you have an increase in quantity but not necessarily in quality. One of the challenges today is that producers are often faced with too many options and it becomes difficult to choose between all of the available instruments, effects, and programs. It is very helpful to have limitations and be forced to learn and master a small selection of tools.

The noun ‘pioneer’ is often used to describe Orphx due to your move to combine industrial & techno in the early 90’s that industry heavy-weights are only catching up with now. Was there a light-bulb moment or did the process happen more naturally, and why do you think it took others so long to come round to the idea?

Rich: When we started, we were listening to techno and going to raves but it did not directly influence our early recordings. But by the time of our 1997 release Nullity, you can hear the influence and this became a prominent feature of our sound from that point forward. It was a natural progression. Of course, we were not the only ones combining techno and industrial music. This was central to the European rhythmic noise scene that we became involved with through labels like Hands and Ant Zen/Hymen. And there were many other artists and labels within techno that were directly inspired by industrial music. In recent years, the industrial influence in techno has become prominent again but those earlier waves of influence are sometimes overlooked.

A blight on the music industry is an obsession with genre labels. What is your opinion on this and its potential repercussions on artists?

Rich: I think it can be very limiting to try to deliberately create music that fits into a particular genre. That often results in boring, derivative music. I think we’ve always tried to combine elements of different genres, rather than fitting into a particular box.

Christie: This was a problem for us in the past, because we were often considered “too industrial” for most techno promoters and labels, and “too techno” for some industrial fans and events. We have worked hard to reach a wide range of audiences and make connections between different scenes. We’ve also been fortunate to work with labels that have crossed the techno / industrial divide, at a time when the lines between those genres have blurred again. Now, with the internet it is possible to market your music to a wide range of people and I think this makes things a bit easier.

Making music as a duo is a beautiful fusion of two minds but isn’t always successful. Do you ever find you’re not in sync and if so how do you iron out any ‘creative differences’?

Rich:  We argue about it! But fortunately, we are usually in agreement.

Christie: Working as a team is sometimes challenging but I think ultimately more rewarding, especially for live shows. If one of us is having an off night it can negatively affect our live show but when things come together it can be really amazing and much more rewarding than playing on your own. We try to talk to each other during each performance to stay in tune and keep a good flow to the performance.  

You’ve said in other interviews that every track has a reference point. What is your creative process from the conception of an idea till production is complete?

Rich: That varies from one track to another. Usually, we start with sounds and rhythms rather than concepts. Later, ideas and reference points from books, films, or real-life events begin to suggest themselves and get worked into the track or reflected in the title.

Christie: We often discuss an overall theme/concept that we are both interested in and would like to explore. From there, we create starting points that we then bring to each other to work on further. I enjoy the sound and pattern creation aspect more and Rich excels at rhythms and composition so our work is often divided that way. We often work back and forth on tracks until they are complete.

You hail from Hamilton, Ontario and attribute a lot of your sound to the industrialized landscape. How was it making music there in the early days?

Rich: We learned about industrial music and techno through knowledgable friends and a few influential radio and television programs. The industrial landscape of Hamilton definitely resonated with the aesthetics of the music and we were naturally attracted to those sites.

Christie: The early days were pretty DIY and experimental in approach. We used anything that we could to make music, including contact microphones, tape machines, and scrap metal. We recorded sounds in some of the abandoned industrial sites around Hamilton and used field recordings from all around the city.

Rich: It was good in some ways to be developing our sound in a city which is relatively isolated. We were discovering new music and learning about the history of electronic music but there was no real scene for this music in the city and therefore no pressure to fit into anyone’s expectations. It also gave us the opportunity to start presenting our own events and building our own networks.

Working as a duo and working with music is something that has played lesser and larger roles at different points over the twenty three year span since you and Christina began collaborating. How do you manage to sustain yourself creatively over such a long time span?

Christie: I oscillate between music and visual art. I find that they work well together. If I am getting blocked with music I can get more involved in my painting and I often find that this reinvigorates my interest in the music and inspires new ways of working and vice versa.  

Rich: Until recently, I had a parallel life as an academic. My teaching, research and writing would often influence my music. In the last few years, all of my work has revolved around music but I take a lot of influence from what I am reading and seeing in the world around me. I’m always listening to a wide range of music and this also provides a lot of inspiration. I usually have a few different recording projects on the go and if I’m getting stuck with one, I will switch to another.

You have lots of different projects going on. How do you manage that without becoming too overwhelmed?

Rich: These days, we are often working to meet recording and performance deadlines so that helps keep things focused. I enjoy having different projects to express different ideas and styles of music. I’d like to start more, if I can just find the time.

If you had to give advice to your younger self, what would you say led to your global success today? 

Christie: I don’t know that it is such a great idea to get caught up in the concept of global success. I think that this can come and go very quickly. But my advice would be to work in ways that are challenging and personally engaging, rather than worrying about following trends or scenes.

MOTZ: Orphx Interview – ‘We were often considered ”too industrial” for most techno promoters and labels’ 

Eleanor Brooks

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