A long, long, long time ago (November 1991, to be exact), when Bandwidth's frequency range was tender, green, and underdeveloped, yours truly got to hang with Dr. Alex Paterson, wing commander of the ambient/dance outfit the Orb. At the time I hadn't heard any of the band's music (this was just prior to the release of Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, the Orb's lysergic, beat-dipped debut) but my record-store- employee friend dragged me up to Boulder, Colorado, to check out the heralded, megahyped show. Before the pre-rave-era cosmic light-'n'-sound session began, my buddy and I were introduced to Paterson by one of those schmoozy record-company executives I've spent the rest of my so-called career trying to avoid.
Paterson looked like a bleary-eyed roadie in a tattered T-shirt: scruffy, rumpled, and sort of twitchy. After shaking our hands, he blurted out, "Do either of you blokes have any pot?"
Lucky for us Boulder circa 1991 was a fun place to be if you were an herb smoker. The hordes of Colorado University's Pathfinder-driving trustafarians kept the town perennially green, rolling in baggies of what we called "the kind" or "dank buds" and later "nugs" (which South Floridians know as "crippy"), so my pal and I were able to oblige the good doctor. And also fortuitous, this was several years before Boulder enacted one of the country's most stringent antismoking laws, prohibiting cigarettes or other combustibles from all bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. So we went backstage and burned... and burned... and burned some more.
Needless to say our little session prepared me for the three-hour techno orgy that followed, which introduced me to the songs "Little Fluffy Clouds," "Star 6 & 7 8 9," and "Perpetual Dawn," which plowed a middle ground between dance and psychedelic/ambient music. I still have a pair of the refraction goggles passed out at the door (all the better to enjoy the light show, my dear). We ended by taking Paterson up to the hills west of town after the show, where we witnessed a perpetual dawn all our own.
"I always seem to end up like that every time I'm there," he told me the last time we hooked up, in 1999. "Going up to the mountains, quite stoned."
Maybe that's why Paterson's group -- which also includes programmer/engineer Andy Hughes and "the real musician in the band," Thomas Fehlmann -- didn't come to South Florida to indulge in the dance-music summit in the sun, Winter Music Conference, where casual marijuana use is likely to result not in a head rush but a headlock from a burly doorman, and fashion-unconscious individuals like Paterson would have a hard time seeking purchase within its posh confines.
Through the smoky clouds we've inhaled and exhaled together, and despite the fact that I own almost every record the man has ever made, my status as Paterson's Boulder-based drug buddy never allowed me into any sanctum sanctorum of insight into the band's inner workings. Instead he just leaves me with cryptic sillyisms to contemplate: "Hawkwind was into pyramid power," he once explained to me, trying to place the Orb in a prog-rock context. "And we're into Wile E. Coyote power." I should note that he was puffing on an enormous spliff of hydroponic sinsemilla as he delivered that nugget of wisdom -- while rolling another fatty from his sizable satchel.
It's been three years since Paterson and Co. have mounted a tour. Last month the Orb released Cydonia, its first new album since 1998's Orblivion and one of the band's most unusual offerings -- in a career studded with weirdness. Obvious clues include two tracks of gnomic nothingness less than a minute in length and another track called "A Mile Long Lump of Lard."
For more background take a look at Paterson's roots: Back in the '80s in his native Britain, he was employed as an A&R man for EG Records, home to experimentalists Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. Mixing Eno's ambient textures with the throb of the U.K. dance scene and vital vestiges of progressive rock, Paterson infused the infant Orb with cough-inducing hippie humor, the dub plates of Mad Professor, plus live improvisation and a mind-bending light show. Maybe he sees the Orb as a transmuted form of an acid-rock outfit, continuing that lineage from the '60s and '70s into the future?
"I've never really seen us as a psychedelic band," he told me. "I've never been a fan of Tangerine Dream or Jean-Michel Jarre or the Grateful Dead. The nearest thing to all that is Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett. But we're all part of a collective," he said seriously. "Never forget that."
I'll try my darnedest, but such pearls of wisdom have become harder and harder to retain ever since I developed this pesky short-term-memory problem. Wonder how that happened?
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.