Interview: ORPHX (Ekstasis, Hands, Hospital Productions, Sonic Groove)

Interview by Helena Markos

Today’s content is an in-depth Q & A with the Canadian duo Orphx. Christie and Rich have been creating and manipulating their unique fusion of rhythm and noise since the 1990s, combining techno elements with the experimental techniques and critical spirit of industrial music. Orphx have been an important driving force in the electronic music scene for decades now. Their contribution has been tremendous, and they have left their unique mark in the spectrum of obscure electronic sound by creating first-rate techno, rhythmic noise, industrial and experimental. Working closely with Germany’s Hands Productions label, the duo gained an international following as one of the pioneering European “rhythmic noise” scenes. Orphx have over the years released their music on prominent labels such as Adam X’s Sonic Groove, Semantica, Token and Hospital Productions. Needless to say, that they numerous times performed in some of the electronic music temples such as Tresor, Khidi and Berghain. Orphx is a multifaceted project, and their talent is channelled into different routes, including films and documentaries, such as the  ‘I Dream of Wires’ (2014) and the ‘Urban Decay’ (2015).

This interview is published just a few days after their latest release, “Primordial State”, on Rich’s imprint Ekstasis. It is a collection of live recordings, recorded in various locations across Southern Ontario, between August 1994 and July 1995. The release is a taste of their sound in their early days; dark and distorted textures develop in an eerie, B-movie-like atmosphere—sixteen edgy tracks that convey the decayed human being’s pain, horror, and despair. The ideal soundtrack of the current dystopic status quo we live in.

T.O.P: First of all, thank you very much for accepting the invitation. I would like to ask you how the pandemic and the current events in the world have been affecting you?

Rich: We’ve both been pretty lucky in terms of our health and have found other ways to survive financially. But it has presented challenges for both of us in terms of personal life pressures and mental health, adding a lot of extra stress to difficult situations. It’s definitely been a time for learning hard lessons and making change. I feel like I’ve learned a lot and addressed a lot of problems that probably would have continued to be neglected if I was just following my usual routine.

T.O.P: Last year brought the reissue of your full length album ‘Fragmentation’ on Hospital Productions: an imposing, cinematographic mixture of noise, drone and industrial soundscapes, leading to a state of self-disintegration and paranoia. The album was originally released on the legendary Malignant Records in 1996 and this new expanded version includes live recordings and rare studio tracks from this period. And now you have another collection of early live tracks coming on your own Ekstasis label. How do you feel about the re-release of this old material, after so many years?

Rich: It was a great experience to revisit those old recordings and sort through them to find the best moments. Listening to and editing this archival material was helpful when my creative energy for new work was low. I think we’ve both taken a lot inspiration for new material from the raw energy of those old recordings. I was really happy with how the Fragmentation reissue turned out. Hospital did an amazing job, as usual. ‘Primordial State’, the new release on Ekstasis, is a kind of companion to the box set as it includes a lot of live material that would later be shaped into studio tracks for Fragmentation. There is something really special about the energy of that time, when we were creating with absolutely no expectations and really learning as we went. We both know so much more now about sound design, composition, performance and all the facets of working as musicians but sometimes all of that knowledge and experience can get in the way. The best work always comes from that pure creative space.

T.O.P: How would you describe your creative process? 

Christie: I often see or hear something inspiring that gives me an idea or presents a new challenge for creating a sound, sequence or concept. If Rich and I are working in the studio we talk about our ideas and then set up gear to improvise. We record everything and then go back to find the sections that really work as the basis for a track. On my own, I usually start by experimenting with sound design on the modular system until I find a sound that really resonates with me.

Rich: We started working together through improvisation and that has almost always been a major element in what we do. With almost every project I’m involved in, the approach is to improvise and record the results. Then I will go back and edit out the most interesting sections and we will often add a few sounds or some processing. Even if I’m working alone, improvisation is usually the starting point followed by editing to isolate the best sections. From about 1998 until 2008, Orphx was just me solo and I would often build up the tracks more systematically inside a sequencing program. But most tracks still contained improvised elements and sections, and our performances were still collaborative with room to improvise within the sequenced structure. About fifteen years ago, we started using Ableton Live for live performances and that allowed us to bring back in much more improvisation. Soon after, we started collaborating on studio recordings again and both adopted Ableton as our main software tool. Christie was also exploring modular synths at that time and they soon became a major part of our live sets and studio work. That inspired a turn back towards hardware, though we both still use a mixture of hardware and software.

T.O.P.: What do you do when you need to disconnect from the studio life?  

Christie: Get outside: running, cycling, hiking.

Rich: The same for me though I’m more of a wanderer than a runner. I enjoy camping and have started to explore caving. But right now I am really trying to reconnect to studio life!

T.O.P.: Are there any books or films that you have found inspiring lately?

Rich: “Underland” by Robert MacFarlane.

“The Hero With A Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell.

Novels by Philip K. Dick and short stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Thomas Ligotti.

Christie: I am into reading science books at the moment. I loved Carlo Rovelli’s book “The Order of Time”. I watched Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” last spring and it has been coming back to me all year.

T.O.P: Which pieces of music or albums would you suggest as mind / soul healers?

Rich: I usually turn to Alice Coltrane, Nina Simone, Harold Budd, Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine. The Chameleons are a recent addition to that list. Script of the Bridge has become a soundtrack for the past year. I’ve been listening to Steve Roach, Sphare Sechs, and Leila Abdul-Rauf for more deep meditative sounds. And I’ve been obsessed with Les Rallizes Denudes lately. Most of the time, they are more like mind / soul destroyers but obliteration can be very healing!

Christie: There’s too many to list but Oleva by Mika Vainio is one that I keep returning to.

T.O.P.: You have been working on the Orphx project for many years now. Have you ever had a moment where you felt that the project might be complete and that you couldn’t do any more? If so, how did you overcome this?

Christie: Not really. There is always more to say and we are constantly reassessing things. I think it has stayed interesting because we don’t stick to one direction for very long.

Rich: I actually felt that kind of stuck feeling over the past year and a half. It was worse than any other creative block I’ve had in the past. Not just for this project but a general sense of not knowing what to do or where to go next with creative work in general. But that was primarily to do with the personal challenges I mentioned earlier and the need to resolve a number of problems that needed attention. Now all of that difficult time is providing a lot of inspiration. The list of neglected projects is very long but I’m really excited about realizing those plans.

T.O.P.: Are there any specific concepts or projects that you have dreamt of producing music for?

Christie: I would love to produce music for films. Science fiction especially. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner or the upcoming Dune remake immediately come to mind. I’m also really interested in continuing to work with spatial and immersive sound technology.

Rich: I share Christie’s interest in doing film soundtracks and this is something we are starting to pursue. As she mentioned, we’ve been doing special performances over the last few years that involve spatial sound and audio-visual integration, as well as infrasound. I’m also very interested in taking this further.

T.O.P: How do you think the electronic music world will emerge in the post-pandemic era?

Christie: I’m very hopeful that it will return and grow strong again, though that will probably take a while. We are really looking forward to doing live gigs again. It has been way too long. Hopefully that can happen soon.

Rich: I’m also looking forward to playing again but I think it will be a different world because so many venues have closed and everyone is so tentative. We also have to see what happens with the various Covid variants that are spreading now.

Rich: The bigger issue is all the impacts from climate change that are going to intensify over the coming years. Everyone is going to have to adapt to a world that is changing rapidly in very disturbing ways. It’s difficult to predict how things will change in this science fiction scenario but I think artists of all kinds are going to have a lot of inspiration and opportunity. I think there is a tendency now, in electronic music and beyond, to focus just on the negative, following the old punk / industrial / metal ethos of exposing the dark underbelly of modern life. But now all the rot and madness is in plain sight and almost everyone can see it. What we really need now is new stories and new visions of the future and artists have a real power to create that.

T.O.P: Any upcoming projects or collaborations to announce?

Rich: We have just released ‘Primordial State’, the collection of live recordings from 1994 and 1995 on my label Ekstasis. We are continuing to work on two new albums and a new 12” for early 2021, along with our own solo work and side projects. We are starting to revive our existing collaborations and some new ones are in the works.