In his lighter moments, Londoner William Wainwright, better known as William Orbit, describes himself as “Mister Super Chilled Record Producer.” The forty-three-year-old techno boffin, who oversaw Madonna’s multi-million selling Ray of Light album, has an impressive clientele. He’s mixed Prince and Seal, and has done full-scale numbers for Blur, Spice Girl Melanie C and British girl-group All Saints.
Striking a balance between cutting edge and commercial isn’t all that interests Orbit. On Tuesday, he will release his Pieces in a Modern Style disc, a selection of classical items by Erik Satie, John Cage, Ravel, Gorecki, Beethoven, and more, giving each a contemporary makeover. The first single from the album, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” hit number four on the British charts, quashing his theory that “it’s a subtle, non-radio friendly set that could easily sink without trace.”
Pieces In… has caused a bit of controversy in Britain, since both Orbit and his record company neglected to tell anyone that he’d recorded the album four years ago under his guise as “The Electric Chamber.” Although it was never officially released, review copies surfaced, and the current version isn’t very different.
If that alters the perception of the record, it doesn’t change the inspiration. “I was simply beguiled by those tunes. I like ‘ambient chillout’ as a genre, but I’m frustrated by pop’s lack of content,” says Orbit. “A lot of trance goes around in circles and becomes tedious. These pieces have so many musical time bombs embedded, that while they’re not in our face they have longevity. I’m not preserving the idiom so much as trying to move it on.”
Long before he recorded his classical venture “in a bedroom on Pro Tools” Orbit was the brains behind pioneering dance groups like Strange Cargo and Bass-o-Matic. In his poverty-stricken days he was used to living in squats “surviving on a tab of acid and a Mars bar a day.” Mixing Seal’s “Crazy” gave him his biggest break, and now he’s Madonna’s right-hand man. “We’ve finished off tracks for the soundtrack to her movie The Next Best Thing [which includes Madonna’s Orbited-up version of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’], and we’re fine tuning the follow-up to Ray of Light. It’s a tiring schedule because Madonna is very demanding but don’t shed any tears for me! I’ve probably got the best gig in town. We make an odd couple. Madonna’s got tremendous focus and ambition, and she gets exasperated by what she perceives to be my lack of a plan. She has a way of expediting things that’s quite different. She approves of my artistry, but, because she’s so lateral, she thinks I’m unfocused. She is also very studio savvy. I’ve never seen her even pick up an instrument, but she’s still an amazing producer and musician. I’m swept along on her coattails.”
However bizarre the coupling, it works. Orbit submits “hundreds of ideas, sounds and scenarios, anything from upbeat trance to lullabies and ballads” and his mistress keeps him chained to the studio console for eighteen hours at a time. “Then she’ll take me out partying. There’s never a dull moment. We have fun. We hang. She’s good at that. No way is she a robot. What’s strange is that whenever you go out with her you’re surrounded by a heaving mass of teenage ravedom. It can play havoc with your private life.”
Considering his reputation as a synthesizer merchant, Orbit is surprisingly old school in his tastes — the late Sixties L.A. breed of the Doors, the Beach Boys and Tim Buckley crop up in conversation — and his methods. He used an acoustic guitar to sketch his ideas for Ray of Light and when we meet, he’s proud to show off a vintage Chet Atkins axe that’s only one in a large collection. “Great guitars are like good furniture — the more money I can make the more instruments I can buy. They’re still great writing tools.”
Expensive equipment aside, Orbit enjoys living in Los Angeles and New York. “I like the lifestyle in California. People say it’s superficial and barren, but I prefer that to the negative aspects of the English. At least it balances out our inherent cynical streak.”
Cynical or not, Orbit is quick to count his blessings. “I never assume that the Madonna gig is a permanent residency. I’d like to produce more British groups, and I’d love to work with Limp Bizkit and Korn. Seriously, I enjoy the hard-rock aesthetic. Arsehole rock! I think I can do that.”