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Joy Orbison, August 2019
Joy OrbisonPhotography Steve Braiden

Joy meets world

Since his instant breakthrough a decade ago, Joy Orbison has stayed one foot ahead of the dance music game – all while staying conspicuously silent. Now, the reluctant star finds himself in a reflective mood, and ready to talk

Ten years in dance music is an age. Vanishingly few make it through their first decade in the game with the same level of credibility, creativity, and commercial appeal as they started out with. There is a constant mitigation of factors in order to stay in the conversation – forever massaging a public persona, ticking the boxes of endless content – and even then, it’s often not enough. The speed at which ones-to-watch shimmy up the greased pole is matched only by the velocity at which they plunge back down once the weather changes.

Joy Orbison presents a compelling case for doing none of that. The producer and DJ rocketed to prominence in 2009 with “Hyph Mngo”, an instant classic that shook up the underground. If it seemed like he arrived from nowhere, it’s because he more or less did – this was the then-22-year-old south Londoner’s debut release. At a time when dubstep was more about the dankness of a cramped basement, rather than the dank drops you’d find soundtracking killstreak compilations on YouTube today, “Hyph Mngo” pried open a crack for light and colour. It arrived as other artists were breaking through with tunes that were simultaneously headsy, rushy, and bassy: James BlakeJamie xxMount Kimbie, and Floating Points among them, as well as the Hessle Audio trio of Ben UFOPearson Sound, and Pangaea. The sound was rooted in British club culture, but had international appeal, catching on in a way the sounds it mutated from never did (to the chagrin of many). Inverting the stereotype of hard partying, big gurning, overbearing personalities, most of this polite new breed opted to use music as their mouthpiece.

Joy Orbison’s name – sometimes just Joy O, when the mood takes – and that of Hinge Finger, the record label he runs with The Trilogy Tapes’ Will Bankhead, have remained a byword for quality ever since. A vow of relative silence has further burnished his reputation. He picks his gigs judiciously, and you can count the number of interviews he’s done in ten years on one hand, leaving it up to his fans to do the mythmaking for him. They pick up breadcrumbs he leaves along the trail, scrutinising his radio show tracklists and decoding a change in visual style on his record sleeves, because they know that is more or less all they’ll be getting. By staying above the social scrum, focusing his energy on his craft, he occupies a gilded space where he can elude the turnover of trends. He has excelled through cycles of dubstep, post-dubstep, hug-yer-mate piano house, narcotised tech house, gritty techno, a hardcore revival, a gabber revival, and electronic music’s current form, where voices, rhythms, and perspectives from outside the Anglo sphere are heard louder than ever.

All of which makes the invitation to have a sit-down with him a surprise, and a no-brainer. We meet in a north London pub near his mum’s house. Orbison – real name Peter O’Grady – is there ahead of time. The only bike outside the boozer is his. He’s scrunched up on a high stool in a back room, in a zip-up fleece, framed by two enormous dog portraits on the back wall and accompanied by a pack of scampi crisps that he speculatively rummages in. If someone was conspicuously trying to position him as a no-frills geezer rather than a dance music oracle, they hardly could have done a more tasteful or consummate job.

So, why open up now, at long last? He’s had ten years to prep for this: “When I first started out, I was telling a friend that I didn’t want to do any of this extra stuff,” he says. “They said: ‘Then go out and say nothing.’ It stayed in my head that it’s good to try and rock the boat. But that’s tricky, isn’t it? I’d like to assume everyone reads between the lines, and of course they don’t. There’s much more important stuff going on in their lives. If you don’t fill in the spaces and connect these things, someone else will.” He breaks and smiles knowingly. “I forget people at the back need to get it too.”

Joy Orbison is in a rare period of self-evaluation, bordering on open nostalgia. Plausibly triggered by the tenth anniversary of the “Hyph” he rode in on, he has begun gingerly floating emo posts out onto social media. Last year’s 50 Locked Grooves was a quirky present to fans, presenting 50 untitled samples heard across his back catalogue on vinyl to be used for… further sampling? Three-deck mixing? Arsing about? It was a tad unclear, but appreciated nonetheless. What caused a greater stir was a long-awaited appearance of Joy O on Spotify. I know people on different sides of the globe who stayed up waiting for a valedictory play, only to be gutted when the upload was only partially complete. Alas, Orbison didn’t have it all to hand, relying on a whip-round from friends and fellow DJs to send back his own material in strong enough quality. He confesses that “GR Etiquette”, a holy grail tune pined for by diehards since the early days, is gone for good – sorry.

“I’d like to assume everyone reads between the lines, and of course they don’t. If you don’t fill in the spaces and connect these things, someone else will” – Joy Orbison

Stopping to smell the roses doesn’t mean Joy O is entering into legacy mode yet, though. He’s actively rolling the die. Orbison’s output is markedly pulling away from the dancefloor. Last year’s single Transition/Systems Align, made with saxophonist Ben Vince, and EP 81b were dark, tremulous, and nervy. A cassette for Cav Empt, one of two clothing brands that Orbison reps religiously alongside skatewear staples Palace, was rightfully heralded at one of the year’s best mixes. He thread the needle from Suspect OTB and Wizkid to UB40 and King Crimson, barely tilting north of 100 beats per minute yet never feeling sluggish.

That same suspended energy maintains on his nocturnal new one, Slipping. It holds back-bar jazz, languid drums and a recorded message from his father in twine, the sound of reflection and gentle contentment. Domesticity is a prominent theme: a photo of Grandma Orbison is on the EP’s front cover, resplendent in her front yard with a fag and “a glass of something”, while on the back, a picture of her grand-orbi-sons napping is overlayed with scrawled diary notes from 1996. The sleeve of 81b even reproduced little Pete’s junior membership for his local team, Crystal Palace. Adrift on the road, he felt the call of home, and is making this unguarded sentimentality an open part of his work.

Slipping is a very honest record,” Orbison says. It came together in his mind during a period of low sleep and high unease, playing big shows yet feeling disconnected with the audience. He set about recording it in his home studio with collaborators Mansur Brown and Keyah Blu, save for vocals with Infinite, recorded in NYC. Solange’s When I Get Home arrived at the perfect time, guiding Orbison in how to make something supple and introspective without adhering to the usual strictures of a set medium. “In my world, there’s a kind of traditionalism, always putting out 12”s. So when you do anything that’s not a club track, you automatically step toward this danger zone, introducing a coffee table aspect to it.” Veering away from floor fillers “hopefully keeps it more interesting. It’s mixed so the tracks pack a punch, but DJ play isn’t the sole function. With each EP, I can put together ideas and slowly get close to where I want to be.” He pauses and squints. “And I don’t I think I actually even know where that is. But I’m enjoying changing up each time.”

Change is a constant in Joy Orbison’s career, but it’s something he had to teach himself. It’s easy to assume his uncle, drum & bass renegade Ray Keith, had the young Joy practising double-drops in school uniform. The opposite is true: Keith didn’t think he had the minerals. “My uncle was adamant that he didn’t want me to do it,” Orbison recalls. “He only knew one world and his was a rough world.”

Orbison talks about ‘the culture’ as much as he does music. A garage nut since his teenage years, he would make bootleg tapes of pirate radio shows that would reach his bedroom, while the process of interacting with music in a physical sense – buying records, accruing tips, speaking to the makers, watching how it has an impact on real people – was intractably part of the appeal. Keith would take his nephew to Soho’s Black Market Records, where records would come in fresh from the cutting house, aired by whoever was working the floor, and sold to the highest, or rowdiest, bidder. That Black Market no longer exists, and many DJs in that scene went through struggles, gave credence to what Keith used to drill in: “With a rise always comes a fall.” The dog-eat-dog territorialism of London’s 90s rave landscape smoothed out, and Keith himself bounced back strong with a new generation of fans, but it left an impression on Orbison. No DJ receives tenure. You don’t just wake up every morning with the wind in your sails. Even with a strong hand, you need to be perceptive and play it well.

Around three years ago, Joy O began to slip out the exit door of the house scene. There was no grand proclamation, but the signs were there. A run of smash singles, each a fresh Molotov igniting student dancefloors, came to an end – he continued to release at a slower pace, but without a year of salivating hype and teasing preceding each 12”. Back-to-back sets with major stars began to disappear from his tour schedule. Longtime friend Jon Rust detected a funk and took him out to some poetry nights to unwind.

“History can get rewritten, and that can be quite dangerous. You have the responsibility to show people how we got here” – Joy Orbison

This sparked Joy O’s trend of beginning peak time sets with spoken word excerpts by James Massiah, giving crowds a verbal volley of tucked-away boroughs, pilled-up house parties, and night bus confrontations (Orbison returned the favour by mixing one of 2019’s best club anthems, Massiah’s “Natural Born Killers”) Look at the shows he shouts about online, and see names like Parris, Cõvco, Felix Hall, Zakia, Beatrice Dillon, as well as Rust and Bankhead – key parts of London’s underground who play a wide mix-up of sounds, know their shit back to front, and have an unassuming way of carrying themselves. All this re-situates Joy O a capital-L Londoner, someone aware of heritage but keen to kick it forward. Dancehall, jungle, funky, dub, UK rap, and hybrid sounds yet to find a name crept back into play after a period on the sidelines.

Whenever a name like Cõvco or James Massiah come up, I get the strongest sense of what Orbison is currently charged by, and those connections he’s out to make clearer to heads in the back. He was blinking a lot at first, speaking out of the corner of his mouth in quick bursts and doubling over himself a lot, tying logical pretzels. As we slip into the second hour of our chat, the nervous tics have quelled, self-aware laughs punctuate passages of reminiscence, and when he’s really into it, a lovely Muttley-style grin takes over his whole face. “I feel like I don’t want to be just another one of these guys in an airport, moaning. I’m very fortunate to be part of this in any way. But being a house DJ,” he reflects, “was very, very steady middle ground; a business move. There’s still amazing stuff out there – just maybe not as much that excites me.”

He hadn’t necessarily intended on the path of crossing over into the house and techno major leagues, but by every metric, he had made it. But the ‘it’ was gnawing at him. Having become a regular on Ibizan terraces and Adriatic boat parties, a voice inside was telling him: “You’re getting lazy, this is too obvious.” It was time to start leading from the front. “I was just a kid in awe of the culture, wanting to go to record shops and get involved, but never holding any power,” he says. “That’s changed now. So when I get to choose who to play with at a show, that is a way of shepherding people in the right direction, to throw energy toward something I really believe in.”

He lasers in on the point here. “They say you can’t play broken beats or reggae in Berlin, it won’t work for that crowd. And for years, drum & bass was a dirty word in the whole scene. Well, where do you think this sound came from? This is a huge part of our hometown, these people changed the face of where we are now. History can get rewritten, and that can be quite dangerous. You have the responsibility to show people how we got here. I think you actually have to stand for something more now.”

A decade in, a lot of hopes remain tied up in Joy Orbison. People gravitate toward him not just because of killer taste as a selector and generationally-great chops as a producer, but because he has aspirational principles in how to operate within an industry based on smash-and-grab gains. “If you go so hard at this, and you do everything you can for visibility’s sakes, then when you get there, no-one’s really happy for you. Doing it on your own terms means you might not be the richest guy out, but there’s an element of respect to it. Overall, it feels better.”

As we wrap, I ask if he had the chance to rerun anything in the past ten years. I expect him to demur but surprisingly, there is lots. He had initial ambitions to be an A&R and still quibbles about whether he could have done more to sire others, shifting the lens off himself. He went into “overkill” with DJing at the expense of making more music, when he should have had more faith in himself early on. His name, he Muttleys, “is a joke. And it’s not even funny.” Then, again, he counters his own reasoning. He was smitten with humorous artist aliases like 2 Bad Mice and Benny Ill when he was younger, so surely it’s alright to have a bit of fun with it?

Ultimately, he’s pleased at how it’s all going. There’s a lot to look forward to. First, a b2b with Ben UFO, still his closest mate in the game and a regular partner behind the decks, on a stacked jungle and drum & bass bill featuring their heroes like Brockie, Kenny Ken, Nicky Blackmarket, as well as uncle Ray. He’s committed to being more vocal, in small doses. Further out, there are additional EPs in the pipeline, and maybe an album one day, if he can hurdle the stigma of laying down something that definitive. It might never come, though: “You know, I’ve got my thing, maybe I don’t need too much of the cake. Just my own slice.”