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At Last, Things Turn His Way

William Orbit has gone from studio phantom to the pop spotlight.

March 05, 2000|RICHARD CROMELIN | Richard Cromelin is a Times staff writer

You can take the mad scientist out of the lab, but you can't take the lab out of the mad scientist.

Record producer and electronic musician William Orbit has been set up in a rustic Brentwood neighborhood, but instead of opening his windows to the sunny hills, the way most Englishmen can't wait to do when they hit L.A., he has them covered by curtains. He hasn't furnished his living room with leather couches and other symbols of his remarkable career reversal, but with keyboards and computers that fill it from wall to wall.

"I've never spent money on frivolous things," says the tall musician, standing amid the hardware. "I've never bought cars or drugs or holidays or things like that. It's always been plowed into equipment."

Guy Oseary, co-partner at Maverick Records, is the one who proposed the operative metaphor.

"He's always worked in his little studio," said Oseary, whose label released Orbit's album "Pieces in a Modern Style" two weeks ago. "The mad scientist would sit in his house and do these amazing things there, but he never really had to deal with an extra person there. He would do it his way. And now he had someone with a very strong sense of what they wanted and strong sense of direction."

That someone is Madonna, of course, who plucked Orbit from an unrewarding life as a remixer for hire when she enlisted him to co-produce and co-write "Ray of Light." With its Orbit-trademark bleeps and squeals combining with the singer's pop sensibility, the 1998 album, the conventional wisdom goes, revived Madonna's career.

And it looks like a real team. They currently have Madonna's "American Pie" getting heavy radio play and another collaboration in the singer's new movie, "The Next Best Thing." And they're well into the full follow-up to "Ray of Light."

The process has inevitably drawn the reclusive Orbit out of the shadows, but he's adjusting to the bright lights, joining Madonna onstage last year to pick up two Grammys for their work on "Ray." They won another one this year for "Beautiful Stranger" from "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."

With his career as an artist back in gear with the release of "Pieces in a Modern Style"--a series of electronic treatments of classical pieces by composers ranging from Beethoven to Cage to Gorecki--he's game to do the media, and he's even talking about a concert tour this summer.

"I haven't suddenly latched on to the formula of making records that sound commercial," Orbit says. "The reason I have commercial success now is because the world has come to where I'm at. Knowing as I do how ephemeral the world of music is, I'm not [overconfident], but for a short while I think I'm in clover, to be honest. I'm enjoying this experience."

Orbit's mild tone suddenly intensifies.

"Do you know something that really bothers me? So many interviewers go, 'Oh, Madonna got together with William Orbit and he rekindled her career.' But her career was fine. She rekindled my career."


"I sort of wonder what the people I knew back then would make of me now, sitting here chatting with the Los Angeles Times in a very urbane way. Back then I was Mr. Noncommunication, Mr. Catatonic."

Orbit, 43, sits in a small office off the living room. Like the rest of the house, it's sparsely furnished--a couple of computers, a fax machine, a boombox. Tall and boyish-looking with a shy manner, he has the air of the perpetual grad student as he sorts through his unlikely career path.

William Wainwright was a directionless youngster in the early '70s, drifting through what remained of the hippie scenes. Friends nicknamed him Orbit because he seemed to be in one of his own.

"I wasn't a communicator and I also had a hard time just getting on," he says, sitting in a desk chair and absently twirling a straightened paper clip. "Just 17, you know. . . . I had a hard time just getting through every day."

Like many of his peers, Orbit found salvation in music--but not the rock 'n' roll that draws most alienated youths. At age 12 he had become fascinated with German electronic and progressive rock groups such as Kraftwerk, Can and Van Der Graaf Generator. His prize possession was a tape recorder that he used to splice together sound collages, speeding up the machine's motor until it finally broke.

In the late '70s he joined two friends who had acquired some recording equipment, setting up shop by squatting--that is, living rent-free--in a century-old London schoolhouse, living on the dole and devising makeshift security doors out of scrap metal.

Orbit began creating music in their ad hoc studio with no thought of selling it, but eventually the enterprise--which they called Torch Song--was signed by IRS Records.

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