Ahead of the release of his second album, we speak to the Grammy-nominated producer behind the Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs moniker, about the decade-long wait since his critically acclaimed debut, navigating the music industry and that choice of name.
Orlando Higginbottom appears remarkably calm for someone who’s lost his luggage. The beginning of summer has been hit by travel disruption and even critically acclaimed producers aren’t immune. “I’m in Ibiza right now and had a show last night. Tomorrow, I fly back to L.A., but my bags are somewhere between Tenerife, London, Milan or Madrid.
“There’s a surrealness to it, which is that I’m completely powerless. I can’t go and sort it out or anything. It’s up to the gods, as it were.”
The contents of his luggage, including some of his records, is even more valuable – his calmness even greater – when he explains he’s currently without a home, due in part to his somewhat nomadic, globetrotting lifestyle. “I don’t have an apartment or a house, so the stuff I travel with is everything. I have a storage unit in L.A., but I’ve been on the road since around the beginning of 2021.”
There’s an irony to his patience – a quality his fans have had to develop, with it being almost ten years exactly since the release of Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs’ debut album. The follow-up for his spuriously named electronic dance project, When the Lights Go, is now scheduled for September.
At least the wait will be worth it. When the Lights Go is a 17-track assortment of dance and downtempo tracks; a rollercoaster (or lift off and landing, to extend the aeroplane metaphor) of Orlando’s emotional experiences, much of it delivered with his signature dichotic sound: intricate IDM driven along with the four-by-fours of tech-house.
It’s a style that many fans of TEED (for short) have become familiar with, largely as a result of the first and only album from the project so far: Trouble. Released on 11 June 2012 through Polydor Records, Trouble was well-received, peaking at 35 in the UK Charts and second in the UK Dance Albums Charts, making it a standout record among many a raver.
Needless to say, the decade that’s therefore elapsed since its release is a genuine musical head-scratcher. Orland puts it down to “a combination of my own growing up, sorting my head out, and figuring out how to be a grown up in the music industry – not just an artist that’s pushed and pulled in all kinds of directions and not paid properly.”
Elaborating further, he reveals, “I think probably around 2016, I had an album I could have released, but I couldn’t really get my head around doing that, mentally. I wasn’t particularly happy. I was pretty depressed.
“Also, I couldn’t see a way to operate in the music industry that felt healthy and fun to me – in terms of a record deal, team members and all this stuff. I just couldn’t figure it out. There was an equation to it that always came out with me feeling disappointed, used, frustrated and not in control. I know I’m not alone in that.”
“It’s a funny old industry and I think most people go round the houses once and they’re like, ‘fuck, this is insane.’ And they’re lucky if they don’t. So it took me a while to figure out how to self-release effectively; whether I could do that with an album, and still have my idea of success with it, and then find that deal and find how to operate in the business like that.”
One of Orlando’s solutions was to establish his own imprint, Nice Age, which he launched in 2014 – a job which, he admits, “actually proved to be more work than I expected in terms of label management.”
Hard part largely over, though, and When the Lights Go will now be released through Nice Age. Orlando’s actions to become more the master of his destiny within the industry is a rarity within a sphere that’s presently battling itself over how much control artists have; an atmosphere which Orlando describes “the infantilisation of the artist and of the fan”.
“Artists aren’t brought into the industry as empowered people,” he adds, “they’re brought along as these sort of fragile, coddled babies who are difficult and creative, and they have managers, and they have record deals.
“So much can happen in the first three years of an artist’s life before they even understand how money gets from Spotify to them. Why wouldn’t you want to know that? But not many people do know how that works – there’s also a lot of people who don’t want you to know how that works. Not to be conspiratorial about it at all, that’s just how it is.”
“I talk about this with artist friends all the time – very successful people who have huge streaming numbers. I ask them how that’s going and they just shrug; they just say, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ They might have 10 million monthly streams on Spotify, and they’re say they don’t really understand. [They] should be buying houses because somebody’s buying houses from that.”
Thoughtful and intelligent, Orlando speaks in a relatively slow manner, conscious and considered with his words. You’d think a name as out-there as Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs might have an equally eccentric, unfiltered character behind it. Yet therein lies the rub.
Orlando’s initial decision was to devise a name that would be so uncool (for want of a better word), that it couldn’t be ascribed to some passing fad, or a specific genre in music. A name, in other words, that could stand the test of time – albeit if that’s precisely what those totally enormous extinct dinosaurs were unable to achieve. But as the sands of time have changed, so too has Orlando’s relationship to the project’s name.
“I think initially there was something quite postmodern about it. And I don’t think we’re in a postmodern time anymore; I think we’re kind of in a post-irony time. In a way, it doesn’t work at all anymore; in another way, it works better than ever. But people don’t seem to have the time to look into layered things or things with subversiveness.
“Society seems to just want a tweet of a brand. They want an idea to be absolutely no secrets, no traps, no hidden meaning. So I think Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs is a completely insane name for a project. But I’m interested to see how that develops. I’m not going to change it right now – but the times have changed.”
Our cerebral capacities may have altered, but it’s hard to argue whether the same could be said for our dancing instincts – a primordial desire that takes us away from it all (or, even, somewhere back in time, before Twitter, recessions and societal struggles were a thing). That’s where Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs excels.
Yet for whatever psychological hiccup, there’s a dissonance between the rich danceability and ultimate quality of Orlando’s music, and how he feels about it. Despite his debut album’s success – which also included being iTunes UK’s ‘Debut Electronic Album of the Year’, and DJ Mag’s ‘Album of the Year’ – Orlando admits he wasn’t able to acknowledge it.
“I’m realising this about myself now,” he confides. “For whatever reason, I can’t really get it into my head that people like my music and come to see me play or buy my records. I just can’t make that connection.
“I think part of the reason it took me 10 years to make this record was that I came out of that first record and was pushing all the way through that campaign. I just kept pushing and never stopped and went, ‘Well, actually, that went quite well’.
“I find that really difficult to do, it doesn’t come naturally to me. So when success like that happens, it makes me happy, it amuses me. But it doesn’t in any way touch my sense of self and ego. I don’t know why. I feel sort of separate from it… Maybe it’s just me protecting myself.”
Such humility takes on greater magnitude when considering the Grammy nomination Orlando received for his 2020 collaborative track with Bonobo – another British electronic expat who now dwells in Los Angeles, and who Orlando has been friends with since 2015.
“One day we just did some jamming, and two songs came out of it; it was very fun that one of them got nominated for a Grammy. It was just completely off my radar. It wasn’t at all something I was thinking about or aiming for or even ever had ambition to be part of.”
The resultant track, ‘Heartbreak’, is a tribute to the disco scene of New York in the 1970s and ‘80s. Liner notes accompanying the 12” featured an essay by author Tim Lawrence, on the cultural importance of the track it heavily samples: ‘Weekend’ by Class Action.
There are moments on When the Lights Go, too, that bear the hallmarks of disco; not necessarily inspired by the same New York scene as ‘Heartbreak’, but an “emotion” described by Orlando as “a fever”.
“It’s like a feverous, slightly panicky movement. ‘Never Seen You Dance’” – another head-bopper on the record, with the uplift of driving along the coast – “and ‘Sound and Rhythm’, have got that for me. They are upbeat and joyful, but there’s something slightly unhinged and anxious about them.”
And much like the life of any DJ, these moments of euphoria, manic at times even, are followed by the residual calm, an ocean of melancholy. Rather than shun them, this album embraces the lows that follow the highs. It’s all the better for it. Tracks ‘Treason’ and ‘Blue Is The Colour’ delve into that heartrending emotion of missing someone deeply.
The album’s conclusion, ‘Thugs’, meanwhile, is a soft electronic lullaby, lamenting the challenges of living in a world condemned to suffer with its machismo. These mellower tunes help create a very rounded project, full of emotion, for better or worse, the moments of radiant dancing in the sun, pallet-cleansed by those intermittent showers.
This joyous-downbeat dichotomy that runs throughout the album is perfectly exemplified by two of the four tracks already put out ahead of the album: ‘Forever’ and ‘The Sleeper’. Both contain that emotive sense of expansion, albeit with ‘Forever’ breaking out into more of a dance track just over a minute in.
As for Orlando’s expectations for the full album, despite the dissonance between the calibre of his craft and how he personally thinks of it, he tells me, “I’ve made my peace with it. I put lots of work into the music, I think it got to a certain level, and I think it’s done.”
It’s a characteristic understatement – given it is, in fact, a terrific record – belying his project’s quirky name. Then again, not everything is as it first appears with Orlando; if you’ve reached this far in the article, you may well just be the sort of person who can appreciate that, and all of life’s nuances.
… and exactly the sort of person who will thoroughly enjoy the rich musical tapestry of When the Lights Go, which is out on 9 September.