KLF — Chill Out. The story behind the first ambient house album of the rave era

George Palladev 29.10.2021

KLF — Chill Out. The story behind the first ambient house album of the rave era

Chill Out was a live album. It took two days to put together. It was done in real time,” said 37-year-old Bill Drummond, one of the electronic punks from The KLF. “There’s no edits on it,” confirms the second KLF punk, 34-year-old Jimmy Cauty. “Quite a few times we’d get near the end and make a mistake and so we’d have to go all the way back to the beginning and set it all up again.

We used two DAT players, a record player, a couple of cassette players and a 12-track, feeding through a mixer and back to a DAT.” Jimmy Cauty practised the skill of juggling his own and other people’s clips from home collections in the lat 80s in one of the first chill-out rooms in the UK club scene. Every week, while Paul Oakenfold played acid house, techno, new beat and mutating hardcore in the main hall, Cauty and Alex Paterson helped the clubbers to come down in a small room, weaving the sounds of passing trains, birdsong, surf noise, and other things that are pleasant for the exhausted body with quiet ballads, stringy ambience, and orchestral classics.

Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond in 1991

Even then, they had a huge pile of tapes, records, CDs and equipment. From this mayhem of samples, Cauty and Paterson created a chill project The Orb. At the same time, Cauty and Drummond made the album Chill Out, where, as one reviewer correctly noted, “The line between producer and DJ is blurred.” Chill Out is a bizarre mosaic of samples. In addition to the proud inscription “Recorded live”, there are three verbs on the back instead of written by: “Composed, compiled and collated by The KLF.”

Chill Out is an album about a fictional trip across the south of the USA. Just like you can have a thought experiment for which no equipment is needed, you can have a thought trip, where trains, planes, and cars are all imagined. “We basically saw the album as a journey and when we had to come up with titles for each of the passages we sat down with a map and planned a route across America as a guide. The titles were designed to express some of the emotions of a particular piece of music. But I’ve never been to those places. I don’t know what those places are like, but in my head, I can imagine those sounds coming from those places, just looking at the map.” says Bill Drummond.

“You don’t even have to listen to the album to get a feel for the journey. Titles like 3 am somewhere out of Beaumont and The lights of Baton Rouge pass by almost tell the whole story for you. I’ve always loved those titles like The Lights of Cincinnati. American cities and towns and places, to us over here, have a real romantic feel to them. It was only after we recorded it that we decided ... that we gave it those titles,” says Drummond, “And we thought that it had the feeling of that sort of trip. I love maps and atlases and I love place names, and I just sat down with the atlas and picked, you know, and saw the journey that it was and it all seemed to fit.”

Plan of the album’s travelling route. From Google’s Highways Map

The album begins at dusk on the Texan border with Mexico, in anticipation of a trip from the southernmost point of the US, Brownsville, to the capital of the neighbouring state, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Hence all these purely American country guitars strumming in the soul and soft overflows in the mind, which are interrupted by words promising immense wealth, echoes of early KLF recordings, and extracts from other people’s cassettes and records. The whole hodgepodge of music from road radio stations is in tracks with names such as Six hours to Louisiana, black coffee going cold.

As one review said, “Brian Eno invented ambient, and KLF brought the sheep into it.” The woolly animals not only bleat in their tracks, but also graze peacefully on the album cover. What for? “The sleeve is a very very English thing,” explains Bill Drummond. “That’s a very English thing and it has the vibe of the rave scene over here. When we’re having the big Orbital raves out in the country, and you’re dancing all night and then the sun would come up in the morning, and then you’d be surrounded by this English rural countryside... we wanted something that kind of reflected that, that feeling the day after the rave, that’s what we wanted the music for.”

To get the cover, they went to a photo bank holding a Pink Floyd record with a black-and-white cow against the background of a green meadow and a serene sky. (Pink Floyd asked for such a mundane design because they were tired of being called a space rock band.) “They didn’t have any pictures of sheep that were like the cover of Atom heart mother, but they had these other pictures of sheep ... hundreds, thousands of pictures of sheep, and we picked the ones we used because it had that same sort of feeling.” An American album with a British cover :-)