Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs: “The foundations of a music career are built on your friends – it starts close and stays close”

A decade after his 2012 debut, Trouble, Orlando Higginbottom is back with his second album, When the Lights Go. We find out how beating creative stumbles and overcoming industry turmoil has led to his finest sounds yet.

Image: Phil Knott for MusicTech

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“I was very young and went into the industry very naively. It meant I had to spend some time finding myself after the first album,” says Orlando Higginbottom, known as Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs (or TEED), reflecting on his earlier years as he prepares to release his second album, When the Lights Go, on 9 September.

“I’m not going to shit on my label – they did some great work – but I thought I was going to be supported,” he continues. “And that wasn’t necessarily the case. Turns out, if you want support as an artist, you need to give it to yourself.”

Ten years between albums is a long break in an industry infamous for short attention spans. In fact, it’s enough time to think a seemingly dormant career might have run into its ice age. Yet, the success of TEED’s 2012’s debut album Trouble and its racey collection of blazing electronics had the British artist ear-marked as one of the year’s most exciting new producers. An almost unclassifiable, danceable sound, running over with pop hooks in thrall to classic UK rave moves, it prompted critics to froth over a record full of “dark euphoria” and “sweaty club heartstoppers”. Subsequent attempts to move forward were paralysed by industry machinations, partying and a loss of confidence.

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs
Image: Phil Knott for MusicTech

“I went through a period where I didn’t release any music for three years,” Orlando winces from his LA home. “Then for my birthday in 2018, I treated myself to putting a track out on SoundCloud. I’d been caught up in meetings, explaining this is what I wanted to do next, trying to find the right partner. I was like ‘fuck all this shit’. It was a massive weight off my shoulders and opened up this path to where we are now.”

TEED wasn’t totally silent during these years. Numerous EPs, remixes and collaborations with the likes of producer pal Anna Lunoe have emerged and he even earned a Grammy nomination in 2021 with fellow British electronic producer Bonobo for best dance/electronic record on their killer joint-effort, Heartbreak. In between, he’s been DJing, trying to unravel his songwriting and work out his next steps.

“I had a comfortable life from DJing in clubs but I wasn’t quite doing what I needed to keep me engaged and happy,” Orlando says.

“Then, getting everything back on track took a few years,” he continues. “To get people interested and to figure out how I wanted to operate in the industry, I had to try some things out, put out some self-released EPs and see how that felt. Obviously, it felt great, so I decided to do the album this way. I’ve never looked back.”

When the Lights Go is the first bumper collection of tracks to emerge from these years of music making. He had what he describes as this “huge lump of work” amounting to 60 tracks and a struggle to decipher what to do with them. It was only when sitting down with producer and friend Damian Taylor that they began to map out a final destination.

“We did this by emotion, mood and energy rather than genre,” Orlando explains of their process behind picking the songs to sit alongside each other. “I divided this music into three piles and that’s when I started to see what the album could be. This record is made up of songs ranging from sad to feverish – at least, that’s how I hear the emotions in my head.”

TEED’s innate ability to straddle and move between genres is evident on an album that ranges from tears to dancefloor pumpers with his voice at its heart. He’s more concerned with the form his music takes than pinning it to a particular style.

“If you look at Mozart’s era of music, composers wrote in the forms of opera and symphonies,” Orlando says.

“Without sounding too wacky, to me, everything currently sits under this banner of pop music with different forms such as ambient, techno and song-based material. It means I feel free to work within them but it doesn’t make business simple. It would be easier if I was just a house producer and I was just making one thing. But I don’t like being bored and I like being free.”

Since the days of Trouble when TEED would be seen DJing and playing live in a headdress surrounded by dancers and collaborators wearing dinosaur and animal costumes, his evolution has been steady. He feels more capable of steering his music in the most suitable direction than ever before.

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs
Image: Phil Knott for MusicTech

“I’m technically a better producer and my ear is better for sure,” he says of his creative development. “I can get a more effective mix and drum sound now than I ever could before. In the producer world, my decision-making has also improved, which I think is at least 50 per cent of the job.”

Many of the decisions he took around When the Lights Go were made in an LA studio he no longer has. His set up was built around Ableton with a range of keyboards, including a Yamaha CP-80, Korg MS-20, OB-6 and a selection of guitar pedals.

“Most of the album tracks started with a chord progression at the piano or keyboard,” Orlando explains. “I usually get an idea down quickly, then I’ll poke at it from a distance for six months wondering what it might become.”

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs
Image: Phil Knott for MusicTech

His music-making process revolves around testing an idea around different grooves, tempos and keys before locking something in place, then adding a chorus and melody. It’s at this point that structure and arrangement begin to appear from his tangled ideas.

“I always feel that songs have to be captured,” Orlando says. “At that moment, I’m afraid of an idea because I don’t want to fuck it up – which I have done plenty of times to cool things I’ve uncovered. So at this stage, I try to treat it carefully until I’m sure I can take it in the right direction. The skill is in making the best decision for a song and being confident enough to move forward.”

While handling his initial sonic designs delicately, TEED enjoys working within certain limitations. Despite his adoration for music gear and equipment, he’s happy pushing the potential of his songs with blinkers on.

“I love gear but I’m fine without too much of it as well,” he says. “I feel most of the creative work is about harmony, melody and structure. So as long as I have a good pair of speakers, a keyboard, laptop and microphone, I can make anything I want to – and any toys I add on top is just an amazing treat.”

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs
Image: Phil Knott for MusicTech

When The Lights Go orbits around an array of influences and inspirations – but they’re not all positive. From the impact of climate change to living in LA during President Trump’s term in office, alongside a lifelong love of the dancefloor, the sound of TEED distils these thoughts and experiences into melodies and melancholy.

“Lyrically, it’s just what comes to me naturally via my personality,” he says. “The same happens with harmonies and sound choices, even when I’m going across genres, everything is connected by me.”

In terms of themes, finding and losing love emerges from tracks like album opener Crosswalk while lurking in the background is a grim sense of foreboding around an apocalyptic climate crisis which was once impending but now feels like it’s arriving.

Blood on the Snow was the first song I released from this record and is very literally about the idea of having a child in this era of climate chaos,” says Orlando. “I would like to have children but also this threat makes it seem so terrifying.”

He also recalls his stress of being in the States when Trump was in charge: the daily horror of getting into his car and turning the radio on only to hear what fresh chaos the then-leader had unleashed. TEED, along with many others around the globe, has been able to breathe an ongoing sigh of relief since a new President has been elected.

“At the time I was making this record, I felt like the whole of America had its head in its hands because of him,” he says. “I remember speaking to my friends in England. They would be laughing but I always said: ‘This is coming your way’. Having Trump talking every day was awful and caused so much pain. I’m sure that has seeped into the record.”

Alongside his production work, TEED is also a renowned DJ and selector. Unsurprisingly, his passion for the club beats throughout his music, even in more esoteric moments.

“For anyone of my generation, the foundation is 90s British dance music and I still feel deeply connected to this sense of rave culture and heritage,” Orlando says.

“The US and UK scenes are different. Here, in the States, it’s all about disco, while in the UK you had hardcore, jungle and dub. But there’s a real misunderstanding about American club culture. People think it’s uneducated and all about EDM but there’s so much enthusiasm and knowledge. Some of the best nights I’ve played have been here.”

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs
Image: Phil Knott for MusicTech

Heartbreak, the 2021 Grammy-nominated collaboration with Bonobo came out of a meeting through nights out and DJing. Upon moving to LA, Orlando began throwing a Monday night party with no house or techno or any promotion. Instead, the music was weirder and more balearic.

“Me and Simon [Green] moved to LA around the same time and he started coming to these nights,” says Orlando. “We just hit it off, became friends and would have these listening sessions where we’d play each other what we’d been working on.”

It was out of this that Heartbreak first emerged from what he describes as a “scrappy mess” of an idea. But despite its organic beginnings, neither could believe how far the song would travel.

“Si started jamming and it was all very natural, it just happened through hanging out together. The Grammy nomination was not on my radar,” he says with a laugh.

Elsewhere, TEED’s worked with Anna Lunoe on a variety of tracks – from 2014’s Feel Like to 2022’s Peach Fuzz – and he continues to be close with raver and anarchic fashion designer Jonny Sports Banger. It was the latter’s Covid Letters book, published in 2020 and based on responses from children in the UK to letters from the British government during the pandemic, that inspired TEED’s 2020 EP, I Can Hear the Birds Sing. TEED put together the release’s different tracks using recordings sent to him of the natural world.

“The foundations of a music career is built on your friends, whether that be in terms of support or through collaborators,” he says. “It starts close and stays close – that’s so important. I find almost everyone I’ve worked with, like Johnny or Anna, has been a friend first or a friend since. I’m very grateful for that.”

Keeping this tight social circle is a key piece of advice Orlando offers for aspiring creatives. After his industry experiences, he’s also an advocate for self-releasing music rather than signing with a label. Unsurprisingly, When the Lights Go will emerge via his own Nice Age imprint.

“I love labels but you learn so much from the dynamic of self-releasing,” Orlando explains. “You’re in control and you can see just how many people have bought your song this month. No one is bullshitting you and you see the reality of selling dance music on Beatport. The numbers can be incredibly low, sometimes some tracks really fly. If you’re in the driving seat, then you get to enjoy both.”

With this new album due for release in September, it’s been a long and winding road for TEED to reach this point – and the industry is starkly different than when he first emerged. He’s keeping his eyes on the world of Web3, worrying about his social media profiles (“I should really be posting about my album every single day but that feels so awkward and insane”) and looking to work out how he will bring his music to life on stage when it’s more expensive to tour than ever before.

“We’re in an era where momentum is key for artists,” Orlando says. “The dark way of looking at this is what Spotify’s Daniel Ek said about musicians releasing more to feed his algorithm. But there is a more positive side. As an artist, your job is to be creative and release music. When you put it out, it changes shape and sound. I’m thinking about my next album a lot at the moment. Now I’ve started again, I’m really inspired to get on with it.”

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