The British electronic dance super-duo Underworld could have set their career in cruise control after airing the ’90s anthem ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’ – its “Lager, lager, lager, lager” refrain eternally the stuff of festival chants. But Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have continued to challenge themselves – and their listeners.
In November, Underworld launched an ambitious new project, DRIFT, sharing new music, film and even text via their website every Thursday for a year – culminating in the album DRIFT SONGS this October. And now, serendipitously, they’re staging an exclusive four-night residency at the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid LIVE 2019. Of course, Underworld performed at the SOH on their last Australian run two years ago.
The softly-spoken Hyde is up early in the UK – Underworld’s vocalist/guitarist gracious, contemplative and occasionally wry. “It’s a beautiful day here so I’m very happy,” he says, sounding almost like one of his surrealist songs. In fact, Underworld were supposed to hit Australia over summer for Electric Gardens and Mona Foma, but cancelled just days before. “Yeah, I mean, that was tragic,” Hyde sighs, without elaborating. “What made it even more tragic was that it was beyond our control. It was not our doing, so we were really gutted. We’ve had such fantastic audiences down there in Australia, and aways been welcomed, so for that surprise to be pulled on us was really upsetting.”
Underworld’s Vivid LIVE audio-visual concerts will span their discography: past, present and DRIFT. “The great thing about doing multiple nights at a venue is that you can change the show around – and you very rarely get to do that,” Hyde observes. “So that gives us a fantastic opportunity to, not only look back into our catalogue, but also to mix the shows up with our new material. So every night we’re going to be changing the show around.”
More cerebral than their peers The Prodigy or The Chemical Brothers, Underworld turned the electronica band into an organic installation – infiltrating the charts with IDM. Hyde is less a singer than a poet, his impressionist lyrics evoking interior monologues or, via cut-ups, bricolage. He met Smith in Cardiff in the late ’70s, the new pals both aspirational working-class lads. Hyde, a Midlands kid, had just graduated from a local art college and was gigging in a band. Smith was studying electronics – and fixed an amp for Hyde’s crew. They went on to form a guitar-oriented New Wave group, Freur, which, although initially promising, fizzled out. The pair reunited for the first rock incarnation of Underworld, releasing two obscure albums. At the beginning of the ’90s, Hyde and Smith helped to establish the multi-media collective Tomato, integral to their presentation to this day. Eventually, they rebooted Underworld, taking it into a dance direction, at Smith’s behest. For that, they recruited a young DJ, Darren Emerson. Underworld discovered their niche in the UK’s surging techno underground with 1994’s LP Dubnobasswithmyheadman. (They also remixed Bjork’s seminal ‘Human Behaviour.)
Underworld cracked the mainstream when their track ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’ – confusingly, originally a B-side to a different song entitled ‘Born Slippy’ – was used in Danny Boyle’s cult flick Trainspotting. Underworld reached their peak of hype with the ambient rave Beaucoup Fish – which surfaced soon after their inaugural Big Day Out. Alas, Emerson quit amid speculation about internal discord.
Post-Emerson era, Underworld engaged in more experimental endeavours – while maintaining their status as club legends. They soundtracked film and theatre productions. Smith worked beside Boyle as the Music Director of the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in London. In 2016 Underworld issued Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future – which received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album (losing to Flume), demonstrating that they’re not prepared to become an anthology act.
In mid-2018 Underworld dropped Teatime Dub Encounters, a joint EP with Iggy Pop, the Godfather of Punk which comprised material previously intended for 2017’s T2 Trainspotting. But, rather than automatically embark on their 10th album, Underworld announced DRIFT – its name referencing the motorsport. The episodic scheme came out of Underworld’s determination to create instinctively – and responsively. Indeed, Hyde’s aim was to disrupt the album cycle.
“This project is, in part, a reaction against the way we’ve released material over the years, which was every three years or so you put out 10 tracks and discard a whole bunch of other things that don’t fall inside the cookie-cutter concern and you release a single and you release maybe another single – and then it’s another three years. But, after as long as we’ve been together, which is about 40 years now, you start to think, Well, there’s a pattern to this and every day’s the same – and you don’t want every day to be the same. You want every day to be a challenge, particularly when it comes to making music.” Though the scale of DRIFT has been demanding for Underworld, Hyde describes it as “the most inspiring process that we’ve ever engaged in,” bringing him and Smith “much closer together even than Barbara Barbara… did.”
These days ‘the collab’ is frequently a marketing ploy in music. However, Underworld deem such exchange as a chance for progressing their artistic practice. Latterly, the duo collaborated with The Necks, the outré Australian improv jazz combo, for DRIFT‘s ‘A Very Silent Way’ and epic ‘Appleshine Continuum’. “The Necks are amazing; amazing as a group and lovely as blokes,” Hyde enthuses. He connected with the trio in 2009 as a member of Brian Eno’s Pure Scenius ensemble, headlining at Vivid’s precursor, Luminous. “I knew nothing of The Necks and we went into the rehearsal room to meet and play together for that and I just thought they were astonishing. I was a little intimidated at first, because their standard of musicianship is so way beyond anything I could imagine! So I thought, God, what am I doing here, the standard is as great as this? But they’re so cool, it was great, ’cause they’re so welcoming. They quickly became friends.” Underworld will “definitely” liaise with The Necks again.
Even in 2019 Underworld are praised for being on the pulse of electronic dance music. They’ve recorded extensively with High Contrast, pioneer of the drum ‘n’ bass subgenre liquid funk. Plus they’ve consistently curated credible remixes – German tech-houser DJ Koze transforming ‘I Exhale’. Oddly, Hyde discloses that he doesn’t actively follow the scene. “It’s very strange – I listen to very little electronic music.” Typically, he simply listens to the radio, charting current affairs. “Sometimes I’ve got three radios on at once and tuned to different stations.” Hyde can be nostalgic – he enjoys classic songwriters like Bob Dylan. Nonetheless, the vocalist does rate the Detroit Underground label collective. “I love everything that they do – largely, I think, because the sounds that are on that label sound organic and like they’re made by animals; except they’re not, they’re made by modular synths.”
Hyde and Smith have simultaneously pursued solo projects. In 2013 Hyde presented Edgeland and, the next year, dual collaborative albums with the hallowed Eno, an Underworld ally since the ’90s, on Warp (Someday World and High Life). Eno is perceived as an eccentric figure in music circles, having developed the Oblique Strategies card system to facilitate creativity. “The first time we ever worked in the studio together, it just seemed very normal to me, because we’d adopted a lot of his philosophies around recording – his approach to game-playing to get people to find something else within themselves or to trip people up,” Hyde says. “He’s really good at tripping people up to get people to react with a less conscious mind than is often brought to the party. I think working together with Brian seems really normal! Often we’ve had conversations about things in the studio and you might say, ‘Oh, that’s a really good idea’ and he’ll say, ‘No, that’s your idea and you did that on such and such an album.’ ‘Oh, yeah, OK.'” Above all, Hyde regards Eno as “a really lovely guy,” whose studio doubles up as a communal hub. “He’s a generous guy who will show you his tricks quite willingly and let you into his world and introduce you to people; that really good network… He’s a smiley guy.”
Underworld’s endurance, and ongoing innovation, has defied the (absurd) misconception in the rock arena that electronica is ephemeral. Arguably, the outfit augured Radiohead’s reinvention as a postmodern band with Kid A. Now in his 60s, Hyde’s youthful vigour on stage is broaching that of a Mick Jagger. Yet he’s as chuffed as anyone that Underworld has survived. “[I’m] always surprised, yeah, on a daily basis, but grateful,” the Essex resident laughs. “I get up in the morning and I’m extremely grateful to still be here – ’cause it could have gone horribly wrong a long time ago, in a personal way.” He attributes Underworld’s longevity to Smith. “Rick is the most challenging and inspiring person I’ve ever worked with; constantly pushing me to go beyond what I’m comfortable doing. And comfort is a terrible thing for an artist to get wrapped up in. It kills creativity. So Rick never lets us settle.” They know each other’s “tricks”.
On a roll, Hyde holds that Smith’s importance to Underworld as a composer – and catalyst – is neglected. “I know people that can appear to be more dynamic perhaps and appear to have a fascinating and interesting life that involves multiple bands and running record labels and travelling the world doing exotic projects. By comparison to them, Rick – who spends pretty much most of his time in the studio, or in his car, listening to music, or mixing records in his car, that’s his latest passion – might appear to not be as [dynamic] as some people who get more attention. But I’ve never found anyone come close to his level of discomfort with being comfortable… He just keeps pushing. I can’t imagine working without him. I just can’t imagine it. I’d probably change jobs.”