How dance pioneers Underworld are using the web to reinvent themselves

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The Independent Culture

At the Abbey Road studios, in London, Underworld are beavering away so feverishly that ominous words such as "lockdown" are in circulation. "We may," says Rick Smith, the bluff and friendly Welsh half of the World, "get a day off soon." Karl Hyde, Underworld's ever-enthused vocalist, ribs his bandmate at that idea. "Woo hoo!" he cracks: "Shall I introduce you to your wife again?"

It's good news, though. After all, in the last few years, Underworld have been cast off by many as collateral damage in the supposed decline of dance music. But just as the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy managed to get dance music jumping again recently, Smith and Hyde weren't concerned by any music-press notions that dance music was being bulldozed offstage by hairier strains of rock. "We know the world's bigger than, 'Dance music is dead, so you'd better start picking up guitars,'" says Smith. "After 26 years of making music, you figure that one out."

Hints of something brewing in the Underworld have been regularly dropped via their website, at www.dirty.org, over the last year. It landed recently in the shape of two download-only packages of all-new music, released under the overall banner of the Riverrun project, and individually as Lovely Broken Thing and Pizza for Eggs. A third is expected imminently. At a fiver a pop, the Riverrun chapters contain 25 minutes of linked song fragments each, accompanied by cover artwork and huge photo galleries that view like visual analogies to Hyde's scatter-gun lyrics.

Of course, Underworld aren't the first band to draw on the Net. A few years back, Wilco and Aimee Mann mobilised fanbases by streaming some of their unreleased tracks when record-company interest waned. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Arctic Monkeys kick-started their careers by using the internet. Underworld are, though, the first of the 1990s dance icons to get this web-wise, and arguably the most established band to issue stand-alone new material online.

It's in keeping with the duo's initial pioneering principles, too. In the 1990s, Underworld (made into a trio for the decade by the DJ Darren Emerson) engineered a smart fusion of heady electronica and Beat-poet-styled lyrics with club-quaking techno and the potency of an awesome live act. The comedown anthemics of "Born Slippy" united the great festival unwashed with its "lager lager" chant and key position in Danny Boyle's adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, but it was darker and deeper than most field-rousing favourites. Likewise, Underworld's finest two albums, Dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest in the Infants, excited the brain as much as they did dancefloors.

By 2003, though, worries were setting in. Underworld had survived problems before: Hyde's alcohol troubles, say, or the departure of Emerson in April 2000. But as the duo neared the end of their last tour, repetitive album-promo-tour cycles and business meetings were threatening the end of the World.

"We were getting comfy," says Hyde, "and a bit predictable. The more it became, 'Underworld are the techno band who headline a main stage at your summer festival', the more it was taking the wind out of our sails. Something that had begun with an unusual shape was becoming the opposite. We realised that unless we got ourselves to a place where we didn't know what was going on again, we'd just be looking at something slowly petering out."

Having opted not to renew their contract with V2 Records, they began collaborating on PowerBooks. With a studio on their laps, effectively, they had no one to answer to but each other. Simultaneously, after standing in for John Peel on his radio show in 2003, they began spontaneous webcasts (from a pig shed, oddly enough) that renewed their enthusiasm for making and distributing music. "With webcams and webcasts, it's like you can be on stage from your home," Hyde gushes. "Rick was digging out old unreleased, unfinished Underworld material and just giving it away. Such a great buzz."

The results rewired Underworld's creative mainframe. Liberated from release schedules, they began to play by intuition again, on work leading to the Riverrun project. There is an argument that the enabling of the many via the internet means the excellence of the few will become thinly spread, but it doesn't apply here: the febrile, fractured textures of Broken and Pizza feature some of Underworld's boldest work. "It isn't what most people would think of as music for an Underworld album," says Smith. "You'll get music for installations next to a club track, or melodic pieces next to something that sounds like the Beach Boys in a tumble dryer."

World watchers will note the pleasing circularities to this creative revitalisation. Hyde likens internet distribution to "the old days of selling vinyl out the back of your car", and the improvisational emphasis of the Riverrun releases recalls the "experimental soundfield" Underworld staged at Glastonbury in 1992, where they "jammed" for 14 hours from a tower.

The last time Hyde and Smith were at Abbey Road, too, was in 1983, when they began working together in the ill-starred art-rock band Freur. They're here to collaborate with the composer Gabriel Yared on the soundtrack for a new Anthony Minghella film, Breaking and Entering. The project recalls how Boyle came to use World music in Trainspotting: he was moved to do so by the deep, dirty grooves of Dubnobass, while Minghella was inspired by what Smith calls Underworld's "more esoteric side".

Are they a new World, then? "You do feel like you want to pinch yourself," Hyde says, grinning. "If you'd told us where we would be now a few years back, it would have seemed so unlikely. And yet it contains all the elements we loved when we started out - electronica, dub, film music. It feels like we can see years ahead of us now. What's going to happen? I don't know! And it's nice to keep it at that. We do what we feel like, when we feel like. And because there's no pressure, it's like the journey's started again."

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