On top of the Underworld

Eighteen months ago, they insisted they'd never do a live album. But now, Darren Emerson has left the band, and the other two have been busy with - guess what? Ben Thompson hears their excuses

I saw Karl Hyde get on a train with his baby daughter once, at Liverpool Street station. On the face of it, it was not the most notable of celebrity sightings (though the Underworld frontman's blond highlights and strangely elasticated stance do stand out in a crowd). And yet there was something magical about happening across him in the midst of a trip he's made mythical.

I saw Karl Hyde get on a train with his baby daughter once, at Liverpool Street station. On the face of it, it was not the most notable of celebrity sightings (though the Underworld frontman's blond highlights and strangely elasticated stance do stand out in a crowd). And yet there was something magical about happening across him in the midst of a trip he's made mythical.

Watching Karl Hyde board a Central Line Tube is like turning a corner to find Bob Dylan stuck on the hard shoulder of Highway 61, or bumping into Kraftwerk in the queue for the buffet car of the Trans-Europe Express. From the irresistible imprecation to "Ride the sainted rhythms on the midnight train to Romford" on Underworld's debut album, dubnobasswithmyheadman, to "Born Slippy"'s bacchanalian station-concourse headrush, to "Stagger"'s anguished "Everything's going west, nothing's going east", Hyde's finely honed stream-of-consciousness-style narrations have fetishised the journey back and forth between the West End and his group's Essex base to the brink of legend.

Few voices in pop (or any other art-form, for that matter) have so clearly captured the sense of fragmented stimuli coming together in a single stream, which is at the heart of modern living. Look out of the window on the afternoon train to Romford, and the landscape flashing by - railway sidings, pylons, half-finished housing developments, the odd canal - is like an Underworld song in three dimensions.

From the station it's a short cab-ride to the quiet suburban street in which the group made their first two albums. Rick Smith - Hyde's friend and colleague of almost 20 years' standing - is trying out the sound-beds for the internet site that their forthcoming live DVD Everything, Everything will connect up to. "It's different every time," he enthuses in a gentle Welsh accent, as the room is suffused with the rheumatic breath of an antique synthesiser's pre-digital wiring.

A year and a half ago, when their third album, Beaucoup Fish, came out, an interviewer asked Underworld if they had any plans to release a live record, since their music took on such distinct new shapes when they took it out on tour. "Did we say 'Absolutely not'?" Smith asks with an anxious smile, knowing full well that they did. "The thing was, we knew we were gonna change - I started to see that look in Karl's eyes - and we thought it would be a shame not to document a period where we were playing really well."

If your run-of-the-mill live album is a holiday snapshot, Everything, Everything is - as its title suggests - the full Super 8 film-show. As a record, it's a worthy souvenir of the full-on Underworld live experience. But the group's determination to push back the frontiers of new technology will allow - among other treats - those lucky fans with a DVD player to mix their own visuals using images activated by a keyboard: "From A for the calmest, to Z for the most mad." When (or if) the thrill of doing that starts to fade, the disc will connect to customised websites plugging into the full range of Underworld's extra-curricular achievements - from Tokyo gallery installations to some lovely pictures of sofas.

The timing of such a voluminous stock-taking exercise could hardly have been more propitious, as the change Rick saw coming in Karl's eyes has since taken physical shape. Darren Emerson, Underworld's third member of 10 years' standing, recently left the group to plough his own furrow (his trance single with fellow dancefloor hotshot Sasha is out in a couple of weeks). After an extended build-up, in which Underworld began to develop a reputation for grouchiness, the eventual parting of ways is said to have been amicable. But they haven't seen Emerson since. Not even at the local newsagent's buying a pint of milk - he lives just around the corner.

It's not the same as Ozzy leaving Sabbath. For all the occasional shouts of, "Where's Darren?" when the newly binary Underworld played without him at Junior Boys Own 10th anniversary celebration at the Astoria a couple of months back, the band's live set didn't have to be extensively restructured. It will be interesting to hear the difference in the first recordings they make without him, though, as Emerson - City bonds-dealer turned acid house DJ - was the living embodiment of the place Underworld's other two members are in, but not of.

"He's from here, born and bred," Smith explains, "whereas Karl and I were both brought up in small villages [in South Wales and the West Midlands/mid-Wales badlands respectively]." The story of how the two of them ended up in Romford is rather a romantic one. "My wife was from here," Smith says simply. "I met her, fell in love and moved." So she whisked him away to a life of east London luxury? "At the time," a smiling Hyde explains, "we weren't in an environment which it upset Rick too much to be whisked away from."

A gruesome tale of late-Eighties penury unfolds. Having just been dropped from their second major-label deal of the decade, and on the cusp of artistic (and financial) bankruptcy, the men who would be Underworld were holed up in a crumbling seafront property in Bexhill-on-Sea, eating undercooked vegetables out of a malfunctioning pressure cooker.

"We said we'd laugh about it one day, and we do," says Hyde, "but it still hurts to laugh." The truly funny thing is the way Underworld's pre-history as shameless Eighties pop tarts has always been treated as a skeleton in their cupboard, when it actually plugged them into the same mainframe of weedy English electro-pop that all the original US techno pioneers used to feed from. "Thank you for that," Hyde grimaces, "I feel much better about the Eighties now."

The Eighties is not the only thing the wanton libertine turned father-of-two is now feeling better about. Around the time of Beaucoup Fish, he spoke of a serious run-in with alcoholism. Was he afraid that he would no longer be able to tap into that trademark Underworld mood of mobile abandon if he wasn't drinking heavily? "Absolutely. It wasn't so much that everything I did previously was written that way - it was more a key to being uninhibited: going to places and hanging out longer than I should have. Stories would stick to you: you just had to walk through them..."

It turned out that travelling home sober had an upside as well as a down. "It was disturbing - and to an extent it still is - to have contact with the world again, so you're not wandering through life in a cocoon, looking through a tiny little slit. I used to sit in the backs of trains being completely invisible. Now" - Hyde gives a jokey shudder - "I feel like I'm part of the human race."

'Everything, Everything' (Junior Boys Own CD and video) is out on 4 September. The DVD follows in October

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