Underworld: Reborn slippy
Underworld pioneered stadium dance music in the 1990s - but by 2003 their audiences were almost as bored as they were. So Rick Smith and Karl Hyde tore up the music-industry rule book and decided to embrace their worst fears... Kevin Harley meets them
Sunday 19 November 2006
It's one thing for a band's audience to get bored with them. It's quite another, mind, for a band to admit, openly, to a journalist, to tiring of themselves. Particularly when they're as pioneering and propulsive as Underworld.
But the veteran techno duo aren't like other bands. For starters, Rick Smith and Karl Hyde are more effusive, open company than most interviewees. Smith, the Welsh programmer, chats so warmly he's barely recognisable from his heads-down, behind-decks persona. Hyde, meanwhile, the singer who rattles off stream-of-consciousness lyrics and dances like a man on hot coals on stage, is almost as enthused off-stage. On top of that, they're more innovative than most bands, having all but spearheaded the fusion of rhythm and rock that constituted live dance music in the mid-Nineties (most famously with the tumultuous, anthemic Number 2 hit "Born Slippy"). Nevertheless, so Smith calmly tells me,"By 2003, we were getting bored of our gigs."
On 17 August 2003, Underworld headlined the second stage of the V Festival, performing after Liverpool's psych-rock scallies The Coral. Once The Coral finished, most of the huge audience trudged off to watch the Red Hot Chilli Peppers grunt and grind on the main stage. Hyde, as ever, is honest about it: "That was when we started to lose some altitude, for me. The Coral kicked our arses that night."
In Sydney on the same two-year tour, they decided to administer their own kick up the rear. The security and comfort that most bands would flog their in-laws for was stifling them. "We were touring, selling records, earning good money, having a nice time," says Hyde. "That is not a creatively stimulating environment to be in," he says. "We needed to get some uncertainty back into our lives." That's quite something for a band in their late forties, both married and with families to look after. But instead of working the hits circuit, like the Prodigy, to keep penury at bay, Underworld have treated boredom as an incentive to rigorously rework their live, recording and distribution formats.
In 2003, they began to use downtime on tour to compose on their laptop comuters. Their music has often tapped into the pulse of the city - listen to the giddily soaring "Mmm... Skyscraper I Love You", or the driving London-to-Romford travelogue of "Born Slippy"). They decided to try to make a song in each city, from Sydney to Melbourne, Miami, New York, Leipzig, Barcelona, Vienna, Glasgow, London and Tokyo. Hyde and Smith wanted to create a body of work for self-release, via their website, as and when they saw fit. Most bands tire of waiting for record companies to schedule apposite release dates, but Underworld actually did something about it. "We had become schedule-driven," says Smith, "which meant spending more time having business meetings than making art."
That work emerged on www.underworldlive.com in 2005, under the name of the RiverRun Project. These were snappy 30-minute packages of linked song fragments, assembled from what Smith calls "shakedown soundsystems" and ready to download for a fiver each. All of them are recognisably Underworld, though none retreads old ground. Lovely Broken Thing favours jittery, febrile beats. Pizza for Eggs is mantric, moody, mesmerising - there's a lot of "Mmmmm" in it, and it features a soulful song about Hyde's kids that's far removed from festival-banging dance cliches. The third (take a deep breath), I'm a Big Sister, and I'm a Girl, and I'm a Princess, and This Is My Horse, essays ambient Eno-isms.
Internet publishing is a minefield for record companies, but for Underworld it was a way of proving they had ideas to spare. "It's nerve-wracking when the culture around the selling of music is saying 'Hold it back, keep it secret and then unleash it'," says Smith.
"That implies it's all you've got, doesn't it?" Hyde says. "So that's it, is it? Everything's precious, and tight, and you're releasing stuff as if you'll never write anything again. Christ, that's not much of a career, is it?"
They've branched out into soundtrack work, for Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering and Danny Boyle's forthcoming film, and a conventional album is expected in the new year. But the results of their radicalisation were on display at the opening gig of their 10-date tour last month. "The nice thing about going out live with Underworld is that the shows aren't predictable," Hyde says, with reason - like a techno White Stripes, Underworld don't use setlists. "This is the least predictable of them and it's going to be watched worldwide. Hurrah!" He laughs: "No, we don't like any pressure..."
The performance in question was at the Cocoon Club in Frankfurt. But it was not merely a gig: it was part improvised collaboration with the club's techno-trance owner, Sven Vath, and Underworld's occasional live helper, the DJ Darren Price, part DJ set and part live show, all interwoven. It's one of the most intimate shows they've played and also one of the biggest, as Apple gave them unlimited bandwidth to broadcast it online, live, around the world. For all the technology, though, Hyde says they still communicate to one another pretty physically during shows: "We'll use a lot of hand signals, nods and digs in the ribs," he says, with a grin. "There's always bruised ribs."
In the event, the bruising pays off: the gig was a stormer. Text-based images flooded over Cocoon's webbed walls in unison with roof-raising beats; Hyde's Beat-poet-style cut-up lyrics, Underworld songs and other people's records mix in a full-pelt rush. "Moaner" rammed home the four-hour set, and the grins on the faces of the band and the ecstatic crowd say it all: it's been a snapshot of a band's rebirth.
Underworld learned early on that business strategies didn't work. Their career stretches back to 1980, when the duo met as students chopping veg and scrubbing pots in a Cardiff restaurant. After a collaboration in a band called Screen Gemz, whose trajectory was swiftly curtailed when Smith realised how much schlupping around in a transit van was involved, their second band, Freur, played electro-pop and had a hit in 1983 with "Doot Doot". (It's on YouTube, big-haired evidence of Eighties fashion crises in full flow.)
Freur evolved into the first incarnation of Underworld, but by the late Eighties, no hairspray in the world could rescue them from bankruptcy. After a harrowing tour supporting the Eurythmics, they sputtered to a halt. Hyde, who had played at Wembley Stadium as a guitarist in Debbie Harry's band, was even ready to forsake the bright lights for a job in accountancy.
Luckily, Smith had been working from his bedroom on remnants of electronic equipment. And it taught the duo something useful. "You don't need much money to make work," says Smith. "In the Nineties, we made albums we were proud of in my spare bedroom on so-called crap equipment. It sounded good to us."
"When we were thinking too much," says Hyde, "we tried to form a pop group. When we went bankrupt, Rick decided, 'I'm going to follow my heart and make music I enjoy making.' And that's when things turned round for us. The idea is that if you get too clever about something, you'll kill it. If you let it develop, it can become an unlikely shape again."
From these foundations, Underworld became attuned to the process of, as Rick describes it, "discovering beautiful things randomly". That might seem at odds with electronica: to most of us, pressing buttons, fiddling with knobs and triggering pre-set programmes seems to be all it entails. But Underworld talk about "jamming" and jazz with a great passion, revealing an interest in improvisation and experiment that distinguishes them from the more basically banging dance acts of the Nineties.
Collaborations have helped push their buttons. In 1989, the wonder-boy DJ Darren Emerson joined the band and stayed for a decade, bringing a burst of clubby enthusiasm with him. In 2003, the duo stood in for John Peel on his radio show and recorded a Peel session, a collaboration that encouraged them to put together their own live webcasts - mixing spontaneous live performance and records in much the same way as they later did at the Cocoon gig.
Recently, they collaborated with Gabriel Yared on the Breaking and Entering score, working with strings and a composer for the first time and taking their cityscapes-in-sound into new terrain. The next target was to finish a new album proper, for release in 2006. But fate intervened again when Danny Boyle invited them for a coffee. Hyde knew that the director who'd had the savvy to include Underworld's momentous "Dark Train" and "Born Slippy Nuxx" in his trailblazing film Trainspotting, was in the middle of making a $100m budget science-fiction film, Sunshine.
"We knew what was on his mind!" he laughs. "We came armed with reasons why we couldn't do the score and he suckered us into a screening. At that point, we were chomping at the bit to finish our record. But when we saw Danny's film we had to step back. A great piece of work - really great. What can you do when Hollywood comes calling? So, yes, he suckered us into that one..."
Having embraced a fresh, freeform approach to creativity, Underworld may never match their post-Trainspotting crossover success again. But they've done something better: they've embraced unpredictability. As Smith puts it, "It feels like we're heading in the right direction. Not that we're in the right place, or that we've arrived at a point. The idea is to keep it open, because you've got to feel like you can fall over and make mistakes. Or else, what? You're just safe. You're not making great work that happens to be popular - you're just populist."
I've seen Underworld umpteen times, but never as they were in the Cocoon club. One new song, "All These Things in Me", feels about as lush and sultry as men in their late forties can decently get. And in a set that unfurled in a flurry of peaks and Eureka! moments, Hyde's vocal on the belting church-techno gospel of "Peggy Sussed" is especially fitting. "Hallelujah!" he cries, as if he means it. Hallelujah, indeed: Underworld are saved.
* The RiverRun Project is available for download from www.underworldlive.com. The soundtrack to 'Breaking and Entering' by Underworld and Gabriel Yared is out now on V2
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