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

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

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick