Calling us back to the dancefloor
After dizzying success in the 1990s, Underworld have restored their equilibrium with a fine new album, writes Jim Carroll
UNDERWORLD’S LONG and winding road has experienced some interesting bends since Karl Hyde and Rick Smith first met, elbow to elbow, in the kitchen of a Cardiff diner where the two university students were scrubbing pots.
Leaving aside the Freur years (when Hyde and Smith’s band operated with a squiggle for a name), there have been a couple of distinct ages of Underworld.
There was their first forays which produced two by-now largely forgotten pop-funk albums in the late 1980s. Then, there was a hugely successful run in the 1990s after club DJ Darren Emerson joined their ranks and Underworld became one of dance music’s most bankable acts. Emerson left in 2002 and now it’s Hyde and Smith once again.
As Hyde acknowledges, it’s taken them a few years to re-establish their dancefloor equilibrium.
“We work best on the road – that’s where we fine tune our new tracks,” he says. “The last album was quite introspective and didn’t give us much in the way of tunes which we could add to the set, so the set was sounding a little old and we wanted to change that.”
You can hear that change all over new album Barking, an album alive with a rediscovered sense of energy and purpose. Much of this can probably be attributed to a gallery of collaborators including Deep Dish’s Dubfire, drum’n’bass artist High Contrast (who helps turn Scribbleinto one of the tunes of the year), trance megastar Paul Van Dyk and dubstep producers Appleblim and Al Tourettes.
Hyde says bringing in these collaborators was necessary to radically shake up Underworld.
“We wanted to go back to our roots, to what this band has been about for 20 years and to the industry which has kept us inspired. We’ve had 20 years of having our tunes remixed by guys like these and getting off on what they bring to the track. It’s often been a little frustrating not to be able to get in the studio with them and work with them because it’s often a done deal by the time the remixers get involved. The album is finished and you just say to them ‘off you go’ and wait for them to come back. We felt it was time to see what happened when you work more closely with people like that on an album.”
There was also, Hyde points out, a need to bring some new ideas to the table to freshen up their sound and outlook.
“It’s how we’ve always operated. Darren Emerson was someone that Rick went to find because we made a very conscious decision to find someone who was young, vibrant and working in that club environment. We wanted his perspective on the music we were making. On more recent albums, we’ve operated a more closed-door policy where we’ve worked together and not brought anyone else in. What changed our minds was the fairly cool reaction to recent stuff and our own experience with collaborators.
“Sure, we thought it might go wrong. There was always a chance that if we went off and started working with these contemporary names on tracks that the results might be crap, but that was a chance we had to take.”
Hyde recognises the value which comes from working with younger producers.
“When I was a kid, I’d listen to someone like Miles Davis and he was never afraid to bring in other artists, particularly younger ones who had a contemporary way of thinking. They also had an attitude which came with their age which you lose as you get older. You can then make a decision to either make older music, which usually tends to be more mature and sedate, or you can go out disgracefully.”
Hyde laughs loudly. “We’ve obviously plumped for the latter.”
Underworld have been a self-sufficient enterprise for quite some time, with all aspects of the operation, from the live show to recording (these days, the releases are licensed to indie label Cooking Vinyl), under their own control.
Hyde calls this a “blessing” because it means they can toddle along at their own pace without anyone else’s expectations weighing them down.
“In the 1980s, when we started out, we were very much under pressure to be somebody else’s idea of us. We signed a deal and we were told ‘this is what you have to do in order to be a pop star’. We didn’t want to do any of that.
“But that all changed at the end of that decade and we became self-sufficient and were able to put food on the table without having to do any of that. It started out like a cottage industry with a little studio in Romford and it just grew from there.”
Their live performances remain one of Underworld’s strongest selling points, with the new show (if their appearance at the Italia Wave festival in Livorno over the summer is anything to go by) a perfect encapsulation of the band’s past and present.
Hyde is keen to gauge a reaction to the visual side of that show, which involves a lot of simple, powerful video-jamming using projections of the singer himself.For him, the current show is about dialing things down a little on that score, rather than turning up the spectaculars a notch or two.
“I think the visual side of a live show starts to get garish and vulgar at some stage and it bores the audience. You rack something up until it’s this huge, massive out-of-control set and after a while, even Busby Berkeley starts to grate on the eye.
“For us, I think we’d have gone in the way that we have gone regardless of budgets. It is more streamlined than it might have been because it has to be first and foremost about the music. It doesn’t matter how fantastic the show looks if the music is not right to begin with.”
And putting that show together is also about self-sufficiency. “We wanted it to be something we could do within the team. We have a core group of people who’ve worked with us for a long time and we wanted the visual side of the show to be something we could do without having to bring in other people.
“That’s where the concept of body parts began. That was the brief: what could we get out of body parts? And I think we’ve got a lot out of them!”
WATCHCheck out the brilliant video for Scribble at youtube.com Search for “Underworld” and “Scribble”
LISTENNew album Barking(Cooking Vinyl)
EXPERIENCEUnderworld play Dublin’s RDS on November 27 with support from Shit Robot
SEEKarl Hyde’s visuals at underworldlive.com