From day one Underworld have been innovators, not imitators, smashing up dancefloors with big-fish-little-fish cuts like 'Pearl's Girl', soothing morning-after clubbers with 'Jumbo' and replenishing seratonin levels with 'Bruce Lee'. In 2006 their Ground Zero is being constantly revisited, now with maturity, though never losing the sweet youthful innocence that has fueled their creativity for the last eighteen years.
RA is lucky enough to be bedfe.. err.. webfellows of the Underworld collective and thus we snapped up an exclusive interview with frontman Karl Hyde to check the pulse of his good self and Rick Smith. It turns out they have a clean bill of health, each new project bringing light in as they (almost) effortlessly continue to lay down tracks for the future. Hummmmm.
A river runs through it
If you really are an Underworld fan, you’ll be no stranger to the Riverrun project that has jumped up in the last eighteen months on their Underworldlive website. In fact, you can't really claim true fanboy/fangoil status without nodding solemnly when the names 'Pizza For Eggs' and 'Lovely Broken Things' pop up. The third in the Riverrun series was released on June 5th and elects to show the more sinister, film noir underbelly of the Underworld aesthetic. Titled 'I'm a Big Sister, and I'm A Girl, and I'm a Princess, and This is My Horse', all four tracks have the hum that hints at the elevator muzak Willy Wonka should have piped into his chocolate factory. Twisted, creepy and irresistible.
Underworld have taken their music back from underneath the radar, free from record company shackles. You can't be their part-time lover anymore; you must be proud, passionate and paid-up (at a mere five pounds) to plunder the latest treasures of Hyde and Smith. I suggest to Karl this is making their fans more discerning and more proactive:
"We're falling in line with the way things have been going for a long while. We're pleased people are coming to our site and buying stuff and getting some free things," he enthuses. "We decided to do this when Rick was selling 12 inches out of the back of the car. We wanted to go from very high profile on billboards and pages of magazines to being a word-of-mouth thing. We had to get out of the system that requires us to fulfill certain obligations in ways that don't always suit the artist."
"Hence the gap between their last album '100 Days Off' and their next effort, which should see the light of day before 2006 is out.
"We used to do our market research by pressing up our own 12"s and getting Darren Emerson to play them out on the dancefloor. Now the Internet allows us to do all those things much more easily and reach a much wider audience. To normal people who find us in the Sunday supplements and mainstream radio and television, we might appear to have gone quiet, but to those people who live in web world, we're really quite loud,” Hyde sniggers. “The next phase of our journey will be to marry the two. The next album will be just that!"
A new album? Hyde doesn't want to separate Underworld’s current work from the upcoming album just yet. He’s keen to keep us guessing. Is controlling the music liberating?
"It is!" he replies, shouting into the phone so loudly it crackles with static. “Creatively, we get to write and publish new work in ways that suit us, offering a much needed alternative to our traditional album scheduling."
The idea behind the Riverrun project is to give the listener the Underworld experience in the same amount of time it takes to hear one side of an old vinyl album but to Hyde it’s all about the liberation:
"After we did the 'Everything Everything' DVD, we started publishing the web diary and putting something on the Internet every day. It was so empowering and so liberating, that feeling that if we've got an idea we could put it out right now. And you'll get a response to it straight away right there in the forum. Someone will read it and someone will get turned on to other music. You can turn people on to art and to books and to cool stuff that you're thinking about."
He's on a roll now:
"We've developed this so we can communicate like we're on a stage or a radio show – we’ve been doing the web show Riverrun for over a year now. On the last show we interfaced with a national radio show in Holland (VPRO). We're getting into connecting up around the world live from our studio. It's something we talked about in the early eighties. Wouldn't it be great to be in more than one place at the one time? Later this year our plan is to do that and be present in lots of places."
The Internet activities of Underworld have also opened up new ears and old archives:
"I know what you mean. It's very empowering to put out all this music so people can hear it for the first time with fresh ears. We have so much work in our archives. Now when we do the web shows we can give stuff away. It's a case of us saying here's some cool music, we really like it and we want to give it to you and we don't want you to pay for it. Otherwise it's just going to sit in a drawer. We're trying to find a way of giving value for money and pricing things fairly. Of course," he exhales, "we understand that some people will take it without paying. That's life. But we wanted to address things we thought were not going in the right direction with some of the more traditional ways of putting out music."
By the time of the second release 'Pizza For Eggs', the Riverrun series was piping hot:
"It went great sales-wise. The whole thing is self-supporting so we can carry on doings things we want to do. We are supported by a really good team of people who understand what it is we're trying to say. I don't know how they do that. Nobody else ever did," he laughs. "We'd like to release unreleased and other music via our website concurrently with physical releases. There's a bunch more stuff we are very excited to put out. At this point we don't envisage returning to purely physical releases but there's going to be a few 12 inches coming out over the next couple of months. Hang on, I'll just check with Rick in the studio."
Gulp. I break into a cold sweat. I hear a door swing open as Karl interrupts Rick hard at work. A very Dubnobasswithmyheadman bassline hums over a murky kickdrum. "Oi, Rick! What twelves are coming out?" Double gulp. That's live Underworld music I can hear. Hyde returns to the phone after eighteen seconds of muffled studio bliss:
"'Delta Tokyo', 'Peggy Sussed' and 'Play Pig' are coming out as well as remixes by people like Pig and Dan, Paul Woolford, Pete Heller. We're both in a state of 'Who are we today?'” I hear laughter all round. “I'm not reading this off a cue sheet," he jokes as RA thanks him for the exclusive studio snippet that will NEVER be taped over. All the tunes he mentioned appeared on the most recent Lemonworld broadcast and you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll slot in nicely on their sixth album.
"We've got two film scores that we're finishing off, a new physical album, a new download and a new Misterons mix which comes free for anyone who has bought the first. We're going to put out another 2CD live album because the first one did terribly well. It’s just mental here!” Hyde yells with tears of joy in his voice, I shit you not. "Every time someone says 'I have an idea' you hear the collective groan go up, then in five minutes we're all charged going ‘Yeah, wicked. Let’s go for it!’"
Underworld vaulted into the ears of many on the soundtrack of Danny Boyle's 'Trainspotting'. Hyde informs RA that Boyle is up to his old tricks again roping them in for a soundtrack:
"We got a call from Danny Boyle about the film ‘Sunshine’ and we're like 'No, Danny, we can't take on anything else. We've got all this stuff.' And he was saying 'That's cool, just come and have a look at it.' So we went along, because he's a good mate, and as we left the cinema we're like 'Bastard! You knew that was going to get us! What a great film!” Hyde enthuses.
Underworld have also composed a score an Anthony Minghella film with soundtrack veteran Gabriel Yared:
"What a lovely man and so open-minded. We formed a little group with him during the ‘Breaking and Entering’ soundtrack. He would come in the studio and improvise with us. We'd start playing with his acoustic instruments and electronic instruments and just jam together. The people we were working with in Abbey Road Studios were saying to us 'We've never seen the maestro like this. What's going on?' And we would just say 'Whaddyamean? This is how we work!' We were working with orchestras and all kinds of amazing things."
"You're doing well for a guy that's pushing twenty three," I offer, swept up in the I'm-in-the-Underworld-machine-just-for-a-moment vibe. "I'm actually 26,” laughs Hyde, this year 47 years young and a living epitome of the saying 'Youth isn't an age, it's a state of mind.'
“Bloody right. I'm not ready to lie down. I'm not having that."
That's freedom, baby. All things considered, dear reader, the Underworld train is set to keep on humming. Dark and long.