One mention of the duo Underworld immediately conjures up images of the most disgusting toilet in Scotland and Ewan McGregor and his team of likely lads passing out to the soundtrack of ‘Born Slippy NUXX’ in Danny Boyle’s seminal Trainspotting. It is almost hard to believe that Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have been making sound systems and heartbeats pulsate for three decades.
To give a little insight into just how long the boys have been creating music, when they began Iraq had just invaded Iran, Ian Curtis had just died and Joy Division had just released Closer. In the 15 years since Trainspotting’s release, the pair have written film scores, founded an art collective, toured extensively, and with the recent release of their sixth studio album, Barking, have proved that their creative ability is yet to deteriorate in the years post ‘choosing life’ and heroin chic.
It seems there is no stopping Underworld. Pioneers of field music, their latest record sees the boys continue in their three decade legacy with the same energy and spirit that fuelled early nineties British pop culture.
Standing at just over an hour long, Barking is a sunny, more poppy offering than its 2007 predecessor, Oblivion With Bells and signalling a definitive shift it is the first time Hyde and Smith have worked with other producers. With Paul Van Dyke, Dubfire and Mark Knight were enlisted to illuminate their sound and they are happy with the results.
“We wanted to find out what would happen if we wrote the material and had this musical exchange between other people. It was a joy; it was everything we hoped it would be. The people we asked all said yes, which was great, and they came back with what we hoped they’d come back with, which was their point of view on our music.” Hyde continues, saying that the real reason behind going in a different direction was the frustration they felt having their music remixed by other artists after having completed a record. “We’d rather get in the studio with the artists,” he continues, “we’ve enjoyed a lot of the remixes but it’s nice to enter the dialogue and be a part of it.”
Considering its many collaborations Barking is unsurprisingly a confusing concoction. It jumps from Deadmau5 inspired prog-house, (‘Always Loved Like A Film’) to happy pop, (‘Grace’), to an even happier muddle of Drum n Bass (‘Scribble’). This is something Hyde is unfazed by, “Yes, it is different,” he agrees, “but music should be about reinvention. We’ve always responded to what’s going on in the contemporary music world, and with this one it connected with radio so therefore got across to a lot more people. On the last album there was less you could broadcast on a radio show.”
Having spent a large part of the eighties being record label puppets and compromising their art to “chase the invisible golden carrot of pop stardom,” Underworld are not in any hurry to please the masses or maintain the loyalty of their old fans. “We follow our desires, we evolved into this group at the end of the 1980s through a strong desire to make the music that we wanted to make, regardless of opinions and pressure from outsiders. We started off with the premise of making music we wanted to make and not be swayed by opinions from anyone. We did 10 years of that in the eighties and didn’t get very far,” shrugs Hyde, “On tour we saw a lot of new faces off the back of this album which was a joy. I know we’ve surprised a lot of our old fans.”
With a career exceeding 30 years it would be unreasonable to expect anything less from Underworld. “People would get bored,” says Hyde. “As artists we need to keep evolving, keep changing, keep listening to what’s going on and keep fusing together things from the past and the present.” Although every track sounds poles apart to the one that preceded it they surprisingly merge together as a consistent whole. Hyde agrees it shouldn’t work, considering the amount of creative minds behind the record but it does. “I actually think this is the most straightforward record we’ve ever made both musically and lyrically.”
It was reggae, Kraftwerk and anything with a strong bass structure that sparked Underworld’s musical epiphany, and determined their decision to move from pop to dance at the end of the 1980s. The truth behind the band’s false start was, as Hyde describes, a desire to “chase the idea of being a pop group, purely to put dinner on the table,” he continues. “It was exciting making money but it was never in our hearts.”
Hyde has a lot to say about how the industry has changed in the 30 years he has known it. “Few things have taken a battering quite like the music industry of late,” he says, yet he finds the X Factor debate exciting. “I think the worst thing is complacency and it’s good to see that people on both sides of the fence are doing something about the current slump.”
Referring to the fact that people just aren’t buying records anymore he says in support of X factor and its by-products that “at least it provides one possible response to the slump in sales.” Hyde’s optimism is refreshing; the reality behind his excitement is it that proposes a challenge to musicians and artists. Which according to Hyde “the role of the artist is to solve problems and find solutions that excite people enough that make them want to get involved with music again.”
So what next for Underworld? Hyde is unconcerned about leaving a legacy as long as they “continue to push boundaries, experiment and play to thousands of happy people whose only goal is to celebrate,” then everything is worthwhile.
Words: Allison Mulimba
Photo: Michael Robert Williams
Art Editor: Elliott Webb
This feature was first published in Issue 08 of FASHION.MUSIC.STYLE, February/March 2011.