- 05 Mar 15
With Underworld named as a headliner for Electric Picnic 2015 this week, we dig into the vaults and find them on the comeback trail in 2002...
Surviving the exit of Darren Emerson, as well as various personal traumas and professional challenges, Underworld had re-emerged with their most positive album yet in 100 Days Off and were ready to talk positivity to Barry O Donoghue...
“Making this record was the most positive experience we’ve had in our 22 years together. Things were going on in our lives that were lot more positive – we’d decided to make moves toward kicking the stress out and more toward getting on and dealing with the problems, and just having a life that’s sustainable as well. The music is so… ‘up’… it’s incredibly rewarding that people want a piece of it.”
Comebacks aren’t supposed to be like this. Karl Hyde is looking far too relaxed. So is Rick Smith, for that matter, seated at the other end of the room. It’s been over two years since the last Underworld album, Beaucoup Fish. Since then there’s been the departure of “lynchpin member” Darren Emerson (more of that later), a back-breaking, standard setting live DVD, a relentless live schedule around the time of Beaucoup… and the little matter of Karl beating his addiction and becoming happy.
But before Beaucoup…, there was a time when Underworld seemed unstoppable. The trio – Karl, Rick and Darren – had book-ended the 90s with two anthems in the truest sense of the word – ‘Rez’ and ‘Born Slippy’. Add to that a couple of other classics and one epoch-defining album (Dubnobasswith-myheadman) and you have what people in the business call ‘a legacy’.
However, dance music in 2002 is a very different world to what it was even two years ago. The Prodigy have faltered, the Chemical Brothers are faltering, and Fatboy Slim is probably booked into a season’s panto in Brighton this Christmas. Given all that’s happened, how the hell can Underworld ever face the dancefloor again?
“We just went away,” says the articulate, intelligent and mesmerising Hyde. He’s the kind of chap it’d be a pleasure to be stuck in a lift with. “We cut loose and made an album that the two of us wanted to make. We’d stopped thinking about Underworld, the charts, singles and those things that might have pressured other groups and made the album we wanted to make.”
This sounds like a stock line from a band that realise their number’s up. It’s today’s version of “we just want to make music for ourselves”. But listen to Underworld’s new album, 100 Days Off, and you realise it’s true. It’s… calm. Well, calmer. It’s definitely an Underworld album – it’s still got the odd mix of blues and dance, abstract lyrics and sure-fire hits - but it seems a lot more at ease with itself than the last two excursions.
“I wonder if it’s something to do with the fact that we’ve been banging out tunes live on tour for the best part of three years now with the Beaucoup Fish album,” muses Karl, “and promoting the DVD and all that. I think it’s the body’s natural inclination, the refusal to bang it any more for a while at least.
“Certainly some of the material Rick was writing was quite soundscapey, music for installations and I was doing these sort of avant-garde guitar pieces – and it was all starting to be a bit bizarre! And at the point, we were like, well, wherever it ends up, it’s going to be a change.
“But then I think, just because we went with the flow, that things started coming around again. We bought a lot of African percussion instruments and started playing with them in the studio – in fact, on this album, we actually played more instruments than on any other Underworld album. We started to enjoy playing live instruments again. And I think myself, I started to get locked on to what I thought an ‘Underworld single’ should do, so it was a matter of letting go of that.”
They’ve also had to let go of Darren Emerson. Emerson joined the band when they mutated from the odd indie/electronic combo into what you might call Underworld proper. He departed without much warning (“It was around the time of the DVD. We didn’t know he was leaving”) but amid much gloominess in the mainstream dance press. The common perception seemed to be that Underworld had lost what made them Underworld proper. Did this annoy the remaining original members?
“Well, we’ve seen one classic about-face in print that we won’t talk about… and that was sweet… but from my point of view, the more I’ve come back to the world in the past few years, the more I realise Rick didn’t always receive the praise for work that he did. It wasn’t really so obvious to others what work he was doing. I think people saw us as a rock/pop group in the ’80s and then, in the early ’90s, they start making dance records, so people were like, well, ‘what’s the difference?’ So I can understand why people make that assumption. But in truth, it was Rick’s decision to start making dance records and find someone and that’s where Darren came in.
Has Darren opting out to join the legion of overpaid superstar DJs made a difference?
“For me, it’s a person, a personality that isn’t around anymore. He’s not there now – but we still have to remember that we had some very good times together. Musically, not so much, because Rick was writing all the grooves, writing all the albums and I was writing all the words and singing them. And from ‘Dubnobass…’ that was the core of the song writing team – it’s still together.
“And you know,” he ponders, “probably for the first time ever, there wasn’t a glitch when a band member left. Rick and I have seen so many people come and go over the 22 years, and for the first time it didn’t feel like starting over. It was like, ‘Well mate, someone has gone, we miss him, but musically, we’re still together and the vision is still the same’. We’ve got a job to do, let’s get on and make a record.”
The first fruit of their labour is the recent single ‘Two Months Off’. It’s up their with their best work to date – an 8-minute stomper with a riff the size of Sweden, church bells that shouldn’t sound so good, the aforementioned African percussion and Karl singing “You bring light in… you bring light in… to a dark place…” over and over. It’s glorious.
It’s had an incredible reaction from DJs, but given the fact that they “cut themselves off from Underworld”, how did they remain in touch with the dancefloor?
“Well, we started playing each other our record collections again – early house records, dub reggae, a mix of stuff – and that was the first time in so long that we’d actually sat down and done that, listened to music like we used to do years ago, but Steve Hall from JBO was playing us a lot of stuff, not just JBO stuff, but music he thought we’d like and stuff that he thought was relevant.”
Karl mentions the Stanton Warriors’ recent mix album as a prime example of how some contemporary music “blew them away”. It seems it took Rick quite a while to come to terms with the album’s admittedly impressive scope. “He must have listened to it 26 times, just lying on the ground in shock… and on the 27th listen, he picked himself up off the floor and said, ‘Oh right, OK, I can do this!’”
How much of an input did Steve Hall have on the record?
“He – and some other people at JBO – was kind of a foil in a way. We’d be working, firing on all cylinders and Steve would come in every two or three weeks and listen to what we had done.”
There must be quite an element of trust between the three of you.
“Yeah, definitely. We’ve been with Steve for 10 years now. And for quite a while we didn’t have any contract with them. Our point was contracts weren’t worth the paper they were written on if you fell out with the people. In the end, the contracts were signed to protect the people we were working with. We’d had a lot of offers from other people, but JBO were the ones we wanted to stay with.”
One of the key elements to Underworld’s allure over the past decade has been Karl’s bewildering, almost impenetrable lyrics. Coming on like the ramblings of a madman, they don’t make much sense on paper. But on record, they’re strangely engaging. They sound like snatches of conversation, pieces of a dream. He agrees. How does he get them down on paper?
“They sort of fly through the air about me, shooting through my head in microseconds and I try and get them down in my notebook as fast as I can. It’s like ‘Born Slippy’. That was a description of a journey from our old offices in Soho at night, down through London and out to Romford in Essex and all that went with it.
“I don’t mind telling you that there’s a song that I carry with me most places, Kool and The Gang’s ‘Celebrate’, that’s something that I find quite inspiring. And these days, when I’m looking through my notebooks, if I read three or four pages and don’t find anything positive, I put it away.”
It definitely feels like Karl has been through a ‘dark night of the soul’ of sorts. He’s battled and beaten a lengthy addiction to alcohol - it’s something that’s been done to death so we don’t broach the subject – but there’s a line on ‘Mo’Move’ on the new album that’s tickled our interest. It goes, ‘Last night I dreamt I was chemical’. Have drugs ever played a part in the creative process?
“I was an alcoholic for a long time,” he says, “but drugs never came into it. That’s a song about a dream I had where I literally felt I was chemical… and I woke up and I felt so good that I wrote it down in the book. I have these dreams sometimes where I’m sat with Prince and we’re having a cup of tea and we’re talking about gardening…” If it were almost anyone else talking, I’d have difficulty believing them. But strangely, after a decade of Karl Hyde’s lyrics, this all make some sort of sense.
“I had a dream last night where I was having a cup of tea with Muhammed Ali and he didn’t have Parkinson’s…,” he continues. “I can sit here in a room and just fill notebooks… (he pauses)… I use not be able to write in daytime, on a day like to today (an unfeasibly pleasant Indian summer’s evening in Dublin), but now I am. I don’t just have to write at night now, and write about all that goes with that.”
The calmer, more relaxed Karl Hyde is definitely in control and in a place he likes. And he’s been in a place he likes for the duration of the last album. Throughout the interview, he constantly refers to Rick (“Working with Rick is a very inspiring place to be for me. He pushes me harder to try things that I normally wouldn’t do”) and their shared experiences with a touching emotion in his voice – he seems to be pinching himself to believe it’s all real, all still real.
“I just find it extraordinary that Underworld and all that goes with it, by staying together for so long, has afforded us this amazing opportunity to do extraordinary things. To perform on stage, in clubs, to release a record after 22 years and it be going off in the clubs, to work in galleries, to make books, websites… I just can’t understand how all this is possible.”
An extraordinary life then?
“Yeah. Yeah, I think so. And to keep doing this, we don’t need No 1 records or be on top of the charts. We just need to be able to feed our families and keep being able to do what we like doing.”
Seven hours later, and Karl Hyde is on his knees, looking far from relaxed. Rick Smith is standing behind him surrounded a wall of studio trickery. ‘Two Months Off’ is pealing out into the night sky above the Creamfields festival. 10,000 people or so are grinning and dancing. Now Karl’s eyes are closed, he’s grinning and dancing like a lunatic. He might not be relaxed right now, but Karl Hyde looks very, very happy.
- Film & TV
- 16 Aug 22