There are few production outfits more important to the development of modern electronic dance music than Underworld.
Underworld's Karl Hyde and Rick Smith swim through the deep, uncharted waters of The Riverrun Project
The group's importance doesn't lie with the fact that it was able to break through to the mainstream or that it produced countless club hits. Rather, Underworld's stamp on the dance world is marked by its jaw-dropping live show and ability to bring out the beautiful sides of our emotions. There aren't many dance-music songs that make people weep the way the beginning of “Born Slippy” does. While on the other end of the spectrum, there are very few songs that bring the same electricity as the dynamic ending of “Cowgirl.” Those tracks are classics because they are true songs and not just dance tracks made for a specific setting or mood.
An obvious reason why Underworld, aka Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, has always produced structured songs is because long before Hyde and Smith were brandishing dance music, they struggled to make ends meet in several different experimental new-wave pop-rock bands. Having met in a Cardiff, Wales restaurant in the '70s, Hyde and Smith embarked on their first musical endeavor, a band called the Screen Gemz. Disbanded after only one release, the Screen Gemz gave way to Freur (featuring Hyde, Smith and a third partner, Alfie Thomas). Freur released two records and had a minor hit with the song “Doot-Doot,” paving the way for the first incarnation of Underworld (referred to as Underworld Mark 1). Despite the release of two records (1988's Underneath the Radar and 1989's Change the Weather, both on Sire) and a slot on the Eurythmics farewell tour, music-industry frustrations led the friends to call it quits. Thanks to the influence of a young acid-house DJ named Darren Emerson, however, the group reformed in 1992 with a cutting-edge new sound.
Originally recording as Lemon Interrupt, the trio put out several records on landmark dance label Junior Boys Own (JBO) before readopting the Underworld moniker (then referred to as Underworld Mark II). It wasn't long before the new Underworld distanced itself from the dance pack; the group's 1994 debut CD Dubnobasswithmyheadman (Wax Trax! in the U.S.) became an instant classic, with some of the act's greatest singles (including “Dark & Long” and “Cowgirl”). Underworld's second CD, Second Toughest in the Infants (Wax Trax!) followed in 1996 and once again featured several great singles (including “Pearl's Girl” and “Rowla”). It wasn't until the act licensed its single “Born Slippy” to the soundtrack of the 1996 cult-classic film Trainspotting, however, that Underworld became a global sensation and major live draw.
Underworld continued to release quality albums, including 1999's Beaucoup Fish (V2) and 2000's live album Everything, Everything (JBO); but everything was not well internally. Darren Emerson shocked the dance-music world in 2000 when he left the seminal dance act to concentrate on his burgeoning DJ career and the launch of his Underwater Records label. Seeing as how Hyde and Smith didn't find their sound until Emerson joined them in 1992, there was doubt as to how Underworld would exist in the future. All doubt was erased when Hyde and Smith released the first Underworld CD as a duo, 2003's A Hundred Days Off (JBO). Again, there were multiple singles to emerge from the CD, and they once again toured the world. Something was beginning to change, however, in the psyches of Hyde and Smith. They began to question everything they were currently doing and what the future would hold for them. It was as if a fierce midlife crisis were grabbing hold of their artistic emotions, and in order for them to continue with Underworld, some severe changes would need to be made. These changes are for the first time widely available in Underworld's brand new series of download-only releases dubbed The Riverrun Project. But that is just the tip of the iceberg for an act now on a lifelong quest to find inspiration and to push the artistic limit in 2006.
INSPIRATION RUNS DEEP
It's hard to imagine that with all their achievements, Hyde and Smith were not satisfied with the state of their career. After all, in today's music industry, dance acts struggle to sell even a few hundred records in the States, and it's cost-prohibitive to bring over a live show of Underworld's size. When you put things into perspective, Underworld is pretty darn fortunate to be where it is.
But Underworld's discontent has nothing to do with material things like lack of record sales, money or fame. The cause of Hyde and Smith's displeasure is that they felt too comfortable in what they were doing. “The Riverrun Project was born out of a desire for change,” Hyde says. “We've been together for 26 years now, and around 2003, we were feeling content and at ease, and that's a lethal place to be for an artist.” Another reason for Underworld's unhappiness is a feeling that it shares with many other artists — a dislike for music-industry formalities and conventions. “We were completing our contract with V2 and felt that after all these years we should explore working in the ways that we worked back in the early '90s, which was independently,” Hyde says. “We wanted to try things out, which were sometimes difficult to do within today's music-industry structure.”
Liberated from music-industry constraints, Underworld has actually produced more art than at any point in its career. The key word is “art,” because Underworld has always been more than just music; the group has dabbled in advertising, films, photography and publishing (Hyde and Smith own UK graphic-design company Tomato). Like Underworld's career, The Riverrun Project is an all-encompassing concept that sees no boundaries or ends. The first musical output from the project is two EP-length pieces that are currently available from the Underworldlive.com Website. In this virtual “underworld,” the act makes available both free and pay downloads, live Web radio shows, unreleased material and live recordings. Underworld's live Web shows often feature new material from other artists, but just before Christmas the duo did a three-hour live jam that featured new material and a Web Q&A.
Entitled “Lovely Broken Thing” and “Pizza for Eggs,” the first tracks from The Riverrun Project are both actually audio imperfections that were chosen to show fans what Underworld was about in its most stripped-down and basic form. “There was something appealing in the immediacy really early on in a lot of these tunes,” Hyde says. “Rick wanted to release works in progress because he felt like there was a charm very early on in every track that may not ever be heard. Very early on the tracks have something that may be changed and become something else, and he wanted people to hear part of that process.”
The project got under way during the 2003 world tour, with Hyde and Smith initially swapping ideas on their Macintosh G4 PowerBooks. Presently, Smith has finished mixing a whopping 180 new Underworld tracks that will eventually see the light of day. For The Riverrun Project, the term “track” is a bit misleading because “Lovely Broken Thing” and “Pizza for Eggs” are actually long seamless pieces of music that tell no story or have any emotional relationship. “Rick wondered what it would be like if each individual track was like an instrument on the track where you took a groove, ambiences and voices, and you wove them as parts of a larger, more intricate piece,” Hyde says. Smith wove them together in completely random ways. Sometimes he just dropped them on top of one another and ran them into one another to see what would happen. Other times, certain parts in the randomness would suggest the way things should go.
Another interesting point about The Riverrun Project is that Underworld is now more open to collaborating with other people. A major contributor to the sound of “Lovely Broken Thing” and “Pizza for Eggs” is old friend Steven Hall from JBO. After Smith finished creating the individual tracks, he handed them over to Hall, whose job it was to group them all together. Hall came back with several EP-like groupings of what he saw as loose musical types. “The first one he saw as kind of electro, the second was dubby and the third is another vibe and so on,” Hyde says. “He has a way of working, which sometimes works as a tangent to the way Rick and I go.” Once Hall selected the tracks, he went into the studio with longtime Underworld studio assistant Darren Price, who fit the tracks together based on the initial ideas. Then Smith adjusted the tracks and took them to an engineer for equalization. “This jam has been great, because it's freed up Rick where he doesn't need to be a part of every moment of the process,” Hyde says. “He can enjoy more of it than in the past and can take a back seat and choose when to jump in. Sometimes with this working process it's important to know when to let go and when to keep the hands on.”
When speaking about dance-music performances, the conversation begins and ends with Underworld. Whereas most live dance music comes across as boring and mundane, Underworld has worked hard to put together a feat for every sense. Before Underworld goes on a new tour, there is a three-month process where Smith and Price prepare the gear for a live setting. The reason that so much time is necessary is because Smith needs to make the equipment flexible in the same vein as traditional instruments. Often the studio tracks will not work in a live setting because much of the detail that goes into making the tracks beautiful will not come across correctly live. Smith digs through the tracks and looks at which elements won't work live and either discards them or replaces them. Another reason why the live show takes so long to prepare is because it truly is a live show. According to Hyde, there are no set lists or rehearsals to repeat the same thing every night. “Depending on how we feel, the instrument [the name for the collective of the equipment onstage] has to be able to respond to our moods,” Hyde says. “So a track that might be banging at one point, we might want it to be really subtle and gentle for a while, like you would be able to do with a guitar or a piano. It has to be able to do that, so Rick works really hard to build in an enormous amount of flexibility into the live show.”
Underworld is currently working on a number of different projects that dabble into many different media but also fall into the concept of The Riverrun Project. They are collaborating with Tomato's John Warrick on a book based loosely around 36,000 photos Hyde took in 2004. A film was also created for Underworld's Japan shows based around another book by Warrick called Floating World; Smith built a score around the film, and it was screened at the Tokyo show. Underworld is also collaborating with composer Gabriel Yared on the film score to Anthony Minghella's new film Breaking and Entering. Hyde, Smith and Yared got along well during the recording process, and there's talk that a proper side project might continue after the film work. Also in the pipeline are possible collaborations with Brian Eno and Adrian Sherwood, who Underworld toured with in Japan. “From the days of the On-U Sound System, Adrian was a massive influence to us,” Hyde says. “We wanted a group that was like the Sound System. He's as heavily into dub as we are, and he came onstage during soundcheck and started to jam with us. As soon as the film is finished, we are all going to get together again!”
Underworld provides a good lesson in how to deal with the current state of the music industry. The duo knows its place in it and continues to work hard so as not to be perceived as, according to Hyde, “a bunch of old farts playing dance music.” They are incredibly ambitious artists, treat their fans to the best live show in dance music and offer an endless stream of fresh material through their own controlled Website. At a time when music is cheapened through MTV and car commercials, Underworld remains solid gold.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
A lot goes into an Underworld show. For a start, there are radio transmitters for wireless performances, tons of effects (thanks to Korg, Sony and Roland), MIDI gates and a trusty Clavia Nord Lead 2. Here, Rick Smith steps in for Mr. Hyde to talk about eight must-have items for Underworld tours.
Apple iMac G5
“We originally used PowerBooks but found that Logic Audio needed the G5 processor to run the latest material, mostly because we were using effect plug-ins within Logic,” Smith says. “The G5 iMac was chosen over the G5 Power Mac, which we use in the studio, as its all-in-one design was thought to be inherently more reliable. Also, its lack of expandability isn't a big issue as we use MOTU 896 FireWire audio interfaces.
“Although the main sequences run on Logic Audio, Live plays on three of the five computers onstage. Its ease of use and ability to time-shift samples on the fly make it an important element of the jam.”
Funktion-One Resolution 2s plus Infrabass 218
“We have two of the new self-powered models with passive sub-bass units wired to an XTA Electronics DP226 speaker management unit, and they're a bit like having studio monitors capable of sounding great at P.A. sound levels.
Kenton Electronics Custom Boxes
“Kenton has been an important part over the years in supplying custom boxes to overcome various MIDI and MIDI-sync problems, and we currently use five little custom boxes built by Kenton to make some things possible and some just easier.”
Liebert UPS units
“On a purely technical point: All the gear is powered via two Liebert UPS units — you wouldn't want to have to restart the gear in a hurry.”
Midas Heritage 1000
“This is at the center of everything onstage and is in use by Karl, Darren Price and myself pretty much all the time. We've had this one for a couple of years now, and it's been in some pretty harsh conditions. Apart from being endlessly frozen then cooked in the back of a truck countless times, it's survived rain on the Danube, clouds of red dust from the Belfort festival, the condensation dripping from the dance tent ceiling in too many festivals and even an encounter with a pineapple in Sydney — but that's another story.”
“One of the few bits of gear that's survived the various upgrades over the years. We use two live.”
Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus
“Still the best vocoder we've tried, and we've tried a lot.”