Underworld’s meteoric rise to become the world’s biggest electronic act, in all its grand scope, dramatic intensity and uncertain future, was a perfect parallel of the ‘90s. Creative mavericks, fueled by equal parts techno lust and creative fire, seemed to take over the world on their own terms. Consider their first live performance; three musicians squatting on the outer fringes of the Glastonbury Festival, setting up their own DJ booth and making the crowd collectively drop its jaws at the sheer, manic energy they projected. Since then, Underworld’s live show, a collection of visual and aural distortions, has always punched conformity in the gut. The frantic pace continued in the recording studio. “Born Slippy”, arguably one of the decade’s most well-known songs, became a dance anthem after its placement in Trainspotting, but it was just a small part of their string of commercial and critical success enjoyed by the trio. Put it this way—have you ever played a gig on the slopes of Mount Fuji? Nope, didn’t think so.
Just like the ‘90s boom, however, Underworld’s speedy ascent eventually came crashing back to Earth. Call it millennium tension; Darren Emerson struck out on his own in 2000 to DJ, leaving original members Karl Hyde and Rick Smith with a crushing set of expectations they still haven’t completely lived up to. All of which makes the recent release of Underworld 1992-2002, a collection of the groups epic songs, an expertly planned nostalgia trip, or as cynics might say, a fitting end to a grand tale.
Don’t, however, think that Dr. Smith and Mr. Hyde are done experimenting. The way Karl Hyde looks at it, change fuels the creative soul, and these boys have a lot farther to travel.
“Rick and I have been working together for about 23 years,” says Hyde. “Familiarity isn’t always a good thing sometimes you need a little crisis to shake things up.” Emerson’s departure, though never explicitly mentioned, seemed to be the obvious point of reference—A Hundred Days Off, the group’s first excursion post-Emerson, disappointed many fans. However, the Hyde and Smith have been through their fair share of crisis and changes of heart since they started working together in the ‘80s.
Originally, Smith and Hyde formed Fruer, a New Wave group that quickly fizzled due to lack of attention. Later rejoining in the late ‘80s as Underworld, the duo sought to create dark industrial funk, a project that once again never really clicked. It’s a past that Hyde never forgets, especially when he’s accused of having a big head or someone that’s fallen from grace.
“In the ‘80s, we were trying so hard to be pop stars, and we were just so shit at it,” says Hyde. “As soon as we gave that up and just enjoyed ourselves, things just got better.”
In 1989, the Underworld crew befriended Darren Emerson, a young DJ clued into the rising trance and techno scene. Soon, the group scored its first minor hits, “Dirty/Minneapolis” and “Bigmouth/Eclipse”, both released on Junior Boys Own Records and recorded under the name Lemon’s Interrupt. Reverting back to the Underworld title soon after, the group released the singles “Rez,” “MMM…Skyscraper I Love You” and the album Dubnobasswithmyheadman in 1994.
Those tracks, and the dozen or so other gems the group has released over the last decade, are part of the new double-disc collection. Everything you would expect is there, from “Rez” to ““Shudder/King of Snakes”, and every album and every style of the band is well-represented. All contain the relentless, driving pulse that made them such dance floor fillers in the first place. Hyde’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics, a mosaic of tiny fragments of everyday life, perfectly fit in with the paranoid pulse of Emerson’s beats. Smith completes the package by sprinkling shards of guitar sounds over everything. On the anthology, which Hyde calls a “historical overview,” the band’s work with Junior Boy’s Own stands out as one of the most sweeping bodies of work in dance music’s history.
Which begs the question, where does one go from there, especially when Emerson’s parting isn’t the only radical change from the Underworld formula? For years, Hyde harnessed his creative energy from drinking, but since 1999 has gone dry. Previously, he would go on long binges, using to alcohol to feel selfish, singular and focused. Their greatest hit, “Born Slippy”, was a morning-after transcript of drunken scrawls.
“I believed that I needed it,” he says. “I needed it to have experiences I could write about. I thought I was someone who had nothing to say.”
Based on the group’s initial post-Emerson offerings, it may seem like Hyde never rediscovered his muse. However, Hyde has definitely seen that his writing didn’t require any self-medicating, and feels in control of his creativity once again.
“Though I feared I would have no progress when I put down the drink,” says Hyde, “[my writing] hasn’t changed. The creative search, and the fragments that I collect, reflects that.”
Much like his schizophrenic lyrics, Hyde always goes in dozens of directions at once, and at this crucial junction in Underworld’s history, that might prove to be their saving grace. For instance, Tomato, the art collective and successful ad firm that he collaborates on with Smith and others, is busy creating the next Underworld experience; an interactive Playstation 2 game.
“We want to explore Underworld sounds and visuals,” Hyde says. “When we put out our album on this format, people can look at sound like we look at sound.”
In addition to a new album, there’s also a book project rumored to be in the works. It’s no wonder that Hyde says he doesn’t have hobbies any more, just projects. From his beginnings as an installation artist in the ‘70s, he’s constantly melded different art forms. Maybe it comes from all of those boring moments spent between exciting and electric nights on stage, especially since Hyde has been back to the U.S. five times since 2002, but he seems positively restless. Hyde doesn’t feel like withdrawing or slowing down. There are too many creative catalysts, too many fantastic people to meet, and too much expression to leave it bottled up. Consider his thoughts about Tomato’s work in advertising. It’s a perfect summation of what the Underworld project has been about from the beginning, and shows that Hyde and Smith don’t plan to fade away anytime soon.
“If you make a beautiful TV commercial, you can affect someone’s living space for just a short time,” he says. “Isn’t that bloody brilliant?”