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UNDERWORLD The X-Press Interview


Electronic music legends don’t come much bigger than Underworld. But the rave veterans refuse to sit still and rest on their laurels. ALFRED GORMAN caught up over Skype with the dynamic duo, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, on the cusp of completion of their yearlong DRIFT project. The resulting boxset and sampler album were officially released November 1. The elder statesmen amiably discuss their craft and process, the art of wordplay, working with Iggy Pop, their recent four-day residence at Sydney Opera House and what’s next.

Still at the top of their game, the irrepressible creativity and energy of Underworld continues. The incredibly enduring act have been carving out their corner of the electronic music spectrum since 1992. Whether it’s dancefloor bangers or delicate ambient soundscapes. Grand sweeping synths, intricate rhythms, thunderous drums and Karl Hyde’s unmistakable vocals. Underworld stand apart from their electronic peers; ever-changing, indefinable, deep, dark and dirty. After achieving almost all there is to as a group – critical acclaim, mind-blowing live shows, film scores, art/visual projects, and even writing and directing the music for the London Olympics Opening Ceremony – the pair’s eclecticism knows no bounds. As last month’s Double J Artist in Residence, Karl Hyde took listeners on a fascinating journey through their influences.

One of the ways they stay vital is by challenging themselves, and each other. Their latest project, DRIFT, was their most ambitious yet – producing a new track every week for a year, along with a visual component, and releasing it for free online, every Thursday. The challenges, limitations and close working relationship made them more musically connected than ever. The results are amazingly diverse and consistently high quality – such as the brilliantly playful STAR where Hyde reimagines Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s children’s poem Each Peach Pear Plum via popular cultural icons. They seem reinvigorated, as if the challenge has made them flex their artistic and creative muscles. The DRIFT release is available as a 10-track sampler of the best material from the project, or for the serious fans, a complete special edition box-set comprising all the material – 40 odd tracks and visual components, spanning 7 CDs, a Blu-ray and an 80 page book.

Underworld were scheduled to play in Perth at the start of the year for the Electric Gardens Festival, which fell apart and sadly they never came. In fact Perth’s only seen them once before, headlining a big Summadayze festival in 2009 on the Swan River with giant balloons, though Smith points out they did actually visit us once before in the 80s, in the Underworld Mk1 Underneath The Radar era, and they recall our remote town fondly. “Ah Perth! That’s close to the moon isn’t it? Amazing place. Every time we’re there, you kinda get that sense like it’s the last real outpost,” an enigmatic Hyde kicks off the chat…

Pretty much. Sadly you didn’t make it here earlier this year, but you played four nights at the Sydney Opera House for Vivid Festival, and I’m happy to say I was there on the last night, which was amazing…

Karl: Glad you made it! That was a good night. It’s quite a thing to watch from the stage, because it banks up and around, so you see everyone all around you, it’s a fantastic energy.

Rick: Yayyyy! [cheering] It was a very late call to ask if we were able to play Vivid, but it took us about 15 seconds to answer. It’s an amazing venue and the people who run it are clever and talented, and the audience who came to celebrate, were just something else. We had such a good time.

You turned the place into a total rave with smoke and lasers. During the first track everyone stood up and started dancing and stayed dancing till the end! Getting to play four nights like that, did it give you a chance to experiment and mix up the setlist?

Karl: We did. That’s the great thing about the DRIFT project – a lot of people knew the material, even though we might have just dropped the track the week before, so it enabled us to put together a different set every night.

So it’s almost the end of the yearlong project. How does it feel now, compared to how you felt and what you envisaged at the start?

Rick: A lot of how I feel is what I think I would have hoped. A certain satisfaction. A lot of what I had hoped, and a lot I couldn’t have even imagined. There’s been some huge successes. It was a bit of a mad idea, because as you can imagine it put a lot of pressure on us. And life goes on still.

How was it different to your normal album recording process?

Karl: Well a normal album would take us around three years, and we wouldn’t be together that often. This has brought us together a lot more, working a lot closer, problem solving, supporting one another. And around three times more material than we would normally produce in the same period.

Rick: And there was so much work that got made that never saw the light of day, ideas that never got developed and were left. It’s quite a small container, an album, to hold the work that we’re interested in. So it was partly in response to that, like, sod it. Kind of like a Netflix style series, where you didn’t have to be watching that week.

Like Netflix, I noticed that the Series is broken up into ‘Episodes’ – what was the common thread between those songs grouped into each episode?

Rick: Y’know I think you’re the first person to ask about that. There was an intention. The whole project was like a gigantic journey in a diary. I think I had an idea for a bit of a structure or narrative in the first episode, but then it was just… it wasn’t a very good idea [both laugh]. Just letting things happen and fall into place. They became a punctuation very quickly the episodes, rather than a target or a destination.

And so this project is entitled Drift Series 1 – leading one to maybe think there will be another series?

Karl: [smiles holding up two fingers]

Rick: Ta-da! [laughing]

Though I imagine you’d be having a bit of a break before that…

Karl: Well a weekend anyway.

Rick: And Christmas is coming, so yeah, a bit of time to breathe. But we love doing what we do, so it’s not like we need a holiday.

Did it become easier as it went on, getting the tracks out? Did you get a bit more of a process together?

Rick: Well one would hope so… but no. [laughs] Because the whole thing was a journey and learning, and when you relentlessly don’t know what to expect next, that’s the way it is. So there’s been surprises all the way.

Karl: It was constantly evolving. Reassessing where we’re at, and finding ways to raise the bar, or [find] creative things we can do to challenge us. You don’t get to rest in a negative way. There’s no time to fall into bad patterns. It was about the continual challenge.

You also did a bit of collaborating with the likes of The Necks and Ø [Phase] for this project, which is something you haven’t done much of in the past. Although, just before starting DRIFT, you did an EP with Iggy Pop, which was pretty awesome. Did that inspire you to do some more collabs?

Rick: Yes, it was definitely encouraging, because we had such a great time meeting and working with Iggy. I wonder why people don’t ask us much to collaborate. I think we might have appeared a bit insular. I’m not sure. So we started asking people ourselves. Film directors seem to ask us a bit, people in the visual arts. But what was nice about this project was more collaborations with musicians, and with writers and poets.

Are there some people you have lined up or are keen to collaborate with in the next series?

Karl: Yeah, we’ve got a list. Some of the people we wanted to work with on this one, but they were away on tour at the time, and we were just on different cycles. So the list continues to grow, but it’s just down to availability sometimes.

Karl, your vocals seem to have evolved over time. They used to be a bit more deep and distorted in the mix, random and stream of consciousness, but seem to be getting more straight up, logical and comprehensible. How do you approach your lyricism and vocals?

Karl: We work together on the writing process. If Rick turns something up in the mix, that’s Rick’s choice, to make it more audible, or change its relationship to the music. We talk about words a lot, how words are gathered, things that are inspiring. There’s a whole lot of game structures that Rick has brought to this project. It’s very difficult to define where the line between one of us begins and the other ends. It’s always been like that, right back to the beginning of this version of Underworld. I listened when Rick pointed out that the lyrics in the 80s were crap. The words are all out there on the streets, people just say stuff and you write it down. You see things and you write it down. You document your landscape. And all that goes into books. So when we make music, there’s pages you can improvise from. Iggy was astonishing like that, because he has no books or anything, just his memory, and this astonishing ability to edit on the fly. I’ve never seen anything like it.

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