the ijamming! interview:
talks with TONY FLETCHER page 1

In theory, they're the greatest group on the planet. By which I mean that Underworld's Modus Operandi reads, to me, like a blueprint for how bands should operate in the 21st Century:

They make music primarily for themselves and their audience, and gratefully accept whatever mainstream success comes their way without ever setting out for it. They keep a tight control over ownership and distribution of their art, which allows them to make more money in the long run as well as to forestall crass commercialization of their product. They are multi-media artists on whose web site you're as likely to find photographic collections of abandoned cars or short impressionist movies as you are free live MP3s (though you'll find those too). They are partners in a successful London-based design agency (Tomato) and at one point arranged their shows purely at weekends so as not to lose sight of their "day jobs". In short, they are 40-something family men with their heads in the stars, but their feet firmly on the ground.

Left: Karl Hyde and Rick Smith. 23 Years Together and Counting.)

None of which would count for much if Underworld were not one of the greatest groups on the planet in practice as well as theory. All such opinions are subjective, of course, but let me throw three recordings at you to substantiate my claim.
1) The instrumental 'Rez,' a stunningly beautiful ten-minute techno symphony that still sounds like it was made in the future - though it's now a decade old.
2) The album Dubnobasswithmyheadman, a symbiotic meeting of poetry, rhythm, dance grooves and alternative rock which pretty much revolutionized all four of those artistic fields upon its release at the start of 1994.
3) 'Born Slippy,' the "lager lager" anthem made famous by its inclusion in Trainspotting, but revered and worshipped among hard-core Underworld fans for many months before its crossover success – and still effective on radio and dancefloor today despite what should by all rights be considered overkill.

Underworld "Mk. 2": The 1990s trio makes 3 of the decade's best LPs...
Dubnobasswithmy-headman (1993)
Second Toughest In The Infants (1996)
Beaucoup Fish

Even those recorded instances would fail to back up my claim to Underworld's magnificence were it not for the Underworld live show which, with its deliberately jarring juxtaposition of images and beats, guitars and synths, sequences and vocals, not to mention its sometimes three -hour long value, has probably done more to challenge my notion of what constitutes a concert and what invokes a transcendent emotional experience than anything I've witnessed since punk rock. Should you not have seen Underworld in concert over the years, then I can offer one final piece of evidence: Everything Everything, the ridiculously ambitious and wholly successful live DVD (and accompanying CD), assembled from several outdoor festivals at the peak of the act's popularity, which did as good as job of replicating the magic of a group's live experience as any other concert album, video or DVD that I can think of.

Underworld "Mk. 3:" Remember, Reflect, Reinvent?
Everything Everything:
the live CD - and the end of an era.
Everything Everything DVD: "replicates the intangible magic of the live experience." (2000)
A Hundred Days Off:
After 22 Years, the first ever album as a duo.

Everything Everything also marked the end of a decade-long chapter in Underworld's history - at which point it makes sense for us to flash back and remember that it was in fact Underworld's failure that allowed them to become so successful in the first place. Karl Hyde (vocals, lyrics, guitars) and Rick Smith (programming, rhythms, keyboards), first met at college in Cardiff and played as new wave act the Screen Gems, after which they worked together through the mid-1980s as members of the ambitious art-rock act freur – whose insistence on being known by a squiggle many years before Prince tried that one on meant that many people, myself among them, refused to take them seriously. (Though they did have a sizeable European hit in 1983 with the song 'Doot Doot' - and they did include future Who bass player Pino Palladino in their line-up)

After freur broke up, Hyde, Smith, and fellow freur alumni Alfie Thomas and Bryn Burrows mutated into a more conventional four-piece rock band called Underworld, which signed to Sire Records and proceeded to play "by the book" in an attempt to become mainstream rock stars. Two albums, 1988's Underneath the Radar and 99's Change The Weather were technically overproduced and musically underwhelming. Looking at and listening to the latter release recently, I was acutely embarrassed for Hyde's Michael Hutchence impersonations on the front cover and the title track, and by the band's attempts to emulate Tears For Fears elsewhere: only the latter album's closing ballad 'Beach' has fairly survived the test of time.

Oh yeah, freur and Underworld "Mk. 1": The forgotten/forgettable years
Underneath the Radar
Change The Weather

Underworld was clearly going nowhere in a hurry. At the end of a particularly debilitating experience opening for the Eurythmics across American stadiums, the group splintered, with Karl staying in Los Angeles for a while, Rick returning to Romford outside East London, and other members going their separate ways.

Karl may have been stalling for time, but Rick had a plan. Infatuated by the British dance explosion that had occurred in Underworld's absence, and determined to become part of it - yet aware of his outsider status and relative old age - he sought out someone who could act as a conduit. Enter local DJ, 19-year old Darren Emerson, who was perfectly willing to join Underworld as its dancefloor guru but not prepared to sacrifice his own burgeoning career to do so. This gelled perfectly with Smith and Hyde's new-found determination to abandon the rule book, and what was essentially an entirely new trio was born. After one single as Lemon Interrupt, the act bravely reverted to the Underworld name, releasing a number of influential 12" singles that defied easy categorization as either 'indie' or 'dance' in much the same way as the Shamen had done a few years earlier.

Determined not to repeat past errors, Underworld signed with Stephen Hall's influential Junior Boys Own, which gave them complete artistic control through the UK release of the studio albums Dubnobasswithmyheadman, Second Toughest In The Infants and Beaucoup Fish, on up to the present day. (Underworld is currently licensed to V2 in the States.)

Darren Emerson's tenure concluded, however, after the Everything Everything CD/DVD. At the time, it seemed that Emerson voluntarily left to pursue his own career as a superstar DJ; in hindsight, it appears that Hyde and Smith may also have wanted to reclaim Underworld as their own enterprise, after a decade in which Emerson was percieved, accurately or otherwise, as being primarily responsible for their dancefloor popularity. Certainly, that's the revised impression I gleaned from recent interviews, including the hour I spent with Karl at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden this summer, one of the more pleasant (and convenient) environments in which I've conducted a face-to-face.

Hyde, who was every bit as loquacious and amiable as I had hoped, was in town to promote the new album, A Hundred Days Off, billed - surprisingly but accurately - as the first ever recordings by Underworld as a duo. At a time when their fellow pioneers Orbital, the Chemical Brothers and to a lesser extent The Prodigy have all met with resistance at the record stores and with the critics, A Hundred Days Off is a crucial release for Underworld. Advance word indicated that it was decidedly laid-back - ambient, even – but the first single, 'Two Months Off', proved undeniably upbeat and euphoric, with a chorus "You bring light in" suggesting some kind of rapturous infatuation. (Incidentally, the video for 'Two Months Off' was shot just down the road from our interview location, in Prospect Park, later that same week.)

In reality, A Hundred Days Off is a little bit of everything: upbeat vocal dance tracks ('Dinosaur Adventure 3D' and 'Two Months Off'), mellow instrumentals ('Ballet Lane'), upbeat instrumentals ('Twist'), mellow vocals ('Sola Sistim'), and several of the vocal-rhythmic cut-ups that defy such lazy pigeonholding and are the idiosyncratic Underworld's trademark ('Little Speaker,' Trim' 'Leutin'). I hesitate to proclaim it the reinvention I think the duo wanted it to be, I don't see it expanding their audience either, but it provides a progression as well as a continuum, and on those occasions it desires to do so, it proves that Mssrs Smith and Hyde can pound the dancefloor just fine without their DJ's assistance.

Underworld are currently back on tour; though it will be odd seeing them without Emerson smoking onstage (literally and figuratively), the live experience has always been primarily about Hyde's commanding stage presence. The singer-guitarist typically jumps around like a spring bunny possessed with poetic funk (check the Everything Everything DVD for evidence of his seriously sensual dancing and visceral joy of performing) while Smith bobs head calmy from behind the boards while dictating the rhythmic ebb and flow. Hyde assures us that the concerts will remain every bit as energetic as they always have been. That's good to know.

But if the duo do choose to mellow further on record as they encroach deeper into middle age, we'll know this much: Underworld's decisions are always based on artistic desires and emotional inclinations, not commercial considerations or career opportunities. Karl Hyde and Rick Smith threw away the rule book many years ago, and there are many of us who have been enlightened, emboldened, influenced and inspired by their artistic trailblazing ever since.


ijammng! home is HERE ((plenty to interest Underworld fans)


Further biographical information:
freur at
Underworld at
freur and 1980s Underworld at
1990s Underworld at
The complete Screen Gems/freur/Underworld discography at


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iJamming! Site Copyright Tony Fletcher 2002