Underworld: A second life for virtual bluesmen

Friday, 26 October 2007

The dance duo Underworld tell Martin James how they  escaped oblivion by uploading to the internet

“If people want to say we’re not that popular anymore then they needed to be here tonight. I mean, bloody hell, our audiences are just getting larger.”

Karl Hyde is in buoyant mood. Only 10 minutes ago his band Underworld was playing to a rapturous capacity crowd in New York’s infamous Central Park and now band and entourage are speeding through Manhattan’s midnight traffic towards their hotel, the Soho Grand.

Swathed in the light of post-gig positivity, Hyde’s rapid-fire conversation is a high-spirited blend of defiance and celebration. Any suggestion that the media perception of Underworld might present them as no longer popular, or relevant, is simply laughed off.

“We just played the Hollywood Bowl and it was a sell-out.” He continues, eyes wide with a still-fresh sense of excitement, “Seventeen-and-a-half thousand people, all for Underworld! That was extraordinary because the bowl goes up so high, you can’t see the top, it’s all in darkness, all you can see is glow sticks and then suddenly they cheer and this roar comes out of the sky and we’re like, ‘what?’.

“We played the Fillmore in Denver and it was amazing. It was like the roof was going to come off. Even the fashion people lost it! So, yeah, the truth is we’re just getting larger and larger.”

This month sees the release of the brooding opus Oblivion with Bells, their first album in five years and, crucially, their first since departing from V2 Records and going it alone with their own internet-based label. For many a traditional band such a slide away from the major record industry might come with a depressing sense of downsizing; a proof positive that they’re no longer selling in a significant numbers. When you consider that it’s now 11 years since Underworld’s sole hit “Born Slippy .NUXX” was first released, you could be forgiven for thinking that shrinking sales was a major factor in the band’s decision to go it alone. But you’d be wrong.

Underworld are one of a growing army of artists who have shunned the traditional industry and embraced the possibilities for full creative autonomy that the internet brings. The latest Radiohead album, In Rainbows, has been released as a potentially free download, while The Charlatans have also announced that their next set will be a freebie download.

None of these headline-grabbing tactics are new to Underworld, however. In fact, over the course of their apparent lay-off Hyde and his partner in crime Rick Smith have made available the Riverrun Series of free download albums.

“An album these days is a calling card, it’s an appointment. We do loads of stuff on the internet but we know that a lot of people still listen to music in the traditional way, so when we release a record they’re like, ‘ooh, they’re back!’ But then we can let them know about what we’ve been doing, which draws more people in to our online stuff.”

Hyde and Smith have also been exploiting fully the online possibilities of the internet through their hugely popular web radio shows, Dirty Radio (“We were really inspired by John Peel and what he taught us,” says Hyde) and the ongoing development of their web TV shows through the full unlimited support of QuickTime (a mooted film-for-download of their Hollywood Bowl gig was dropped when the venue demanded $20,000 for the privilege. “We just watched it on YouTube instead!”).

“When we see all the cameras and the cell phones go up, we’re pleased. Actually we’ve never had a problem with people bootlegging our gigs as long as they don’t sell ’em. Give them away, trade them and spread the word. That’s the thing that the Grateful Dead taught us, you know.”

Furthermore this collection of multimedia artists have made available artworks, books and any form of creative pursuit that they turn their hand to.

Such creative freedom can only be a positive thing for the artist. Hyde agrees. “We’re outsiders. We’ve always been outsiders. We’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the mainstream. Even when we worked the mainstream it was by default. The thing is, major record companies can’t deal with idiosyncrasies, and it’s these idiosyncrasies that turn us on because without them you don’t have the underground, and without that pop music is over. What is over is the traditional way of doing things.

“The internet stuff is the most important thing that we do,” he continues. “The website, the new tracks that we’ve recorded on the road and just give them away, the radio shows that we’ve done. This is something we’ve wanted to do for more than 20 years and finally it’s a reality.”

Underworld are, of course, no newcomers to the music industry. In the early Eighties they had a minor hit with “Doot Doot” under the unlikely name of Freur (represented by a Prince-esque squiggle). When that band fell apart, Hyde and Smith regrouped to form a stadium techno-pop act called Underworld (named after the Clive Barker film that they had scored while in Freur). This incarnation lasted two albums before finally imploding through a combination of the general public’s lack of interest and record company indifference.

“Oh, yes, we had our attempt at being pop stars – and we were crap at it,” says Hyde, laughing. “Thing is, 25 years ago we stopped being in the business for a while because record companies were telling us to ‘get rid of the singer if you want to make dance music’, or ‘get a drummer if you want to be in a real band’, and we just realised that we had to build the structure for ourselves. We had to do it by saying to the industry, ‘this is what we’re doing; it works, would you like a piece?’ And we could also see that the record business was no place to put all of your eggs. And that’s taken time.”

We’re now chatting in a stairwell that services the hotel’s exclusive bar. “Come to New York with Underworld and see a fire escape,” jokes Hyde, but the truth is that, so engaged is he in conversation, we never quite make it to the bar. Indeed the sheer excitement of talking about Underworld’s creative vision has us so engrossed that neither of us notices Cameron Diaz walk past on the narrow stars.

“In the Seventies,” continues Hyde in an apparent freefall of endless thoughts, much like his stream of consciousness lyrics, “Robert Fripp wrote that people had to ‘corporate-think’ and be these little groups of people who have got skills and can exchange ideas and information and support one another. We always loved that idea and now it’s happening. So we have these networks all over the place that all support each other. Now we send files around the world to people to jam on. Be it music, images, words, whatever, we get these laptop jams going with our network of people and we just share ideas, information. And, of course, nowadays with the laptop we don’t have to be limited by studio time. We can work where we want, whenever we want. Which is incredibly freeing.”

This approach to creativity has had a huge impact on the band’s other major music projects over recent years, film scores. Last year they scored Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and, most notably, the score for Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering, composed in collaboration with Gabriel Yared (Betty Blue, The English Patient, The Talented Mr, Ripley).

“We would send him [Yared] files of stuff to work on, and he would do the same for us. And we had this lengthy period of just jamming ideas in Abbey Road studios, which we’d then work on, continually swapping files and ideas. It was a very rich and rewarding process.”

Despite the cutting-edge concepts of internet creativity, all Hyde’s talk of jamming has a decidedly rootsy feel to it. I wonder whether the laptop is the modern equivalent of the acoustic guitar and Underworld purveyors of 21st century blues? It’s an idea Hyde warms to immediately.

“You got your instrument in your case and you can play? I got my Apple Mac, I got the blues,” he laughs.

So is there a blues element to Underworld? “There is, yeah, there really, really is. The blues used to really intimidate me but now I’ve really started to pick it up. I bought this guitar over in Berkeley. There’s this guy called Fat Dog who was the guitar tech for the Grateful Dead and he’s got this place where half of it is a bicycle shop and the other half is just full of hundreds of guitars that he’s been collecting for some reason. I ended up buying this really old thing from the 19th century and it plays like a dream. When I first asked how much it was he said: ‘It’s not for sale, not for money, anyway.’ He said he’d swap it for a tractor, or a truck!”

There’s also undeniably a black humour at work in their music. “I’ve always seen humour in things,” Hyde agrees. “Even dark stuff. I’ve always been interested in alleyways and street markets and things like that and I’ve always thought that there was an underlying humour in it all. On one level the human race are really funny. Kind of like roly-poly dolls, knock ’em down and they come back up again.”

Two weeks later and we’re in Southampton for a triumphant return to the UK. Underworld have just arrived from Japan where they were treated like superstars (screaming girls, appearances on breakfast TV, a show in Tokyo’s largest record store that brought traffic to a standstill – not what you’d expect from UK techno’s elder statesmen). Throughout the day, Hyde and Smith have been compiling and broadcasting their Dirty Radio show from a hotel room.

“Until we go home we never know what to expect,” admits Hyde. “As Brits we tend to get very cynical, especially of the past, and it’s hard to tell how relevant you are. But the lovely thing about dance music – I mean, we came into it pretty old. We had our shot in the Eighties. But it’s important for us to still hear what younger artists are doing. It’s great and scary and a reminder that we’ve got to sort ourselves out, because they’re more energetic and better… and kinda just remind you not to sit around, old man. Get your arse in gear or get out of the way. And that’s healthy.”

And with the aid of the internet the newly independent and firing on all cylinders Underworld look set to remain this healthy for sometime yet.

‘Oblivion with Bells’ is out now in shops or available for download from http://www.underworldlive.co.uk

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