One of the more surprising musical events of the 90s was the rebirth of Underworld. They had put out two albums previously, but 1994’s “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” saw a revamped line-up and a major overhaul of their sound. Now a trio of original members Karl Hyde and Rick Smith with DJ Darren Emerson, Underworld truly bridged the gap between rock and dance music.
“Dubnobasswithmyheadman” had all the sonic experimentation that the emergence of techno and ambient styles led audiences to expect, flawlessly combined with guitars and vocals. Underworld hadn’t just stepped up the beats and electronic noises in order to sound modern, they completely re-evaluated their style based on a love for dance music.
On October 6, 2014, Underworld will be reissuing “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” in a variety of special editions to commemorate the 20th anniversary. They’ll also be performing it in full at a special one-off show at London’s Royal Festival Hall on October 11.
Presented here is a phone interview we did with Hyde back in 1994, focusing on the evolution of Underworld and “Dubnobasswithmyheadman.”
How does it feel to be on an indie label after spending time on a major?
“It’s the early days. What happened back here basically is that we’re on a brilliant indie label called Junior Boy’s Own. And because it’s a small label and it’s so independent we can move very quickly. We can move at the pace that is natural, and we collaborate together. It’s more of a collaboration than fitting in with corporate schedules. It’s less corporate, and really that’s the philosophy with going with independent labels. We don’t really fit in with corporate structures.”
How did Darren [Emerson] come to join the band?
“It was Rick’s brother-in-law who goes to a lot of clubs and raves. Rick just asked him, like who do you know that’s young and exciting at the moment. There was this young kid who played in the local pub and he’d heard him at a couple of parties. And Darren lived locally, he lives just down the road. ” [Emerson left the band in 2000]
What effect has he had on the way the band works?
“It’s different now in as much as we don’t rely on the 80’s way of radio and television and the regular kind of routes. So therefore we don’t have to change our music and change the things that we make to fit in with scheduling schemes. It’s a direct outlet because he’s playing all the time. So the music that we make and we made initially was for him to play in his set at the clubs. We still do that, we still make music for him to play in his set. So our music goes directly to an audience and we get a direct feedback and it doesn’t have to be changed in any way to accommodate someone else’s ideas of what music should be. Our music is very direct now and goes to an audience which votes with its feet. And that is so exciting, to make something in the studio and be able to get it played at a club that night immediately without it having to go to a committee.”
Did you ever imagine you music evolving in this direction?
“No, but there again we’ve never had any idea in all the years we’ve been together. We just try and stay as open as possible. That was beginning to become impossible when we had the first two records with Underworld. There were too many people to accommodate and too much of a structure. Now we’ve kind of gone back to what we originally intended when we had our first band together. And that was to make the kind of music we wanted to make, at home when we became inspired to make it.”
Since the band is quite a bit different now, did you consider changing the name?
“Yeah, a few people said that, but we couldn’t think why. Because there was nothing wrong with the name and we certainly weren’t ashamed of our past. There’s no reason to disassociate ourselves from the work that we’d done. Besides that, logically there were a lot of people what knew about us and we’d spent a long time communicating with them. So it seemed logical to keep the name.”
What effect do you think your time on a major had on the band?
“The thing one finds almost without exception is that when one signs a record deal, the very people that have been saying they like what you do soon turn around and ask you to alter it. And that just becomes an epidemic. If you’re not careful then fairly soon, through a committee sensibility, a record label is going to have milked you of your creativity and originality and you’ve become worthless with them and yet discarded. Which is understandable. So I would say without question our two experiences of having major record deals in the past have resulted in completely losing direction because of so many people being involved in the chain. Where as this is like we make a record and it goes directly to the public, and if they don’t like it we’ve learned. And if they do like it we’ve learned, but it’s just great.”
Did you have lots of large labels trying to sign you due to the recent success?
“Oh yes, that happened earlier this year. I think all of them did!”
Are you afraid at all of people saying that you are just jumping on the dance bandwagon?
“Not at all. The point was that we needed to make the music eventually that we were inspired to make. If anyone listened to the tapes we were making in 1982, whenever we were between records and were making music in our studio at home, this is the music we were making. When we originally started, during any interviews we were doing then we were saying our influences were Kraftwerk and dub music. But there was no place for it to go in those days, there was no house music. Even though there was a formulative scene in the States, there was nothing here until 86 or 87. There were a lot of diversions trying to find that place, and when it eventually happened it became ‘my god, home!.’ And you could see it on the horizon. There’s home, let’s go home!”
What are your live shows like?
“We do everything live. It’s just the three of us and it’s completely improvised so it changes every night. We tend to like to do no more than three shows in a row, because even with being so improvised after three shows in a row the improvisation starts to get familiar. The mixing board is on stage, that’s an instrument. We just plug in through the record deck so we can cut between acid tapes that we’ve prepared and chop the two things together. For us, it’s DJ culture meets what Rick and I have learned in being in bands and fusing the two things together. We always thought that DJ culture was exciting but then we were able to bring things in from our experience and make it a totally live and improvised experience.”
Do you ever have problems adapting your studio work to the live setting?
“Absolutely not. The two things are free to be what they want to be. What we do live is a dance experience, where we make music for dance and for party. If anything, the problem we encounter is that we’re not too fond of being put into rock venues or on stages, even through people say we’re very visual and that’s great and part of our palate. We are there as part of a total experience, so the kinds of places we prefer to play are much more of a party atmosphere, a rave type thing. If we’re playing in festivals, we prefer to play in the enclosures that are dedicated to dance, just because the vibe is more understanding to what we are doing.”
Will you ever play any of the old material, possibly re-interpreted, at the live shows?
“No, that’s happily committed to memory. They were good the way they we’re and they don’t lend themselves as vehicles for the way were are expressing ourselves now. I would rather leave them intact the way they were.”
Since you are also involved in design work, are visuals a big part of Underworld shows?
“Our philosophy when we formed this version of Underworld was the three of us would be able to put the equipment into the back of a small van and do a gig just like that. The first three shows were us literally playing from the DJ booth, with no lights, completely invisible. We’ve continued with that philosophy pretty much intact, but we carry video tapes with us, which is the work of our partners. And if people can provide us with a couple of projectors and some screens, well great. And if there’s some lighting people there that would like to have some fun, great. We’re into the idea of jamming with people, turning up and saying ‘do you like to do lights? Well that’s great then. Just remember that we’re not a rock band so light the crowd more than us. Do something you’ve always wanted to do. It’s your birthday, do what you want!’ It’s nice for us not to know that there are any light cues or that anything is going to happen. It’s great to be inspired by great ideas and we’ve been very lucky so far. We’ve met some great, really talented people who when you say do what you want to do get all fired up and inspired.”
How do the three of you tend to work together?
“It’s very amorphous. Darren’s DJing all the time, so he’s bringing in his vibe of being in clubs most nights of the week. Rick is pretty much in the studio all the time, his instrument is the studio. I’m out collecting images, writing words, bringing back ideas. And then the three of us will just come together and jam. Sometimes the three of us, sometime two of us. A thing is never finished until it is released, and even then we might add to it or change it in some way. There are several things we’ve put out that have had the same starting point and we just keep recording every week, recording more things and putting them into the library. Who’s to say what a contribution is. It could be just someone going ‘that’s great, I think it’s finished, we should put it out. Or it could be someone spending weeks coming up with new ideas. It’s like everything in between.”
Did you have any trouble selecting which tracks would go on the “dubnobasswithmyheadman” album?
“Yes, we did. It was a bit of a dilemma for us because putting out tracks specifically for the clubs was easy. We could test things out in the clubs and get a reaction and decide if we wanted to change anything. What we did was bootlegged the album, we put together an initial running order for an album and gave it to our friends and just said pass it around. We let is circulate among our group of friends for about a month and just got a vibe from it, and then from that we made changes.”
How long does it usually take to create a track?
“Somethings can come together very fast, like ‘Cowgirl’ or something like ‘Skyscraper was working on and off for months. Sometimes we’ll get in the studio and write something really fast, jam it, and you re-mix it several times and realize that the original one was it. Other times you finish something and edit it to get it the way we want.”
Why did you choose Wax Trax!/TVT as your US label?
“We asked around a lot. Amongst the people who were saying the right things, they were the only company who was completely independent. We felt that of the others that we liked, there were often too many ties to other labels and we’d been in that situation before, of being in that chain. We thought we just couldn’t do that again. We need to make music and release it. They were just saying the right things and we thought let’s go with it. All the people that we respected always included them on any list that they we advising, so it just kind of pointed in that direction. They were very open for our ideas so we’re really happy to see how it goes.”
Are you planning on touring America?
“It would be nice to. Again, it’s going to depend on something coming up that’s going to be interesting. Things have been offered, but they tend to be kind of standard ideas, touring for six weeks or something like that as a package. We’ve been talking to people and are trying to get a sense of who’s doing something interesting, events and parties and things that aren’t rock oriented. I would depend on that really. If anybody knows of some really good organizers that are doing interesting events in America we definitely want to hear about it. Touring with a bunch of DJs is always good fun. We’re doing that here in England in October and it’s great, a really good vibe.”
Be sure to also check out our 2007 interview with Underworld