Underworld, Underworld, Echoes from a Shining Future
From June 2015 to April 2016, the British techno legends Underworld performed a series of acclaimed live shows in California, from the Hollywood Bowl to Pomona’s Fox Theater to Coachella. Part of the “We Face a Shining Future” project produced by photographer Chris Molina and writer Thomas Kelley, this essay and our companion photo diary reports on these events, explores in depth the band’s new album Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future, and delves into new corners of the band’s evolving story...
“LET’S DANCE!” he said to the crowd.
Could have been Prince. Could have been Bowie. Could have been Hyde. The unmistakable kick drum left no doubt, pounding like a steam train as the rainbow chords of ‘Born Slippy’ bounced off giant hanging cubes and the shirtless bronze bros of Sahara Tent. Like the snake eating its own tail, we were pushing through the past to get to the future. Once again, Underworld were taking us there.
“Drive boy dog boy,” Karl Hyde sang as everyone went for it. “Dirty numb angel boy, in the doorway boy… And tears boy… You had chemicals boy… Acid bear boy… Derail…”
Those words could have described the scene. Coachella’s vibe was elemental. The dust and wind howled outside, darkening the festival lights and halting the Ferris Wheel. In a night of ghosts, bodies were angling and shoving. The young emissaries of EDM bumped to rhythms that pulsed long before time thumped in their baby hearts. The smell of vomit mixed with pulverized grass.
“Step the fuck back!” the boy yelled. “Get back! Get baaack!”
Snapping his body and bringing up his fists, crouching down like a caged animal, his eyes popped with fury. Sahara boy and his girl had cut in front, and now he was going batty on me. I was trying to get back to Chris Molina, for us to go get some shots from the rear. What grenade went off in this poor kid’s head? I shrugged.
The gods were messing with the British techno veterans too. It was Underworld’s third Coachella. It had been 13 years since their last festival appearance here. And at the beginning of their set that Friday of “Weekend 2,” something was awry with their microphone processor.
It was getting rocky. Hyde, Rick Smith and touring member Darren Price tried to right the mothership. One of their technicians fiddled for a fix. What was ricocheting in that roadie’s head? Karl pointed to the problem. Rick studied the console. This, was live.
“Let’s fight the good fight together!” Karl improvised to the crowd. “We fight evil technology, which we’ve come to love soooo much.”
Fight, we did. The mic fixed, on came the honky tonk jangles of Underworld’s ‘Push Upstairs,’ the smash of whiskey glasses to a swinging robot groove. ‘King of Snake’ flashed to green laser beams and its barking Psycho knife stabs, the sound of Elvis Presley and Giorgio Moroder fucking in the clouds. Picked up at a Los Angeles warehouse guerrilla style, the 13 criss-crossed lasers were used just once to blast everyone’s neurons.
Then ‘Low Burn’ came with the fever, its space odyssey strings caressing the rafters above, the youth pressing in for the rocket ride. The dark halfway point of Underworld’s latest album — their interstellar 10th, Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future — propels forward across ice planets and sparkling galaxies, mournful to ecstatic…falling in love. Like its cover art, which depicts a ’60s style Barbarella peering through dust-smudged glass, we crash land on what ’90s techno stalwarts Orbital once called the “Planet of the Shapes” — as in Planet of the Apes, shapes and apes — its droning didgeridoo anchoring us back to humanity’s cosmic beginnings. “Time, the first time,” Karl sings, “Blush. Be bold. Be Beautiful. Free. Totally. Unlimited.”
‘Low Burn’ calls to mind another sci-fi film with apes, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 magnum opus 2001: A Space Odyssey, the ultimate showdown between man, man’s creation, and the Creator — or that black Monolith shape-y thing, however you want to see it. In the sweaty context of Sahara, it was a figurative breath of fresh air: God exhaling.
“The film that changed my life forever was 11 years old seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Karl told me last year when I interviewed him in Germany for the band’s 20-year anniversary tour for their landmark album, 1994’s alternative mystic Dubnobasswithmyheadman. “That was the end of everything and the beginning of everything else…. Going out and buying the [score on] record and playing Ligeti over and over and over again. Built my first installation in a wardrobe. All that atonal music was unbelievable and that changed my life. Growing up as a kid, it was the big screen. It was cinemascope.”
The new album, like the flipping of a vinyl L.P. — a black monolith — from Side A to Side B, is of two minds but one spiritual panorama. It’s concise too like many L.P.’s from the pre-digital era. The first side is more energetic, preaching to the cosmos with the gospel of the drum, evoking 2001 meets Route 66. Crackling. The flip side drops into bending radio waves and Latin American guitar webs, Beatles-esque refractions, and electro soul resonant of Tears For Fears and Arthur Russell. At peace. As a whole, it takes stock of Underworld’s long impressive career, from their ’70s youth imbibing John Peel, punk and Krautrock jams to new wave funk, acid house trance and perfect techno ballads.
That warmer, quieter side has always given Underworld a more human dimension. ‘Santiago Cuatro,’ with some elements recorded in 2009 during a tour stop in Santiago, Chile, sounds like an eagle daydreaming, floating on a sky breath over the Andes, Karl’s resonant guitar picks shooting lasers across Rick’s hazy soundscapes. Like many of Underworld’s other instrumental meditations, from ‘Blueski’ to ‘To Heal,’ it’s the necessary pause before the destination.
“We had some days off, and the crew all went white water rafting and horse riding in the mountains, and left Rick and I in the hotel room, and we were just jamming on our laptops, writing and exchanging stuff,” Karl told Chris for the Scenestar in 2009. “Rick went out into the streets recording sounds and working them into the tracks we were creating. I also went walking around too, writing lyrics and hooked up with a bunch of artists, a community of printers who make really beautiful art and kinda hung out with them in bars, which is kind of a strange thing to do for a non-drinker these days. But hey, what’s a boy gonna do but wander the streets of Santiago late at night with a notebook and camera? I just don’t know; there was just something magical happening at that time.”
On Barbara Barbara, that new sense of discovery pervades as we float shipwrecked onto a distant shore. ‘Motorhome’ is ‘Santiago Cuatro’s’ ideal companion. Overlooked by some critics in a hurry, it sounds like we’ve entered Underworld’s boyhood church, a kaleidoscope of stained glass memories, picnics on strawberry fields, winks at teenage wastelands, gratitude for the simple life, smiling at precious happy dawns. It’s as good as anything we’ve heard from Boards of Canada, The Beta Band or Beck, but walked in — the journey made, the promise kept. “What don’t lift you, drags you down,” Karl repeats, his background hums circling like sleepy honey bees. “Keep away from the dark sides. Keep away from the dark sides…”
“We’d been to a radio station in Salt Lake City, on the first Underworld tour,” he told me of their ’80s adventures, describing his fascination with messages from across time and space. “And this guy had this bunker in Salt Lake City with a big mast, and he got this world map. And people from Cardiff, Wales, from where we were from, and all over the world had heard this guy, people on ships out in the North Sea. It was like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ That’s what I’m talking about, these radio waves going out to the world from this bunker.”
The excellent bonus song ‘Twenty Three Blue,’ from the album’s Japanese edition, sounds a lot like that storm-heady bunker. A fine cousin to the classic ‘Back in the Fears’ from 2005’s RiverRun Project, it growls with a subterranean groove, striding in an endless android dream. Its electric guitar screams and moans, murmuring in a dark trance. No bass drops. No fault lines. “I hesitate,” Karl speaks, sounding like a psychic retracing a mysterious crime. “Do you feel the cold of winter?… Between the trees… Time moves slowly on the island… Rippling, rippling, rippling…Bill the dagger, Bill the digger… Crystal dust on the flat bed… Foot steps engraved… Breathing upstairs…”
It’s the lightning bolt of revelation, flashing in the night. Time and distance collapsing with a word. “Rippling.” “Breathing.” Sounds casting strange shapes and shadows. Static on the radio. Lasers in the brain.
Technology is making us more psychedelic, crossing wires and speeding up waves. We’re here one minute, gone the next, in an endless data feed; our memories the primordial soup of a robot dreamtime. If music is a kind of spirit — from Latin American cuatro guitars and Fender Telecasters to synthesizers and music software — then we’re accelerating ghosts in the machine, not just electrons.
We inhabit a system that defies human physics. Coders tell computers how to think. Writers program people with stories. Artists help bring those stories to life, before it begins all over again, going faster and faster. The question and the quest remain the same.
But the velocity has reached full-on escape. Mass delusion. Godlike algorithms. Virtual unreality. Mind control. Liberation. Underworld brings those tensions into dynamic balance. One of the less appreciated impulses of their output since the ’90s — despite their talent for speed — has been a desire to slow us back down. Songs like ‘Luetin’ and ‘Best Mamgu Ever’ remind us that thought is no stranger to dancing, but its primary driver — moving our bodies and our imaginations at any pace we choose.
The week before Coachella, Underworld held forth at the newly re-minted Fox Theater in Pomona, a way station to Palm Springs. With a full two hours to play, they took us into deep waters with Barbara Barbara’s ‘Ova Nova’ and ‘Nylon Strung,’ the one-two punch that Sean T. Collins highly praised in his album review for Pitchfork. Both songs are patient and majestic.
Played live, ‘Ova Nova’ wades into the sea. Karl’s guitar strings bob up and down. His singing urges with a timeless ardor, kindred to the outsider soul of Arthur Russell’s ‘Wild Combination.’ “Children, children,” Karl sings, “A choice, a quest, facing all that jazz…” In join female voices, repeating “And you and I, and you and I…” He leads on, “Liiiii-I-ife! Change it!” Its groove gently builds to a glide. “Change your life, change your mind” meets “it’s a paradox of choice,” keeping it at human scale. Its quiet compassion opens up a blue sky. One of the album’s greatest triumphs, it is wisdom in rhythm — calling out to “everybody, everybody, everybody…”
Next, ‘Nylon Strung’ worked more miracles. Its title references the harmonic signature of Karl’s guitar. He picks it up, its wires beating like insect wings. Rick floods the earth. Live, its bass line resonates inside you with rippling thrums. We’re floating in the deep end. “Open me up,” Karl calls out, “I wanna hold you laughing… Laugh my heart out!” Its strings of life soar as its caterpillar bass circles back, buckling and pulsing into a Jupiter moth, taking its bittersweet time. Its harmonies group us in the highs; its lower groove mirrors us underneath. Like two ornithopters — winged aircraft that fly like birds — made by clever dreamers, they chase each other off land, roaming the clouds over the face of the waters, “Carry me, carry me, carry me…” building to a release that makes your heart explode.
Bringing it full circle — singing backup on ‘Ova Nova’ and ‘Nylon Strung’ — Rick and Kyle’s daughters, Esme Smith and Tyler Hyde, bind generations in a chorus that echoes out into the sunset. Different every time, it keeps on giving.
This perch is not just more hopeful. It’s happier too. Content. While Underworld’s highest moments have often gloried in a dystopian raver edge reminiscent of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, drawing in spirit from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, these newer works are brighter. They call to mind the lyrical futurism and the organic avionic designs of Jean “Moebius” Giraud in Airtight Garage and Tron. They seem both more present and far-looking— romantic but assured — resting a fragile future in our worn hands as well as our hearts.
And as a pair, ‘Ova Nova’ and ‘Nylon Strung’ are as equal to greatness as anything the band has ever committed; both songs follow a migration pattern that is at the core of Underworld’s fascinating history.
That pattern is as much about the blues and soul, as it is circuits and new wave. In a reflective mood at the Fox, the audience absorbing ‘Ova Nova’ and ‘Nylon Strung,’ the band proved the point with a crushing rendition of fan favorite ‘Jumbo’ (1998), coasting from Louisiana waters up through the Mississippi Delta to an ecstatic blues groove, black-lit by summer dreams of Ibiza and London’s Soho jet set. The sound system pushed its supple bass to the back of the room, everyone riding: “The dark moves fast past the window. The dark on the other side of the locked door… My thumb’s on a Tetris keyring, moving in brilliant timing… Tiny wires in her ears, slide into the city… Click…Click…Click… Telephone breath between us… You disconnect from me…”
Later, they took us into a ’90s rave chill room with ‘Dirty Club,’ ambient molecules afloat with glorious echoey guitar. A special live hybrid of 1994’s classic ‘Dirty Epic’ and its grooving remix ‘Dirty Guitar,’ ‘Club’ melted away the walls, taking us back to a time when the underground restlessly danced and dreamed. As the journalist Dorian Lynskey once described Dubnobass, it was the “sound of a city talking to itself after dark”: “Connector in, receiver out…I’m so dirty. And the light blinds my eyes…I was busy listening for phone sex. Coming through the back door…And we all went mental and danced…”
They also gave us ‘Eight Ball,’ an even softer anthem, welcomed with roars from the audience, composed in 2000 for Danny Boyle’s Leonardo DiCaprio-starring film, The Beach. It slaloms to a cascading bass line, swaying the hips for several patient minutes before releasing to Karl’s uplifting visions of accidental beauty. “Today, I saw a man, using an empty whiskey flask as a walkie talkie,” he sang. “Today, I saw a man with a flaming eight ball tattooed on his arm. Today. Today… Today, I met a man who threw his arms around me… And I’ve given. And I’ve given.”
Receiving the signal consciously or not, was Underworld’s opener Bob Moses. Part of the “Canadian Invasion,” or perhaps Inversion — along with Deadmau5, Chromeo, Grimes, Purity Ring and others — they’ve helped usher in a North American surge in fresh electronic styles. Though I hesitate to call any of it “EDM,” if only because that term has become hopelessly mired in the semantics of industry politics and reflexive haters, they’re part of a mass adoption of electronics and computers in making music, period.
Getting tribal with their ‘Like It or Not’ and the deep house blues of ‘Tearing Me Up,’ Bob Moses were an inspired choice for Underworld, helping the cross-talk between generations and continents. Their live rendition of ‘Far From The Tree’ was especially powerful, Tom Howie’s heady chants swirling like night birds caught by a strobing spotlight. It sounded as if there was a trickle in the blues Delta, whispering of a flood.
As if hearing the call, Underworld responded with one of the most interesting performances of the night — a fusion of Underworld’s ‘Ring Road’ from 2007 with 1992’s ‘Minneapolis,’ which was one of their earliest songs as a reformed techno band. Built on Karl’s funky guitar licks, it’s an homage to Prince and Paisley Park, when Karl was a session musician there, living in Chanhassen, Minnesota, watching thunderheads roll in on the prairies, inspiring the lyrics to another Underworld classic, ‘Dark & Long.’
‘Ring Road’ explores a hectic everyday scene in Romford of outer London, near their home county of Essex. “There’s a blue sky over me, but the fear is on me,” Hyde slings, describing working class people embattled by suits and dodgy development schemes. “Get in, get out, get what you want, get out. It’s the short term. The long term can look after itself. Unless you happen to be living here…”
An uptown beat and bass levitate to bright organs reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition,’ sparking through the motherboard. “I got my back to the rail at the end of the alley,” Hyde reports, seeing things ignored. “By the by-pass, you just might see me. Scratching. All these things. Inking it out… Deliver us from temptation.”
Combining the English blues of ‘Ring Road’ with the Upper Mississippi soul of ‘Minneapolis,’ Underworld were reconnecting their roots, putting circuits back into the wider electric stream.
It’s what Karl calls the Essex groove.
Flipping the record, delivered the long term. When Underworld crashed on the rocks in the late ’80s, Rick could’ve moved on without Karl. They were being drawn to the acid house revolution in the U.K. at the time, and that culture was reflexively hostile to traditional rock and singers. The electric guitar was verboten. Yet Darren Emerson, the young DJ who Rick had enlisted and would be part of the band for ten years — as a major fan of the Beatles and Frankie Knuckle’s vocal machine soul — was open to interesting things. So they made them alternative distinctions.
“The industry told us to get rid of the singer if we wanted to make dance music,” Karl told me in 2014 for Insomniac.com. “They told us to get a drummer if we wanted to keep the singer. The industry completely had it utterly wrong.”
For a band with such natural creative instincts, they needed a revolution by DJs and abstract black musicians to create the moment they had been waiting for all their lives. They were in the dark until a bright blast came back from America in the form of Chicago house and Detroit techno. Disco had finally been so deconstructed — acid dripped until all that was left was a burning smoking electric core — that a new frontier had arrived. Human Resource’s Belgian hardcore techno boast, “I’m the one and only dominator… I’m bigger and bolder and rougher and tougher,” was nothing like Saturday Night Fever.
And yet they came from the same family. Underworld drew those lines through their history and their being. They are not rock. Nor are they rave. They are both. And neither. They are Underworld, and that is something far stranger and deeper.
Language and its power is at the heart of that koan. Karl, who had to reinvent the concept of a “frontman” by blowing it up, was something no one had seen before. “I used to play Iggy Pop live concert footage because he was the real deal,” Hyde told me, recounting his stint touring with Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein in 1991. “There was a bunch of really good people on that tour. I’d stand on the side of the stage and soak it up. And years later of course, I regurgitated some of that stuff, mashed up with James Brown, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Prince, go-go dancers, and everything else I’d ever seen with people throwing themselves with great abandon. It all became part of my vocabulary as I moved on stage.”
That aggregation led to its own freeform style, which in some ways was no style — like live experimentation or unending riffs on an echo. As a writer, he absorbed what was around him too. “I’ve always been an observer of people,” Karl told me in 2013 for Magnetic. “I’ve always listened in on conversations and amalgamated them into my lyrics and documented the topography of the places I’m going through.”
Karl’s pen was his compass. It kept him alive, each scrawled letter the sharpest edge of an Essex groove. “Vague stories,” is how one of my friends, Mark Trance, describes it. “With dreamy landscapes and fleeting images from the corner of your eye that slip away when you look directly at them. Kinda like the future.”
Hyde’s words are not as easy to recall as say Bowie’s because they’re more deconstructed. Like Picasso or Monet, the more warped, the more it’s like time travel. Like seeing into another dimension. “Looking out the window of a moving vehicle has always been like a film to me since I was a little kid,” Karl says, “Traveling with my dad at night, and the windshield becomes a movie screen. You’ve got the dashboard and the radio dials and it’s all these magic lights. You turn the radio on and it becomes the score to all the things that come through the windshield.”
Hyde filters reality with a wider lens. Each word or phrase is a scratch or etch on a panoramic photographic plate. Light escapes through the negative image. All of his songs back-project in this way, teleporting you to a more conscious place. Since 1999, he has been journaling publicly via his daily blog, including daily photos of his travels and haunts. I Am Dogboy: The Underworld Diaries, a book memoir of Karl’s life that builds off his continuous wordplay, comes out later this year.
“Words can evoke pictures,” he says of his synesthetic gaze. “Words like photographs can reignite memories, like a smell. But for me, words open up these worlds, little notations. ‘Do you remember the blue jacket?’ Oh, and a whole summer opens up.”
That’s how reality feels, a blur with punctuations of awareness. Echoes. Pattern recognition. Underworld’s lyrics are not fully comprehendible just like the future is not fully comprehendible. Neither is the present for that matter, or the past. It’s constantly unfolding. That’s why it works. We used to think we understood the world. Then came computers, the end of the Cold War, 9/11, a global economic meltdown, and much more. Confusion has trumped enlightenment.
This is the context that Underworld thrives in, whether in the cold planes of Minnesota, the space-ness of L.A., the skyscrapers of New York, the neon futurism of Tokyo, the raves and alleyways of London, fire in the cracks, or a warm teapot in Essex. From here, they pioneered a new voice.
The power of an idea, can be hard to measure. Except for those who get to see it arrive and grow in their own time. That was rave culture. That was Underworld.
“This is the most ancient form of the sign,” Hyde says on Barbara Barbara’s sexiest moment, ‘If Rah,’ a British slang term for rich party kids. At the Fox Theater, ‘Rah’ attacked with metallic scythes, its bass line popping back smirking emojis, building to a flame throwing Neu!-inspired twang — a dramatic attitude ready to rumble. “And you don’t look old enough,” Karl sings, “To have suffered so much. What do I know?…Crisscross angel…People, struggle…Have a good time!…Passion die!…In a perfect storm…Illuminate…Luna, luna, luna luna! Luna, luna, luna, luna!”
Next came ‘Juanita,’ the winding epic start to their classic 1996 album, Second Toughest In The Infants, which got an expansive remaster and reissue last fall. Twenty years later it has lost none of its power. At the Fox, it pumped with an energy that made the whole room fly. “Your thin paper wings,” Hyde breathed, “In the wind dangling / Your sun / Fly high / Your window shattering.”… and in answer, from one generation to the next, an electric guitar riffing across space and time.
Re-invigorated by the new album and touring some of their ’90s oeuvre like ‘Juanita’ and ‘Dirty Epic,’ Underworld are already at work on new material. But instead of retreading, Rick and Karl are onto new ground.
As is clear from Barbara Barbara, it’s still them, but without the weight of the past. They recently revealed some of the witty games they’re bringing to their writing. One of the techniques Rick and Karl explored this last time was the circular phrasing of hymnals, drawing on children’s storybook rhymes and songs. You can hear it on ‘Ova Nova’ and ‘Nylon Strung,’ and in swirling cries and choruses on ‘I, Exhale’ and ‘If Rah.’ A re-balancing of sorts between Rick and Karl, their new phase is more “vocal” in Rick’s accounting than some of their past work. Karl’s guitar forms the basis of rhythms and harmonies more often as well, as evidenced on the album’s closing act, while Rick has plugged back into analog modular synthesis.
There are many things that make Underworld one of a kind. The mixture of impressionistic vocals with electronic sounds is one of them. Their roots in traditional instruments combined with the state of the art is another. Their wide open-mindedness about genre, and their range, unmatched. But maybe the most unique about them is that they’re the first great duo to bring all of these elements together. They’ve been a trio, yes, but it’s the bond between Rick and Karl that is Underworld. It’s a partnership that has endured nearly four decades with a deep commitment to art — a heroic feat in human behavior — as if they’ve reached mastery on the level of telepathy.
Less in the spotlight is Rick. He masterminded the music for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. His instrumentals alone make the case for Underworld’s uncompromising vision, from ‘Rez’ to ‘Thing in a book’ to ‘Peach Tree.’ “When I watch Rick, it reminds me more of a Miles Davis approach,” says Karl. “Which is ‘learn your instrument really well.’ Then you can start ripping things out. ‘Now let’s see what happens, now that we know there’s a backdoor that you can go through’ — that you can mess with something and get it to screw up, and the screw up is really special.”
Using the ARP 2600 analogue synthesizer, Rick happened upon the distinctive synth delay patterns on 1993’s ‘Rez,’ which would also help inform the groove of ‘Cowgirl,’ both undisputed classics of electronic music. “What happens in the moment, you better record it then, because it’s not going to happen again,” he explained to the BBC’s Shaun Keaveny in 2014. “You can take pictures of it and do what you like, but you put the cables back in the same place and it just doesn’t sound the same.”
‘Rez’ sounds like a piano literally come to life, the joyful sound of music freed from wood and metal. Its every point sparks perception of a holy electric constellation. Like an invisible city, it resolves into a three-dimensional matrix with waterfalls of fire and angels glorifying, its sunlight shining into the deepest labyrinths of the man-machine.
What was happening in the ’80s and ’90s, was simply this. Electronic music was the sound of the interaction of humanity with the machine. DJing was the programming of the narrative of that human transformation. Raves were the gathering of humanity to hear that great story told, to absorb it, embody it, understand it, and pass it along.
Underworld took that to the next level as both songwriters and as a live act. Not only did they explore the human-machine interface in their own way, but they put that knowledge into words and personal tics, so that it better reflected who we are — humans not cyborgs — ideas just on the tip of our tongues. One of the best descriptions I’ve read of their breakthrough Dubnobass, was by an iTunes reviewer, who simply wrote that it was “Blade Runner for the dance floor.” And what is Blade Runner, other than a myth about the importance of recognizing humanity in both humans and machines? Because we so often fail to remember we humans created machines, and that they’re just interpretations of who we are.
The great irony in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film is that robots, or Replicants, have a sell-by-date. They live shorter lives than humans, a fate they rage against. It’s how the story plunges us into the machine of consciousness — both a prison and a dream — exploring the limits of our lives through the infinite field of the human experience. Which is the opposite of today’s obsession with Artificial Intelligence and the “Singularity,” the author Ray Kurzweil’s search for the fountain of youth: the assumption that robots can live forever. And yet the power of Blade Runner is that it says how we face death is less important than how we face each other. No one escapes the future.
So it’s blood and tears, opening the heart and daring to wonder, not just pushing buttons or looking into a screen. That’s what Underworld reveals. “We don’t wait for a space or a time or a moment,” Rick told KCRW’s Jason Bentley during a live in-studio session before Coachella, describing their creative process. “A lot of it is about clocking on, logging on, and just trying to express honestly how you feel in that moment whether its joyous or sad, whether its positive or negative.”
Their most famous song, 1995’s ‘Born Slippy. NUXX,’ is pure crash and drive. With Rick’s angelic piano and shuddering beats, it became an anthem for defiant good times. And yet after the haze and the vomit, clarity was on the other side. When you listen closer, you realize it’s a tale of addiction. It’s Karl getting wasted with strangers, his ego disintegrating, crashing from tenderness into agony and crying for help. “And remembering nothing boy,” Hyde sings, “Shimmering and dirty… Squatting pissed in a tube hole at Tottenham Court Road… I just come out of The Ship… Shouting, ‘Lager, lager, lager, lager’…”
Hyde would survive, going sober at the end of the ’90s. Why is Underworld so important to music? Because they found a way to continue growing long after ravers turned to drink or 9/11 kids discovered that a transformational beat might change the world. It’s a kind of musical echolocation, helping us imagine where we’re going, not just where we are or how far we’ve come.
A fire storm in a crystal ball, is what it looked like to me.
Underworld walked out onto the stage of the Hollywood Bowl last June to their ‘Most ‘ospitable’ mix of ‘Dark & Long.’ Its melancholy synths filled the summer air as the sun set, giving the band a touching human frailty. The letters “underworld” appeared bold behind them, emblazoned on a black field as they waved.
The crowd cheered in response, welcoming them back once again, the techno artists who had come to us in the early ’90s with revolutionary records that helped sustain the Western underground, who played at the historic Organic music festival in 1996, which would help pave the way for the first Coachella three years later, where Underworld would again lead the charge.
The brainchild of promoter Philip Blaine, Organic was thrown in partnership with Insomniac and Goldenvoice, and Daft Punk’s former U.S. manager Gerry Gerrard’s Chaotica agency, who also helped break Nine Inch Nails. Other producers included PR maven Sioux Zimmerman, who with Gerrard helped bring in other British electronic mainstays like Orbital, The Orb and The Chemical Brothers. “Creatively we knew we had to do it,” Phil told me for the L.A. Weekly last year, noting that 1996, when they were all available, was a fallow year for Glastonbury, meaning they could play for a steal. As if a hole through the earth from L.A. to London had opened up briefly before it eclipsed again, they jumped. “It was definitely a unique moment in time.”
So their performance at the Bowl last summer, organized by Bentley for the KCRW World Festival — with admirers like Trent Reznor in attendance — was a homecoming of sorts, another great echo of their pioneering spirit. Kicking off with ‘Mmm Skyscraper I Love You,’ the video artist Toby Vogel, part of their TOMATO design collective, channeled their essence up onto the Bowl’s giant video monitors in a way no one could have imagined, turning Karl and Rick ink black like reversed ghosts, deep shadows with bright flames burning off their grooving frames, an inverse Hell in the best sense of the word, revealing a psychic journey in a photo-negative universe. Time in waves washed off Rick’s shoulders or blew across Karl’s face, their expressions alternating across the human spectrum.
So you get fire with a razor calm at its heart — the eye of the perfect storm. Nowhere is this more evident than watching a dancer in the zone. Hyde’s dancing is cool, in the jazz sense of the word. In a crouch, knees slightly bent, he leans back, then leans in, weaving side to side, arms paddling with the groove. It’s the Prince part of him. But unlike Prince or Bowie, he doesn’t make it seem like a performance. He would be dancing like that even if we weren’t there. He’s a great dancer because he’s being himself. That, is rave.
Together, Underworld unite the electrical currents between left and right, acoustic and electronic, man and machine. Smith, the storm bringer, is rare because he’s not just a brilliant musician, taught piano at an early age. He’s an engineer too, from a time in the ’90s when people were still working it out, wrestling with cables and manuals, and big unwieldy synthesizers. He had to be. He had to break down the machine and in an almost supernatural way, show it, what it can do, like breaking a horse. That kind of persistence and tactile knowledge, that’s why songs like ‘Spoonman’ feel like living things. Struggle is in their musical DNA.
At the Bowl, it was thrilling to see each song introduced with its name projected behind the band in ghostly type. ‘Spoonman’ was one of the spookiest, appearing in red, like a demon born inside synthesizer circuits and computer code. Hyde’s voice gurgled with “Whoooooa, Tuuuessday,” his loopy “Talks to God” lyrics projected and fading in slow, hovering over a dark sea. Each song was like a robot child with its own distinct personality, filling the Bowl with mystique.
Unrelenting, Hyde and Smith rode the wave together, poised right on the edge of the crest; Smith steering with his Solid State Logic L500 console, its screen and buttons aglow; Hyde gliding on his flank, leaning down, opening up, sidewinding the groove, his voice guiding us. Vogel’s filters stripped away past and future in a kind of visual acid that felt like sorcery, stretching time in the now with spectral gusts of wind. ‘Pearl’s Girl’ was pure lightning, its fractured breakbeats pummeling Hyde, who flashed between worlds, his eyes looking up like a madman, speaking with the dead, his words as fierce as Smith’s volts, people freaking out, punching, kicking, going “crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy…”
The mists cleared after the battle. “We’ve been touring on the other side of the wet stuff over there,” he told the crowd in the calm before they followed with their call to rebirth, ‘Dirty Epic’ and ‘Cowgirl.’ “An album which kinda changed our lives 20 years ago, an album called Dub-no-bass-with-my-head-man.” The crowd cheered as he paced a little. “You know,” he continued, “Revisiting it wasn’t something we really wanted to do. Because I wouldn’t want to go back there too much. There’s a lot of stuff back there, that hurts. But it turned out to be one of the best things we’ve ever done probably.”
“My friend and I,” Karl said, pointing to Rick, “We discovered we were actually really good friends. We actually liked each other,” he laughed. “And it was good to be together. Yeah, 36 years, that’s not too bad.” The Bowl cheered again, louder. “One of the things, looking back, there was a level of gratitude, that we were still alive. After experiencing some of the things that had gone into the lyrics of this. The way I could crawl off the streets with some dark stuff and my good buddy here could turn it into something really beautiful.”
Time is the machine. Humanity is the medium. It strikes me, that our memories are just hallucinations from a world that’s never coming back. Maybe it’s all in reverse. Maybe we’ve got it all wrong. The imagination burns through the debris of the past to the present to the future and all over again, rolling forward in a never ending dance of perception. But what’s always in front of us is each other. Because here was Underworld decades on, facing a new sun at the edge of a long tempest. Always ahead of their time. Determined. Optimistic. Human.
Flip it again and put it on. I try to listen even more carefully than before. At the Fox, it begins with a rocking backbeat, Underworld’s ‘I, Exhale’ calling us forward, everyone getting busy and getting down, bright white lights shining onto the dancers, lowering onto our faces. Its bass line slides high and low, Hyde coming on like a boxer, his British accent drawling to a curl, “Stare, stare like a bear, then you’ll know me anywhere!” “Big blue!” “Blah blah, blah blah blah…”
People are pumping their fists, grinding in, keys turning, blow-torched distortion and metal twisting. “Hiding in the dark,” he says. “Sheltered from the winds. Hold hands.” His chant goes up in a dreamy whirl. “Spangled top,” he goes. “Leather jacket. Run your fingers through your hair. We’re nearly there…Towers / A light / A globe over the horizon.”
For many, starting with ‘Rez,’ Underworld have always been there, out on the horizon. Younger heads are gathering now too, however scattered. I see them, at the Bowl, at the Fox, at Coachella. “There is a sound on the other side of this wall,” Hyde sings on ‘Juanita’ from 1996. “A bird is singing on the other side of this glass. Footsteps. Concealed. Silence is preserving a voice.”
One of the great stories surrounding Underworld’s latest phase was the naming of the new album. The phrase “Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future,” was what Rick’s father said to his mother not long before he died. They had spent 62 years together and he knew his end was coming. Those words reminded the band, Rick told The Guardian, “that shit is going to happen…but go on, forward, face up, it’s going to be good.” Everyone at Coachella needed those words that Friday night, the day after Prince died. “Two mouths talking fast at breakfast,” Karl wrote in his diary that morning before they performed. “Mortality, the buffet. The question is an early riser, timeless, patient, waits for no one, takes who it wants & when. What’s my number?”
Back in the desert, Chris and I make our way to the rear. Despite the early jitters, it’s packed now. Underworld’s ‘Rez’ and ‘Cowgirl’ are welcomed with roars, Karl going into his “everything, everything, everything” mantra. We end up just ten feet from the same spot where ten years before I watched Daft Punk shake up the American landscape. They took techno straight to the masses. No one knew what hit them that night, except for the ravers. Like tonight, there was a glitch: Daft Punk’s left lighting array malfunctioned and went kaput. It didn’t matter, we were all too busy losing it. I remember kids as we walked out, dazed and amazed, chattering to each other. One girl remarked as a car in the parking lot blasted ‘Around the World,’ how it was “Soooo classic!”
Hyde once commented, after hearing ‘Born Slippy’ played on BBC in the morning, that “I can’t eat my cornflakes with that.” But like ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ or ‘Let’s Dance’ or ‘Around the World,’ plenty did it seems, falling in love with its sweet gritty exorcism. “She said comeover comeover, she smiled at you booyyyy,” he sings. “You had chemicals boy, I’ve grown so close to you… On your telephone, and in walk an angel… Mega mega mega going back to Romford…And now are you on your way…?”
Sitting there on the grass after Underworld closed with ‘Born Slippy’ in a gail of light, we took it in. The EDM traffic, the cheering jumbled masses, the thickening and the thinning. Underworld had reckoned the dream was still alive, 20 years after Organic, speaking to multiple generations at once. And now silence was preserving a voice.
Look around, I thought. Put down the grenade. We’re all just echoes from the same future — everybody, everybody, everybody…