Underworld Goes Back to the Future By Revisiting Classic 1994 Album

Victor Frankowski


The British electronic outfit discusses how they channeled their seminal 'dubnobasswithmyheadman' LP into inspiration two decades later.

Electronic music isn’t built for nostalgia. It’s a world based on moving forward, about the latest sounds and the most up to date technology. So when Underworld began the idea of revisiting dubnobasswithmyheadman two decades after its release, Karl Hyde was understandably uncomfortable with the idea. “Originally I’d really not wanted to revisit an album from the past at all,” Hyde said.

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Then something unexpected happened. In going back to their past, Hyde and musical partner Rick Smith rediscovered the passion and creativity they had in making the seminal album twenty years later. “Thankfully because of revisiting dubnobasswithmyheadman we’ve been reunited with ourselves and that excitement and that electricity you feel as a kid when you walk into a music shop or go and see a band live for the first time it’s come back, only tenfold,” he says.

As a result, the band is excitedly working on new music that Hyde says is “very close.” Before the band hits the “iconic” Hollywood Bowl this Sunday for their only American appearance of 2015, Billboard spoke at length with Hyde from his home in Essex about the new music, how working with band mate Rick Smith is like working with great film directors and the dark days that shaped dubnobasswithmyheadman.

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You’ve already done several overseas shows, so take us through how some of the songs on dubnobasswithmyheadman are changing this time around.

Underworld has never revisited anything as actively as we have this record. We’ve always created versions, we’ve improvised, we’ve reimagined our music over the years so it’s evolved. This is the first time Rick wanted us to look at the album with pinpoint accuracy. So all my words have little marks on them, my singing from twenty years ago is all mapped out with exact precision and that was a new experience. The challenge was fantastic to rise to. It was not something I really wanted to do. But as we started to do it what became interesting was the states of mind that created those tracks. “Where was I when I wrote those lyrics? What was I thinking? What was Rick doing? What were the things going on around us at that time?” And that helped us rekindle things which we’d moved on from, grown tired of, as you do, but which were exciting to us again. Our reaction to the world around us, the way we responded to the music that was going on around us and the way we worked together kicked off a whole new set of ideas in the studio for me and Rick, to the point we got straight back in the studio on the back of revisiting this record. It felt like we kind of found ourselves again, we found this spark that perhaps over the years we moved so far away from, but we’d been reunited with.

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How far into revisiting this album was that spark rekindled?

It was very early into the process. Rick had worked on all the programming and getting all the sounds and obviously getting all the old equipment out and sometimes having to scour the internet for old equipment that actually worked, that could actually read the computer disk and the whole thing about recreating that sound was to do it with pinpoint accuracy. And once we got together in our rehearsal studio on a farm it was very quickly, within the first week, we were looking at each other going, “Hey, this is a really interesting game we’re playing here.” And we were remembering the environment we had at that time; where we were going, what we were seeing, what was influencing us, what was inspiring us, what we were reacting against and not wanting to be a part of. All of these things are kind of an attitude and that attitude became very quickly exciting. And then we started to spend some of the week in the rehearsal studio and some of the week in the recording studio. It wasn’t like copying the past, but just taking a state of mind into the studio that we hadn’t had probably since Second Toughest In The Infants.

Can you give us a preview of the new material?

Rick has been building this modular synth and I’m pulling all my guitars back out again and just buying the maddest guitar pedals I can find. I have a process where every morning I drive to a café and I write the words for that day based on conversations Rick and I would have had in the studio the previous day. I get up in the morning with no lyrics and I arrive at the studio with new words, lots and lots of new words. I guess you can say it’s a love of sound again, love of exploration again, with no idea or no preconception about what Underworld is. And that’s how it used to be because Underworld, in the beginning, wasn’t a band. It was just three guys getting together in the studio exploring and of course we became a band and we became the idea of a band and we became our idea of what Underworld was. Revisiting dubnobasswithmyheadman has reconnected us with that process of exploration whereby we have no idea what Underworld is.

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So when we went out and did the dubnobasswithmyheadman tour around Europe Rick, who has always been on stage with me, was ill. So for the first few dates I just went out with Darren Price onstage with me. Then Rick joined us, but he joined us from the out front desk, mixing the sound from out front, and that was extraordinary for me because now suddenly you’ve got the two key members of the band at opposite ends of the hall and you’ve got like cause and effect. You’ve got somebody making sound from the stage and then somebody controlling and effecting from out front. And after the gig we’d get together and we’d meet and we’d have this really exciting conversation about what happened here and what happened there and how we can do it tomorrow. And gradually this conversation started to evolve to where the audience was caught up in the conversation rather than we were at all one end. They were all now surrounded by this conversation between these two friends through their music -- that started to get very exciting. Then after 35 years I started to think, “I have no idea what kind of band I’m in anymore.”

That’s an amazing thing to say because up until 18 months ago I knew exactly what kind of band I was in and I was getting bored. Now I am thrilled, I’m excited by every gig. It’s the best time I’ve ever had on stage with the band and in the studio because now sometimes Rick’s out front, sometimes he’s on stage, sometimes he moves between the two places and we’ve got this kind of heightened state of attention to detail between the two of us all these years has brought about and I love it.

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As the band changes and morphs what do you imagine it being by the time you get to LA?

The great thing is I don’t know, and that’s what’s so exciting, because at the age that I’m at and having worked with Rick for 35 years you would think we’re just gonna go out there, trot the tunes out in the way we did last week at Primavera. But I can’t say that, I’m so excited because I don’t know. To me, that’s incredibly exciting, because Underworld came from a background of improvisation. And although this show, quite deliberately, isn’t as improvised as we used to be back in the dubnobasswithmyheadman days, we desire to bring the music which sounds like the record. At the same time there are all kinds of subtle things going on, kind of mind games going on between the two of us, which is fascinating (laughs). It’s like working with a great director, working with people like Danny Boyle and Anthony Minghella. Working with Rick is the equivalent of working with a great director; he’ll just kind of look at me and I’ll go, “I know what that means.” And it will change my state of mind and so we’ll go off somewhere else.

What are the songs that stand up for you in particular?

Firstly, I like them all. That’s my favorite album, dubnobasswithmyheadman is almost perfect for me. Lyrically, we were finding our feet. I was writing a lot of those words in Manhattan. I wrote some of them out in Minneapolis and some of them back here in the streets of London and there was this mashup idea inspired by Sam Sheppard and his Motel Chronicles and Lou Reed’s New York and I wanted to have a dialogue with my environment the way they did with theirs. What I find now in truly revisiting the record and being made to look where I was and at my state of mind I was in a bad way, I was in a bad way for a long time. It’s well documented that I had a bottle with alcohol for a big chunk of my life and a lot of these lyrics were talking about walking the dark street and if you like, celebrating, let’s put it that way, the things and the situations that one would find on the dark streets. But also the state of mind of someone who’s isolated and alone looking at all this stuff. I sing this material and I relive it, I relive all of it. I feel an immense gratitude I’m not in that space anymore -- that I’m through it. And what I do connect with now is this beautiful euphoric positive music that Rick wrapped around this dark core that was in the middle.

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Is there a timeline when people will hear this new music you’ve been working on?

Yeah, there is but I’m not gonna spoil it. Both Rick and I have kids and there’s this thing that happens when one’s spouse is pregnant, your circle of activity gets smaller and smaller and smaller until one day you can’t leave the house and you’re grounded until such time as the baby is born. And we’re starting to see that begin to happen now. Now we are together every day until this body of music is finished and we’re looking at that in the very near future. Very close, all leave will be canceled once we arrive at that place.