Dance

20 Questions With Underworld: The Dance Icons on '90s Raves, EDM & Their Upcoming Tour

Underworld
Philippe Levy

Underworld

The duo return to North America for five shows this May.

2020 marks 40 years of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith making music together. The duo started in the early '80s as their experimental, new wave band Freur and eventually transformed into Underworld, the heady electronic outfit that emerged as one of the '90s dance world's most celebrated acts. 

Hyde’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics and charismatic live presence, combined with Smith’s amalgamation of musical styles into a relentless and complex, yet often dumbfoundingly simple beat -- alongside always-stunning visuals -- secured the duo’s position at the forefront of electronic dance during the '90s. Their anthem “Born Slippy .NUXX” is synonymous with the classic U.K. heroin odyssey Trainspotting, not only amplifying the intensity of the Danny Boyle-directed movie, but pushing Underworld into the mainstream consciousness upon the film's release in 1996. 

Jump to November 2018, when Underworld began releasing audio and video materials every week for a year as part of their DRIFT Series 1. The audio portion is eclectic, unexpected and at times score-like. The videos vary from a race driver’s perspective, to feet walking on a busy street, to a fountain pen repeatedly writing a letter to “Drift." The culmination of the project is a hefty box set, which includes seven CDs, a Blu-ray and an 80-page book documenting the project, altogether creating a collector’s item if there ever was one.

Underworld performed live throughout the creation of DRIFT Series 1, from four nights at the Sydney Opera House to small club shows in London and Manchester. Today (Feb. 10) Billboard Dance can exclusively announce the duo's return to North America this May, with five shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, and a headlining set at Detroit's much-lauded Movement Festival. See the complete tour details below.

Here, in a rare gap between activities, Hyde and Smith beam in to reflect on the distant past and speculate on the near future.

1. Where are you right now?

Karl Hyde: We’re in our studio in Essex.

2. What was the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself and what was the medium?

Rick Smith: The first vinyl I bought was a 7” of Hot Butter “Popcorn,” the daftest bit of electronics.

Hyde: The first album I bought was Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme on vinyl, from the man in the market. I absolutely loved their version of “Scarborough Fair.” Their vocal arrangement is still astonishing to me.

3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do they think of what you do for a living now?

Smith: My mother was a piano teacher. My father had various jobs -- aircraft fitter, engineer, toolmaker, newspaper editor, and later in life, lay preacher. It was a very long, slow start becoming a professional musician. They were anxious about the choices I’d made in pursuit of something they barely understood. But they bit their lip and were very supportive. Later years, when you start popping up on their television and their radio and their friends are calling, saying “I saw Richard!,” it’s very nice for them.

Hyde: My mum ran a dry cleaner’s shop and was a seamstress. My dad was a carpet weaver. I was in bands from when I was 11. My dad would drive me around and help pay for instruments. He was always there. When the reality of, “Oh my god, my son might actually do this as a career” dawned on him, there was some worry. Coming from a working class background, it was hard enough to accept when I went to art school. But when I came out with a degree and told them I wasn’t going to do art, it blew their heads.

4. What was distinctive about where you grew up that shaped you as a musician?

Smith: We both came from small towns in different parts of Wales. Like most young people, I dreamed of going where the grass was greener -- which is difficult to beat in Wales because the grass is as green as you can possibly get. I wanted to see what was encapsulated in these records from bands that I loved who were from these places that looked so romantic and fantastic.

Hyde: The town I grew up in sits in a river valley. On one side of the valley, Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath lived, and on the other side, Robert Plant still lives. You saw these immense rock stars coming through with their funky vehicles with their freaked out entourages. It was like you could see it, but you couldn’t touch it. You felt closer to it watching it on television than when it walked down the High Street or got out of its Rolls Royce. I was desperate to get away from it. My family is still there, and now, I really love going back.

5. What was the first thing you bought for yourself when you started making money from music?

Smith: We got a proper, major record deal with CBS in the early ‘80s as Freur. We had a small advance which seemed like an enormous amount of money. We bought a second-hand, 4x4 Chevy Blazer and got ripped off tremendously. The thing fell apart within a week and a half.

Hyde: One of the thrills was the top would come off. Rick had put PA speakers in the back. We drove around London with crazy hair and make-up and colorful plastic clothes, playing Wagner very loudly. It was one of our best experiences.

6.What was your first ever gig as Underworld?

Smith: The first Underworld was not dance-oriented at all. It was funk-rock, power-pop, indie.

Hyde: For that version of Underworld, the first gig was for [Sire Records president] Seymour Stein in a recording studio. We recorded the whole thing onto a cassette and gave it to him and said, “That’s our demo.”

7. What moved you toward dance music as far as a particular club or raving experience?

Hyde: Getting dropped by Sire Records and becoming bankrupt.

Smith: That was the circumstance, but in England there was a whole new scene where people were making music, pressing vinyl -- gigs could happen in a warehouse without the support of the record industry, without all the rules and criteria that we’d had to try and fit in for years. The freedom of that, allied with the power of seeing what happens when people are connected by rhythm, it was transforming.

8. Do you remember how it felt when you got a reaction in terms of people actually dancing?

Hyde: It was at the Ministry of Sound in London. We played from the DJ booth. Ministry of Sound had a fantastic sound system. One of the things we wanted to achieve was to play live in such a way that nobody stopped dancing, so we played like a DJ, segueing into the set. Virtually nobody knew [were playing like that], and, in a way, that was the measure of success of the gig -- that no one stopped dancing.

9. If you had to recommend one album for someone to get introduced to dance music, what would you give them?

Smith: That’s a mean question! One album! Kraftwerk Computer World. This was way before there was a dance scene. Goldie’s Timeless. The Prodigy, Fat of the Land. There are so many records in the ‘90s that were very inspiring.

10. Many people would recommend Underworld’s dubnobasswithmyheadman, no?

Hyde: We’re not allowed! There were lots of elements in dubnobass which people that weren’t into dance music could use as a bridge to get in. We were connected to the dance world, at the same time we didn’t really fall in line with it. There was a very specific moment after dubnobass came out at Brixton Academy when we were doing an all-nighter with Megadog. You saw two factions: the indie kids and the rave kids, looking at each other across the room going, “What are you doing here? This is my band.” That night was one big messy crowd.

11. What is one particular characteristic of dance music in America that stands out for you over the years?

Hyde: For us, America is the birthplace of modern dance music. But it took a really long time to become popular in a significant way. You do everything big, and that’s fantastic, because when you do it, the rest of the world takes notice. As much as people may put down EDM, it’s had a significantly positive effect for the rest of us. It’s drawn a lot more people’s attention to what we’re all doing.

12. You took on the Herculean task of releasing music every single week for a year as the DRIFT series. How did you come upon that decision?

Smith: It was a piece of madness that seemed to make sense. We needed that kind of pressure and focus to accelerated our output, our learning, our communication, to amp everything up -- the way we interacted with the world, to not be so private. That could become a real pattern, where we disappear for a couple of years at a time. It was what we needed to do to shake ourselves up.

13. Were there points during that year that you wanted to bail out of the weekly commitment?

Smith: We didn’t implode or explode. We learned an awful lot, discovered new friends, new things about communication with our peers. We had wonderful feedback constantly, from friends, and strangers. That was hugely important and changed the journey. They helped me hold it together in a process that took a long time to finish. There was one particular quote from a friend: “Music is never finished, it just gets ready.”

Hyde: One of the upsides of releasing in that way meant that we were able to refresh the live set more than we’d ever had. Wherever we were, we could drop a brand-new tune and they knew it because they just heard it yesterday.

14. There are many collaborations on DRIFT. What informed your choice in these guests?

Smith: Different criteria every time. We had to function on something more intuitive, and sometimes it was what was practical. Collaborations slow you down. Part of what we’re looking at now with the onwards of DRIFT is how do we manage our process.

15. In a time where releasing physical product is not the norm, you collected all the material from DRIFT into a massive multi-media package. What was your reason for that?

Smith: We knew there would some physical manifestation of it, because the desire is there. Maybe the quantities that people want are smaller, but it’s still there. What I see with my kids is they want both. I’m similar. I like physical things, but I also love being able to access, stream new music, discover things quickly without investing every time. 

16. What is one (or more) thing that you would do different in your next series of DRIFT?

Smith: It was quite punishing for having the releases in parallel with the live shows. It would be nice to get a grip on that.

17. Visuals have always played a huge role in Underworld. What are some key new elements that are making up the current live show?

Smith: We’ve worked with Toby Vogel for at least 15 years on the visuals. He’s been absorbing this amazing footage that has been generated, the standalone films for the weekly releases, and integrated them into the screens.

18. What are your pre-performance rituals?

Smith: For years, it’s been about trying to carve 45 minutes together where we’re in control of our space and where we can empty a room and just be together and get our heads connected, which is not always straightforward. But we always go on with a hug and some words.

Hyde: The words that nearly always get said are, “Don’t f--k up.” Strangely, if he doesn’t say that, I’m upset.

19. What are some food items you cannot eat before performing?

Hyde: Dairy products.

Smith: We’ve got a cut-off for eating before a show. Karl doesn’t mess with that because that could get ugly.

Hyde: Four hours. It used to be six, but I’ve managed to get it to something sensible.

20. What piece of advice would you give to yourself at the beginning of your music career?

Smith: Work hard, be patient, you’ll get there.