Now celebrating their 35th anniversary, U.K. act Underworld have as much pedigree and history as any act in electronic dance music. But they don’t want to hear that. When Karl Hyde and Rick Smith set out to work on the band’s first new album since 2010’s Barking, the duo wanted to forget everything they knew.
The result is Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future, a work Hyde feels marks a new start for the band. “This record feels like it wiped the slate clean for a while and if you had no history what record would you make,” he says.
In their first U.S. interview for the new album, due March 18 of next year, Hyde tells Billboard how the band is more inspired than ever, why they refused to write another “Born Slippy” after the success of their breakthrough hit from Trainspotting, and the sweet story of where the new album title comes from.
What takes you to Berlin?
I’m working on another project at the moment, but also gathering ideas to go in the studio with Rick as soon as I get back to the U.K. We had such a rewarding experience, not only musically, but in terms of our relationship and in terms of where we were at creatively that every day was a fresh experience to us. We’d walk into the studio having no idea what we were gonna walk out with, but knowing that we were gonna walk out in a good state of mind and having done something that later on we’d be able to be proud of because it was an honest feeling and honest response rather than something that was perhaps an idea of what Underworld was. I think there had been a number of years where our working processes have kept us apart. With this record it was really clear we’d get together in the studio and we wouldn’t have any ideas, we wouldn’t come with beats or any music. We’d just turn up with ourselves, some equipment every day and start with nothing except for a couple of mates really excited about being together.
Were there tracks early on that got you excited about the process of recording this album?
For me, I remained so open that I didn’t want to know anything, I just wanted to be with Rick and bring my experiences and a bunch of gear every day. It’s great that Rick was using his voice a lot more on this record, it’s great that we were sparring a lot more on this record, I like sparring with open minds with creative people. We did it this time and it was fantastic to be not the only voice, it was fantastic to be inspired by someone else doing things that are usually down to me. So in that way we could inspire each other by coming up with sounds, noises, anything, we just kept swapping around.
After revisiting dubnobass on tour this year, do you hear any influence from that album on Barbara, Barbara?
I didn’t have any sense it sounded like anything we’d done before, largely because I was more focused on our relationship and not bringing any baggage to the party, not having any preconceptions or thoughts about what we should be, or could be, or might have been. For me this was an exploration into the unknown. Deliberately I’d sometimes load the car up with instruments, but with guitars and string instruments that were not my favorites to start off with. They’d be things that were either difficult to play or I’d think, “There is no way this guitar could possibly make it to an Underworld record. I’ll take that one then,” or, “I’ll start working with that one because it’ll make me play differently.” Everything I did was to trip myself up and stop me thinking about anything we’d done before or anything that was appropriate for an Underworld record.
What were some of the sounds you didn’t think would work that did?
There were lots of moments, screaming into electrified banjos, scratching guitars instead of playing strings, being a crowd instead of being a solo singer, listening to something that Rick was mumbling in a corner about something, writing it down and going, “There you go, we’ve got the opening line to the next tune.” It was those things, which were 180 degrees in the opposite direction of what I used to think about an Underworld record. Every day was a conscious decision to remain as unconscious as possible and not think, “Oh, this is going to be difficult to play Saturday night on the main stage.” If dubnobass had any influence at all it was that when we came to make these recordings it felt, to me, like being in a band that had no history. It felt like starting again and that felt really good.
Does this feel like a new band to you when you go back and listen to the finished album?
Yeah, it does, it feels sufficiently moved on. To me, in a way, it actually feels like the next record after Second Toughest In The Infants. That’s just to me. I think there have been a lot of great tracks on the albums in between. I just feel the albums after Second Toughest In The Infants were made by a band that had a sense of itself and had an idea of its place in the world. Up until that point I, for one, didn’t have that at all. When I listen to this record what I’m proud of most is that Rick and I made a record without thinking about where it fits or if it sounds like Underworld. Underworld didn’t have a sound when we started, Rick gave us that sound over a couple of albums and a bunch of shows and in the Nineties we evolved into something. This record feels like it wiped the slate clean for a while and if you had no history what record would you make. And at this point in our career that’s what inspired me to go back into the studio, cause I want to find out more about what’s going on between us, that rather than, “Oh, I know what’s going on.” “We did that? That’s fantastic, that’s an album I’d buy if I heard it. Let’s go back in the studio and find out what happened.”
Do you have an idea of where this new sound of Underworld fits into the electronic dance music world or you don’t care?
No, I don’t think about it because that’s baggage to think about that. What was very prevalent in Underworld’s mentality in those early days, dubnobass and Second Toughest, whenever somebody put a label on us we moved somewhere else and that felt right. Then we made “Born Slippy” and a lot of people said, “All you need to do now is write a bunch more ‘Born Slippy’s’ and you’ll be made for life.” And we just kind of looked at them and went, “We’re just going to do something else if you don’t mind.” What we have is a journey into the unknown, I have no idea where this is going and that is what makes me want to be in Underworld.
Will you be touring in 2016?
Yes, the beginning of the tour has already been announced here in Europe in March. We’re taking this record out and then we’re gonna do festivals through the summer, tour the world and then we’ll see what happens in the fall. But in the early part of next year we’re gonna take the album out, I’m looking forward to it. This year has been the best touring year of my life. So the idea of taking Underworld out with a bunch of new material is beyond anything I could’ve really imagined and I’m looking forward to that.
What songs are you excited to play live?
All of them (laughs). I really am because they all pose very interesting questions, they all demand very different headspaces. So going out and playing any track from this record is going to be a challenge and it’s going to be a challenge in terms of playing in a different headspace and I like that.
I love the album title because the “we face a shining future” part suggests all of the optimism you are feeling about the band.
It was one of those things that came together. It was something his father to his mother said not long before he passed away. “Barbara, Barbara we face a shining future.” His father was a great man, very inspiring and as soon Rick said that, before we got halfway through writing this material, it was just instant, “Yeah, that’s the title.”