“Art is about looking at the same things with different eyes,” Underworld’s Karl Hyde affirms. “You’ve only got one pair of eyes but your perception has to keep evolving if you’re an artist; if you don’t evolve you’re dead.” Together with production partner Rick Smith, the self-described pair of “Essex urchins” have been living by this mantra since their nascent musical forays in the early eighties, and such enterprise remains intact on Underworld’s latest album, Barking, which features a range of collaborators including Dubfire from Deep Dish and UK DnB producer High Contrast. “I’ve never really understood groups that have closed the door to learning from people that are younger than themselves because there’s a whole different energy going that you can exchange,” Hyde states. “I think the way we see the group going now is more along these lines, more jamming with people which in a way is a natural evolution out of the remixes. Rather than the remixes coming after the album, it’s like we can start the conversation before the album’s finished.”
Hyde admits that this dialogic approach to production often involves overcoming initial apprehension, with Barking’s opening track ‘Bird 1’ a case in point. “I was really happy with it and we’d been testing it out [live] for about 18 months and it had been going down really well,” Hyde recalls. “Then we passed it on to Dubfire and he came back with this version of it. At first it was a bit of a shock, I was like ‘Well I’m not really sure about this because I really liked the version that Rick did’. But it’s so familiar that feeling, it will always come from hearing a remix and six months later I’ll be in a club and hear it and go ‘This is fantastic, what’s this?’ and Rick will say ‘You twat, this is us, it’s that mix you didn’t like!’ I remember even in one club going to him, ‘This is the kind of track I think we should be doing’, and he said ‘But that’s you, this is us, what are you talking about!’”.
Despite some distinct Dubfire touches, ‘Bird 1’ possesses many of the hallmarks of classic Underworld, and Hyde agrees the pair has returned to their German electronic roots with several of the tracks on Barking. “It was pointed out to us quite recently that things we were doing a long time ago were very current and we should revisit them,” he recalls. “People have assimilated our sound into their way of thinking and we’ve grown closer to other people’s sounds and possibly what we’re inspired by at the moment is quite a contemporary way of thinking. Listening to Dubfire present our music to us reminded me of music I used to love - and, it’s us!” Hyde beams. “It was so different and yet so much more the same, it was peculiar – it was fabulous what he’d done, he’d kept the guitars but he’d worked with them in a completely different way, and it really sounded like the track but it just sounded so much more German.”
"your perception has to keep evolving if you’re an artist; if you don’t evolve you’re dead.”
While Underworld released a succession of landmark singles throughout the nineties, including ‘Rez’ and ‘King of Snake’, it was largely due to director Danny Boyle’s use of ‘Born Slippy. NUXX’ in ‘Trainspotting’ that Underworld came to be ubiquitous with the club and rave culture. Though Hyde now views Boyle as “a member of the group” he confesses he and Rick initially rejected Boyle’s request to use their music. “Danny was apparently shooting ‘Trainspotting’ and cutting it to our album ‘dubnobasswithmyheadman’. He approached us to see if he could use our music in the film and we said no,” Hyde admits. “We’d heard Irvine’s book was all about getting ‘fucked up’ and we never saw our music as being about that. Then Danny invited us to the edit suite and he showed us some of the scenes. We were like ‘Yep, this is fantastic, this is not bringing drugs up it’s completely in the other direction’, and then we said he could do whatever he liked with our music.”
Underworld have since scored a number of soundtracks themselves, with Boyle approaching them to score his film ‘Sunshine’ after they had worked on the soundtrack to Anthony Minghella’s ‘Breaking and Entering’ with composer Gabriel Yared of ‘Betty Blue’ fame. Far from being a sign of ‘mellowing’, these disparate side projects are more indicative of Underworld’s ongoing pursuit of the challenge to create new art. “This is a fantastic job and a terrible job all at the same time,” Hyde muses. “Performing takes you to wonderful places and there’s the joyous coming together of thousands of people who are buzzing and giving you their energy; at the same time, when you make the music, when you actually record it, you get about thirty seconds of happiness… and then there’s another challenge.” Elaborating, Hyde explains his view of art as a continual challenge that never truly ends. “I’ve just finished a painting exhibition that’s opening in Tokyo in a few months. Every time you finish a painting, you walk out of the room and walk back in and think, ‘Yeah, that’s really buzzing’. Then you walk back in an hour later and feel that it’s already challenging you and saying, ‘What’s next? Is that it? Are you dead? Come on!’ And that’s what music is like, it’s constantly going, ‘Yeah that’s all right, it’s a great album but what are you going to do next, because if that’s it then that’s not good enough’. And I like that, that’s what keeps us going.”