A Conversation with Underworld: 'Digital in Music is a Necessary Evil'

Categories: Q&A
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Underworld
Underworld's Rick Smith and Karl Hyde rose to prominence in the post-acid house electronic music scene of the '90s by rendering the undulating tones of proggy, tech-house into lush sonic landscapes. The U.K. group's 1996 track, "Born Slippy (Nuxx)," featured in the film Trainspotting, grabbed a larger audience with its blissful bleeps and bloops. Since then, Underworld has continued to experiment with breakbeats and dubby synth riffs, and has gained a reputation for fluid performances that reject a division between dance music and the live band. For Underworld's latest full-length, Barking, the group collaborated with producers such as Dubfire, Paul Van Dyk, and High Contrast to make its most beatcentric album in some time. In advance of Underworld's headlining set at Live 105's Subsonic Spookfest tomorrow, we got Hyde on the phone to discuss the group's philosophy.

So, how are you? Actually, where are you and when are you?

It's about quarter to 11 [p.m.], I'm at home and and I'm doing fine, thanks. We were just in Japan on tour and we ate at 3 a.m., enjoyed some fantastic restaurants, but what's really inspiring is walking back through a city once the clubs are closed, when the streets are empty, and it's just you and the plants giving off their oxygen. It just feels like you and the city are breathing together.

You're a group well-known for both sonic and graphic design -- combining music with visuals that you gather through your travels. Given the choice between a Super 8 video camera, a digital high-resolution video camera and a traditional snapshot camera, which would you pick to document your journeys and why?

Ah, that's easy. I pick a 35mm camera, I carry a small half-frame at all times. I love the analog image, what happens when light hits motion, the randomness of it all. Digital is just all on and off, there's nothing animal about it, it's cold and not practical. It doesn't have resonance.

How does that relate to composing music?

Well, digital in music is a necessary evil. It's portable, practical, you can get a lot of devices in a small unit. I remember touring with the Eurythmics at the end of the 1980s, and Dave Stewart had a "portable studio" that was in six huge flight cases, and involved tape recorders. It probably sounded fantastic, but it was impracticable. So there's a lot we can do now, when working away from the proper studios. But in terms of sound, there's nothing like the great chunks of subliminal frequencies that are missing with the digital. There's a reason nature put them there, you know.

And for that reason, among others, there's still a hell of a lot we bring with us, as we don't play off laptops; we mix in analog alongside computer machines, use guitars, all manner of equipment that comes along to enable us to make the sounds and play them in a live manner. It's a real beast, what we have hooked up to the mains.

So what comes out of being able to transport the means to compose and not having time between recording sessions?

There's an upside and a down side. When you can't work, the frustration builds, and that can produce some of your most powerful work, things you must get out when you finally can. But, like taking a snapshot, you can capture a moment, and there's so many of those kind of transient moments in trains, planes, in hotel rooms, in backs of taxis. Or it can be a doodle, something that comes out of a meandering doodle that captures charm and magic you can develop into something.

Are there specific tracks that came out of both approaches?

"JAL to Tokyo," that we put out on a download album, Rick wrote that on a Japan Airlines track. And a track on Barking, "Hamburg Hotel," was written exactly where you might expect. Rick's working on a piece with David Lynch that he's been working on mostly in his hotel room, and without digital that wouldn't be possible.

So do you compose albums as if they are feature-length films or a collection of cinematic shorts?

Snapshots for me are moments in time, what was going on in our heads as we were responding to our environment and the things we were hearing and fusing them with what we remembered, so each album is a film of these moments, organized in movements. In that regard, this one is as much a film as [1994's] dubnobasswithmyheadman; it's a particular phase in our filmmaking, capturing both what we want it to be and where we were. Tracks may start as separate elements, but on an album they are one long track in my head.

It sounds like the approach is more cinéma vérité than applying some overarching narrative.

With dubnobasswithmyheadman there was no intention to make an album then, or ever again. It was just Rick one day went through the archives and discovered we could assemble an album that worked. And that kickstarted making albums. But in terms of an overarching concept, there isn't one.

Not a concept album on descending into madness?

I think we went 'barking' mad a long time ago. [laughs] We sometimes feign sanity, but mostly what we do is bordering on the insane.

Working with others -- whether Brian Eno or the collaborators on Barking -- is the goal to bring you into or out of something? Did you search out the person or the sound?

Brian, we've grown up reading his philosophy, and that of his counterparts, so we speak the same language. There's a lot of pushing each other in that sense. No one leading the pack, just running together, seeing where it leads.

Rick and I have always liked to jam whether with musicians or visual artists; it's all conversation, exchanging ideas, transferring knowledge and experience, learning, and it's something we've tried for 20 years, whether with 17-year-old Darren Emerson [with Underworld from 1991 - 2000] or the guys on this album. It's been in the bones of the band since the incarnation of this version.

With this album, we were inspired by the tracks to ask specific people working in that sonic area, people we felt weren't that far from the vibe of the music as it stood when Rick finished the first draft of it. It was a choice that came from the sound of the music ... Whereas with Brian you say, 'You want to do it?' and if he says, 'Yeah,' well, whatever comes of it it's great.

When recording there's a lot of improvising, responding in the studio, but also crafting, building doors into the melody, finding a response to a beat, doing it again, sometimes getting it in the first take, sometimes the 51st take. During a performance, we don't know we've found any path, we just know we made choices based on where we're standing on the stage, when we feel it's right to drop out, extend; we just read the vibe. Sometimes we try it, it flops, and we immediately have to move on, while other times it's extraordinary.

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