This Underworld Is Out In The Open Again

Posted: April 21, 1999

In the 1996 British movie Trainspotting, heroin addict hero Marc Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, comes to the realization that the rock music of his youth has given way to a brave new sound. "Music is changing," he decides. "The world is changing."

The song that leads Renton to this conclusion is a cacophonous dance track - "Born Slippy," by the trance-pop trio Underworld - that retains the character of rock and points the way to an electronic-music future.

Aided by Trainspotting's success, "Born Slippy" became an international club anthem, appeared on dozens of electronica compilations, and led the media to hype Underworld as one of the British dance acts most likely to change the pop music world as we know it.

But a funny thing happened to the members of Underworld - who play the Electric Factory tomorrow night - on the way to world domination: They decided they weren't in such a big hurry to get there.

"We needed to get away from 'Born Slippy,' " says the group's founder, Karl Hyde, at home in London. "It became so large that it became like industry property. It was kind of scary to see the way this genre of music we'd been working in was grabbed and thrown on the front pages of the entertainment magazines."

So before Underworld - lead singer Hyde, guitarist and programmer Rick Smith, and DJ Darren Emerson - got on with the business of making its intoxicating new album Beaucoup Fish (V2), it took a break.

"We just stopped," says Hyde, 41, who with Smith, also 41, is a member of London's Tomato, a collective of musicians, directors and artists that does TV and print ads for clients such as Nike, MTV and Coca-Cola, and handles all of Underworld's visuals, from sleek CD covers to light shows at the band's performances.

"We did art installations in Tokyo and Berlin. We remixed other artists. We did music for [the soundtracks to] Batman & Robin and A Life Less Ordinary. Anything except being Underworld. We didn't want to come [to the States] on any British Invasion electronica tour. We wanted to deflate the hype a little bit, and now some of that pressure is off."

By biding its time before releasing Beaucoup Fish, the band's first album since 1996's Second Toughest in the Infants, Underworld has defused the great expectations that dogged the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole and the Prodigy's The Fat of the Land in 1997. But whenever it came along, Beaucoup Fish (1/2) would have attracted plenty of attention. That's because, more than some bands heralding the electronic age, Underworld makes music as inviting to rock ears as it is irresistible to dance-floor denizens.

In contrast to successful "big-beat" artists such as the Chemicals, Prodigy and the ubiquitous Fatboy Slim that use a rocking, in-your-face approach, Underworld's music is languorous and lyrical.

"Cups," Fish's nearly 12-minute opener, starts in a sleek, sublimely patient house-music groove accompanied by Hyde singing inscrutable lyrics ("dream of something quick, deep slice into sometime in my hand") into a Vocoder. Then, eight minutes in, it shifts gears, breaking out in a kinetic techno release.

Throughout Fish - the disc's title comes from a sampled snippet of conversation Smith recorded on a Louisiana fishing trip - Underworld effortlessly fuses dance and rock. From the karate-kick riffs of "Bruce Lee" to the frenzied "King of Snake" (which slyly samples Donna Summer's "I Feel Love") to the ambient "Push Downstairs," it holds onto the listener with an arsenal of sonic trickery and undulating grooves anchored to always-recognizable song structures.

The ease with which Underworld straddles genres reflects its years of experience, which began before many of its fans were born. Welshmen Hyde and Smith formed the Kraftwerk-influenced art-rock band Freur in 1981 and scored a minor hit in Italy before calling it quits.

Underworld was born in 1986. A synth-pop band that evolved into a Prince-like funk-rock outfit, Underworld, Version 1.0, released two late-'80s albums and opened for Eurythmics on a 1989 tour that played the Tower Theater. An Inquirer reviewer described the group as an "uncompelling quintet" whose songs "lacked hooks, intelligence or any other redeeming qualities."

A listen to 1988's cheesy Underneath the Radar confirms that assessment, and Hyde wouldn't disagree. He calls the first Underworld "lame." After the Eurythmics tour, "we realized there was no future in it."

Hyde went off to do session work at Paisley Park in Minnesota and toured with Deborah Harry. Smith returned to the U.K., became intrigued with the growing acid-house ecstasy culture and looked for a young DJ with whom to collaborate. He found Emerson, now 26, and the two were planting the seeds of Underworld, Version 2.0, when Hyde returned home in 1991.

When the trio began writing, Hyde says "it was scary because it was a genre where singers weren't welcome." After 18 months, they came up with the slithering "Dark & Long." It became the first track on the new Underworld's 1994 debut, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, and established the band's status in the rave-music avant-garde.

Then, as now, "we start in a position of groove," says Hyde, speaking of the band's approach in the studio and onstage, where Underworld has a reputation for energetic, improvised shows. "Then we follow the mood."

Hyde says Underworld uses Miles Davis' dictum "concentrate, but be completely free" as its creative guide. "We suss out the vibe and allow the crowd to dictate how the set goes."

Smith and Hyde are oldsters by the standards of dance music, whose major players mostly hail from Emerson's generation. But having been around is an asset, Hyde says. "It gives you the ability to say no, to see beyond the cash and the fame and think about what's going to make you happy and what you really want to do."

As for the evocative, free-flowing lyrics that are key to Underworld's distinctive appeal ("I am dubious hard metal, I am milk in your plastic, I am wrapped in this, left alone with the only thing I can do," he sings in "Moaner"), Hyde says they're completely autobiographical.

"It's very Sam Shephard's Motel Chronicles or Lou Reed's New York," he says. "I carry a notebook around all the time and write down things and people I see. I have to, because I can't remember the details otherwise. And the details are what's magical."

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