Underworld Interview – Creamfields 2008
electronic textures, well calculated beats and
stream-of-consciousness lyrics, Underworld has been a mainstay on
the international dance scene ever since DJ Darren Emerson first
hooked-up with a couple of former new wave pop artists known as Karl
Hyde and Rick Smith. Peaking with, Trainspotting anthem, ‘Born
Slippy’ back in 1995 while losing Emerson more recently [to allow
him to focus on solo material including that released by his own
Underwater logo], the duo still maintains a reputation for quality
dancefloor-igniting material while further developing their
abilities as a must-see live outfit. In addition to opening for Radiohead for the second leg of the band’s US tour later this year,
they are set to headline the Radio 1 stage at Creamfields 10th
Anniversary event. “Really looking forward to it,”
enthuses Hyde - the act’s spokesman.
You’ve also played some of the other, non-UK Creamfields, haven’t
"Yeah, Buenos Aires in 2006 really stands out. That was a
This year, there are 13 global dates for Creamfield including new
territories like Chile and Romania. What do you make of that?
"It’s amazing. There’s a different energy at those places. It’s a
bit like how it was here ten years ago, maybe. In the UK, it’s moved
on, matured and mutated into all kinds of musical styles. Then you
go to some places – like South America or Europe – and we look at
each other and we’re like, “wow – this is what it used to be
like”. And it’s great to have the opportunity to re-live that."
Are we more cynical here?
"No. I’ve never really experienced cynicism on the dance scene. It’s
just that it’s been around here for a really long time and become
something else. It’s just newer in some of those places. They’ve
heard it on the radio and caught some of the DJs and there are
people there that have waited a long time to experience something
like this. There’s a freshness and an enthusiasm that comes from
people finally having what they dreamt might happen. It could be too
easy to say “well, we don’t have that” but then we play sets
in the UK and are completely bowled over by the energy. It hasn’t
But your reputation now precedes you. Surely that’s changed the way
that you’re received?
"We’ve never been a group to let that interfere with being ‘in the
moment’. We’ve never felt the pressure to become Underworld: ‘the
idea of Underworld’. And Rick and I plus the team we have around us
are all experienced in pulling each other down as soon as anybody
begins to demonstrate some kind of ego. The great thing about dance
music when we came to it at the end of the 1980’s was it was
ego-less and it was all about the crowd and not the person spinning
the records. We like to try and continue that: which is why we’re
never announced when we come on stage. So you won’t hear [adopts
exaggerated American TV introduction-style voice] “Here!
To-night! Those legends all the way from Essex, England! Heeeeere’s
Underworld!” Instead, we just wander on and segue into what the
DJ is playing."
It’s funny how the different acts – your peers, we suppose – have
dealt with moving from being an anonymous production outfit to
performers. Some have embraced it, some have struggled with it and
others – like Daft Punk – have just subverted the whole concept,
"I think what happened that there bands like Orbital and The
Orb and, to a lesser extent, The Prodigy who changed what people
might expect from bands involved in pop or rock music. They were
leaning more towards the “don’t look at me” thing that had
come from DJ culture. Then bands like ourselves were mixing up what
we do because, y’know, I was a singer that played guitar. Reluctantly, at first, though. I mean, if it wasn’t for Darren
Emerson saying “I like this”, we would never have been a band
that had me at the front. We’d have gone in a completely different
direction. That indie-crossover thing happened and what we were
doing just caught on and it was great. Although there were times
when I still thought “oh dear – what have we started?”"
"Yes, because we were doing Underworld because we were really into
dance music and there were times when what we were doing felt so far
removed from it. That said, the groove has always come before the
singer for us."
Was the work with, design company, Tomato a way of providing a
different visual aesthetic than that of regular touring bands?
"It was very timely how we came together in the late 1980’s and it
was more a case of going “I like what you do” and “I like what you
do too” and then just deciding to stay in close proximity to each
other. So we got a little office above Black Market Records in
London and started making work. Rick and I lived off the money that
we got from making TV commercials that they were doing which was
really important in that it meant that we didn’t have to compromise
our own music. We didn’t have jobs in The City so the work with
Tomato was a way for us to put food on the table while still being
independent. That gave us massive freedom to make the music that we
wanted. Which were the records that Darren could play out in his DJ
With Darren’s departure, a lot of people might have expected that
you and Rick would have returned to your pop/rock roots via your
subsequent Underworld material. Yet you’ve continued to put out club
records that are just as underground as the ones that Darren has
"Darren was a big Beatles fan so we crossed over a lot anyway in
terms of our tastes in guitar music and electronic music. The great
thing about the split is that it allowed Darren to really be himself
because he was a solo artist before he was in Underworld. The other
thing I should mention is that Rick and I had been into German
machine music since we were kids. And whenever we would get dropped
by our record company as ‘a pop group’, we’d go back to trying to
make German machine music. We didn’t know anything about club
culture. We had no idea what was happening in the underground clubs
in Chicago, Detroit or New York. We just had this love for
electronic sounds. When we finally stumbled on acid house on pirate
radio, we were like “oh, this is German machine music – this is
fantastic”. Then at the end of the 1980’s we suddenly realised
that we were crap at trying to be a pop group and that there was
this music that we repeatedly went back to every time we fell on our
faces and maybe that’s what we should have been doing along. Looking
back, that sound was in our blood."
In more recent times, you’re more
independent that you’ve ever been, aren’t you?
"Funnily enough, we still have the same team. Steve Hall – who ran
Junior Boys Own – is still working with us while other people who
were at V2 Records are part of our label."
...continued... It still seems like a more
‘back to basics’ approach.
"It is. And that was really important to us. It was important that
if Rick comes up with a track that we think is great, we can make it
available that night. Or we could package it as a bundle with some
other music and some artwork and making it available for 60p. Or put
it out as a 12” single which is still as important. I think one
thing that got overlooked when we did the download album was that we
also did five twelve inch singles for the dance-floors and were also
making music available through our radio show. A lot of people
focussed on the download aspect, but there are many ways that we get
our music out there. We had to point out that we had made vinyl
records for the clubs and also wrote two film scores to illustrate
that there are the the traditional ways of working in addition to
those more immediate ways of distributing what we do."
Are you still commissioning remixes of your tracks too.
"That’s just jamming with other artists. It’s a way of hearing what
other people would do. We know what we sound like. Working with Pig
& Dan, for example: fantastic. What a great sensibility the have for
groove and sound. Another misconception people have is that once you
have a modicum of success, then you’re no longer available; you’re
no longer interested; that you’re in your ivory tower. It’s never
been like that for us.
I read a while back about your approach to lyrics. That you take
apart your old notebooks and – similar to how a remix might work –
you isolate words or passages and swap it around. It sounded a bit
like one of those magnetic poetry kits that you see on fridges."
[Laughs] "It’s more that I wander the streets and write down
everything I see and bits of conversation that I hear. I still work
like that now. I write every day. It’s moved on into different
medium. But, just today, I went to Rick’s studio to work on some
tracks and took this big holdall full of my old notebooks. When
you’re in a recording session, you can just stick your hand in the
back and pull out something from 1993 or 2005 and they’re really
different vibes. They reflect what was going on at the time. So I
can almost steer my way through them now. It will be like: “I want
something a little bit darker?” “hmmm, that will be pre-1998 then”.
While you know what the source material is, the tracks themselves
are open into interpretation, aren’t they?
"Yes. But the music comes first. The music tells the singer
what to do and when to shut up. I want people to hear the groove
first and then be thinking that there’s some kind of voice in there
and, if they like it, maybe the listener might finally be thinking
“there’s some kind of singing going on there”. I like the idea of
that journey of discovery."
Is it unsettling when you perform and people sing along?
"At first it was. Because we were inspired by club culture, we
expected that people should have been dancing. I wanted to tell them
to stop all that singing. Now it’s a cross-section of people that
come to the shows and I’d imagine that most people are getting the
words more right than I am."
The “lager lager lager” chant from ‘Born Slippy’
must be one that comes back to haunt you?
That’s the only lyric that we ever felt the need to explain. Now I’m
fine however people want to interpret it. If it’s simply a
celebration of alcohol to them, then that’s okay. If they want to
consider it as one man’s reflection on years of destruction and
getting wasted, than I’m fine with that too."
You’ve always tried to avoid literal ‘songs’ anyway?
"Yes. It’s interesting how artists can convey a
mood anyway. Whether it’s instrumental music, foreign voices
or just unintelligible lyrics, they can all put across something as
strong as a literal narrative anyway. Bjork is probably a good
example of how to express emotion while not revealing exactly what
you’re on about.
Exactly. And, in fact, I do prefer it when she sings in Icelandic
and I’ve got even less idea what the words mean."
So what else is inspiring you?
"We’ve been curating some events of our own. We did one in Tokyo in
November and took Simian Mobile Disco and Andrew Weatherall out
alongside a huge art project. We’ve also been doing web TV which is
something that we’d like to further explore. But we also need to
ensure that we leave time in our schedules to make new music. Because, you’ll never know when you might need it...."
With regards to the Creamfields show, will it be what’s now your
standard fresh interpretations of older tracks with new pieces?
"Yeah, until we say Underworld has stopped, the old favourites are
still a big part of what we are. We do have the luxury of being able
to go out there and remix it for each performance. Being able to do
that – sometime radically – is what keeps it interesting for us. Things are involving all the time. But even being a band that
improvises as much as we do, it’s still very easy to fall into a
pattern. So there is still often the need to turn to someone on
stage and say: “you know that thing that you’ve been doing for
the past three night that is totally brilliant? Don’t do it again”. It’s especially important that we continue that now. In the age of
the internet, people do discuss your shows. And even if they
weren’t, I wouldn’t ever want us to get complacent."
Underworld perform live at Creamfields in the BBC Radio 1 Arena on
Sunday 24 August, Bank Holiday Weekend, 2008. Tickets on sale now tel:- 0844 888 4401 /
ticketline.co.uk / Info:-
THANKS to the
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Winners of the competition must follow
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