INTERVIEW Underworld

Underworld

Since the late 80s Karl Hyde and Rick Smith alias Underworld have released electronic music – music with an attitude, music for the dance floors, music as game-changing as it’s been meaningful for many. Thereby the duo has always crossed and pushed musical boundaries, invented and re-invented their music and themselves as artists, because they’ve taken on the challenges to push themselves forward, to a musical future they might have imagened yet having had the goal to achieve it. Within these creative and forward-thinking processes Underworld have had a lasting effect on the dance floors in this world as Karl and Rick created one of electronic music’s most important tracks, ‘Born Slippy‘, becoming a worldwide anthem as it was featured in the legendary movie Trainspotting.

It’s 2019 and Underworld still challenge themselves at a musical level and beyond, sometimes once, mostly more days each week to keep their Drift project going, something they initiated last year and seizes the idea to release new music – visiually processed – every week, every Thursday to be precise, always surprising themselves and the world, their crowds, their audience, which eagerly wait for masterstrokes to hit their auditory meatus and over and over again check the duo’s site for that weekly piece of art, for their weekly dose of music. 

Underworld’s ambitious Drift project though is coming to an end after 52 episodes at the end of October, the 25th, and is refined with an album, ‘DRIFT SONGS’, which features new material, the duo worked and work on while keeping the Drift project going but have kept under lock. ‘DRIFT SONGS’ is Rick and Karl’s first album since ‘Barbara, Barbara we face a shining future’ in 2016 and the first physical release since their tune ‘Teatime Dub Encounter’ featuring Iggy Pop two years later.

Well, my day starts in conversation with the darkside that sits on the end of my bed waiting. (Karl)

Torture the Artist: Hello Karl and Rick, tell us something about your day and how you’re feeling.

Rick: I appreciate the interest in what we’re doing – I really do – but what I should be doing is making this Thursday’s release…so, I’m feeling a bit stressed, conflicted….

Karl: Well, my day starts in conversation with the darkside that sits on the end of my bed waiting, Good morning Karl, would you like to come out to play?. I counter with a glance out the window, Oh what a fabulous day!‘ then lock myself in the bathroom before anyone asks How are you feeling?‘ and turn the radio on, – usually BBC 6 Music, something upbeat. There’s a cafe in town that serves good porridge, and I spend an hour or two there writing. Some of these words will find their way into our compositions and most find their way into the daily diary (http://karlhyde.underworldlive.com) published every day via underworldlive.com since 1999. Then I cruise instagram, publish the contents of my head, get in my car (a Surrealist Poet) and drive to meet rick, – we like to spend as much time as possible together writing, talking, recording, problem solving (there are a lot of problems).

Torture the Artist: What’s the last thing you’ve consciously reacted to in your surrounding and is this or how is this going to be represented in a new track of yours?

Karl: The people and events I write into the notebooks every day are sung, read, howled and mumbled, – without them it would just be psychotherapy.

Rick: Our lack of map. Our journey with no fixed destination…

Torture the Artist: Your ‘Drift’-format was launched in November 2018 and now the third episode, each containing six tracks of yours, has started. How did the whole idea come about in the first place?

Karl: It came out of a conversation between Rick and Drift racer Haydn Cruickshank, – it’s a loaded, word.

Rick: A word laden with negatives, repurposed. A key to open doors, just to find out what’s inside.

Sometimes I get caught up in the fantasy that everything we do is a ‘counter project’, but fantasies don’t do me any favours. (Karl)

Torture the Artist: ‘Drift’ seems like a natural and honest approach to music, giving you as the artist the freedom to express yourself in a more profound way. To what extent does it represent a sort of ‘counter project’ to previous works of yours, or is it maybe a message to the (music) world to get back to what music is all about?

Karl: Well, sometimes I get caught up in the fantasy that everything we do is a ‘counter project’, but fantasies don’t do me any favours. The most useful truth for the moment is that ‘Drift’ is the name of what we’re doing now, overwhelming at times and conversely better than anything I’ve done with Rick in decades.

Rick: Not a message, not a map, but yes a foolhardy promise made in public.

UW + The Necks CREDIT Rob Baker Ashton 2.jpg
Picture by Rob Baker Ashton

Torture the Artist: What’s the poem, stanza or line from an author of your choice that best describes the ‘Drift’-format, and why?

Rick: An email a friend wrote to us after hearing one of the Drift releases in which he said – ‘Music is never finished, it just gets ready.

Karl: You put your left leg in, your left leg out, in out, in out, shake it all about…

I try not to panic every Thursday morning. (Rick)

Torture the Artist: For the ‘Drift’-format you have scheduled two days in the studio in order to produce a new track that covers (recent) observations or reactions to everyday occurrences. How do you deal with both, the observations or reactions, in the studio, if you find yourself valuing them as not fitting or not as catchy as you thought in the process of producing the track? Additionally how do you deal with the self-imposed pressure to finish a track at a given time?

Karl: Sometimes it’s two, sometimes five, and if we’re away on tour it’ll be seven days a week together. Rick keeps us moving, keeps us focused. He’s continually re-evaluating the next release and what music we include or drop from the Drift Map in a rolling day-to-day re-assessment. The pressure is both a focus and a pain, but we’re committed to it, and for now I wouldn’t go back to making just one album every few years…..maybe next time…

Rick: I try not to panic every Thursday morning.

Torture the Artist: Karl, in the press for the first ‘Drift’-episode you said that ‘drift’ means ‘the opposite of‘normal’ or‘usual practice’’. What (studio) practices have you given up on and would you say that you have made yourself too comfortable with certain practices before you started to produce tracks for ‘Drift’?

Karl: Well, I can’t think of any studio practises we’ve given up on, maybe just parked, or forgotten for now, – like a goldfish.

Torture the Artist: Which (artistic) frontiers would you like to cross?

Karl:There’s an aqueduct in North Wales I’ve dreamed of crossing by boat for years, and one day I’m determined to cross the Sahara Desert.

I am the goldfish. (Karl)

Torture the Artist: Who is the observer and who’s the doer in your musical relationship and how do manage to complement each other and bring your strengths together?

Karl: I am the goldfish.

Rick: Sometimes I am the bowl.

Torture the Artist: How does ‘Drift’ influence your live-performances?

Karl: As you can imagine, the ‘Drift’ project generates a lot more material than single albums would, coming around on three year cycles. Thanks to the internet and a skilled and dedicated team around us we can reach a global audience instantly. Knowing that a lot’ve people hear what’s coming out through the ‘Drift’ project gives us way more flexibility in what goes into the live set, how we can adapt our show for different kinds of festivals, and it’s particularly liberating when we’re playing multiple nights at the same venue. We’ve never had the luxury of so much new material to draw from.

Torture the Artist: The format ‘Drift’ was named in reference to your passion for cars and the movie series ‘The Fast And The Furious’ as one movie title of the series is called ‘Tokyo Drift’ and takes place in Japan. What role does Japan play in your personal- as well as creative being and especially for ‘Drift’?

Karl: I know very little about cars (except that mine speaks in tongues), but our lighting designer, Haydn Cruickshank started drift racing a few years ago. His passion for the sport is infectious and when Rick was hunting for inspiration they got talking, and one thing lead to another.., – the dance of great drift racers is a beautiful thing to watch. I’ve liked all the racers we’ve met, they seem to understand the value of ‘community’. A drift race meet is a cross between a night at the ballet and a rinse in the spiritual dishwasher.

Rick: For over twenty years Japan has been a place which relentlessly inspires and encourages us to respect and reassess the importance of seemingly tiny things

Torture the Artist: Accompanying the aforementioned preference for cars (autosport) and ‘The Fast And The Furious’ movie series, what’s the track from your ‘Drift’-series that you could imagine best bumping on Dominic Torrato’s radio and why, respectively in which situation?

Karl: Funny you should ask that, – Rick and I often talk about listening to music as we drive and about imagining our music underscoring particular journeys, – now, Rick mixes in the car, his lap-top hooked up to the sound system. Music fits the mood, the place and time, and the headspace, – every driver’s different I guess. I don’t know what turns other drivers on, but me, I like to surf the airwaves, and never stick with any one thing for long.

Underworld_2018ASW_credit ROB BAKER ASHTON 2.jpg
Picture by Rob Baker Ashton

Torture the Artist: In general, what kind of movie or series would you love to produce the soundtrack for or is there a movie or series that has left such an impact on you that you would have loved to compose the music for?

Karl: Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ changed my life, but I wouldn’t change the music. ‘Two Lane Black Top’ remains one of my all time favourite road movies, and the way ‘American Graffiti’ utilised Booker T and the MG’s ‘Green Onions’ was sublime, the epitome of late night driving chocolate.

Torture the Artist: Have you been approached for licensing tracks from ‘Drift’ for other films/ series at this moment?

Karl: Yes!

Torture the Artist: What’s an artist you’d love to remix one of your tracks from the ‘Drift’-format?

Karl: For sure it would be Pablo Piccasso.

Torture the Artist: Has the ‘Drift’-project helped you to discover new artists and musicians also in the course of finding remixers for some of the tracks?

Karl: DRIFT forces us to keep challenging and questioning our creative process. Collaborations (who, how, where, what) are a continuous, rolling conversation between us, and because the project isn’t fixed in any genre it means we can seriously consider a very broad wish-list. Who would be on your list?

Torture the Artist: With regards to the last question, what is an artist you would like to work with in the studio?

Karl: John Cale

Rick: Tony Visconti

Torture the Artist: As each track is accompanied with a video, to what extend are you involved in the production process of them?

Karl: Simon Taylor, at Tomato, is Underworld’s art director. He’s created most of the Drift films, and together the three of us argue, laugh, provoke, upset and ultimately support one another in responding to the weekly challenge. My impression is that’s it’s a big ask (and stress) to shoot, cut and deliver films to music that can switch to a completely different track twenty four hours before it goes live. It must be a pain in the arse, but we’re not doing this project to get a sun tan.

Torture the Artist: The project or rather the music of ‘Drift’ can be considered as ‘underground‘ , does the approach of ‘Drift’ go back to where you musically come from and emphasize your roots?

Karl: It just suits where we’re at….for now, I would say.

Paying the rent and putting food on the table are necessities which have to be possible. (Rick)

Torture the Artist: Is it possible to be truly creative while pursuing commercial ambitions?

Karl: I don’t know. We get up in the morning and make stuff that Rick builds into the music we release, and that in turn provokes me to make more stuff.

Rick: Paying the rent and putting food on the table are necessities which have to be possible.

Torture the Artist: What’s your personal rèsumè after three episodes of ‘Drift’ and what has been the most significant surprise regarding the reception of it?

Karl: The biggest surprise in all of this is that we still want to continue with the Drift project. The reactions we get to it from everyone who downloads our work and the responses we’re greeted with as live audiences around the world recognise the new music we’re able to add to our live sets are crucial in keeping us going, especially at times when we both feel it’s all getting too much.

Torture the Artist: Would you like to go back to ‘normal’?

Karl: Where’s that?

Interview by Holger Breuer