The brand new album from Underworld Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future feels like a surprise. In the intervening years since their 2010 opus, Barking, the long-standing duo of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have immersed themselves in other projects: Hyde recorded a solo album Edgeland and made two albums with his friend Brian Eno. Smith had the small matter of being employed as musical director for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London. They worked on the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s stage adaptation of Frankenstein and also took their revolutionary 1994 album Dubnobasswithmyheadman out on the road for a series of 20th anniversary full-album live shows. It felt like a closing chapter that might have seen the band come to an end but the flurry of activity seems to have rejuvenated the pair, having quickly resurfaced with their most inspired studio album since the 90s. On the phone from Germany where they had just kicked off their European tour, Hyde talks at length about his creative partnership with Rick Smith, the impact of their seminal breakthrough album Dubnobasswithmyheadman and why Underworld may be going through its most exciting period yet…
You and Rick have been working together for over three decades but you have still managed to keep Underworld relevant when so many other acts have sloped off into creative stalemate by now. How have you managed to do that? What’s your secret?
“I’m very privileged with the partner (Smith) that I have. We have each other in each other’s sights, in a good way! We don’t let each other become predictable and when we do we go and do other stuff. We worked with other people or did things alone, just trying things out that maybe we felt we couldn’t do and all of those things are important.
We decided we would never split up – we just needed to go off and do other stuff and see what happened. When the two of us are in a room there is a language between the two of us which provokes. We’re provocative around each other and we like the provocation that the other one gives!”
Photo: Alan Moore
What was the creative process with Barbara, Barbara… like in comparison to previous albums?
“We did all the music on this one together, we sang a lot together. Rick even played guitar and I loved the fabulous naivety of his playing. It’s the first time where we just improvised together for the whole thing and that’s kind of crazy as that’s what we do on stage the whole time! That’s what we have been doing for the last 25 years but we have never done it on an album before! It’s our primary asset now.”
Did working so closely together on the album mark it out as sonically different to your previous albums? Can you hear it in the music?
“I think it does. I think it sounds more liberated, you can tell it feels more spontaneous. You can tell it wasn’t reworked a lot. It just captured a moment, really. It still contains lush soundscapes but still has a rawness to it that really captures our friendship, just the enjoyment of being together. It’s not file-sharing this time. It’s not two people sitting in different rooms and trying to impose their own ideas on the record. We came to this one with an open spirit, with both of us willing to go along with what the other one was composing and it captured that.”
Every new album from you sounds like a new beginning where you don’t let past glories weigh too heavily, as if starting from scratch…
“That would be my greatest hope. The first two albums definitely had that and I think this one has that, too. You know, our musical heroes – the people we grew up listening to – always moved on and they’d surprise you with the next record they made. Whether it’s people like the Beatles or David Bowie, they would always surprise you and it would take you a while to get your head around it as it sounded so different to what the last album sounded like. You’d feel grateful they had taken you somewhere unexpected.”
You mentioned The Beatles and Bowie as artists that were always attempting to innovate and surprise with each subsequent release but who are the acts that directly influenced Underworld, or you personally, in a more profound way?
“Everything! Everything from György Ligeti’s fantastic choral soundscapes for 2001: A Space Odyssey which I first heard when I was 11 or just listening to the radio while driving along with my dad in the car. And then, of course, Kraftwerk – that whole German sound from the early 70s like Faust and Can and, ultimately, John Peel. He was the man that opened our minds to the notion that ALL music was interesting. He’s sadly missed. Music lost its greatest friend. We grew up with that so when we are making an Underworld record we are thinking of all these things – we are thinking flamenco as much as we are thinking Kraftwerk! Or any other form of music.”
Melody Maker described your 1994 breakthrough album Dubnobasswithmyheadman as a ‘breathtaking hybrid marking the moment that club culture finally comes of age and beckons to everyone’. Did you feel you were creating something special at the time?
“We were just putting together what was in our heads. It was a time and place where we were both absorbed with what was going on yet also reacting against what was going on. There was an attitude within us at that time of not wanting to be like anyone else but still taking bits from whoever was coming up with an interesting sound. At that time, the purists didn’t like us because there were too many references to other music genres. So, of course, it became accessible to those who are outside of dance music. It was a bridge in many ways for a lot of people.”
Photo: Alan Moore
It still sounds incredible to this day, an deeply cerebral masterwork that refuses to fit comfortably in any musical genre…
“I remember a night clearly at Brixton Academy after the release of that album where (previously) we had been doing all-nighters to a dance crowd. But after Dubnobass…, playing at the same venue, it looked like oil and water as there were two groups of people there, but by the end of the night it had become one group of people. For me, it was like standing on a bridge and seeing two banks of a river coming together. An extraordinary privilege to be part of.”
Although ‘Born Slippy (Nuxx)’ is a great standalone track it tends to overshadow the expertly conceived work that was evident on Dubnobasswithmyheadman and your other work. How do you feel about ‘Born Slippy’ now? Are you proud of it?
“Absolutely, yeah. It’s a great piece of music and you cannot be cynical about the joy it brings to people. I feel blessed that we have been gifted a song like that. It obviously had an association with Trainspotting and it became a seminal piece of work. Those two together became synonymous with each other and lodged in people’s memories. I sometimes joke that it feels almost like an old English folk-song, a rousing shanty almost!”
Do you feel it is your ‘hit single’, the one song everyone bar your core fans will associate you with?
“It is. As kids, you’d think when practicing in your bedroom that maybe you’ll get a record deal or maybe, maybe you’ll have a Number One hit record but you’ll never have ‘A Stairway to Heaven’ so to be gifted a song like a that? I’ll take that!”
In the summer you return to Ireland once again to headline the Sunday night of the Forbidden Fruit festival after headlining Electric Picnic last year. In Ireland, I’ve only seen you play live at festivals. Do you prefer playing these type of events?
“No, no. Just last week we were playing on a roof in Tokyo! The joy is being able to mix it up. When you play to your own crowd there is a very particular approach there, they know you really well, they can be quite critical. They’ve heard you perform a lot before, so with festival crowds you’ve got the challenge of having to turn them on as quite a lot might only know one song and yet they have come to have a good time. Our job is to deliver a good time and that’s always been a challenge but a challenge that we like. Festival crowds are already primed to join in with you and come somewhere special.”
Photo: Jonathon Nothlev
How did you enjoy Electric Picnic last year?
“It was amazing. I think the whole festival crowd turned up! We were clearly playing to people who weren’t even born when ‘Born Slippy’ came out!”
When I’ve seen you play live, you seem utterly lost in the moment yet fully engaged with the crowd while Rick beavers away like a mad professor behind his banks of equipment. It’s an interesting dynamic.
“It’s great. You tap into a special energy that just makes you feel good. It makes you feel a lot younger! I can’t explain it as it defies the logic of science and biology as I can be walking onstage at 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock or even 3 o’clock sometimes in the morning and my body feels nauseous. It’s yelling at me: GO TO BED!!! But then the kick drum starts and I’ve got all the energy in the world! I’m coming offstage going ‘Come on, let’s carry on!’ Long may it last.”
How do feel about starting out on another tour? Do you feed off it or is it a necessary promotional evil?
“Well, we just got back from Japan. We did a weekend there as I was working in a gallery with a new installation and then the band were doing a TV show. We played on the roof of a building, broadcasted a silent gig to people on headphones, did a virtual reality gig and then two days later we’re in Berlin! I love it, you see so much. It’s an opportunity to go to different places which inspire me to write or accrue information, if that’s with Underworld or working in a gallery…I need a lot of stimulation. I have to keep gathering words, ideas, every day on the road. It’s a great place.”