Underworld, says its singer Karl Hyde, is an anti-brand. He’s not interested in making sure anything sounds like Underworld. “Born Slippy,” its million-selling 1996 club anthem whose irrepressible chug and droning “mega mega lager lager” mantra-like lyrics lent the film “Trainspotting” its air of post-acid house debauch, happened once, a non-album flash of genius. To work like a pop band and try to bottle that sound, he says, is to become a cartoon.
Instead, Hyde and partner Rick Smith approached the making of their new album, “specifically thinking about not being Underworld,” Hyde says.
With the departure of techno DJ Darren Emerson, who has returned to live club DJing and making dance mix albums, most recently with British DJ Tim Deluxe, the pair decided to cultivate new sounds.
“Forget Underworld and see what happens,” Hyde says. “What usually happens is, naturally, we do some things that are familiar to people.”
Not being Underworld has produced an album, “A Hundred Days Off” (Junior Boy’s Own/V2), that is not only the next step in the evolution of dance music as pop, the logical one-up on the DJ composition methods of Moby’s “Play” or DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing ... ,” but also reclaims club music as a vision as sophisticated as Radiohead or Coldplay.
It is also, despite Hyde’s cant, pure Underworld. House music at its root, the album is a masterwork of electronica, with tendrils reaching into the atmospheric 1970s work of German synth band Tangerine Dream or even the soft prog rock of Camel (“EssGee,” “Leutin”), J.J. Cale-style back-porch blues (“Trim”) and the best Massive Attack cut never made, “SoloSistim.”
It also contains the next “Born Slippy”: “Two Months Off,” the album’s first single, was the dance manifesto of the summer, destined for soundtrack or TV ad use, already hailed by DJs from the U.K. superclubs to Paris to Ibiza as the track that has the crowds peaking.
Disguised as a generic techno thumper, the nine-minute album version blossoms slowly into a soaring, melodic, bell-chiming anthem, with Hyde’s disembodied vocal repeating “You bring light in” over and over until it sounds like the only thing worth saying.
While pleased to be connecting on a mass level, Hyde says there’s no way this can be a goal he’d set for any of this music.
“That only happens if we let it happen,” he says. “We’re not very good at contriving it. My own and Rick’s experience of the ‘80s, when we tried to be a pop group, were so bad, we failed so miserably at trying to be a group that had a sound, we knew that there was no mileage in us trying to write hits.”
Hyde, an artist making gallery installations in the 1970s, originally linked up with fellow artist Smith to form an ‘80s new-wave band called Freur. They released albums “Doot-Doot,” in 1983 and “Get Us Out of Here” in 1985 before imploding.
Hyde worked on guitar sessions for Debbie Harry and Prince, then reunited with Smith in 1988 to form an industrial band called Underworld, when bands such as Ministry were the new cutting edge.
A pair of forgettable albums for Sire, “Underneath the Radar” and “Change the Weather,” went nowhere, and Underworld version 1.0 disintegrated.
In 1991, Hyde and Smith co-founded Tomato, a groundbreaking eight-man graphic design collective that quickly became the envy of the Macintosh generation with superclients like Nike, Sony, Pepsi and Adidas. It still designs Underworld album packages and videos.
Determined to make their music part of Tomato, Hyde and Smith recruited Darren Emerson, then a rising techno DJ, in 1991 and began releasing dance singles as a new group, Lemon Interrupt. First success came in 1993 when they returned to the name Underworld with the singles “Rez” and “MMM ... Skyscraper I Love You.” Sensing the power in the British acid-house revolution, they went straight for the techno jugular, releasing a pure dance album called “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” later that year, which made the British pop charts.
Underworld’s follow-up album, “Second Toughest in the Infants,” hit the U.S. in 1996 with the banging single “Pearl’s Girl,” but had more critical than commercial impact until the 1996 release of “Trainspotting,” which featured a new Underworld single, “Born Slippy.”
The song meshed perfectly with the film’s harrowing, almost operatic drama about young Scottish heroin addicts. Hyde’s cut-up style captured the terrible beauty and hollow promise of club life, from visions of coke-induced loveliness (“She said comeover comeover”) to “squatting pissed in a tube-hole at Tottenham Court Road.” This was “Quadrophenia” for a new doomed generation. Like Prodigy and Orbital, Underworld became a dance band making smart new pop music.
Years of touring ensued in which Underworld, along with Orbital and Prodigy, proved that dance bands can compete with rock acts for pure live entertainment value.
“The records can be quite cerebral spaces. We often see them as films, or as journeys, particularly in a car: The windshield is a movie,” Hyde says. But the group approaches live gigs like complete experiences, one-night installations. “The performances are very physical spaces. Somewhere between an installation and a party. Our favorite live performances have been the ones that have been totally enveloping.”
Following the release of 1999’s “Beaucoup Fish,” which was less revelatory than its predecessor but spawned a new dance floor staple, “Push Upstairs,” and a definitive live Underworld DVD called “Everything, Everything,” in 2000, Emerson left. “A Hundred Days Off” makes it clear that Emerson’s techno finesse is now an inextricable part of what it means to be Underworld, whether he’s there or not.
“Darren’s very particular interest in dance music was what he passed on to Rick,” Hyde says. “And the band, as a three-piece, started to move in its own direction. It really wasn’t about what Darren was playing out anymore. The band developed its own style.”
And its own connection with the zeitgeist, producing time capsules like the single, “Two Months Off.” That, Hyde says, is the unexplainable, the promise of electronica made real: the human emerging from the technological.
“When we cut loose, we react naturally. We’re reacting to all the information that we’ve been soaking up this year. Maybe there’s a chance for that zeitgeist to manifest because we’re not trying to write for the charts or for this year’s dance trend.” In other words, not being Underworld is the best way to make sure that’s exactly what they are.
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Where: Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.
Contact: (213) 380-5005.
With and Without
DJ Darren Emerson
Star DJ Darren Emerson turned Underworld toward his specialties of wild-style techno and trance, and, some say, focused the band’s signature dance-pop crossover. A decade younger than his cohorts, he’s gone back to the decks to probe club life for new possibilities. A look at their history:
1991: Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, after two failed bands, recruit Emerson to form Lemon Interrupt.
1993: Earlier name, Underworld, is resumed on “Dubnobasswithmyheadman,” which enters British pop charts.
1996: “Second Toughest in the Infants” and “Trainspotting” soundtrack single “Born Slippy.”
1999: “Beaucoup Fish.”
2000: “Everything, Everything” (DVD).
2002: Emerson leaves.