"We did a string of shows a couple of years ago and started to notice that something extraordinary was happening in the U.S.," says Karl Hyde, frontman for pioneering British electronic music outfit Underworld, in regards to the resurgence of dance culture in America. He's speaking on the phone from London. "There was a real momentum kicking in. Audiences were growing, and younger people were coming out to the shows, including a magical night at the Hollywood Bowl. Then we played that big show in Miami [the 2008 Music Ultra Festival, with a crowd reported to be about 50,000], and it was staggering. It feels like the early '90s all over again."
That resurgence has Underworld headlining Hard Summer 2009 on Saturday at the Forum, one of the biggest dance music events of the year in L.A.
For Underworld, the early 1990s was when it reinvented itself from a funk-rock cowboy band to the sleek, techno unit that went on to record some of the decade's most seminal moments in electronic music, including "Second Toughest in the Infants" and "Beaucoup Fish." It also inspired other acts to take up electronics, most notably Radiohead, which acknowledged Underworld at last year's All Points West Festival when Thom Yorke dedicated "Everything in Its Right Place" to the band, also on the bill.
"When Thom said that, I was like, 'Thank you very much.' Since he didn't have to, you know?" Hyde says.
One of the ways Underworld has remained contemporary is by staying at the vanguard of technology. For the opening night of this string of U.S. dates, in Oakland, the band will be the first ever to broadcast a live concert direct to iPhones.
"We're very excited about it. It's such a buzz," says Hyde. "It feels a lot like radio when I was a kid, hiding under the bedclothes listening to some guy broadcasting from a basement of the BBC."
"Well, it's exciting and stressful," adds Rick Smith, Hyde's partner in Underworld who handles the bulk of the technical aspects. "Ten years ago, we could only imagine that something like this would be possible. But we thrive on the excitement and stress. That's part of the challenge of being in Underworld."
The pair has a long relationship with Apple, which has worked with the band on digital broadcasts. They most recently collaborated with the company iZotope to create the iDrum application, which allows users to create remixes of 12 Underworld songs on their iPhones. "We've used Macs forever. We've got hundreds of the things everywhere," Hyde says. "Bottom line, they make cool stuff that works and feels human."
"The live equipment has had a serious upgrade this year," adds Smith, acknowledging the band's legion of extremely tech-savvy fans. "Basically, we have a modular system of seven Apple computers running Ableton and various software plug-ins all clocked off a central tempo control. Customized Kenton midi-clock interfaces allow us to stop and start any module at any point without losing a beat. We've finally replaced our original Roland 909 drum machine with the D16 software program Drumazon as well."
While technology fuels Underworld, the band has made its name on visceral and cathartic shows, combining Hyde's shamanistic showmanship with an audio and visual assault from Smith and auxiliary live member/DJ Darren Price. "My favorite thing about Underworld is the concerts," raves Jason Bentley, program director for public radio giant KCRW-FM (89.9) and host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic."
"You just stand back and appreciate this primal energy of two guys in a zone. It's really infectious. You can feel waves of energy coming from the stage. They're very skilled at what they do. There's no doubt in my mind they're going to kill it at Hard on Saturday night."
As for playing next to emerging and blog-buzzed new acts such as Crystal Castles and the Bloody Beetroots at the Hard festival this weekend, Hyde wouldn't have it any other way.
"I find it exciting that young people have discovered instruments that we've been passionate about since we were kids first hearing Kraftwerk," he says. "Now they're fusing them with guitars and other forms of music. Santigold played before us at a festival in Italy recently, and she was fantastic. I was on the side of the stage going mad. It was the same during MGMT's set. It's so cool and inspiring to see."
Hard Summer 2009
Where: The Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood
When: 8 p.m.-4 a.m. Saturday. Underworld is scheduled to go on at 11 p.m.
Price: $75 to $145 in advance; may be higher at the door
Contact: (310) 330-7300; www.hardfest.com