Techno music pioneering band Underworld remains ever current
Underworld’s Karl Hyde admits that when he took the stage at Barcelona, Spain’s Primavera Sound Festival in May, he was a little anxious.
The set he was about to play — a front-to-back live performance of his band’s landmark 1994 techno album “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” — might have proved a tough sell to a late-night festival crowd of tens of thousands in 2015.
Would a flighty audience stick around for a full LP full of moody electronic songs with cryptic lyrics, whose singles often approach 10 minutes? Would young dance music fans even remember the two-decade-old record, a staple of first-generation British rave culture now competing with the torrents and SoundCloud streams of a new EDM scene?
“Our hotel room overlooked the festival stages, and we were watching it and thought, ‘Wow, how is this going to go down?’” said Hyde, the band’s singer and co-producer. “We’d played this set to our own crowds before, but never at a festival. I never get nervous, but looking down there I did think, ‘Is this crazy?’”
It was not. While his bandmate and production partner Rick Smith wrangled a bank of laptops and mixing equipment, the 58-year-old Hyde prowled the stage like Mick Jagger if Jagger had just seen a ghost. On songs like “Dirty Epic,” he chanted lyrics that still felt like missives from the vanguard of digital decadence and isolation: “The light blinds my eyes and I feel dirty / the light blinds my eyes and I feel so shaken in my faith.”
When the band brings its “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” tour to the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, it won’t be as a ‘90s nostalgia act on the reunion circuit. It will be reintroducing one of modern techno’s founding documents to a scene still reckoning with Underworld’s influence.
For today’s electronic music fans, reared on a steady drip of sensory-overloaded festivals and mutating subgenres that feel dated as soon as they’re named, Underworld has enjoyed a rare permanence. It’s an uncompromising techno act that still loves guitars and old-fashioned songwriting; it scored a stage adaptation of “Frankenstein” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, oversaw the music at the 2012 London Olympics’ opening ceremony and followed it up with several of Hyde’s abstract, improvised collaborations with Brian Eno.
Only a few other electronic dance music acts could even feint at the idea of doing a full-album live show. Dance music is a singles medium, with tracks designed to be mixed into DJ sets and not generally listened to as a discrete body of work. The band didn’t set out to make that kind of a statement — “Initially, I wasn’t happy about it, we didn’t want to play out and be in a ‘band.’ We were happy to just make 12-inches,” Hyde said.
But their ongoing desire to push the edges of the genre wound up taking them back to a longer format, one that only a handful of dance music peers like Moby have prioritized.
“It’s rare. It’s the real test for an artist to go beyond trends,” said Jason Bentley, the music director at KCRW-FM (89.9), which is co-presenting Underworld’s show as part of its World Music Festival series. “Dance music is so much about the latest styles or sonic ideas, but Underworld has always existed on its own terms.”
That independence comes, in part, because there were many earlier incarnations of Underworld. Hyde and Smith’s collaborations began in the ‘80s, as the poppy but flinty new wave band Freur that enjoyed brief success in the U.S. and Europe, scoring the soundtrack for the 1985 British film “Transmutations” (a.k.a. “Underworld”), written by Clive Barker. Even after the film inspired the band’s name change in the late ‘80s, its first albums in that alias sounded like a much different band than what came later.
Though they later became superstars of the first electronic dance music wave of the ‘90s — director Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” helped launch their single “Born Slippy” into a global hit — part of the lasting influence of “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” is that it seemed to come out of nowhere. Even for longtime fans, the album introduced a whole new structure for writing and presenting dance music.
The acidic bass churn of “Cowgirl” and the clanging arpeggios of “Dark & Long” still sound new when paired with the band’s expansive guitar lines, tribal breakbeats and Hyde’s elusive but evocative lyrics about shame and self-destruction, driven by his abusive drinking at the time.
For dance fans of a certain age (Underworld played the first Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 1999), these live performances are intended to take you back to a certain time and place. Hyde feels it too when he plays this album.
“I’m grateful I don’t live in that same space, as I probably wouldn’t be alive today,” Hyde said. “But this was an opportunity to do something we’d never done before, to re-create this state of mind. It’s amazing, it’s like going back into a room I thought was sealed up.”
But for younger artists, like the British disco and R&B group Jungle (which is opening Underworld’s Bowl show), the band’s ideas about having a complete aesthetic and an emphasis on live performance still ring true.
“They’ve always had a strong visual style, which for us is really immersive. It’s amazing when you can get lost in the ideas that surround the music,” said Josh Lloyd-Watson, one of Jungle’s two founding members. They recognize that for bands who depend on electronics, it’s important to imagine more human ways to present them onstage — something that’s long been a strength for Underworld. “For us it’s all about that extra bit of improvisation. Things go wrong, people make mistakes, but there is a beauty to that.”
Dance music today is culturally monolithic, yet lasting statement pieces from its artists remain rare. The imagination and emotion on “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” feel more necessary than ever.
Whatever Hyde and his band thought they were making at the time, they ended up with a classic, and on this tour fans around the world are being reminded of how new their music still feels.
“Rick always told me, ‘You are enough.’ It’s not the equipment, it’s not the technology, it’s walking onstage and asking what you are going to bring to this experience,” Hyde said.
“I’m the last link in the chain and I’m not programmable. But I’m enough.”
Underworld with Jungle
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., L.A.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
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