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Members include DarrenEmerson(born c. 1971), turntable operator; KarlHyde(born c. 1958), guitar player, vocalist; and Rick Smith(born c. 1960, in Wales), keyboard player. Addresses: Record company--V2 Records, 14 E. 4th St., 3rd Floor, New York NY 10012.
For the British ensemble Underworld, merging past and present as well as chilly synthesizer-driven nuances with genuine emotive soul into futuristic rhythms has resulted in a critically praised and commercially viable series of records. The band, wrote Barry Walters in Rolling Stone, "create darkly physical grooves that seduce psyche, body and soul without resorting to instant hooks or easily understood concepts." Though they gained fame when two of their songs were included in the hit 1996 film Trainspotting, the forming members of Underworld, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, had been making music together for several years already. Both were accomplished songwriters and engineers who were well-versed in cutting-edge electronic instrumentation and production styles.
Hyde and Smith met at an art college in Cardiff, Wales, around 1980. Hyde has played guitar since the age of eleven and been in numerous bands, while the Welsh-born Smith was raised in a household headed by his minister father, and was heavily influenced by gospel music as a result. Smith also played the piano, and as a teen became a fan of the legendary 1970s German band Kraftwerk, who pioneered synthesizer music. In 1981 Hyde and Smith formed a moody, drum machine-based act they called Freur, and were signed to CBS Records. Their haunting, darkly spiraling 1983 single, "Doot Doot," charted well in the United Kingdom, was a huge hit in Italy, and even found its way into the alternative radio scene in North America.
Hyde and Smith were uninterested in becoming the next Depeche Mode. They remained in Wales, against industry advice, spent their advance on a car, and were soon dropped by CBS. From there, the duo formed Underworld MK1, which allowed them to pursue another musical direction that featured far less electronic-based instrumentation and leaned heavily toward funk. After a record deal with Sire and two albums Underneath the Radar, released in1988, and 1989's Change the Weather they had achieved minor success in Australia, and were invited to open on the farewell tour for the Eurythmics in the late 1980s. They played to huge stadium crowds, and the experience left a negative impression on the pair. "Within three dates, it was like, `This is awful,'" Smith told Urb writer Tamara Palmer. "This is really awful. I stood in front of like 30,000 people. It was nice for five seconds, and after that it was awful."
Underworld Comes Together
After parting ways with Sire, Hyde became a guitar player for hire and toured with Iggy Pop for a time. He also spent a great deal of time in New York City, where he used to frequent a bar called Jackie 60 with Deborah Harry of Blondie. Meanwhile, Smith relocated to the Essex town of Romford, England, where he met 20-year-old Darren Emerson, a successful money-markets trader who also worked as a part-time DJ. At the time, the acid-house music scene had firmly taken hold in England, and Smith and Emerson began setting down tracks in the studio that merged the darkly electronic vibe of Freur with the more danceable rhythms of the first formation of Underworld. Hyde returned from touring and joined them in the studio.
"Mother Earth" was the first single the threesome cut together, created solely for Emerson's DJ set in a local club. "That was our outlet," Hyde told Raygun magazine. "We didn't have radio or any system for playing live; Darren was our shop window." Both "Mother Earth" and "Dirty" were released under the name Lemon Interrupt because of contractual issues with Sire over the Underworld MK1 name. At the time, Hyde and Smith also formed Tomato, an art collective/graphic design firm that over the decade evolved into art and music installation projects as well.
Their first record as Underworld, "Mmmm Skyscraper I Love You," became a huge underground hit in England, and they were soon signed to a label called Junior Boy's Own, a subsidiary of London Records. Another record, "Rez," was also a massive club hit. Both tracks were included on their 1994 debut, dubnobasswithmyheadman, an album termed by Raygun as rife "with electronic melodies so warm you could curl up inside them, and rhythms so powerful and methodical that they left you with no option but letting it all out." Underworld also made an impact with their live performances, shows that merged Emerson's DJ talents with Hyde and Smith's years of performing, and featured spectacular visual shows created by the Tomato creative collective as well. Request magazine declared that "the album crystallized a moment. The group's mix of live instrumentation and back house rhythms appealed to both dance and rock audiences, while its stunning live gigs, including one 14-hour long improvisation performance, solidified its reputation."
"A Very London Sound"
Underworld's second album, Second Toughest in the Infants, was released in 1996. It incorporated the burgeoning jungle beat flavors then sweeping the British music scene, gained serious critical approval, and managed to sell a respectable 87,000 copies in the U.S. alone. Reviewing it for the Village Voice, Ben Williams declared it to be "an album that manages to be as accomplished as the first while expanding upon its sound." Williams went on to note that as a band, "Underworld finds poignancy in the ambience of modern urban life, sculpting its repetitive blips and pulses into a seamless sonic flow that turns mechanical banality into emotional gold." Williams continued, "This is a very London sound, one of tube stations and corner-shops and dingy cafes: rain-soaked, gray, yet at times possessed of a still, tragic beauty that contradicts the constant forward motion of its rhythms."
Underworld were one of the first techno acts to integrate lyrics into their songs, though, as Raygun noted, "Hyde's fragmented poetry won't stand up to any logic test, although, in a way, abstraction seems the sensible stylistic match for a genre that's not big on meaning or interpretation." As Hyde explained in the same article, "I respond with the recording of the voice to the groove; the music comes first always."
Trainspotting Soundtrack Success
Though the original British release of Second Toughest in the Infants did not include the track "Born Slippy," the song was integrated into the American version released later that year as a result of its inclusion on the soundtrack to the 1996 cult favorite Trainspotting. The film, by director Danny Boyle, was a success on both sides of the Atlantic for its wry, often painfully comical depiction of a group of Scottish drug addicts. "Born Slippy" was released in England in the spring of 1995, and after it became indelibly associated with the successful film and best-selling soundtrack, went on to sell over a million copies. It was also named single of the year by several British music magazines, and finally brought the band greater recognition in North America.
Fittingly, Underworld's next effort received a massive marketing push from their label, now tied with New York City's V2 Records. Beaucoup Fish was written in fits and starts, as midway though the recording process, the band was compelled to honor a commitment to do a European tour. They used the opportunity to try out the songs live, and found the strategy resulted in a far different sound in the end. "It made us cut out much of the frou-frou and get rid of a lot of the unnecessary padding," Hyde told Billboard's Dylan Siegler.
At the Forefront of Electronica
Released in the spring of 1999, Beaucoup Fish was a massive critical success stateside. The first single, "Cups," was singled out for particular praise. "They re-engineer the old-school Detroit-style synth that swerves through 'Cups' until it sounds sleek enough for a BMW commercial then chop it down into pseudo-Latin breaks and icy chunks of melody," wrote Details' Pat Blashill, while Entertainment Weekly's David Browne called its dozen minutes "something we've long been waiting for the `Free Bird' of electronica!"
In his review, Browne praised the band for progressing creatively over the past five years. "Beaucoup Fish feels like a stimulating new beginning. Wipe away its dusting of frost and you'll encounter mystery, beauty, and alluring rhapsodies, with the warm, pulsating beats serving as the music's heart." Browne also wrote of the backlash against electronica, heralded as the next big thing, and noted that "no one should have ever expected such amelodic music to top anything." The critic termed Beaucoup Fish a record that proves "how many more places this music can wander, how it can grow and reinvent itself."
Reinvention and artistic progression have been constant in Hyde and Smith's career since their days together as Freur. "We embrace a lot of the sounds and rhythms that go on around us," Hyde told Rolling Stone writer Todd Roberts. "I think that's a way forward [for music]. I'd like to think that people are opening their minds a lot more."
by Carol Brennan
Hyde and Smith were signed to CBS Records in the early 1980s as the band Freur; formed Underworld MK1, c. 1988; released two albums before disbanding; formed current version of band with Emerson, 1991.
- Selected discography
- (as Underworld MK1) Underneath the Radar , Sire, 1988.
- (as Underworld MK1) Change the Weather , Sire, 1989.
- dubnobasswithmyheadman , Junior Boy's Own, 1994.
- Second Toughest in the Infants , Junior Boy's Own, 1996.
- Pearl's Girl (EP), Junior Boy's Own, 1996.
- Beaucoup Fish , Junior Boy's Own/V2, 1999.
- Billboard, November 23, 1996, pp. 13, 20; March 20, 1999, pp. 11, 80.
- Details, February 1999, p. 69.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 4, 1999.
- Raygun, March 1999.
- Request, April 1999.
- Rolling Stone, October 3, 1996, p. 32; April 29, 1999, p. 68.
- Spin, April 1999.
- Urb, January/February 1999.
- Village Voice, May 21, 1996, p. 57.
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