As artists come and go the true innovators that remain are those who stay as close to the ground as they ever were. Their work seems timeless yet so necessary for today and they hold on to their original spirit.
Few can do it as well as dance giants Underworld, a band who have managed to stay popular and relevant yet alternative and underdog with every release. Having started out in the late 80s with a synth electronica feel Karl Hyde, Rick Smith and ex-member Darren Emerson gained speed in the mid 90s as the forerunners of prog house, acid house and techno. Eleven albums, two film scores and countless other projects later they are still as loved and still as humble.
Earlier this year they released the EP 'Teatime Dub Encounters', born from studio sessions with punk pioneer Iggy Pop that were intended for Danny Boyle’s second Trainspotting film, T2, but left out of the final edit.
Following a rare appearance at the Roundhouse in north London where he collected an industry award for for 'Bells & Circles', one of the songs off that EP, Lisa Higgins caught up with Karl to discuss that EP, Iggy Pop, road trips with Rick and why you should never disturb him in a cafe.
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How does it feel to be here? You don’t go to many events like this do you?
It’s weird to be here. I don’t really like these award show things. We’re not really industry people we’re outsiders. Occasionally we get invited in and it’s nice, because I get to see some friends I haven’t seen for a long time. Learning the award we won (Best Track for Bells & Circles, their tune with Iggy Pop) was voted for by the readers though takes us back to the roots of what we are - we’re only here by the grace of people who ever came to our little parties and bought our records and that meant that the radio and the BBC had to play us. We were outsiders.
You can have unreal experiences listening to Underworld by yourself but being with other people in a room listening and dancing feels like the point of it, right? It’s a communal experience.
Yes, for me too. it’s an extraordinary place to be for me, the bridge between the music and all of that energy. When we first started the band back in those days Rick would start playing and if the audience didn’t come back with something we were scuppered. So what they came back with would direct us to the next thing and the next thing. It’s funny we worked with Iggy because Iggy was the blueprint.
How did working with Iggy and your EP 'Teatime Dub Encounters' come about?
Danny Boyle - Rick was musical director on Trainspotting 2 and Danny suggested a collaboration because in the original film those two tunes topped and tailed, and he wanted a collaboration for the second one. What came out of the session wasn’t suitable for the film and there it was lying on the cutting room floor unless we decided to do something with it.
Was that weird, that your work didn’t go in the film? Were you disappointed?
Not really because the first film did it’s thing and it was of its day. If something magical had happened this time around which had attached itself to the film and Danny had felt had been appropriate then of course that would have been a wonderful thing, but it didn't and that was cool too. It was almost like life was saying, ‘go out and play there kids.’
Iggy must have left a big impression on you guys to release the EP?
Iggy’s been a blueprint for me since the beginning of the Nineties. What a lot of people may or may not know is that I was in Debbie Harry’s band in 1990 as her guitarist when Rick and I were taking a sabbatical and I was trying to play the rent. We toured with Debbie and the other band on that tour were Iggy and his band. I would watch him every night turn from Jim Osterberg into Iggy Pop and the honesty and the raw reality of him being present in that music, I thought to myself, if ever me and Rick get back together again it has to be that real. For me Iggy is at the core of what I try and channel - that it has to be real.
How much of a gulf is there between Jim and Iggy?
Huge. Jim’s a delightful gentleman, very well read, softly spoken, intelligent and articulate. It’s almost the antithesis to this abandoned character.
Ah so similar to the mild mannered Vincent Furnier who literally masks himself into Alice Cooper.
Yes like Alice! What a gent he is. With Iggy you can see he was prepared to go to any lengths to translate this sound into physical energy. I’m like OK that’s the starting point and it’s always been in my head whenever I go out on stage.
And you are similar too?
Although they are years apart our birthdays are really close together so there are a lot of similarities. It was quite a profound experience being around him.
What’s next for Underworld?
We’re going to be coming back with something very soon. There’s a whole explosion of Underworld on the cards. We’re playing Manchester WHP in November and some other things happening. I’m in rehearsals with Rick now. I’ve been up in Manchester with the Manchester Street Poem Project that is still ongoing, telling the stories of people who have been abandoned onto the streets. We still work with Manchester International Festival, we’re about to do another event November 14th as part of the With One Voice International Arts and Homelessness festival in Manchester I’ll be performing there. Many of the groups that previously lived on the streets run it and they are amazing, they know so much about it. I walk into the room and I think this is life affirming stuff.
It must be amazing to be part of that and give something back.
They’re great, they’re really lovely decent friends. Some of them have terrible stories, really horrific but they are doing extraordinary things now for people who used to be in the place they were and they’re my mates. They’re just my work mates now, I love it.
I’m always fascinated by how artists write. What do you do to get in the right mindset?
Every morning I go into a cafe and I write for two hours. Every day. I have a whole bunch of notebooks that I fill. The lyrics have always come from what I’ve written in them. It’s the things that I see, the stories of the people around me, things from the street, things that people say, things that make me think, it’s stories of real life. That’s why something like Manchester street poem or the play Fatherland that we brought to London this year at the Lyric Hammersmith it’s an obsession with telling stories.
So I write every day for two hours and then I’ve published on the internet every day for 19 years now and I love Instagram as well that’s important to me to publish. Then Rick and I try to get together in the same room to write 2 days a week but at the moment it’s really hard because Rick’s trying to finish records and we’re rehearsing and I’m also working on the next project that Underworld will be engaged in and bringing in other artists as well. It’s kinda hard but at least we can rehearse together. I really miss being in the studio together, he’s my favourite inspiration.
Is that the optimal time for you as a band?
Gigs are probably my favourite, but that first mark that you make together is really good. We’ve started to write a lot on tour now so we do a lot of road trips together. We’re going down to Australia for a month so we’re going to hire a car and do road trips and listen to the radio and try to start some and just be mates. But we never were, it’s only in recent years.
Do you honestly know how much you mean to many generations of people who have grown up with you guys and people that are still discovering you as a band?
No I don’t really. But what I do get is this extraordinary energy when we’re playing. I guess we’ve never been one of those artists that has a lot of communication or a fan club and I suppose to people who like our music we get the occasional comments on Instagram but largely the place where we meet is where we dance. That’s where we really talk to each other.
And that’s where is should be really.
That’s kind of all it ever was, wasn’t it. Groups of people coming together to celebrate in a non violent way, just beautiful.
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'Teatime Dub Encounters' EP is out now.
Words: Lisa Higgins
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