Electronic musicians, lovely as they are, don’t always provide the most readable of interviews. That’s never been an issue for Karl Hyde and Rick Smith of Underworld. The two share a clear intellectual and communicative bond—an interview with them is like plugging into an extended conversation already in progress.
In the ‘90s, Underworld was a trio that also included DJ Darren Emerson; they bridged the gap between ‘70s-style progressive rock and the expansive progressive house that was gaining currency in British clubs. That era, crystallized by 1994’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman and 1996’s “Born Slippy (NUXX)” (the latter shown off to thrilling effect in the film Trainspotting), were broadly popular enough to give Underworld unusual leeway—if you were a fan, you expected them to try anything. In the time since Emerson’s departure in 2000, that’s meant issuing a slew of live albums on their own label and, in 2019, the yearlong, often collaborative project Drift.
With Drift Series 1, Hyde and Smith decided to reverse their usual method of working out the details of a new album while holed up in the studio. Instead, they set a strict deadline to issue a new piece of music every week for a year: 52 weeks, 52 tracks, each with an accompanying short film. Series 1 has just debuted on Bandcamp in its entirety, each “episode” including an 80-page book in PDF form. Bandcamp users also get exclusive online access to RicksDubbedOutDriftExperience, an hour plus of remodeled DRIFT tracks played live by Smith in support of the band at their sold out show at the Ziggodome in Amsterdam in November 2019.
It was a daunting way to work, yet it clearly invigorated them. Series 2, they promise, is already in the works—though delays are inevitable, especially now. “The pandemic is a force, isn’t it?” Smith says, half exhausted, half awestruck. With no cure in sight, then, Underworld’s dark escapism a remedy unto itself.
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What is the current status of the Drift project?
Rick Smith: Good question. In many senses, to us, Drift Series 1 was a period of time—an unfolding narrative that was like a diary. And if we hold that part of it front and center, then Drift has always been happening, and Series 2 is merely a chosen starting point: a time and place. We’re still processing our feelings about taking part in Drift Series 1, and trying to work out how to keep all the good bits and lose some of the shit bits—you know, the pressure, the sleep deprivation, that area of things.
With the weekly deadline, having to make a promise to people, then fulfilling that every week no matter what… While Drift was going, we were also on tour on stage, prepping productions, traveling, getting exhausted doing press, publicity… I think it was the overwhelming burden of it all, actually, was what really hit us.
But our headspace often is, ‘Well, hey, the past is the past—it’s a learning experience.’ Series 2? We’re already there, though, we’re just trying to figure out how to roll it out. I mean, you know, in one way you [the interviewer] are part of this. This is the narrative: our lives, our diaries about our work process being Underworld.
Do you think this will change your creative habits going forward at all? Do you think it’s possible to go back to making music privately until a proper album is ready?
Smith: I think it’s possible, because as soon as we say that something’s not possible, then it immediately becomes a challenge for our bloody-minded bull-headedness. So it’s possible. But there was so much about Drift that was very particular to Karl and I, and our individual lives and making work as Underworld that ticked a lot of boxes in terms of shaking us up and trying to play more to our strengths and our skills, other than kind of pre-conceiving everything and kicking the life out of some stuff.
There was something very simple as well—we had to do this thing every week and publish and be public. And that is very different. “Yes, we’re going to look at little bits and pieces we’ve got in our cupboard. But actually, every week, we are going to complete a piece—and a film, as well.
How different was doing one thing a week from what you’ve typically done?
Smith: I think fundamentally, it was about two things, really: breaking previous patterns, [where there was] a kind of isolation, in the making of albums. I mean, it’s always changed through the years, but it was a little more insular. This was conceived as a way to make it difficult to behave like that—to lose myself, in a way—and also to make a difference for Karl to keep one step away from that.
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Has anybody ever told you, “You picked the wrong songs for the sampler?” Do people have any complaints about what you chose for it?
Smith: I’ve actually not heard or seen any complaints about this particular playlist, right? That’s not to say that people might not complain, but it would be a bit poor really, because that’s why we call it a sampler. When you have a project with the scope that this had, where there is no obvious central narrative as well—you know, you can pick and choose. Putting Drift Series 1 on Bandcamp seems like a really great marriage. For us, it’s a place of community and an environment that is full of such diversity and raw energy. So it’s a project that has this kind of scope for [the site]. I mean, it’s a hell of a listen. I haven’t actually tried to listen to the whole thing in one shot.
Hyde: I know people who have.
Smith: [amused] Do you, really?
Hyde: And I don’t know whether I admire them or I’m afraid of them.
Smith: Both! [laughs] But it’s there to be listened to in its entirety and seen as a body of work. But it’s also there to—let’s say, like IKEA, it’s make-your-own-sampler, you know?
Hyde: The sampler is a very particular point of view that was guided by a friend of ours, Stephen Hall. Personally, I love it, because it’s a point of view and it’s someone’s taste that they’ve assembled some of the Drift tracks in a very particular way. I think it kind of gives a good example of what can be done with Drift—that it can be approached from any direction, with any number of combinations. I listen and go, Wow. We sound like that.
Smith: We had an opportunity to go out and take the material from Drift and incorporate it into the live show in quite a big way. And that was great—it immediately changed in the new setting, in terms of arrangement, performance, and how we felt about it. The sharing of our peers’s and the public’s opinions about the music was an essential part of the journey. We were watching and trying to communicate with the public and friends throughout the entire project, and it was a buzz.
There was an expression that a friend of ours used: “Music is never finished, it just gets ready.” That meant a lot to us. It really helped keep a grip on what was involved every week—and an acceptance: “OK, you’re going to finish this for Thursday five o’clock.” But of course, music’s never finished.
I had actually been bingeing on The Necks’s music when I got this assignment. You did a full collaboration with them for this series. Where did you first encounter their music, and how did you meet them?
Hyde: I met them years ago. Brian Eno put together an ensemble called Pure Scenius for a run of shows of improvised music at the Sydney Opera House, and that’s where I met them. They were intimidating at first, because they were so accomplished; but within seconds, they were no longer intimidating, because they were so open and generous and welcoming. We stayed in touch ever since. I think I bored Rick to death about them. [Smith laughs] But no, he obviously understood that there was something there and when we met up, it became apparent that it was a really good idea to explore a session improvising with them.
Smith: Karl didn’t bore me, but he did go on about them a lot over the years. But it all always seemed to me [that] he was genuinely thrilled and excited about being with them—not just making music, but about them as people. And fundamental for me if I’m going to work with people, and it’s going to be effective, is that they’re enthusiastic, and that there is some fighting chance that they’re decent—because, you know, I know great music can be made by bankers. But, no surprises, these are beautiful people who just make exploration and existing in a room together as easy as it’s morally right to expect. It was a fantastic couple of days spent with them in a very lovely studio very different from the rest of the making of Drift—making raw material and just exploring one jam, one song. I would do it again tomorrow—you know, as long as we could afford it. [laughs]
I’m also curious about [producer] Ø (Phase). How did the division of labor go with him?
Smith: Ashley [Burchett, aka Ø (Phase)] came over to my studio. I think the first thing we did together was start on “Border Country.” It started in the room together and evolved largely across the internet—we live about 60 miles apart. It was bloody great. This guy’s got no fear, and a beautiful kind of balance of respect and lack of respect. He’s just fucking talented. He operates from the heart. There’s something about his music—I came to it really late on. I couldn’t honestly, to this day, describe what it is about what he does, but I just love his spirit and how he brings that into his music. We’re still working with Ashley, Mr. Phase.
Hyde: A very easy man to work with. And as Rick said, it’s quite fundamental that when you work with people, that there is a balance of respect and lack of respect—that they have a sense of themselves that doesn’t get lost in some kind of idea of who you are. It can be quite rare. And he has it.
“Threat of Rain” is classic Underworld—long, with a lot of force. Who determines the length of a track? Does Karl hear it and go, “I need to stretch this out so I can extemporize”? Does Rick decide that it needs to go on for a while?
Smith: We do, sometimes, but we don’t often stretch things out, right? What is more likely with us is to cut things down—because we don’t feel it’s interesting enough. So, more often than not, we shorten things. We’re very interested in capturing the moment and in improvisation. And often the songs are built out of little [improvised] pieces like that, rather than kind of classic, sit-down songwriting type things. [The song] “Molehill” was different; we sat down like a couple of Elton Johns [Hyde laughs] and did it kind of old school, but most often it’s not like that. I have a stubborn streak, which leaves mistakes in—like, really bad and obvious ones—for as long as possible, because the disruption is relentlessly stimulating. So leaving a track imperfect is just part of the process.
Another song, “Tree in Two Chairs”—I really liked the drums on that one. It’s very jazzy; it feels like funk fusion, parts of it remind me of Stevie Wonder.
Smith: You’re saying all the right things, man.
Hyde: Can I say something? I don’t even know what song you’re talking about. Like, you would have to sing them to me and then I go, “Of course! I know every detail of that track.” But “Threat of Rain” now? Don’t know what it is. [Smith plays the track from his phone -ed.]. Oh, I was listening to that last night! I love that one. The way you did that hi-hat thing is amazing. Those reverbs they’re just…it’s so incredible. [back to interviewer] This is a constant problem. I have no idea what anyone’s talking about.
Smith: I started this one as as an experiment in fusing repetitive, almost ‘70s-style electronic sequences, which are very easy to do on a modular, with something that felt more like what happens if there’s a real drummer and a real bass player involved. It actually came together quite quickly, but it sat there for a long time feeling really long and intriguing to us—“There’s something really great about this, but it doesn’t seem enough.” So we did spend a fair amount of time experimenting with this particular piece. And the drums, that’s me, with software. I can’t play drums like that. And that was an enjoyable bit of Lego-building—trying to build a drum track that felt more alive, but didn’t lose the original intent.
Hyde: One day we’ll be able to encourage [session drummer extraordinaire] Steve Gadd to join the band.