Underworld are one of the dance acts guaranteed to get the crowd rocking at Electric Picnic, writes Ed Power
BEST known for his boisterous “Lager, Lager, Lager” chant on 1990s rave anthem ‘Born Slippy’, in the flesh Underworld’s Karl Hyde is curiously zen. Recently turned 58, the frontman is diminutive, greying and exudes the confidence and shaggy inscrutability of a yoga instructor or successful author of self-help manuals.
“The dance music I appreciate is almost akin to jazz,” Hyde says at one point in a conversation by turns earnest and steeped in dry humour. “It’s all about change. The moment it becomes a movement — EDM, trance, house, whatever you want to call it… we’ve always packed our bags and left quietly in the night.”
Twenty-one years since break-out LP Dubnobasswithmyheadman, Underworld remain titans of dance. One of the headliners at this year’s Electric Picnic festival, the group were among the first to bring the energy and adventure of electronic music to a mass audience.
As featured on the soundtrack to Trainspotting, their track ‘Born Slippy’ (which they were reluctant to put out as a single) was a defining constituent of ’90s popular culture. Along with fellow travellers such as the Chemical Brothers, Leftfield and Prodigy, Underworld delivered house music and its offshoots out of clubs and into arenas.
Hyde has been explaining how Underworld almost split up several years ago but in the end regrouped and are now stronger than ever. Since the early 2000s, the band has been a collaboration between the singer and producer Rick Smith (DJ Darren Emerson departed following 1999’s Beaucoup Fish). By 2010’s Barking LP, the partners were creatively spent — and had started to think of themselves as cogs in a record company machine
“We’d gone got too far away from that spark — the attitude that drove us. We’d become isolated from the Underworld we wanted to be. When it becomes about money and the accumulation of things, you have to step back and think. You want to be able to look yourself in the mirror.”
Rather than throw away nearly 30 years of history and comradeship, he and Smith (nowadays perhaps best known for working with Danny Boyle on the soundtrack to the London Olympics opening ceremony) instead had a long chat.
“It was obvious it couldn’t go on the way it had. Maybe it was the end. Or maybe we didn’t have to be the end — maybe we could explore what was required to keep it going and then go and do those things. That’s what we did.”
Hyde is charmingly contradictory. Immensely proud of Underworld, he has enjoyed a year long anniversary tour of Dubnobasswithmyheadman (audiences at Electric Picnic can look forward to career-spanning ‘best of’ set). At the same time, he has little truck with nostalgia and is most enthusiastic discussing the new record he and Smith are making.
“With ‘Born Slippy’ we came out with a classic,” he says, assessing their biggest smash. “We always wanted to write a huge hit. Instead we wrote a classic. I’ll settle for that.”
“We were reluctant to have it on Trainspotting at all. Danny [Boyle, director] explained to us it wasn’t the film we thought it was doing to be. He told us what it was about and we were cool with that. Then we were against it being released as a single. We had to be campaigned for that to happen. Looking back, I’ll always be grateful to that song. It opened a lot of doors for us and affected our career in a big way.”
The subject of legacy has been on Hyde’s mind lately. You get to a certain age and your brain starts to work that way.
“Journalists ask why are we and other groups from our time — people like the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy — still doing it, still doing so well. My initial reaction is, ‘I dunno’. Then you think about and maybe the answer is that we carry some mystique in us. That was a pretty magical time.”
He’s referring to the early ’90s and the first flourishing of rave culture. In this age of super-corporate EDM it seems almost surreal to recall the terror the establishment felt towards electronic music. In the UK, the police dealt ruthlessly with illegal raves, buoyed by emergency legislation rushed through by parliament. People truly appeared to regard thumping house beats as a harbinger of the apocalypse.
“The government brought in special powers to close [illegal raves] down,” nods Hyde. “As we learned, of course, the only way to close them down was to welcome them to the mainstream and give them lots of cash. We watched the destruction of all that and the rise of the super-star DJ. We were saying ‘You know you don’t have to do that — you don’t have to be co-opted. You can stay free and do what you want’. That was always our approach.”
Hyde is looking forward to Electric Picnic. Performers often blow smoke about the charm of Irish audiences. Hyde genuinely seems to be counting down to Stradbally.
“We try to give joy and positivity,” he says. “We want to send people home smiling — to me that’s our aim. The real fun is being there, having an exchange of energy with the crowd that is absolutely real.”
Underworld headline Electric Picnic next weekend
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