One of my early publishing endeavors involved conducting an interview with the groundbreaking U.K. trance duo Underworld. This article was written for the Daily Trojan and published in 2010—my senior year at the University of Southern California.
The music we dance to began with Throbbing Gristle’s infamous mash-ups of industrial clangs and images of penetration.
Now, the formerly obscure movement of the 1970s European arts scene has transformed into a genre of ascending synths, layered beats and Day-Glo-clad youth, all of which are set to festoon the Shrine Auditorium this weekend for the annual two-night Hard Haunted Mansion, already half sold-out and boasting its most diverse lineup to date.
Although the term “rave” is nothing new to Angelenos, the Hard concerts, organized by local DJ Gary Richards — aka Destructo — pride themselves on offering a more critically acclaimed roster of electric artists than Monster Massive or other large-scale events can boast.
With acts such as Soulwax, Green Velvet and Justice having played at previous Hard events, mind-altering drugs are clearly not necessary to ensure a great time.
This year’s festival brings a very special name to Los Angeles: the U.K. duo Underworld, one of the seminal artists of ’90s electronica, known for its rousing single “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” and unusually energetic, hypnotic live shows.
The duo’s appearance comes on the tail of its latest LP, Barking, a lush mind shaker made collaboratively with Dubfire, Paul Van Dyk and High Contrast.
“After 20 years of having your music remixed, you hear other perspectives and sometimes wish you could have a musical dialogue with them,” said Karl Hyde of Underworld in reference to his Barking co-creators. “In many ways, I think that [Underworld] could have grown faster and gone in richer directions if we could have had one or two conversations with those people.”
Hyde’s insight speaks effectively to the growth of the genre in the last decade, aided greatly by the Internet and the emergence of bedroom producers such as Anoraak and The Bloody Beetroots, whose unique reworking of tracks has garnered critical and commercial acclaim.
Today, Underworld represents a rare dance act whose roots and rise can be traced back to major record labels.
“Even in the late ’80s, what attracted us to dance music was the idea of reinvention,” Hyde said. “We come from a background of pop music where bands are encouraged to keep the same sound. Dance music isn’t like that. It’s like ‘Here’s a 12-inch. You like that? Here’s another 12-inch. Who’s that by? Oh, it’s by the same person. But it doesn’t sound like them. Well, it’s not meant to — it’s just meant to be a great track.’”
Indeed, the transition from earlier artists such as Underworld and Daft Punk, with decidedly synthetic sonics, to modern outfits like Cut Copy and The Knife that have combined classic grooves with the organic aesthetics of everything from guitar pop to tribal chants echoes such sentiment — one that Hard seems determined to exhibit with this year’s lineup.
“I can remember being back in Los Angeles, having no money and living on someone’s sofa in Hollywood,” Hyde said. “The first time we played there was at The Roxy, for about 23 people.”
According to Hyde, extensive touring has contributed to the band’s current sound, a practice that computer dance artists would do well to match.
“We’ve developed most of our tunes on the road, in reaction to live audiences,” Hyde said. “We come back to the studio, tweak it, go back on the road, tweak it and go back out again.”
Back in the studio, Hyde and Underworld member Rick Smith approach their work with labored musicianship and craft, striving for natural compositions.
“Rick is the producer — he has quite a vision,” Hyde said with a chuckle. “Even after all these years, sometimes, I don’t get it. It takes me months and I’ll go ‘Ah! That’s what you’re talking about.’ He finds ways to articulate a groove and writes great chords.”
In addition to providing the lead vocals for the band, Hyde also plays guitars for the band’s tracks. But he considers his real strength to be creating poetic lyrics.
“I love playing with the human voice,” he said.
Underworld’s contemplative method in creating dance tracks, draws from what Hyde called “a deep well of history” — from Smith’s childhood background in church music to contemporary acts such as noise-rock band HEALTH, which Hyde said he to admired.
These influences become tangible in the pulse behind works such as “Cowgirl” and “Two Weeks Notice,” which are not content to simply drop a fat bass and drums riff into a packed floor but labor toward that climax with the patience and stages of a symphony.
For those attending Underworld’s Sunday Hard performance, the significance of this approach, in heightening electronic dance music’s artistic credibility and elevating it far above the distraction of drug cultures, will be unveiled in aural oblivion.
“That process of looking for the next exciting sounds is built into the blood of dance music and I love that,” Hyde said. “It just keeps evolving.”