Groundbreaking electronica band Underworld is celebrating the 20th anniversary of their landmark debut album dubnobasswithmyheadman by playing it start to finish at Spain’s Primavera Sound Festival.
Though they had been playing together for a decade and a half, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith grew frustrated with their role in the music industry, leading to the original synthpop version of Underworld (or Underworld Mk1) disbanding. Though Smith and Hyde drifted apart temporarily, it led to a number of events and inspirations, a perfect confluence of people and ideas being in the right place at the right time.
For starters, the inclusion of DJ Darren Emerson (a friend of Smith’s brother-in-law) marked the beginning of a new era for the band (which is why dubnobasswithmyheadman is considered to be the debut record of what is often referred to as Underworld Mk2). Emerson happened to be looking for someone to teach him how all the shiny knobs and flashing lights in music studios worked; Smith was more than happy to oblige, so long as Emerson would introduce him to the local club culture.
Meanwhile, Hyde stayed back in the U.S. to be a session musician in Prince’s Minneapolis studio before touring in support of Debbie Harry all across North America. Depending on the day, Hyde might suffer acute home-sickness on looking over an empty Minnesota field, or stand in romantic awe of the Greenwich Village skyline. In either instance, he began sketching out lyrics and ideas for songs that would later be fully explored– “Dark and Long” and “Mmm Skyscraper… I Love You” in the two examples above.
When he returned, Smith and Emerson were already at work on progressive dance music, which Hyde slid into perfectly. The newly formed trio cut a few singles and remixes under the names Lemon Interupt and Steppin’ Razor before rechristening themselves Underworld.
In those days, Hyde would lay down a vocal take or a guitar part for a particular song, while one of the other two would move it over to a different track the next day. Entire sections and arrangements would be spliced together, and anything was fair game to reappropriate for whatever purpose it suited best. Though this may sound chaotic, the working process was incredibly liberating for every member of the group. According to Hyde in the January 22nd, 1994 issue of Melody Maker:
“By not following a blueprint, we’re able to base a song on acoustic guitar, or we can do a pure techno track, based on an oscillator. In the past, Rick and I have often been excited by a poem or a film or something and thought, ‘That’s inspired us to do a great reggae tune but we can’t because we’re not in a reggae band’. Now we would think, ‘F*** yes, let’s do it’.”
The end result was a free-flowing electronica jam, something like the techno equivalent to The Dark Side of the Moon. Hyde’s murky, whispered vocals lend the songs a haunted feeling, while his guitar is just as textural an element as any of Smith or Emerson’s howling synths. Echoey drum machines even come to life, fluidly changing rhythms at the drop of a hat like dancing skeleton bones clacking together. The layers add up and converge to create monumental sonic landscapes that somehow never lose their precision or subtlety even when they’re erupting like volcanoes.
Emerson left in 2000 to be replaced by Darren Price (Underworld Mk3, if you’re keeping score at home), and this version of the group has been together for nearly a decade now. This lineup also recently announced that they will be performing all of dubnobasswithmyheadman at Primavera Sound Festival this upcoming May, which is exciting for Spanish EDM fans and festival hounds alike.
The band also played the album on October 11th to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the watershed electronica album. On the same token, their 5-CD Deluxe Reissue of dubnobasswithmyheadman has been getting high praise from fans and critics for leaving no stone unturned.
Band members have also been in high demand of late, even being tapped by Robert Plant, Bono, Sam Smith, Chris Martin and One Direction (among many, many others) of Band Aid 30 to do a remix of their charity Christmas song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Hyde also just released an album with production pioneer Brian Eno entitled Someday World on May 7th of last year.