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Underworld Was a Stadium-Filling Dance Act a Generation Before EDM

20 years on from releasing 'Dubnobasswithmyheadman,' Underworld discuss how it feels to revisit their past material, the relationship between drugs and music scenes, and how they led the pack when it came to stadium dance music.
September 29, 2014, 7:05pm
Underworld, London, 1994.

The idea of relevance to an act such as Underworld seems a nominal idea. Having spent over 30 years subverting just what it is we expect a "band" to consist of, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith's continuing exploits into modern dance music has seen the pair create music that spans pretty much any dance floor genre going, and beyond.

1994's breakthrough album Dubnobasswithmyheadman, coming over a decade after the pair had experimented with electro-pop as The Screen Gemz, was a heady concoction of songs-not-songs; something that worked in clubs, yet had structure, melody and at times seemingly random lyricism threaded throughout. Taking lead from their respective musical pasts, and bolstered by partnering with one of the world's most in demand DJs at the time in Darren Emerson, to many Underworld were the epitome of mid-nineties dance music. Techno, house, jungle, trance and a continued fascination with Kraftwerk all filtered into their music, resulting in the unavoidable single "Born Slippy.NUXX" (as included on Danny Boyle's Trainspotting soundtrack) and 1998's follow-up album Beaucoup Fish.

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With a forthcoming show at the Royal Festival Hall and a five disc Deluxe Edition of Dubnobasswithmyheadman on the horizon, it seems that two decades on, Underworld are a fountain of knowledge when it comes to taking electronic music out of the clubs and into the mainstream. We caught up with messrs Hyde and Smith to discuss how it feels to revisit their past material, the relationship between drugs and music scenes, and how they led the pack when it came to stadium dance music.

THUMP: How do you feel about revisiting Dubnobasswithyourheadman two decades after it's conception?
Karl Hyde: It's moved address.  We went back and it's not the same address anymore, it's a different business [laughs] - it's a chip shop.

So you have a different approach to that music now that both it, and yourselves, are more mature?
Rick Smith: Absolutely yeah. It's not a good idea to try and stay back there, 20 years ago. It's a mixture of feelings y'know? Sometimes kind of unpleasant as it's in our nature to try and change, move on and create something new, but then it's a record that we love and a strange feeling to be getting right back inside it so late on. Not something that we expected to be happening at all…
KH: We've never been in a band like this before. It seems like a really simple thing to say, but we haven't. We've never been in a band this long or had this kind of following and support for as long as this band has. This is uncharted waters for us y'know?

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I guess at the time club music, or electronic music, was still finding its feet on a larger commercial scale in a 'band' structure…
KH: Yeah it was. In some ways it was pre the big 'superstar DJ' explosion, there were huge illegal raves for thousands of people happening, it was very exciting, there were great clubs going on, and great party people like Junior Boys Own who were putting on really cool parties, dance music was on the radio like it had been since the fifties - a version of dance music - but it hadn't taken over and become the wall-to-wall thing that it went on to become. Everyone kept telling us "it'll be over soon", but it kept coming!

It's interesting now, 20 years later, that there seems to be a second or even third wave of rave culture, what with the US take on it…
KH: They finally got it didn't they? They got it. A lot of us tried, and they decided they were going to do it in their own time and it's massive there now.
RS: Huge.
KH: They do tend to do things on a large scale god bless 'em.

What are your defining memories of that time - nineties club culture?
RS: In the detail of it we could be here for six months talking memories, moments and things. But just generally speaking, it felt like quite a brief period really. It was a matter of a couple of years before the landscape of things changed, and also the nature of what we were about and what we were engaged in. As soon as we started to play live and hit the stage, then everything about our timeline and our lives was changing quickly. Obviously we're older blokes so we have some glorious memories - before styles of dance music had names you could be at a club and a DJ would be dropping house, techno, electro, funk, hip hop, jungle and it wouldn't be unusual to hear cross-genre things mixed up. I find that fascinating as dance music became very compartmentalised very quickly, people got quite into their own little thing and everything else was banned unless it had that particular sound, and yet this communication revolution that we're going through in the world now, kids are so much more open to be completely across genre themselves. It's kinda weird as the way that I loved music to be in clubs would belong even more now. It certainly does in my kid's heads, my daughter loves dance music, it can be all sorts, in all sorts of different clubs - she just wants it to be real and exciting, and that hasn't changed.

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Do you think the themes of the album are current 20 years on? It seems that there's less importance placed on lyrics in modern dance music…
KH: I think lyrically the landscape is quite tepid. It's gone back to a 1950s bubblegum template, words that just fit the beats and in some ways when we came in there was a lot of that. It sounded great for a limited period, and that's what we kind of grew off the back of. Short phrases that were neither here nor there in their meaning, they often said something very positive, life affirming, but that was it. You were there to have a good time and the words said that. I think we chose not to do that, and in a way the words weren't the first thing you had to listen to - we weren't writing protest songs - it was about the music and the beats and how it made you feel, and then afterwards, right at the back of it, you found that there were some words that said something to you, in such a way that they could be as specific or non-specific as you wanted.

How important do you think drugs have been to the development of the culture?
KH: Oooh not at all [laughs]. It was evident from when we played that moods were most definitely altered from whatever substances people were ingesting. I grew up a lot around clubs when people were drinking when I was a kid, and that would create a certain type of mood. When we came into club culture, you knew what the season for the drug was by the mood of the audience, and for a long time they were pretty happy people, so it's really nice to communicate with people who are happy, rather than violently out of it. 
RS: Yeah that's the thing that struck me most of the time - how fantastic the atmosphere was. Wherever we were or wherever we played or whatever club we went to - whether it was the Milk Bar in the early days or Sound Shaft - and then when we started gigging there was just this amazing mood of celebration and joy, we never saw any violence and this was not the world that we had previously occupied. In the eighties it was much more… it just wasn't what we were used to and funnily enough the way the media portrayed how things were at the time wasn't too kind. We used to get a lot of requests for music in films around the time - '93 or '94 - and their requests were always "can we use your music in this scene where this drug dealer shoots this young bloke, and then this girls dies of a stab wound" and we'd just be like… "what??" I mean what kind of clubs were they going to?
KH: It was an outsider view of the culture.

I remember the BBC always using Prodigy in Eastenders whenever there was a scene with some form of club or badly behaved youth activity…
RS: Yeah well there you go….
KH: And poor old Prodigy - what've they got to do with anything like that? I saw more violence growing up at rock gigs compared with anything I ever saw at a dance event and even then it was because you'd find out that someone had taken a particularly nasty drug, or was drunk. Actually nine and half times out of ten they were drunk. The other thing is that in the clubs we were going to, not everyone was taking substances, it all permeated the atmosphere of the place, it was just a good vibe, good will, everyone wanted their fellow man to have a good time - as they'd have a good time if you were having a good time - we were all having a good time!

Do you keep up to speed with much current electronic music?
KH: Nope.
RS: No. I don't have the time. I go through phases where I do have the time, where time and inclination meet, but it tends to be no different from when I was younger really - there's a lot of chod - so you have to have time to sift through the chod and find these nuggets, which are there, some extraordinary, exciting stuff.
KH: I tend to have to rely on mates, kinda as it always was. You know "what are you listening to?" then get sent something and you go "I didn't really like that" and you just keep trying and then somebody sends you something and you go "oh! This connects with me. What is it?"
RS: But I never liked just dance music anyway, so that hasn't changed. There's a punk duo called Slaves, and I came across this demo called "Debbie Where's Your Car" [sings] "Debbie where's your car / where's yer car Debbie!" and Googled a couple of bits about them and I just find them really exciting. In my head I have a version of that idea that's got a groove and sounds good pumped up in a club as opposed to that tinny rock sound.

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So do you have any thoughts on the term 'EDM'?
KH: Well that's the thing that went big isn't it? It's the thing that went stadium, which was something we were always "tipped" to do - "ah yes they're going to be the first stadium dance group" or whatever. And it's turned out to be this form called 'EDM' which is a progression of where we were all at. It represents something, a bit like the term 'electronica'. Actually I truly dislike 'electronica' as a term, but 'EDM' I'm cool with as it's Electronic Dance Music and that's fair enough but what's 'electronica'? It sounds like a collection of stuff that your nan puts on the sideboard. 
RS: But they're just terms though y'know? Terms that historically irritate artists. It is what it is. In fact there's a quote from Orson Welles; "an artist has to be always out of step with his time", but of course that's not how people make money. Though when you talk about the phenomenal success of EDM you're not talking about emotion, or spirit, you're talking about cash, and bodies, and the sheer weight of numbers, and there's a lot of weight of numbers in some very unhealthy areas in the world. But if people are enjoying themselves en masse that's a fantastic thing. 
KH: We always had a reputation for changing. If people said we were trance we'd be into jungle, if they said we were jungle we'd be into techno. Not because we would jump ship, but just the idea that if you are tied down by a label, and if you start to believe in that it closes doors to opportunities and we tried not to fall into that.

Would you have one particular clubbing experience as a punter that you could tell us about?
KH: Yeah I can't remember it [laughs]!
RS: The Milk Bar. A particular night Darren [Emerson, former Underworld production partner] was playing I found really moving and exciting. But that was as a creative person, my memory of it was it wasn't abandon, I hadn't lost it and had my shirt off, which I did many years earlier with The Clash on stage, but it wasn't that kind of experience. It was much more cerebral and really amazing and I got a lot out of this particular night that lasted with me for many years. Yet there was also a gig, we played Reading Festival in the nineties and I've got more visceral memories of the feeling and the energy at the time.

Do you feel the dance music industry is more or less restricted compared to when you first released Dubnobasswithyourheadman?
RS: The landscape's completely different that's the only thing I could say for sure, and saying that they'll be things that never change; human nature, certain attitudes…
KH: At that time there were things that were closed then though. There were things we were told we couldn't do, but we did, and then we did them, other people were told "you should do that if you want to be successful". But that's been in the music industry since before we were into music really. There's a "this is how you do it" attitude, "this is what you do to get in" and then "this is what you should do if you want to make lots of money…" And then there are people who follow their heart, and it works, and there are others who do the same and it doesn't work. Time and place is another thing. We didn't know that at that time there was a group of people who were open to the idea of what we were doing. 
RS: It was a real shock. Hearing your records on breakfast radio - what's that about?! That's weird. We absorbed that quite quickly though [laughs]. [Now] there's been a communication revolution of significance akin to the industrial revolution going on, so whatever it is, whether it's banking, insurance, housing, music, dance music - things are not the same. It's exciting, and a bit frightening, I think for a lot of people. 
KH: Not when you're young. When you're young it's a laugh, it's a good laugh.

Finally, about that title then. What is the thinking behind the words used for the album?
RS: Yes. "Dub-no-bass-with-my-head-man". The nineties, in terms of song titles, became about non-titles. Even the recording - it was of the moment - Karl wouldn't sing a vocal ten times, we wouldn't craft in that way, in a traditional songwriting fashion. The song titles came from a different place - a little string of words that I think came to me and I probably thought was amusing.
KH: I think the original title was "Dubmorebasswithmyheadman" or something, and I misheard it and you went "oh that's good…" and there you go. One of the things that I regret changing, is that we didn't use to publish our lyrics, and the beauty of that is that everybody gets to make up their own mind of what it is, and they mishear things. I can't think of any mishearing of any lyrics that wasn't better than the original, or just as interesting. I'd say "ah that's beautiful, that's your point of view, thank you" and people would think we're poking fun at them, but it was great as we'd get to enjoy a new version of our music. There is no definitive version, there's my version, there's Rick's version, but you might have heard something different.

Underworld play Dubnobasswithmyheadman in full at the Royal Festival Hall on October 11th - you can grab that full 5 disc Deluxe Edition album here.

Follow Louis on Twitter: @LouisMusikal