Call it a midlife crisis. Five years ago, Underworld’s Karl Hyde and Rick Smith — then aged 45 and 43, respectively — took stock of their careers and realized a change was due.
“We were staying in this luxury hotel down on Sydney Harbor,” Hyde recalls. “And it dawned on us that we were in a very comfortable place. And that was probably the most frightening time we’d ever had . . . Here we were: basically, our career would have been over an album, two albums down the line. That’s because comfort is no place for art. You can’t make good art if you’re in a position of comfort.”
While it would be nice to report that the dance band promptly burned their millions and moved into a squat, their response wasn’t quite that extreme. Instead, they cut their ties with the mainstream music industry and set up shop online, in what might become a model for all musicians in the future — long before Radiohead’s recent headline-grabbing decision to distribute their latest album online themselves.
Last month, meanwhile, saw the release of their first album in five years and — whisper it — there isn’t a single four-to-the-floor smash on it.
It’s been over a decade since the world woke up to Underworld. All it took was one song: “Born Slippy .NUXX,” a B-side that most certainly would’ve sunk without a trace had it not been featured prominently in Danny Boyle’s hit 1996 movie, “Trainspotting.” With its “shouting lager, lager, lager” refrain, the track went on to become one of the decade’s most memorable — and lyrically misunderstood — dance anthems.
Underworld, previously a well-regarded alternative dance act, were suddenly elevated to festival headliner status. And as their forthcoming appearance at the “Oblivion Ball” alongside The Orb and Simian Mobile Disco at Tokyo’s cavernous Makuhari Messe confirms, it’s a status they’ve maintained ever since.
The success had been a long time coming for Hyde and Smith. The pair began collaborating in 1981, but it wasn’t until they hooked up with Darren Emerson in the early 1990s that things started to come together. An up-and-coming DJ more than 10 years their junior, Emerson’s knowledge of the burgeoning house and techno scenes proved a perfect foil for vocalist/ guitarist Hyde and producer Smith’s pop and rock sensibilities. Together, the trio cut three critically acclaimed albums — “dubnobasswithmyheadman” (1993), “Second Toughest in the Infants” (1996) and “Beaucoup Fish” (1999) — while scoring plaudits for their blistering live show.
But when Emerson left in 2000 to concentrate on his own label and club events full-time, many assumed that Underworld’s days were numbered. Instead, Hyde and Smith carried on as a duo. And though their next album, 2002′s “A Hundred Days Off,” received mixed reviews, it confirmed that they weren’t done yet: lead single “Two Months Off” was a huge dance-floor hit.
Still, the pair found themselves increasingly frustrated with the position they were in. “We were extremely bored and felt very constrained by the traditional mechanism for publishing work,” says Hyde. “It had very, very little to do with creativity. All the edges were being continually shaved off. We had arguments, conversations, debates over how many pages the bloody artwork should be, and how many colors you can have, and what size it should be for racking, and you have to have this many tracks on it, no more, no less.
“When we started off the writing period for that record, we were just cutting loose and now it’s all being pushed through this very specifically shaped hole, with a specific time frame and, as a piece of work, it will become ignored very quickly if it doesn’t hit a certain sales figure. And it’s like: ‘We don’t want to be part of this anymore.’ ”
They’re hardly the first to have voiced such complaints, but Underworld decided to do something about it. They parted ways with longtime label Junior Boy’s Own/V2 Records and focused their energies on their Web site, underworldlive.com.
In 2005, they began to release a series of download-only EPs via the site. These 25-minute mixes allowed them to experiment with different styles, while the DIY distribution method was a welcome change after years of working with a major label.
“For us to be able to publish and make work when we felt like it — that, to me, is how an artist operates,” says Hyde.
underworldlive.com has also become a repository for the pair’s varied artistic output: members can expect everything from exclusive tracks and alternative mixes to photography, art and videos.
Of course, there’s no shortage of musicians who think they can cut it as painters, writers or actors, but Hyde and Smith can really hold their own. Both have backgrounds in fine art, having studied at Cardiff Art College, and are founder members of Tomato, an art-and-design collective whose clients include Nike, Vodafone and TV Asahi. Rather than proving a distraction, these activities fuel each other.
Says Hyde: “One minute we’re in an art gallery, the next we’re putting out books, then we’re playing the main stage at some festival to a huge crowd. A Web-radio show where we’re giving away our material and playing other people’s music is as important to us as going out and playing those huge shows.”
With Tomato, Hyde’s intention is to create a space in which artists from different disciplines can work alongside and inspire each other. “They enable us to do our thing, and we enable them to do their thing. It is a little bit like The Grateful Dead,” he says, referring to the free-flowing San Francisco psych-rock collective. “They have always been a model to us.”
Underworld have also been busy working on other projects during the past few years. They collaborated with Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared (“Betty Blue,” “The English Patient”) to produce the soundtrack for Anthony Minghella’s “Breaking and Entering” (2004), then were reunited with director Danny Boyle, this time to score his 2007 sci-fi thriller movie, “Sunshine.”
For Hyde, who as a child locked himself in the wardrobe listening to the soundtrack for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it was a dream come true. Rather than compose a few themes and leave it at that, he and Smith provided music for the entire film — plus sound effects — and then gave the raw material to film composer John Murphy.
When the duo finally resumed work on their next album, they found themselves in a bit of a quandary.
“We’d done two years of film scores,” says Hyde, “and when we came back into the studio, there was no picture. It was like staring at a brick wall. We even thought at one point of phoning Minghella and Boyle and saying, ‘have you got any bits of film knocking around?’ ”
In the end, a couple of pieces from the “Sunshine” sessions did make it onto the album, “Oblivion With Bells,” released here last month. These tracks, “To Heal” and “Glam Bucket,” provide some of the more ambient moments on what must be Underworld’s most stylistically varied record to date. While the opening track, “Crocodile,” harks back to the sinuous grooves of “dubnobass . . . ,” “Boy Boy Boy” is a distinctly rock-flavored number (featuring U2 drummer Larry Mullen, Jr.) and the quasi-rap of “Ring Road,” which could be mistaken for something by The Streets.
But with no hands-in-the-air bangers such as “Born Slippy,” “Moaner,” or “Two Months Off,” weren’t they worried that fans would feel, well, a bit short-changed?
“The thing that we’d be more worried about is being trapped into being the banging anthemic group,” Hyde says. “Because then it’s all over. The minute that there’s a kind of, ‘Oh, OK, you have to be this,’ we’re not interested.”
And for a few years, the dance scene wasn’t doing much to fire them up, either. “There was nothing. Nothing was inspiring us. We were hearing this stuff and going, ‘Well, so what?’ ”
When they did finally come across something they liked, it was emanating from the German club circuit. Hyde reels off a list of names that read like a who’s who of minimal techno: Ricardo Villalobos, Kompakt, Cocoon, Shitkatapult, Mathew Jonson. Tracks like “Crocodile” were, he says, drawing on this distinctive brand of dance — “much slower beats, melodic but more stripped down.”
It remains to be seen if their core audience will embrace the new, non- anthemic Underworld with as much enthusiasm as Hyde does. Still, that probably won’t stop him in his stride: he’s already talking enthusiastically about forthcoming projects — publishing, jamming with Brian Eno, collaborating with New York singer/songwriter Nina Nastasia, and his hopes to work with dance-act Simian Mobile Disco, postrockers Efterklang and rasta performance-poet Benjamin Zephaniah (presumably not all at the same time).
“As Rick says, the thing for us now is to ‘just keep working.’ ” He pauses for a nanosecond and smiles broadly. “Keep clocking on.”
Underworld, Andrew Weatherall and Simian Mobile Disco (live) play Zepp Osaka on Nov. 21-22 (6 p.m. start). Tickets are ¥7,000 in advance plus drink charge. Underworld then headline “Oblivion Ball” at Makuhari Messe Halls 4, 5 & 6, Chiba City, on Nov. 24 (9 p.m. start), with Andrew Weatherall, The Orb, Simian Mobile Disco (live) and 120 Days. Tickets are ¥9,000 in advance. Call (03) 5766-6571 or visit beatink.com for information on all shows.