Melody Maker | Feature | 22 January 1994 | Photo: Kevin Westenberg
I know it's only January but there's no way you will hear a more thrilling dance music album this year than Underworld's "Dubnobasswithmyheadman". No fucking way at all.
"Dubnobass" is special for a zillion and one reasons. The irresistible beats and unforgettable melodies aren't the half of it. There's also the psychotic vocals, the distressing lyrics and the guitars that suddenly swerve through
the shimmer of a heat hazed dubscape. Then there's the delicious sensation of realising how far this music stretches beyond the confines of the dancefloor.
Hang on, though. A dance album you can play in your bedroom!? A dance album with vocals and lyrics and guitars!? You mean, just like rock music?
Oh yes. And proud of it.
A dazzlingly innovative hybrid of ideas, "Dubnobass" has the feel of a timeless classic. No wonder it's been described as "The most important album since 'The Stone Roses' and the best since 'Screamadelica'". Which ain't bad for three guys from Essex who spend half their time watching the Romford Raiders ice hockey team.
Underworld first made an impact on the dance scene with "Mmm... Skyscraper I Love You", a tom-tom powered track that knocked every club in the UK an inch to the left at the end of 1992. Back then, the interest in the band centred on the role of 22-year-old DJ Darren Emerson. Built like a brick Honey Monster, Darren has been DJing for seven years and is running very close to Andrew Weatherall as the turntable wizard of the Nineties.
Darren's Underworld partners are elfin vocalist/guitarist Karl Hyde and Welsh-born keyboard maestro Rick Smith. Both 30-something, Karl and Rick have been working together since the early 1980s, when they formed one hit wonder synth popsters Freur. Remember "Doot Doot"? The pair launched Underworld as a seven-piece funk rock outfit in 1986 and this original version of the group recorded two albums for Sire Records. Although they passed pretty much unnoticed in the UK, the LPs sold reasonably well in America and in Australia.
"The last thing we did as a seven-piece was a tour of North America supporting Eurythmics in 1989," recalls Karl. "It was a good laugh to play to 30,000 people at places like the Ontario Skydome, but after a while you go, 'Where's this leading? I don’t even know who I am any more...'"
Rick came back to Britain at the end of the tour, while Karl stayed in the States to work as a session musician at Prince's Paisley Park. He returned home two months later to find Rick knocking out dance tracks with Darren, who Karl had never met before, at the studio he and Rick owned in Romford.
"Karl came back to find me, this teenage lad, sitting in his studio, working with his partner," chuckles Darren. "I'm sure he thought, 'What the fuck's going on? Who is this fucking guy?’ Nah, I'm just joking. It wasn't really like that."
"But it was!" yells Karl. "It was exactly like that. I loved the stuff you guys were doing together, you'd made some great dance tracks, but I had no idea how I was going to fit in with it. And you, Darren, were thinking the same thing. Your face said it all. You were like, 'What, he sings? And he plays guitar? Oh God, no!!'"
The wildly eclectic "Dubnobasswithmyheadman" reflects the widely different backgrounds and experiences of the three members of Underworld. Darren's influence can be most strongly heard on the full-on fizz of "Cowgirl", but it seems unlikely that it was him who came up with the guitar-based ballad that is "Tongue". It's hard to believe these two cuts are by the same band.
Yet for all that, "Dubnobass" does not feel the least bit disjointed. Ideas ebb and flow with astonishing ease, sometimes like a DJ in a club and sometimes like the soundtrack to a road movie. Nor does anything on the record sound like a fusion of musical styles. What we're talking about here is best described as a seepage.
"We're grabbing elements from all different times and areas of music and taking them somewhere else," says Karl. "We don't want to simply regurgitate the past. Even though we're using vocals and guitars, we're trying to do it in new ways. We're trying to find ways that make those elements relevant today.
"By not following a blueprint, we're able to base a song on an 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, 'Fuck, yes, let's do it'.
"We're Underworld," he adds with a smile. "We can do what we like."
How does it feel to be touted as The Most Important Band Since The Stone Roses? How much pressure does this put on Underworld?
"It's brilliant to have people appreciate what we do, but we still demand the right to fuck up," says Rick.
He's grinning from ear to ear, but his eyebrows are arched in a "Got that?" expression. He means it.
"Underworld works on the basis of one simple question – 'Are you enjoying this?'," continues Rick. "The only pressure we have is the pressure we put on ourselves. If Darren hasn't DJed for a few weeks or Karl hasn't scribbled anything in his notebook for a couple of months, then we'll know it's over. Because if that happens, we'll have stopped doing the things we love. It's only because we love this that we do it in the first place."
They seem to make a lot of other people love it in the process. The dancefloor success of the experimental "Mmm... Skyscraper" is a case in point.
"I was shocked by that," says Darren. "The club mixes we did of that tune turned out to be a waste of time. Everybody preferred the vocal version, which I didn't think was a dance track at all."
In this trio's (Under)world, nothing is certain. The idea of a single song, an individual track, is blown out of the water by the band's working methods.
"There's lots of cutting and pasting, especially with the vocals," explains Rick. "Something which is recorded for one track one day may well end up on three different tracks a few months down the line. Nothing is fixed. They're all just points for us to jump off of. If you start trying to work out a formula, you lose it."
This loose, feverish approach to working must occasionally lead to conflict, musn't it?
"It has been known," says Karl.
"It would be so boring if we agreed with each other all the time," adds Rick. "There have been a few times when we've been listening to the same track for seven hours and somebody says, 'This is great', and somebody else will say, 'Yeah? Well, I fucking hate it'. But that's fine. That's what happens when you make music. It's an emotional thing."
Underworld are probably the fist dance group to gain as strong a reputation on the gig circuit as they have in clubland. The presence of a genuine frontperson, instead of the all too common soppy-girl-brought-in-to-wiggle-about-a-bit type thang, obviously has something to do with it. A highly eccentric frontperson at that. The chances are Karl Hyde will have broken at least one bone before the year is out.
There's also the fact that the band perform without the help of a DAT. Everything is played totally live. What's more, they never rehearse. The result is pure, unadulterated, spontaneous combustion.
"I'm often shocked by some of the noises we play when we play live," says Rick. "I'm always thinking to myself, 'Shit, where did that come from?'. It's dead exciting. Groups who just use DATs don't know what they're missing. The thing about playing live is that the sounds are gone straight away. You can't touch them, you can't grasp them. You'll never hear them again."
"Even if an idea works well, we never try to repeat it for the next gig," notes Karl. "Why play safe? You're better off having a go at something that might fuck up. A lot of the time I haven't a fucking clue what's going on at gigs."
"It's very annoying and upsetting when you do fuck up," says Rick. "But a few minutes later, it'll all come together and you'll be so touched by a certain moment that you want to scream, 'This is it! Oh God, this is it!’ at the top of your voice. Either way, those emotions are sometimes so personal that they mean nothing to anybody else. It's a very strange feeling."
Over the last couple of years, as well as playing regular gigs at regular venues, Underworld have hosted a number of outdoor events called Experimental Sound Fields. The basic idea of these happenings is to place speakers and a giant projection screen around the outside of a field, and for the group and anything up to three DJs at a time to play in a tower in the middle. Their first Experimental Sound Field took place at the 1992 Glastonbury Festival and turned into a 15-hour jam. The audience never numbered less than 5,000.
"Being in the middle of the field meant we were in the middle of the vibe," says Karl. "We were feeling and reacting to the surges of energy from the crowd. It was amazing. It was like going out there and dancing with them."
"Half the time, the crowd didn't notice if it was the band or a DJ they were hearing," says Darren. "That happens quite often and I think that's a big compliment. I know there's lots to see at an Underworld gig, but the last thing we want is for everybody to stop dancing when we come on."
"After years of doing standard, rock-type gigs, Karl and I find club audiences really refreshing," adds Rick. "The people get off by themselves and are happy with their own interpretation of what they hear. They don't need to focus on someone else's ego. They're as much the stars as the people on the stage."
"Dubnobasswithmyheadman" is more than a headrush of sound. The music runs on arcing rails beneath lyrics so raw and emotional that their oblique meanings only serve to render them more disturbing. "Mmm... Skyscraper I Love You" includes lines like "I see pawin' dogs sniffin' the wind / For something violent for me and you", while "Dirty Epic" tackles subjects as varied as religion, phone sex and the midnight train from London to Romford.
"Dirty Epic" also boasts the painfully sad words, "She said, 'You don't ever touch me any more this way'". This sort of harsh, slanted lyricism wouldn't sound out of place on something like a Lou Reed album.
"My first inspiration for that was a Lou Reed album!" yells Karl, his gleeful admission jumping out like the key line of a manifesto for some new eclecticism. "It took me a long while to work out how to write lyrics like that. I eventually realised the only way to do it was by observing people in cafes and pubs and picking up on the things they said. It's far more interesting than worrying about writing a perfect piece of poetry or some silly, catchy phrase.
"I write lots of stuff when I'm travelling. I write all my ideas in notebooks. God knows how many I've filled up over the years. Journeys by train and aeroplane are brilliant sources of inspiration. I remember flying over New York and looking down and thinking, 'It's a beautiful thing'. So that's exactly what I scribbled down. When the captain said, 'We're 30,000 feet above the earth', I scribbled that down as well. Those words then became the opening two lines of 'Skyscraper'.
"Much of the rest of 'Skyscraper' came from stuff that I collected wandering around the New York streets over the course of a week. I got some of it out of newspapers and magazines like Village Voice and Screw. Other parts I wrote in an alleyway in Greenwich Village at four in the morning. When I got back home, I cut the various lines up and then made a montage. It's a kind of Cubist way of writing. What I'm trying to do is paint around subjects instead of focussing straight in on them."
Karl's lyrics will shortly be published in a couple of books, along with a selection of the hundreds of photographs he's taken and graffiti-style sketches he's drawn over the last few years. They may not make Underworld's songs any clearer, but they contain some fascinating ideas.
The books have been assembled with the help of the group's friends at Tomato, a London design collective that Karl and Rick are both members of. Tomato were responsible for the Guardian TV advert that used Stereo MCs' "Connected" as a soundtrack and the latest Reebok ads. They've also put together numerous Underworld videos, most of which are visual blitzkriegs of super-fast scratched images and shapes. The band themselves haven't managed to get a look in so far.
"Every time we go to Tomato somebody'll say, 'We've done you another video'," says Karl. "I love it. We don't even have to bother about looking through showreels or reading storyboards and we never have those 'Will they understand us?' worries."
"Yeah, but how the fuck do they get them shown on MTV?" asks Darren. "I mean, they're so in yer face."
Are Underworld the future of dance music?
In terms of producing a new groove blueprint, the answer is almost certainly no. The Underworld sound is too broad and far too obviously the result of the Karl Hyde-Rick Smith-Darren Emerson coalition – a unique meeting of minds – for anybody to realistically consider emulating. Put simply, unlike the soundalikes that emerged in the wake of The Stone Roses and De La Soul and, during the last two years, Nirvana, there will only ever be one Underworld.
In terms of honing a new approach in dance music, though, the answer is a resounding yes. Underworld are not the first group to make records that work both at home and in a club, nor are they the first to take dance music live. But they are the first to deliver the goods so clearly, so powerfully, so stylishly, so innovatively, so consistently, and they are the first to deliver dance tracks that can also be regarded as songs. No matter that they are not songs in the conventional sense of the word.
The human qualities of Underworld are going to finally blow away the misconception that dance music produced by an amorphous, faceless mass of computer boffins. Once and hopefully for all.
The focus is now sharp. Razor sharp.