Under and beyond

Underworld. Photo: PA Photo/Perou.
Underworld. Photo: PA Photo/Perou.

There’s something about having to embrace your past in order to be able to move forward.

It’s an idea Underworld’s Karl Hyde is particularly familiar with, as he and bandmate Rick Smith get ready to release their ninth album Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future.

It comes a year or so after they toured the world in celebration of their landmark third album dubnobasswithmyheadman, originally released in 1994.

“I really needed some persuading to do it,” says Hyde, who believed nostalgia was often the preserve of artists with nothing left to say.

“No disrespect to any artists that have done it, but I always took it as a sign someone was coming towards the end of their career, and that was always a little bit sad,” he explains. “When the idea was put to us, there were loads of good reasons why we should do something; mainly that it was the 20th anniversary, and it was now or never.

“Personally, I didn’t want to give people the impression we were creatively out of ideas and selling off the crown jewels. I just wanted to move forward.”

One anniversary show in 2014 - which, a shock to Hyde and Smith, sold out in seconds - soon led to many more, and before they knew it, they were busy for much of 2015.

Far from giving the impression they were bereft of anything new to say, rehearsals for the shows actually made the duo realise they had plenty more in the tank.

“It was the happiest I’ve ever been on tour,” says Hyde, who turns 60 next year. “And it became the catalyst for something else. We could feel the energy flowing during rehearsals, and we knew we needed to get back in the studio because something was happening.”

In between runs of live dates, the pair returned to their rural studio (they set up in the “wilds of Essex” after leaving their Romford base after their second album, 1989’s Change The Weather, so they could “make a bit more noise”), and got to work.

Recording Barbara Barbara saw Hyde and Smith - despite having first started working together back in 1980 - doing something they’d never done before; writing together in the studio.

“We were just sparking off each other, playing to our strengths. When you get the two of us together, stuff happens. We’ve done that one stage for so long, yet we’ve never made a record like that, which is insane,” says Worcester-born Hyde.

“Working that way is something we really loved doing, and were really enthusiastic about, which tends to create a lot of material. Hopefully that enthusiasm is captured on the record.”

It is; that sense of joy is evident on the album, from eight-minute opener I Exhale and sinister-sounding banger Low Burn, to downbeat Santiago Cuatro and Balearic closer Nylon Strung.

“It could’ve gone either way,” Hyde reflects. “It’s our first album in five years, and we could’ve tried making it and realised we should leave it another five.

“But in our time away doing other things, you realise what you miss about your partner, and whatever grumbles you had slip away into insignificance. The dubnobass... tour made me remember Rick and I are great friends. There was nothing bad about that tour, and I felt good leaving every show.”

As he says, there was time spent doing other things in their five-year break. Smith released Bungalow With Stairs 1 in 2010 and Trance in 2013, while Hyde released Edgeland in 2013 and two albums with Brian Eno in 2014, Someday World and High Life.

Of course, there was also the small matter of being musical directors for the London 2012 Olympics, which saw them reteam with Danny Boyle, the mastermind behind the event’s opening ceremony. Underworld had previously lent Boyle their track Born Slippy.NUXX for his 1996 film Trainspotting, as well as appearing on the soundtracks for The Beach and Sunshine, but what they achieved with the Olympics was beyond all expectations.

Hyde says it was an incredible experience, although it was the many volunteers that impressed him most, and the feel-good mood that swept the nation.

“I’d been raised on this mythology at school about how communities came together during the war, Blitz Spirit and all that, with everyone looking out for each other, neighbours helping neighbours. It’s a good myth, I always thought, but I live in a cynical world, so thank you Grandma, but I don’t believe it,” he says.

“Then all of a sudden, I was living in a nation where people were helping each other and rules were being bent to accommodate humanity. Not to get too romantic, but the feeling in the nation was extraordinary, and it made me realise that capacity is there, but it’s just waiting for the call to show its head.”

Now reflection is over, and Underworld have new things to look forward to, it’s full steam ahead with fresh projects. There’s a world tour on the horizon, with dates in China, both weekends at California’s Coachella festival and much more planned. Only two UK dates have been announced at present, but more are promised, including several festivals.

“The whole experience of celebrating the anniversary was really liberating, and remembering the way we used to work helped me make this new album, helped push me beyond what was easy.

“What’s easy becomes boring,” Hyde adds, “and I liked the fact that working with Rick has always involved being pushed beyond what’s comfortable.

“It was good to remember all of what we’ve done, but now I’m back to thinking, ‘What’s next?’”