School's out. Underworld are back and ready to play. Time to down rulers and dump the rules about how to create, consume and categorize dance music. The beautifully blurred clarity of the Underworld playworld, germinated, perfected, dissected, stretched and re-pollinated over their ten year reign as The Planet's Most Inventive Producers Of Free Electronics, is once again open for visitors.
Three years on from their last studio album, and two years after the release of their award winning DVD ('Everything Everything'), the fourth Underworld album arrives in 2002 bearing the title 'A Hundred Days Off' and healthily glowing with evidence that after ten years of summoning up the highest quality dance rooted music around, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith can still do it, with dignity - and crucially, after the departure of longserving DJ colleague Darren Emerson, can still clean up on the dancefloor.
Smith/Hyde Productions went on a drift dive for 'A Hundred Days Off'. Deliberately freeing themselves to make whatever kind of music their muse dictated, they floated into uncharted waters and then, paradoxically. found a way to re-connect with their core virtues.
Recognizably Underworld, it's also a more sensual version. The great locked in grooves shift and dissolve, giving way to looped blues and installation music calm. Techno kinetics fuse with carnival percussion. Soulful, sexy and supple, they have again created a soundstream for the times. It sounds like a record made by people who feel alright with themselves. It sounds less under, and more world.
'A Hundred Days Off' is a form of re-birth for singer/producer Hyde and producer/producer Smith, both in terms of music and attitude. Enjoyment has been prioritised. Feeling good has been sanctioned. Such was the momentum created by their singular tapping into the energies of cusp of 80s/90s acid house that they somewhat hurtled through the last decade. From a DIY starter single in 1990, via the poignant and groundbreaking debut techno'n'guitar album 'Dubnobasswithmyheadman' in 1993, they swiftly ascended to 'generation soundtracker' status, aided by and lumbered with the million selling 1996 Trainspotting featured, accidental hit 'Born Slippy (Nuxx)'.
Of all the rave spawned supergroups of the 90s, Underworld turned into the most elegant live phenomenon. They became the touchstone of 'high-end electronica', pushing for a better quality delirium, with Karl as frontman, the finest embodiment of earthly soul as vessel, outside of a gospel church. Live shows were definitive; Karl the cipherboy/neurobyteman transported by a flux of power, and Emerson and Smith jamming and coaxing the music so it planed like Moroder in a bobslay.
Underworld's music as we knew it across ensuing albums, was also uniquely human for a supposed techno band. They got into the cracks of moods that dance music rolled over. They were never simply futuristic and gleaming. You could hear the city whisper in their songs. Its lonesome KFCs and Europas. There were teeth strewn about in Karl Hyde's memory trigger, moment-trawling word-bites. This was dance music that allowed you to have it, or chill, depending on the tune, but also let your mind romp. No other band, let alone dance band, were so beautifully opaque.
As God mixed the last decade into the new millenium, Underworld finished off the touring that had run on from their third album, the Mercury Prize nominated, foxy and contemplative 'Beaucoup Fish'. The final show was in Tokyo in November 2000. Along the way Darren Emerson decided to make a commitment to his own music and DJing career. For the first time ever, Rick and Karl were playing as a duo, and despite early nerves, found at their London Astoria two-piece debut, that their live strengths were undiminished and fans just as ardent. A new equilibrium was established as they settled back into the studio in their home territory of Romford, Essex to finish work on the book-ending Underworld DVD and live album 'Everything, Everything', and to plan for recording. The next phase of Underworld was underway.
"With this album we decided to close everything down except doing the album," says Rick. "Because we've never done that before. In the last ten years we'd always been open to projects with Tomato or doing remixes or working with other people. Always there'd be more than one thing happening at once, and with this one we thought, it's time to stop everything and just dwell on making a record. The idea was 'lets follow our nose for six months of writing and see where it leads us."
"The DVD closed a chapter for me," explains Karl. "I guess I'd always been holding on to the idea of lets keep this thing going, lets perpetuate this thing that we'd started in the early 90s, because some people might not have seen it, and we were on a roll. Eventually that felt quite draining. And when the DVD happened it was such a definitive document of where that group had arrived, at that point, that it felt like we could close a chapter.
"So for myself, psychologically, there wasn't a sense of needing to perpetuate anything, or hold onto anything. It was a bit like starting the group all over again in a way. Which it kind of was, and wasn't. Because we'd been together 22 years and it hadn't been just the two of us. So there was a sense of a real unburdening and then just cutting loose and saying lets try anything and see where we go.
"In a way there was a sense of relief when Darren left, because then all three of us could all get on and do the things that we wanted to do without some of the tensions that had been increasing over the years. He got on to do whatever he wanted, completely unhindered and so did we, and in all the years we've been making albums together I haven't known an album be so light on stress as this one."
Focusing on just the music was not as easily achieved as Karl and Rick had hoped. Mixes and live shows could be turned down painlessly. The offer which arrived to set up an installation in Japan was harder to reject. Years of looking for opportunites to blend the band's sound aesthetics with ideas circulating in Tomato (the multi-media design agency they helped found) meant the concept was tempting.
"But then you look at it and go, yeah, but what we do is music, and our primary objective is to communicate through music," says Karl. "So that for myself was a focusing moment."
There were further problems with Underworld getting the creative blinkers on. There were internet broadcasts to research.The website linked through the DVD -Underworldlive.com - was demanding audio and visual input. Karl had his work cut out supplying the 365 photos of sofas (!) he'd promised to the site (not to mention the images of abandoned cars he was collating for his own pleasure).
Then in the early phase of recording, the attempt to continue the live vibe of jamming 'celebratory, 'full force' style tunes proved unworkable. The more 'banging' pieces only came once they'd given up, "got comfortable with the fact that we were making music which wasn't our expectation", and decided to work on more ambient ideas. The gestation of the album may have been unstressed but the perversity of Underworlds work process was as present as ever. At one stage 'A Hundred Days Off' looking like a quadruple album. Then just at the point Karl decided he couldn't tolerate a more condensed record, Rick set his heart on a tight 10 tracker.
'A Hundred Days Off' adds a further paradox to those already established. The Kings Of Robo Electronica with the 'art nutter' poetry, the 80s blokes signing the future of music, the experimental musos with the chart hits, took a closer interest in natural rhythms and world musics this time.
"A big difference with this record was the amount of music I was getting played by Karl and Steve (Hall - from their label JBO) particularly," says Rick. "And unlike any other album before, this was very different. There was this incredible diversity of material which was fantastic most of the time - world music, beautiful recordings of indigenous tribes playing god knows what, and it was really great.
"In terms of going out, I did less than I've ever done, but in terms of what was inspiring it was fantastic, this realization that there was a whole world of music out there."
With breakbeat dissection taking a backseat to real instruments and the palette expanded with the odd trip to Ray Man's Percussion Shop to buy 'toys', the album evolved in an atmosphere of relative contentment. Perhaps that's why the darker currents swirling through tracks like those on 'Second Toughest' are less evident this time. In the broadest sense, 'I00 Days Off' is a soulful record. It starts where you might expect an Underworld record to begin, with Karl intoning "I dreamed that I'd become chemical," over the surging kinetics of 'Momove'. Even here, though, there's a Brazilian rhythmic undertow. 'Two Months Off' kicks hard, but isn't there an echo of rejoicing (wedding) bells in there, as Karl sings 'You bring light in" over and over.
For each funky symphonic tech-epic ('Little Speaker'*), heavily spiked motortechno groove ('Dinosaur Adventure 3D'), and shadowy stomper - ('Luetin') theres a brace of warm dippers. 'Trim' is looped, but nearly straight folk blues (with a genius Hyde micro-lyric "Hey classic Coca-Cola!"). 'Ess Gee' is a pearl of softness. 'Sola Sistim' sets a self-doubting lyric against huggable phunk. The famously complex and unfathomable Underworld working process clearly benefited from the relaxed approach, hinted at in the album's title.
"The title was something that one of the kids came up with that really amused us because it was such a universal notion," explains Rick. "We were talking about taking time off and they were like, 'Wouldn't it be great if you only had to go to school one day, and it'd be great for the teachers because they'd get loads of time off and they wouldn't have to work so hard!'.
"So its justifying this notion that you only go to school for one day in every hundred. And it's got such a universal application. And then there's that track 'Two Months Off'. So we're quite obsessed with this notion. But in a way, it goes quite deep. When we started ten years ago, even at Tomato, and we asked each other what you want to do? For Karl and I, it was simply to enjoy what we did, and now we've done it for ten years, and you have to make choices about how to do it.
"There's a lot about this business that conspires to grind you down to the point where you'd better take a fuckin' break, because you're really washed out now, so the quality of life and relaxation is important, because its your state of mind when you turn up in a studio."
The mind frame of Underworld though the 90s was hugely affected by their 80s experiences as funk pop freaks Freur. Kraftwerk and dub fan Rick had met art student Karl at Cardiff University and graduated to surface pop success with 'learning curve' band. Freur had a number one Euro hit but by the end of the 80s had crashed out the other side. A still funky early incarnation of Underworld had gone nowhere. In 1990 Rick and Karl were broke in Romford, sick of the fake end of the music business and as the effects of acid house and ecstasy spread, starting to try out open framed electronic music.
The early involvement of local boy and rising DJ Darren Emerson helped them convert on the dancefloor. With a legendary 10 hour set at Glastonbury festival, aka 12 inches as Lemon Interupt and an alliance with JBO, they started a chain reaction which had them oscillating between the underground and mass success for ten years. From the inside it was a decade of megagigs, Amercian tours, drink and no drink, exhaustion, delirium, separate studios, movie soundtrack typecasting, sideprojects, U2, art movies, failed self explanation, retreats and advances. From the outside it was a catenation of dazzling, puzzling, mostly uplifting tunes, from 'Mmm Skyscraper' and 'Dark And Long' through 'Born Slippy', 'Push Upstairs' and 'King Of Snake'. They were the conscience of dance music, but a lot more fun.
"We were very much part of the scene I think for a short period of time," says Karl. "And then for a bit longer than that we belonged to dance music, and in some ways people like us are to blame for blurring the distinction between genres and that's been good for us. Its enabled us to get across to a wider audience, and as the audience that we did have in the begining has fragmented, we've managed to cross over to a lot more people.
"Dance music was the first thing that was really focussed for me, because when you said you were into rock or into pop or funk or any of those things, we weren't really, and they were so general. When it became about making music that was to do a specific job - and I don't mean that as a soulless activity - people voted with their feet. They got on the dance floor because we put out a good record, or not. And that experience was really rare for us. Before, it had been only marketing people who had said this is going to be great, the people who added up the numbers and it turned into an equation that looked on paper as if it was going to do OK.
"We dispensed with all of that and became part of something that was very immediate. Make something, take it to a club, play it and you got a reaction. And it was such a simple experience, there was nothing vague about it, and it stuck with is. And its translated into live - What works? This works!"
Underworld clearly transcended simple efficacy a longtime ago. The remarkable thing about their current state, is that even after the long years of learning and exploring, they are further from a musical formula than ever. For Rick, the fourth Underworld album has been another series of discoveries, leaving him hungry to make the next record, instead of sapped of ideas.
"Its absurd the notion that we can get a grip and choose a direction," he says. "The music that we make is such a collison of accidents. We've done technical magazine interviews because you want to try and put the record straight and describe the working process, but its absolutely fucking useless, its no clearer in the end, because the truth is we don't know how we do what we do.
"I sometimes wish that it was simpler, and I know Karl does. You sometimes wish you were a straight up blues band or Carlos Santana or Paul Oakenfold, and go 'Look ,this is what I do...'. Because sometimes the thing somebody thinks is great about Underworld is what actually gives us a problem.
"But it feels great to be finishing now, just to get out and play live and have less of the Romford studio experience where everything's calm. It's good to get out there now, because there are a different set of givens. Like its Saturday night and you're on at 9 o'clock. Are you going to do any ambient music? You've got to be fuckin joking! We've got no desire to turn into Pink Floyd yet. Its party time."
Back where they belong at the centre of the dirty discourse about where's the good music in 2002, and what constitutes a top night out, Underworld are re-aligned and recharged. The jamming is good again. They're back to big production live shows, and set to tour, kicking formally off with the summer Creamfields in the UK. Then they have a whole studio to relocate, many half ideas to pursue, and two happily integrated, whole lives to lead. The midnight train from Romford has a long way to go before if pulls into the station.
"I think as long as we have the capacity to surprise one another and embrace change, the doors are open," says Karl. "It's kind of been about that for the last ten years whereas it wasn't really about that before. I feel really lucky that its gone on this long, to have come through two careers prior to this and then the last ten years and then we're still here and still getting off on it. How does that work?"
It's not something to figure out on a schoolday. The best thing about Underworld might well be the not knowing how, whether exactly, or whatever next.