Capitalist fodder-makers or rightsmart bastards?

ART AND COMMERCE make strange bedfellows, but lately they seem to be satisfied ones. The justification for artists contributing to advertisements goes something like this: Someone’s got to foot the bill for paintings, poems, symphonies, and songs, whether it’s the NEA, the individual consumer, or Absolut vodka.


ARO.space, Wednesday, April 28

Depending on how you feel about this reasoning, members of the British trio Underworld are either creators of capitalist fodder or they’re right smart bastards. Singer/guitarist Karl Hyde and programmer Rick Smith are also members of the design/fashion/art/advertising collective Tomato. Aside from providing the mind-blowing visuals for Underworld’s live show, Tomato has worked on advertising for Nike, Reebok, and Adidas, as well as designing title credits for films, maintaining its own gallery, creating its own line of Casio watches, and completing many other projects that smack of both art and commerce.

This isn’t surprising if you consider that Hyde and Smith have been cogs in the music business wheel more than once in their careers. Both were members of the synth-pop band Freuer (minor hit you might remember: “Doot Doot”), which only lasted till the mid-’80s. Hyde then hired out as a guitarist with Debbie Harry, Prince, and others. Eventually, Hyde and Smith regrouped and called themselves Underworld. They released two records before 1990. No one noticed.

Then the duo hooked up with a DJ named Darren Emerson.

“I didn’t really know much about Rick and Karl before I met them,” Emerson recalls. “I didn’t know what their history was. I was becoming a successful DJ in London, and the next thing you want to do, once you’re doing that, is to get in the studio. Lucky enough, I met Rick through my friend who I’ve known for quite awhile. And it was Rick’s brother-in-law—my friend was. And he said, ‘Oh, he’s got a studio, why don’t you meet up?’ At the same time, Rick wanted to meet up with a young DJ, because they wanted to get into some dance grooves, and they didn’t really know much about dance music, but it was exciting to them.

“We sort of just clicked,” he concludes. “And now that I’m part of it, it’s a completely different sound.”

HYDE, SMITH, AND Emerson first recorded under the name Lemon Interrupt before returning to the Underworld moniker. The “new Underworld” debuted in 1993 with two breakthrough singles, “Rez” and “MMM . . . Skyscraper I Love You.” Later that year, they released the record Dubnobasswithmyheadman, which Melody Maker hyperbolically hailed as “the best debut ever.” The rest—one club anthem after another, a second acclaimed album, Second Toughest in the Infants, and a multitude of remixes for the likes of Bjork, Simply Red, and Massive Attack—is history. At least if you’re a fan of dance music or a follower of the British charts. To most Americans, however, Underworld is known (if at all) as “that group from Trainspotting“—it’s their dark, insistent track “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” that drives home the film’s final scene.

So it is that Underworld, now a good 10 years old, is poised to become Big in America. Its brand-new third album, Beaucoup Fish, is yet another expert manipulation of beats, sonic tension, and release. Simmering and perfectly constructed, the record approaches techno/pop fusion from the dance floor, not from behind a guitar amp. This gives the tracks a subtlety and flow missing from recent electronic-music smashes by the likes of Fatboy Slim.

On the evidence of the rabid response to Underworld’s four-city US tour last fall, America is ready to embrace this broader range. “The scene out there is getting quite big now,” Emerson opines. “There’s enough people having a good time—with us, anyway.” He laughs. “As long as we’re having a good time, that’s all that matters.”

Aiding Underworld’s American invasion are two commercial elements—vocals and faces. The trio doesn’t just include vocals, it makes them equal to the music’s other ingredients, even if they’re just loops of a one-word sample. Hyde plays with word patterns and repetition like Mark E. Smith practicing Buddhist chants. Beaucoup Fish even includes a number of vocals from other sources. Smith’s recordings of Cajun fishermen discussing a sale at Wal-Mart weave in and out of “Jumbo.” A female voice clinically describes the late king of martial arts on the herky-jerky “Bruce Lee,” and an Asian man reads a description of illegal Japanese snake fights on the record’s epic centerpiece “Shudder/King of Snake.”

Hyde, Smith, and Emerson are easily identifiable, especially when they get on stage. Visuals from Tomato members Jason Kedgleyx and Graham Wood, not to mention a lack of pre-programming, distinguish them from many of their electronic peers. “It’s a proper jam. We haven’t got a set list or anything like that,” Emerson says enthusiastically. “Of course, we’re [obliged] to do ‘Born Slippy’ quite a lot because people want to hear the hits, but because we play them nearly every night, at least we can sort of strip it down and do a new version. So we can keep on changing it.”

With all these advantages, Underworld just might enjoy art and commerce at their most basic: thousands of patrons plunking down $20 for 75 minutes of music.