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Underworld’s sensory overload

From Olympic ceremonies to underground design collectives, Bernard Zuel reflects on the unstoppable cultural force. Plus a mix by current Vivid LIVE Curator Ben Marshall

Bernard Zuel

A dance act by most measures, the duo of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith work also as tellers of fractured narratives, visual artists, conceptualists and chroniclers of a culture just out of the mainstream but within reach of it. There are always senses working overtime with Underworld – all senses.

“I believe we all see the world in a series of fragments and when I [write as I heard] it or experienced it … as a series of fragments coming at me fast: taste, smell, sight, sound, bits of conversation, my emotional impressions – it captured much more accurately the time and space I was in,” explained Hyde. “And when Rick takes it on and works with it, it actually seems to get more distilled, more specific.”

 

Rick Smith, Karl Hyde and Danny Boyle in front of the London Olympics site. Image: LOCOG.

Renaissance men

Hyde, a former arts student trained in the Fluxus philosophy of artistic process over finished product, and Smith, an amateur photographer-filmmaker, were founding members of the design collective Tomato.The collective established its reputation in the 1990s working across print, film, installations and advertising. Both also exhibit photographic work on the band’s website, while Hyde paints, sometimes as an alternative to music; sometimes as a spark for it.

“When I start to think too much in one discipline, I move to another,” he said.

Since ‘Born Slippy’ famously featured in Trainspotting, they’ve individually or together collaborated on mixed media projects with director Danny Boyle, scoring his stage adaptation of Frankenstein, his London Olympic Games opening ceremony, and his film Trance.

In 2007, the pair created a mini festival of music, art and cinema in Japan, The Oblivion Ball, which was a live painting performance of a fifty-by-ten-metre wall. A year later a broader exhibition of Tomato’s work was exhibited in New York

“It’s odd that somebody from a relatively poor, working class background feels comfortable in an art gallery, but I do,” said Hyde in an interview with Print. He built his 2013 solo album Edgeland in part on the evocative, elusive photographic images he collected on his travels.

“I remember being in art college and being pilloried by the head of painting because I was using kids’ crayons and cheap paper from an office equipment place. And that tickled me. So I use pencils, I use big chunks of lead and graphite, chalk, generally mineral white stuff.”

“When I start to think too much in one discipline, I move to another.”

 

Karl Hyde's 'BPM' (2013). Image: underworldlive.com.

The hole in the doughnut

As with the art, which for Hyde often is about what is hidden within layers, or scrubbed out leaving just an impression, the responses sparked by their music are beyond physical. Underworld lyrics consistently intrigue with their elliptical nature, only to then land solid blows with imagery that can shock with brutality or joy.

Take dubnobasswithmyheadman, the 1994 album which was in effect their debut as an electronic act, after a decade in various rock group incarnations. Listen to the record, described by UK music magazine Melody Maker as “a breathtaking hybrid that marks the moment that club culture finally comes of age and beckons to everyone”, and what you have is an unmistakeable sense of the UK at that time.

“I see porn dogs sniffing the wind, looking for something violent they could do,” sang Hyde, capturing the images, the uneasy dark and the lives of the post-Thatcher underclass. Meanwhile Smith’s music reflects the impact of London’s architecture on the Welsh-born musician, who would travel in from his then-home in Essex.

“The lights and the shapes just seemed to light a fire often”, he recalled in a 2014 documentary.

For Hyde, it was just about honesty in art. “I'd spent 10 years trying to write traditional lyrics and I realised that I couldn't do it. I actually couldn't explain how I felt traditionally. But if I went on journeys through cities, collecting things that I heard and I saw and I thought and I smelt and I tasted, I could tell you how I felt by the things I was attracted to. I was the hole in the doughnut: if I described the doughnut you might be able to work out what was going on in the hole.”

Underworld play the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall from May 31 to June 3 as part of Vivid LIVE. Get tickets here.

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