EQ Web Exclusive: Underworld
By Ken Micallef
The November 2010 issue of EQ profiles electronic music pioneers Underworld. Here in this exclusive Web interview, we learn that guitars, vocals, production collaborations, Sam Shepard, and Lou Reed are just a few of Underworld’s favorite things.
Karl, how were your guitars recorded?
Karl Hyde: I use the same amp in studio as live: a 1970s Fender Bassmaster 12W combo. I put that through a Radial JDX, like a DI box between speaker and amp; it analyzes what comes out the speaker and gives you a very accurate picture of what’s happening between the speaker and the amp, and you take a feed off of that. I can mic the combo, but this gives me the same sound anywhere, onstage and in the studio. I also use a Dr. Z Airbrake Attenuator. It’s got a four-click position where you can turn down the volume output of the speaker so I can work very quietly. Onstage and in the studio it’s turned down to 4, so it’s attenuating a lot with not loads of sound coming out, but I am getting the same sound as if it was cranked up. I don’t use processing on the guitar in the studio until after it’s been recorded. I have some '70s Les Pauls, an '80s Les Paul, Telecasters.
What do you mean by singing “across the mic”?
Hyde: Across the leading surface of the mic, rather than straight at it with the mic in front of me. If you imagine you’ve got your mouth, then the pop shield, then the microphone in a straight line, I’m talking about going around the side of the microphone and you sing across it, rather than at it.
How do you get a good vocal take?
Hyde: Attitude is everything. And the groove, it speaks and I try to read it. It’s like reading a score. Very often, Rick has made a deeply inspiring groove and that speaks to me so strongly that I have to sing. I hear melody, rhythm, and words, and I will open up one of my notebooks and find a series of words I feel will fit the groove.
Your lyrics are unusual, to say the least. What inspires them?
Hyde: When Rick formed this version of Underworld in the late '80s he said, “You have to change the way you write, we can’t hang around for you waiting for you to collect and finish words.” Two things were given to me, a book by Sam Shepard called Motel Chronicles. It’s a series of vignettes with no beginnings or ends. They would describe a corner of a room or a motorcycle on a highway. Short pieces. That’s me, I can’t write beginnings and ends but I can write middles. And I got Lou Reed’s New York. It blew me away. Lou was singing conversational American. It was like overhearing a conversation in a restaurant or a bar. Brilliant. That’s what I’ve done for the past 20 years. I see the world as a series of fragments. We all see our day as fragments of things we see, smell, hear, taste. I put a pen in my hand and write it all down.
Was Barking more challenging in any way than previous Underworld records??
Hyde: At the end of the '80s and early '90s I worked as a session guitarist in the US and UK. I absolutely loved that challenge of when somebody says ‘It’s good, but…” I love that challenge. Underworld hadn’t done that. Rick would usually take a first take vocal and have to make something out of it. Sometimes he was fortunate, in the case of “Born Slippy” or “Moaner,” where that was it, I delivered the vocal from start to finish and it worked. Very often, Rick would have to take parts of the vocal and move them around and construct a track. But this time, he asked me to re-sing parts and I agreed.
Rick, how did working with all these different producers affect your working process?
Rick Smith: Eight out of the nine pieces were collaborations and each one was different. The producers brought something quite special: different colors, textures, and ideas. And they definitely helped us focus. These guys are active and working on a daily basis in these genres. We have been very active as well in our arena as a live electronic outfit. It was fabulous to have these very different ideas and takes on things. Sometimes coming right across the net, the result of their productions, the collaborations, was sometimes shocking. It might take hours to get my head around what someone had sent through.
What was the basic process working with the different producers?
Smith: We’d take it from the producers, they would return their parts to us, and we’d work some more, sometimes passing them back again. Like a jam, really, the communication. It felt fine to hand over our material to someone else, absolutely. It’s something I really desired. And although it’s not something we’ve done externally in the past, within what we do in Tomato and with Karl and I working together, the music is very much an open brief. The aim is always to pursue in your heart what you think is right.
Was their one track that came back radically different from your original?
Smith: That depends on how you measure change and how one defines radical. Every producer had a significant effect. In nearly every case I was surprised. When the mix came back from Dubfire I was surprised at how close to the original it was and yet how transformed I felt it was by a beautiful understanding of the tone poem Dubfire created. On “Always Loved A Film,” that came back and again, it seemed to hold true to what we’d sent them, but somehow felt very different. With “Hamburg Hotel,” Appleblim was so enthusiastic, he and Al Tourettes sent back a very different interpretation. Our response to that one was nearly final. I only wanted to discuss how the actual mix was rendered, we did a couple of edits, then sent back the edits to them and they reconstructed the mix with the edits in mind.
What is the current state of electronic music, in your opinion?
Smith: There are such huge changes in technology, and it’s transformed how everyone works. Even old-school engineers at Abbey Road are embracing plug-ins and software. Electronic music is in great shape; it’s going through huge changes constantly. And just the changes in the music business and just the ways which musicians and sound designers and engineers earn their living—the rate of change is phenomenal, and difficult for a lot of us to find our way and still earn a living within the industry.