They came in on waves of static. Just as the sun’s last rays went out. They surged higher and higher with tongues of fire and deep rumbling currents in the low end, like a power station that was about to blow. Then slowly, like pinballs ricocheting in flashes of orange and blue and red, a wall of sound opened onto a blinding light.
At 7,000 feet above sea level, people had climbed to look out on a new era, and as the melodies of “Rez” broke free in ecstatic dots and weaves, the drums kicking up dust, everyone leaned in and let go. And the mountain moved …
Ten years before Daft Punk rocked the American pop landscape at Coachella 2006, the British techno band Underworld pointed the way at the historic Organic music festival on June 22, 1996, in the San Bernardino highlands near Big Bear outside Los Angeles. Their performance that night on a cool mountain is still talked about by everyone who was there.
Now, 19 years later almost to the day, on June 21, as the summer kickoff of KCRW’s World Music Festival series, they return to celebrate their 1994 breakout album Dubnobasswithmyheadman and to reconnect EDM Central with its rave heritage — at the Hollywood Bowl, no less.
Based in London, Underworld’s Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have a long history in L.A. Having played Organic and the first Coachella music festival in 1999, along with key events for Hard and Ultra in the 2000s, their influence on the West Coast electronic music scene is immense.
Bassnectar identifies them as one of his biggest influences. L.A.-based Dutch producer Junkie XL, who recently scored Mad Max: Fury Road, looked to Dubnobass for inspiration on his 2012 album Synthesized. Underworld’s dance anthems have helped soundtrack Burning Man and Insomniac’s Electric Daisy Carnival for years — Bassnectar’s remix of “Rez” was the peak of EDC's extraordinary Night Owl Experience, a theatrical, audiovisual presentation of rave's past, present and future.
“EDM didn’t just appear out of nowhere,” says Jason Bentley, KCRW’s music director. “If we’re talking about the longevity of a music, you need to understand its roots and where it came from. That’s Underworld.”
If Daft Punk’s first two albums strove for the mystique of Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Thriller (and led to the French robots parroting Quincy Jones on 2013’s Random Access Memories), then Underworld’s dirty epic — one of electronic music’s greatest achievements — drives in the other direction. Like Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures or Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, Dubnobass is futuristic blues laced with pop defiance, forever bleeding on the edge.
“The whole Dubnobass thing is very dark and the lyrics are incredibly dark,” says Hyde. “And Rick set them to this very positive music…for us it was an upside-down sound. The first thing you encountered was this upbeat music that made you feel good and then sometime later, ‘Wait a minute?’”
“Musically, you heard a weird fusion of electronics and synth patterns,” says Bentley. “But also the Western guitar, the idea of the West as being full of possibilities, but dangerous and sinister. All of that was combining in a really cool and unique way.”
Last October, Underworld kicked off an acclaimed series of shows performing Dubnobass for the first time in full. I traveled to Germany this past March to see the last show of Underworld’s European tour leg and to catch up with the band. There, in the city of Cologne — where Hyde and Smith first traveled in 1982 to record with the late Conny Plank, the producer behind Kraftwerk’s Autobahn — I spoke with Hyde about how Underworld are still evolving, one twist and turn at a time.
“How do you take a group that has been together for 36 years, going through all sorts of emotional changes, dealing with boredom, disgruntlement, dealing with all kinds of regular pressures that bands have, that mean they ultimately break up?” asks Hyde. “And yet we didn't, because we decided not to. Like a marriage really, when things aren't going well, what is the solution when the solution isn't to break up?
“The solution is to find solutions. Gradually, by increments, Rick and I have found solutions which has resulted in quite honestly this being the best tour I've done in my life. And Rick would say the same.”
Smith, who was ill for several shows in Europe, including Cologne, would sometimes be well enough to join Hyde and third live member DJ Darren Price on stage. Other nights he would be at the out-front desk taking in the sound, adjusting dynamics from the audience’s point of view.
“Each day you're tweaking stuff and improving things,” says Hyde of their improvisations. “Everybody, the whole team, is feeling that. Rick was on stage for a couple shows. Then he wasn't. And then he was. Then he's on the out-front and I can feel him. He's feeding back to me, more like a Formula One racing team. So me and my co-driver is now out there on the pit wall. We're feeding telemetry backwards and forwards to each other.”
This is Underworld at their best, a helter-skelter zigzag into the future. They don’t need 3D-mapped LED sculptures because the super-dimensionality promised by EDM is inside the band itself, their history, their musicianship, their ideas.
“It was outsider music. And that's the whole point.” – Karl Hyde
“For me, I had this concept that strangeness was created in Germany,” says Hyde, who credits the late BBC radio DJ John Peel for opening him to the wonders of machine music. “It came to the U.K. where it was translated into something that was understandable by mass culture, then it went onto America where it was made huge. And then it came back to Germany, where German kids wanted to copy it, because they definitely didn't take bands like Kraftwerk seriously at all. They laughed.
“This is the first city Rick and I ever flew to. We were picked up here in 1982, the winter of 1982, with completely freaked out crimped hair, wearing pearls and fake diamond necklaces, all made up in plastic clothes, by these techno hippies in this huge yellow German troop carrier. ‘Ah ya! Are you zee group from England? Good, good, get in!’ It was an amazing experience.
“It was outsider music. And that's the whole point. And I look back on it afterwards, and that music that we've been drawn to is outsider music. It's dub reggae, it's that kind of Jamaican underground culture. It's this music that came out of post-war Germany, of a youth that didn't want to be like their parents who they were not feeling connected with for various reasons. So they wanted to make their own music. So they found these machines that made completely different sounds.”
While the trans-Atlantic pinball game infiltrated rock and dance music, the West Coast was absorbing it all through the warped filter of distance and time. Slowly at first, and then with ever growing velocity.
Egil Aalvik, who came to L.A. from Sweden in 1976 and joined KROQ in 1982, was a soul and funk radio DJ back in Malmö and Stockholm. Aalvik became known as “Swedish Egil” and would go onto create the EDM stations MARS-FM and Groove Radio in the ‘90s. His shows still run today on Sirius XM and the Web.
At KROQ, Aalvik was responsible for bringing in new music, playing night shifts and hosting the popular Dance Music Countdown. In 1983, he discovered the dreamy gem “Doot-Doot” by Underworld’s early incarnation, Freur. “I always really liked that song,” he says. “That's a great memory for me, that song.”
Even after changing their band's name to Underworld, Smith and Hyde's '80s albums only hinted at their future sound. One such hint, the moody “Sole Survivor” from 1989‘s Change the Weather, nods with huge bass slides under rolling metal beats, foreshadowing the vertical drops of dubstep and the sparkle of electroclash. Hyde’s vocals sting too, his lyric “At the bottom of a shaft, at the bottom of a mine shaft” slinging over the surfing groove, his electric guitar screaming like a banshee in response. Like “Doot-Doot,” it’s a timeless breakthrough.
You get the sense talking to Underworld that they’re queasy about some of this. Even a twinge afraid. Talking to Hyde last year for the 20th anniversary of Dubnobass, I heard the pain in his voice about the career wreck they endured in the ‘80s.
While many of the tropes that haunt Underworld’s ‘80s work became uncool by the ‘90s, the perspective of time reveals something deeper. Listening to 1988’s Underneath the Radar and the following year's Change the Weather reveals a band right at the edge of a dividing line that would redefine modern music.
It was as if Underworld were a techno act stuck in a rock band’s body, like spacemen marooned on a caveman planet, with only rocks and sticks to make their escape back to outer space. And it’s space — the interminable expanse found in electronic music — that you can sense between every beat, synth and vocal, something Plank and Kraftwerk taught them early, that connects all their music.
“What we loved about Kraftwerk was they would have this very accurate machine music and then this humanity that would move across the beat, and that was very exciting,” says Hyde. “That energy where the two meet and cross and leave each other where something is on the beat and slightly off the beat.”
In 1989, with minor hits “Underneath the Radar” and “Stand Up” winning them a spot on the Eurythmics’ farewell U.S. tour, Hyde and Smith thought they had finally arrived. But from the get-go, something was off. Their studio acumen fizzled in the large stadiums they played.
The very last show was in L.A. at the Universal Amphitheatre.
Scott Warner, who would build and run Underworld’s first website Dirty.org from 1996 to 2003, won tickets to the show. He was an L.A. teenager with a taste for New Order, who the same year would fall in love with acid house when he heard 808 State’s “Pacific State” on KROQ driving home from the beach. He had no idea who Underworld were that night.
“The crowd hated them from the moment they were on,” he says. “At one point, Karl said to the audience, ‘This is the song that brought us to America.’ I remember someone shouting, ‘Go back!’”
The tour was an unmitigated disaster for Underworld. Their label Sire dropped them soon after. Years later, when Warner became a fan of their ‘90s output, he did a double-take: “When I learned their names, they sounded familiar to me. ‘Is that the band I saw that night that were terrible? That’s crazy! How did that happen?’ It was mind-blowing.”
At one point, “Karl had seven dollars in his pocket,” Warner remembers Hyde telling him. Smith also went into debt, returning to England and trying to pay down the costs of their studio and gear. But Hyde stayed in L.A., with more punishment to come.
“It was difficult because when your band falls to pieces, that's quite a blow, and I didn't really know what I wanted to do and I was still hanging onto past ideas,” says Hyde.
He remembers one rough day in particular at Ocean Way studios, where The Beach Boys once recorded “Good Vibrations,” doing session work for a Terri Nunn solo album (famous for her hits “Sex” and “Metro” in the local band Berlin). “I couldn't play these pop chords and bar chords,” he says. “I'd grown up playing funk. I knew I was off the session. They were looking at me, ‘Can you leave the control room? We just need to talk about something.’”
While the producers talked over his fate, Hyde asked the engineer to set up a combo for him on a drum machine. “He set up a combo for my guitar and I just started playing this really fast funk,” Hyde says. “I was just there for 20 minutes getting into this real high-speed funk. And then the engineer came in and went, ‘The producer would like to see you.’”
“I'm like, ‘OK, this is where I get the bullet.’ I walked in and the producer went, ‘I didn't know you could play like that.’ They had put a mic on and they were listening to me cause the kid had gone back in and said ‘You should hear.’ I went, ‘Yeah, I play to machines. I lock on. … If you want me to slow down and up I can, I just thought you wanted me to do true tempo.’ Then all of a sudden the whole session turned around. When they discovered me jamming to a drum machine, they realized I could play.”
For some time, Hyde and Smith went back and forth on what to do next. They knew the landscape was changing fast. Ultimately it was Smith, who had started working with U.K. DJ Darren Emerson, that pushed the group into the techno hinterlands.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Rick on that,” says Hyde. “He'd sat in the back seat for 10 years where I'd been dictating how we should go like this and we should go like that. Nothing worked. So finally when things fell to bits at the end of the '80s and we were left in L.A., Rick, I think a switch flipped in his head, and he went, ‘That's enough. That's absolutely enough.’”
Over the next three years they radically changed their approach, turning Hyde’s vocals into a kind of weapon, slowed down, sped up, cut up, whirling, whispering, swaggering. His guitar flashed like a knife in a street fight, riffs zipping by like reflections on windshield glass. And underneath rolled a driving groove or a gentle patter, the future shock of Smith's electronic shapes setting fire.
While there were other '80s artists who tried to make the leap into the ‘90s — Paul Rutherford of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Dave Ball of Soft Cell as one half of The Grid, even Boy George — Underworld are arguably the only ones of their generation that truly stepped through to the future, transforming themselves almost beyond recognition. It’s one of the great Houdini escapes in music history.
Another KROQ listener in the ‘80s who would find his way to rave culture was Bentley, who moved to L.A. from Boston as a kid. He has now booked Underworld twice for the Hollywood Bowl. Also a fan of “Doot-Doot” — “I loved that song” — he first rediscovered Underworld through “Rez” and Dubnobasswithmyheadman.
“I was totally sober but I remember having this near psychedelic experience with the song ‘Mmm Skyscraper I Love You,’” he says. “I was hearing these weird things like the voices were coming from different directions. It was just a trip.”
“They had this weird influence at the time, this Western guitar kind of feeling. It always made me think about the vast possibilities of life and music. I also guess I was picking up on that I had grown up with synth pop and electronic pop through the ‘80s, and this was just a real progressive statement. It was taking some of those sounds and possibilities and drawing them out over six, seven, ten minutes in these sort of epic tracks.”
In 1993 and ‘94, the L.A. rave scene was also in retreat. Promoters were calling the cops on one another. Greed had set in after the initial rave explosion from 1989 to 1992. The authorities were clamping down. Aalvik’s MARS-FM, which was broadcasting rave anthems and house music 24/7 from 1991 to 1992, had gone under.
Hyde, who had ironically missed paths with other British expats in L.A. who were helping build the rave scene with like-minded yanks, was back in London cooking up a booster shot with Smith and Emerson. Underworld’s new music streamed back to the West Coast right when the underground needed it most. At the renegade Moontribe desert parties in the Mojave and around the city’s outskirts, Underworld tracks like “Dark Train,” “Surfboy,” “Cowgirl,” “Spikee,” “Thing in a Book” and the instrumental version of “Born Slippy” — a click-clack breakbeat anthem blazing with an electric fire — became staples, keeping feet moving and visions flowing.
That commitment inspired others, like promoter Philip Blaine, who would mastermind Organic in 1996. “The reason why I was really into them to be one of those key bands to bring over was because their first album was just amazing driving music,” he says. “I was going for locations, whether they be legal or illegal back then. I just found myself on those backroads through Joshua Tree, and any type of winding or just long roads, Underworld would be great. For me it was the perfect music.”
Blaine, who made producing events with live electronic acts his specialty (he brought Daft Punk to the Mayan Theatre in 1997), developed his own feedback loop with Bentley, who played ambient, techno and house every weeknight on his KCRW show Metropolis. Bentley would promote Blaine's shows on air and, when possible, play opening DJ sets for the promoter's events at the American Legion Hall, the Shrine and the Palladium.
In 1996, Blaine found out that several of England’s top electronic acts were available for a steal. Arranged by Gerry Gerrard's Chaotica agency, Underworld, The Chemical Brothers, Orbital, The Orb and Meat Beat Manifesto would all take an even cut that the event producers could afford. KROQ also agreed to broadcast the main stage live. Goldenvoice’s Paul Tollett joined in, as did Pasquale Rotella of Insomniac, who helped get the word out at raves and clubs.
[pullquote-2]But they only had about four weeks to drive sales. They needed 7,500 tickets sold to break even, says Blaine. They missed the mark and lost money, but he says it was worth it.
“This all happened about three and a half weeks from the date they were going to be available,” he says. “So here I am trying to do one of the biggest shows of my life and I only have three and a half weeks to promote it. And we needed to do six to eight thousand people to make it work. We were still pushing the numbers. Creatively we knew we had to do it. It was definitely a unique moment in time.”
Anticipation was perhaps greatest for Underworld. The others had all played L.A. in some capacity before. Everyone in the rave scene had heard rumor of Underworld’s amazing live shows. Along with Orbital, they were known as leading lights in this regard, at a time when most American dance music acts had no live show to speak of.
“They were really the headliner,” says Bentley. “Which was significant, because there were some really great bands on the bill: The Chemicals, Meat Beat Manifesto, Orbital and The Orb. But they were the most exciting act on the bill.”
A central chapter in Michaelangelo Matos’ essential new book on the history of American EDM, The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America, casts Organic as EDM’s Woodstock, as well as a false dawn. For those who were there, it was unforgettable. I was there, and at Daft Punk’s groundbreaking Coachella performance ten years later. To me, Underworld at Organic was every bit as important, if not more so, because it was so ahead of its time. It was the call to Daft Punk’s response, from one peak to another. Without it, that sci-fi pyramid might never have landed.
“To me it was my Woodstock,” says Warner. “At that point everything was culminating in my super engagement with this music. I’m aware now there was a lot of interest behind the scenes. KROQ was involved. People were looking for the ‘next big thing.’ My experience is unspoiled by that. My key memory was how fucking cold it was. There was a kid who made a fortune selling dust masks … [dust was] kicking up everywhere.”
Underworld went on right after sundown. Hyde needed to have oxygen on stage to battle the altitude. “What I really liked was the stage didn't have a back to it and of course in Europe all the stages have backs to them,” says Hyde. “It didn't have a back to it because of the wind. I was like,‘Man, this is like Woodstock. That stage didn't have a back to it either. Oh my god! This is incredible!’”
“It felt really connected to something, because Woodstock as a kid to me had just blown my head,” he says, his voice rising. “It was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen: Richie Havens, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Santana. … And so for me, we were connecting with a part of American culture that was key, that was in my blood.”
It seemed like Underworld were channeling just such a moment for a new generation. “Karl Hyde was on it for sure,” remembers Blaine. “His performance is beyond just being a musician. He's almost like Broadway, theatrical. He was really going for it. I remember it being amazing. I remember the sound being epic.”
“Underworld put their own character around this,” says Warner. “At Organic, they did a great job mixing their music live. Every show they changed things up. They would react to the crowd. Being musicians a decade before that, they understood how to perform.”
Erasing the demons of 1989, Underworld instantly drew the crowd in. Organic’s surround sound gave the dance floor, which was at an angle on the Snow Valley Resort ski slope, a vertiginous spin. But it was far from dizzying. Instead, the incline seemed to swoosh everyone within Underworld’s sonic storm as it pulsed out in crashing waves.
From the ode to joy of “Rez” to Hyde singing “I’m invisible” on the roller-coasting thriller “Cowgirl,” flying into the warping funk of “Juanita” and the head-spinning rhythms of “Pearl’s Girl,” to the brooding liquid electricity of “Cherry Pie” and the scratching synth static of “Rowla,” Underworld jammed through a continuous set of pure kinetic energy.
Climaxing with the original instrumental of “Born Slippy,” they closed their performance with the hopeful chords of its alternate “NUXX” mix — a month later, the American public would hear it in the finale of Danny Boyle’s sensational Trainspotting film. Putting his arms around Smith and Emerson, the three of them riding high, Hyde thanked Organic and wished everyone a safe night.
“Underworld performing live at Organic was one of the first times I actually got to see dance music live that I would hear DJs like Taylor and Sandra Collins play at underground parties around Los Angeles,” says Jenn Harrison, who threw the weekly club night Metropolis from 1993 to 1998. “The uniqueness of Karl’s voice added such a human and emotional element to the music and to see them on stage, like a rock band, made them so unique. I’ve seen them perform four or five times since, and they continue to innovate and pave the way.”
“This was a peak, a culminating moment,” says Bentley, who notes it happened before social media and YouTube. “But it ended up not really translating. There’s a few highlights, including Prodigy debuting at number one with The Fat of the Land, and a show like Organic. But it just didn’t take. It didn’t blow to the next level. So things kind of retreated back underground a bit.”
Underworld continued to push forward, returning to L.A. three more times before the end of the ‘90s. Their first appearance after Organic was at the Mayan Theatre in 1998 to promote their fifth album, Beaucoup Fish, which introduced new classics like “Jumbo” and “King of Snake.” The next was the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, where attendees remember the whole dance floor bouncing, everyone jumping up and down in unison.
“The floor was on hydraulics and the floor was just rocking backwards and forwards because people were dancing up and down so much,” recalls Hyde. “I remember flying out of LAX and coming out over and looking back on Playa Del Rey, where I lived in ’89. ‘Wow, what happened? I don't understand. I used to look at that city and shudder, and now I'm looking at it with love and fondness.’ This other tribe came out. They heard the call and thank god they did.”
Just five months later, they would return again as headliners, along with The Chemical Brothers, for the first Coachella, which was heavy on electronic music in its early years. “I've got an old pair of trousers made out of parachute, from Maharishi, really old-school, and they got this tear on them,” chuckles Hyde. “I tore it walking on stage to Coachella. Every time I look at it, ‘Oh yeah, that's Coachella.’”
“It wasn't so unusual to have alternative cooler rock mixed with dance music,” says Aalvik, who heavily promoted the first Coachella festivals on his Groove Radio program. “Because it wasn't pop dance and it wasn't pop bands. It was the alternative side of both things. And that's why I think Underworld so perfectly fit that bill, because that's exactly what they are.”
“When you have that kind of body of work, there’s a halo effect around everything you do,” says Bentley, who agrees Underworld helped bring a forward-thinking crowd to Coachella to establish credibility. “If you just have a bigger creative vision, there is just more to go along with that.”
Blaine, who worked for many years with Goldenvoice, says Tollett was partly inspired by Organic to give Coachella a real go. “Of course he was more influenced by European festivals,” he says. “But seeing a young whipper snapper like myself put together Organic gave him a little bit of a fire under his feet.”
At the end of the ‘90s, Emerson retired from Underworld. Hyde and Smith were back to a duo. As dance music changed to a less ecstatic register in the 2000s, with 9/11 and the Great Recession damping the global party, Underworld’s music changed, too. Once again, they evolved.
[pullquote-3]“I went over to there on one of my trips to the U.K.,” says Warner. “We were talking and Rick says, ‘You want to hear something?’ And he played me the song ‘8 Ball’ that ended up on Danny Boyle’s The Beach. The first several minutes of the track I’m thinking, ‘I’m not sure I like this.’ But then it just opened up big. And I thought, ‘They are doing something now I’ve never heard before, again.’ They’ll just keep going.”
“All the mistakes we ever made in the '80s, stood us in really good stead,” says Hyde. “That's why it's like, ‘Don't split up!' Because you've got all that information and knowledge so you can say, in the early/mid-'90s, when all the major record companies who had turned us down — and I'm very grateful that they did — came knocking with big bags of money, and said, ‘Forget little JBO Records.’ We were like, ‘No I don't think so.' Because JBO delivered and they were the first ones that delivered.
“It's money. It was hard to say to people, ‘Take less money and you'll have more fun and you'll do whatever you want to do.’ Some of our friends became multimillionaires and they did incredibly well and they remained very nice people. It just wasn't for us. We just knew that would have killed us.”
Watching the U.K. rave scene falter at the end of the ‘90s with superstar DJs and big money, Underworld and their home label Junior Boy's Own (JBO) went back to the drawing board. The span from 2002’s A Hundred Days Off and 2007’s Oblivion With Bells saw them dipping deeper into experimentation and reflection. Though they played rousing shows at the Wiltern Theatre (2002) and Coachella (2003), they relaxed some, helping score Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering film and trickling out an online-only series of EPs called The RiverRun Project.
But Oblivion, while representing their more ambient concerns, was their most innovative album since 1996‘s Second Toughest in the Infants. There were the bursting Vangelic synths on “Beautiful Burnout,” calling to mind the fiery L.A. “Hades” landscape from Blade Runner. “Best Mamgu Ever” skittered Hyde’s voice through the air as it skips through folding waves of boogie.
But it was the compassionate “Faxed Invitation” that remains one of their best songs to date. Its Morse code rhythm taps to gliding gossamer static as sunrise synths lift you up to the horizon. Its “Rez”-like pinball melody orbits faster and faster in a quickened pulse of night and day as Hyde’s voice doubles on the groove, his humanity slowly waking up inside a robot dream. The circadian rhythms slow. Church organs hover above morning clouds. Hyde hums deep. It’s techno’s most beautiful prayer.
“My mother was a piano teacher,” Smith told me in Cologne. “If she hadn’t taught me to play, I don’t know what I would have done,” making the point that music saved him time and again. But it’s not just notes or beats that Hyde and Smith have mastered.
As was clear from Underworld’s music direction of London’s 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, they know how to tell stories and deepen drama. Smith’s love of the human voice is clear and Hyde, it seems, is his greatest muse. In modern music, you might say no voice has been more transformed and at the same time treasured.
“It's indicative of things that fall out sideways when you're thinking you're doing something else,” says Hyde. “Underworld's done that. Sometimes I would have sung something to a piece of music and he'll just scrap the music and do something in another key with it and it re-imagines something, and I like that.
“It's like we were saying earlier, with Rick being out front and not on stage, the opportunities are for all preconceptions between the two of us to dissolve. We can go somewhere where our initial ideas are just a starting point because they're going to go somewhere that even we can't imagine. So a piece like ‘Faxed Invitation’ is one of those things.
“You've got to subvert the technology. That's the thing. And Rick's great at subverting technology, of taking things and kind of fucking them up. So that they become human again. They become warm.”
Another dimension is the mythic. And the American West, from its grand panorama to cowgirls to road movies, is one of Hyde's richest mines. “It's moving music,” says Hyde. “Going somewhere. Blacktop. I grew up with that kind of American culture. There's that amazing scene in American Graffiti where they go out to the street to race and they drop Booker T. and the M.G.'s ‘Green Onions.’ That was the sexiest, coolest moment ever. And Steve Cropper's guitar Telecaster coming annnhhh! These attacking scythes of guitar, with Booker T's organ underneath, this cool groove, and these lights coming out onto the road to race. That had me completely.”
The call of the West, which has helped pull people to L.A. for generations, didn’t just come to Hyde through film. “I remember as a kid hearing what became for me the most important piece of music in my life, which was The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm,’ which was L.A.,” says Hyde of his radio romance. “But it was coming through the airwaves and it would filter. It would lose signal, so it would kind of do this thing, you would hear it really clear and it would start to filter and get thinner and thinner and quieter and quieter until it almost disappeared. And then it would come back in again.
“So it was like these radio waves, the satellites and the radio waves of the planet had started to interfere, and then it would come out the other end in this kind of electronic chemical transition,” he says, moving his hands in a twirling mesh. “It was this alchemy of radio waves. It was the idea of this radio station and it's out in the desert somewhere.”
As in Detroit, the Motor City and techno's birthplace, perhaps one of the reasons techno captured the imagination of L.A. is because it’s always going somewhere. “There’s that marriage of the bright-eyed optimism of dance music, electronic music, matched with the West Coast, the push to the Western edge of the country,” says Bentley. “Just in terms of migrations of people, they’re moving out to the furthest regions of what’s possible. California is a really inspiring place that way. And now you’re outside of the city, you’re on a two lane highway, rolling hills, and it’s just spectacular.
“That’s just part of the spirit of the West Coast. It just really matched perfectly with the kind of escapism people were making with this music. Ironically, the music makers were in rainy and cold basement confines, but they were dreaming of the great expanse of the West. And we were hearing it and we were embracing it because we understood that this just worked perfectly.”
“I think music goes in a 20-year cycle and we're going to see that EDM is not going to go away,” says Aalvik. “It is going to change and morph. The simplest, cheesiest aspects are going to disappear in favor of the cooler, more long-lasting sound. And that's where Underworld fit in.
“They were making a dance-friendly hybrid of house and techno that really didn't have a label. They had a little bit of a link to the past of the alternative sound, the rock sound, the guitar. But they also helped shape what became EDM. It didn't sound like the techno we were used to. They didn't sound like The Prodigy. It had a much much greater groove. But it wasn't house music. But it mixed really well with house music. That sound came on and it was the right sound at the right time.”
[pullquote-4]“We're outsiders,” says Hyde. “We're outsiders who were invited in. We're very fortunate. People often say to me, ‘What do you think? Has underground culture gone away?’ The underground culture will never go away. No matter what genre. Because whenever there's pop culture, there's somebody moaning, ‘I could do it better.’ And they're going to be doing it and that will become tomorrow's pop culture.”
It’s a strange clash of vector lines, radio waves and cut grooves that formed today’s dance music — a “sound sculpture,” as Hyde puts it. For the last decade it has broken into every corner of American life, including some of our most rarefied music temples, like Kraftwerk and The Orb at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Avicii and Groove Armada at the Hollywood Bowl.
Underworld first played at the Bowl in 2007 to support Oblivion. “I drove past it during those dark times,” he says of his ‘80s detour. “And people would say, ‘Oh, that's the Hollywood Bowl,’ and [I'd] say, ‘I'll never play there.’” Now he will have played there twice.
Recording a new album, Hyde says Underworld have been recharged by playing Dubnobass live: “It's fantastic coming back again because it feels fresh again, that approach Rick has for making 'scapes and of understanding my voice and what I do in ways that I don't have to retain any ego. That I trust him because together something special happens. And now here we are in this group. I have no idea what it is, except it's changing so fast. It's exciting. I'm so glad I haven't missed this.”
But back on that mountain in 1996, no one could have guessed that Underworld would return to L.A. after the ‘80s to help redeem the future. Other performers played great sets that night, especially Orbital. But Underworld’s performance left the biggest impression, and a feeling that this music could go anywhere.
“Organic seemed to be the moment that all this music would enter the mainstream,” remembers Warner. “It seemed so obvious. But it didn’t really happen. Daft Punk was the beginning of that, of EDM, this spectacle. But Organic and Underworld is more of an emotional thing. Those of us who were there know and we were deeply moved.”
“A few years before Organic I'd gone up to Big Bear when I was penniless,” says Hyde. “And a friend of mine, to cheer me up, had taken me up there into the snow. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is really nice.’ To go back there and go, ‘Oh yeah, I remember this.' This was like my one little ray of sunshine during quite a dark time. And here we are, reconnected with that cool place.”
“There's some lyrics that came out of that experience,” he says of his L.A. adventure with a smile. “Oh definitely. But I'm not telling. You'll hear them tonight.”