With roots that reach back to the dawn of the Reagan Administration, Underworld is one of the longest surviving electronic dance bands in history, outlasted only by the likes of Kraftwerk (which, frankly, isn't really Kraftwerk without Florian Schneider, who left the act in January). You would think three decades of music history (it released a best-of early this decade) might turn the British duo into the Eagles of the rave circuit – living off bygone hits.
But no. Karl Hyde and Rick Smith's music has continued to be ahead of the curve, as it has been since they produced Fruer's “Doot Doot” in 1983. “Born Slippy” (1995) is the defining track of the electronic dance music era. Nearly 10 years later, it released its RiverRun Project, a series of compilations, online only. It was a visionary move. The pair continues to unleash new material – poetic, understated, and with glimmers of ambience – through its website. And its always exploring new media. Underworld's show Friday in Oakland will also be the first audio-visual concert for the iPhone. But perhaps there's no greater sign that the geezers are alright than their inclusion in the Hard Summer festival Saturday. They top a cutting-edge bill of nu electro hipsters that includes Chromeo, Crookers, A-Trak and Amanda Blank. We asked Hyde about it.
LA Weekly: What inspired you to join the Hard bill?
Hyde: We love being a part of all sorts of events. I remember going on after Korn one night. It was fantastic. We'd go on after Metallica. To be part of something that's celebrating new permutations and new reflections on electronic music is great. It's something of an honor really.
What do you think of the nu electro scene?
Like any genre of music, electronic music fragments and new artists come out of it. Without the underground there wouldn't be pop, and without pop there wouldn't be underground music to react against it. We welcome it. We had done some festivals with Justice and we dig it. There's a respect for the difference. I like seeing people express their own particular takes on dance music.
You're doing the first ever audio-visual concert for the iPhone Friday.
We've been working with QuikTime for a while. They've given us a lot of support for our web radio and web TV broadcasts. When they knew we were coming to Oakland they asked us to be a part of this first-ever, live-to-iPhone televised gig. Back in the '80s we had this idea, wouldn't it be great to be in more than one place at the same time. This makes that a reality.
You've always pushed the boundaries of digital media.
It's there to be pushed. We don't go looking for trouble. We come up with ideas, we look for solutions, and sometimes a solution hasn't been released. So we go searching for the person to make that a reality. It's kind of unfortunate sometimes to be a part of the cutting edge. It has its problems as you can imagine. You're not too sure if things are going to work. You spend a lot of time trying things out. But we're continually exploring ideas of what we should be doing. That often puts you in a place where you need something that hasn't been invented yet.
You've often added video elements to your releases since the 1990s, when you released a DVD.
For myself I came from a background of loving radio when I was a kid. We had a lot of ships moored off the coasts pumping out difficult to find records, records that weren't being broadcast on daytime radio. There was a magic to late night radio that just got under the skin. Our focus had been on making audio webcasts. But because we generate a lot of visual material we started to incorporate that, including webcams, in our broadcasts. It's that same dreamscape from when I was listening to radio at night.
Electronic dance music has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to embracing new media technology.
I know there are bands of other genres that have embraced it brilliantly. But there is something inherent in dance music, which comes from the making of 12-inches and dub plates and white labels and the dissemination of music through clubs and selling records yourself in specialty shops. It grew out of a very hands-on culture. Being able to publish your work when you felt like it, when the passion drove you, rather than being tied into the traditional and sometimes imprisoning system that used to exist when you signed to a record company – that's great. The culture of acid house and rave in the UK was more punk than punk. People with an idea just going and doing it. You could make records and put them out through friends and clubs. The internet is a natural extension to that. Giving stuff away is akin to giving white labels to DJs.
You embraced online distribution relatively early.
The greatest thing for us is to be able to publish what we want when we want free or not. It's liberating. After so many years of having to work within the constrictive confines of the music industry it took the wind out of us and we were losing our enthusiasm. By 2003, 2004, we'd had enough. We pulled out of that system and started financing things ourselves. We started the RiverRun Project with films, albums, downloads, books, art events. It was the ability to let people know things were available without all those awful constraints.
You're not one of those artists who complains about downloaders ripping you off.
What are you going to do? It's the nature of the world. You might be losing money you've worked hard to bring into your family and the families of the people you work with. Having said that, our fans are incredibly loyal. It's not a massive dent. We've never had a problem with people recording our gigs as long as they don't sell it. There's something to be said about people turning on other people to what you do. It's free word of mouth. We try to give more than would be expected, really. We try to give things away often and give as much as possible.
What's next for Underworld?
There's a new iPhone app [a version of iDrum] coming out this week. Rick worked on it with GForce and iZotope. It has 12 major tunes that are reprogrammable. It's a very cool little app. Tomato (Underworld's visual arts arm) designed the visuals. Track 12 was done with [DJ] Mark Knight and myself.
We had gone down to Australia and did three live, improvised shows with Brian Eno. That's being remixed to come out as a series of records and a documentary. And we're recording. We're trying to find time amongst all this touring for Rick and I to get in studio and finish new material. We're always playing new material and testing it out on stage. The fact that we multitrack our gigs allows Rick to keep working on it. In the new year more RiverRun series releases will start to roll out. It's a different way of working towards what might be an album later next year.
Until then, the city awaits your live show.
L.A. has been an extraordinary place for us.
Underworld performs at Hard Summer alongside Chromeo, A-Trak, Tiga, Amanda Blank and more Saturday August 8 at The Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood. 18+. Doors at 8 p.m. Advance tickets: $65. Info: hardfest.com.