There’s an intersection of art and design, music and philosophy in the story and the songs of electronic explorers and dancefloor supremos, Underworld. How does Fluxus fit with Trainspotting, art college with raves?
Easily. Naturally. Crucially.
An electronic band sparked by man-made as much as natural environments, and drawing on culture beyond a heaving, peaking crowd, there are always senses working overtime with Underworld. All senses.
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.
"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."
As founding members of the design collective Tomato, which established its reputation in the 1990s working across print, film, installations and advertising, Hyde (an arts college graduate trained in the Fluxus philosophy of process as the root of creativity) and Smith (an amateur photographer and filmmaker) both exhibit photographic work on the band’s website.
They’ve scored individually or together Trainspotting director Danny Boyle’s stage adaptation of Frankenstein, his London Olympic Games opening ceremony, and his film Trance, and in Hyde’s case also paint, 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’s said.
More broadly, in 2007 the pair created a mini festival of music, art and cinema, The Oblivion Ball, within which was a live painting performance of a 50m x 10m wall, in Japan. 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,” Hyde, who built his 2013 solo album, Edgeland, in part on the evocative, elusive photographic images he collected on his travels, said in an interview with Print.
“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.”
As with the art, which for Hyde often are 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, while Smith’s music reflects the impact of the architecture of the London the Welsh-born musician was experiencing travelling in from his then-home in Essex when “the lights and the shapes just seemed to light a fire often”, as 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.”
Not surprisingly, this fits in with the overall Tomato philosophy, as described by Tomato co-founder, Simon Taylor, in an interview.
“Richard Sennet in his book The Craftsman describes a process and method that craftspeople use, as a way of improving upon what they do and to share what they're doing with each other,” Taylor said. “That whole thinking-making-making-thinking is what we've been doing. Because we've worked so much as a group, we share process and knowledge. In other words, it's collaboration.”
The collective influence is strong throughout Underworld’s work, on and off stage, in and out of the studio, as Hyde explained when the online design magazine Print asked him what he had been asking himself about his artistic progress.
“I’m at a place where I’m overlapping,” he said. “Like now, I’m watching the light [from his hotel window in Tokyo]. It’s been quite hazy in Japan a lot of the time I’ve been here and the minute the haze lifts, I’ve got to be out on the street where the shadows are sharp. There is that continual hunger to be out there, taking pictures and making drawings.
“But I’m also crossing to that place now where I need to be in New York, not just to be in the gallery, not just to be making work. But to sit with [Tomato co-founder] John Warwicker for a few hours [looking] through the work and going, “What do you think?”
But then that goes right back to the earliest days of the band for Smith who explained that “Tomato was crucial” to how they approached their work.
“There was the stimulation, the young minds, the awkward nature and mix of people,” said Smith in that 2014 documentary. “The art I found so inspiring, the attitude. It seemed to consolidate things that I needed, encouragement to follow my heart.”
And in the realm of the senses, that was about risk and not fearing failure, but embracing it.
Live, without rehearsals for Underworld, “it was all about the pressure of the moment, the failing and the recovery, which I think we did admirably well,” Smith said, adding, in a reference that echoed Samuel Beckett’s famous axiom of failing but failing better, that recording is “failing relentlessly … until there’s a successful moment, which lasts about ten minutes, and then it’s on to the next failure until there’s the next little success”.
Underworld play at the Sydney Opera House May 31-June 3.
(A version of this story was first published HERE)