On a sun-blazed early afternoon in late autumn, Rick Smith, on a chair set up in front of a box-fresh computer (“it’s a nice screen, this is going in the studio when we get back”), and Karl Hyde, on a small lounge chair set against the window, are in Smith’s hotel room which overlooks “the office”, the Sydney Opera House.
They’ve just done four nights there, as Underworld. Four pulsating, varied, ecstatic, complex nights which served not just as thrilling fodder for about 10,000 people who made the Concert Hall into a blissed out, sweated out room, but a chance for them to try out more songs from Drift, an outrageously ambitious – or wildly crazy – series begun towards the end of 2018.
The plan for Drift was simple, and brutal: document the creation and release of a new track (often with film accompaniment from their design and art collective, Tomato) every week for a year. That is, 52 new pieces of music, in styles from hard-edged techno and ambient to throbbing electro-rock and exploratory art, delivered without fail or delay or excuses.
Some of these were made with collaborators – such as Australian improvisation trio The Necks, post-rock bands and DJ/producers, a journalist, novelist – most of them though down to the pair who, in their early 60s, have hit a kind of creative peak and a relationship high.
And this from two men who admit now they had virtually stopped talking to each other for several years, seemingly unable to explain to the other what he expected, or wanted, or needed. Smith spent almost all his time in the studio; Hyde worked away from him.
They had families, they had side projects (among them Smith focusing on the 2012 London Olympic Games opening, and film and stage soundtracks with Danny Boyle; Hyde working on solo albums, and collaborations with Brian Eno), and they had the reissue of their astonishing 1994 reinvention album, dubnobasswithmyheadman, which helped create the ‘90s electronica explosion.
They just didn’t seem to have a reason for each other. And maybe not for Underworld.
Now though they laugh a lot, refer to each other a lot, defer to each other a lot. Like the long hugs they gave each other at the end of each of those Opera House shows, that bond of love is obvious, stronger than at any time in their 40-year relationship. They are genuinely excited by everything that’s happening.
And there’s a lot happening. On November 1 came a 10-track “sampler” package of the Drift Series 1; a box set of all 52 tracks and films. And the shows will continue.
So for the next hour we’ll talk about method and process, inspiration and courage, why they need each other, and why an end to their work is not in sight. This is part 1.
You don’t do downtime clearly, I tell Rick Smith, as the computer’s screen reveals several tracks in various stages of progress. “What’s downtime,” he asks, and it’s not entirely clear if he has misheard me or is joking.
“Downtime? Is that like sad?” laughs Karl Hyde.
“Oddly enough, on tour it’s the opposite,” says Smith. “For most of our career I’ve really not enjoyed touring, and being away. Miss the family, don’t like going to do really amazing things because they’re not here, I’ve got no right to enjoy myself. Bored, frustrated. It was only a few years ago that we started changing that.
“This [he points to his set up] is literally the entire studio here, it’s not a compromised thing and so we started working and writing together every day. And it lit us up, having the time and not wasting it. We weren’t just parking our arses around waiting for the gig to happen.”
How does that work?
“There was one tour where literally it was half the day was business meetings; half a day was music,” says Hyde. “Very quickly you become so productive and every day you were making new music and every day you were dealing with things that had to be dealt with rather than not talk about those things, or have a mindset of sweep it under the carpet or let somebody else deal with it. It became a team, working together.”
That team created Drift, a project that emphasised not just a common spirit but a genuine community, beginning with Hyde and Smith, and expanding out in widening circles to include all manner of contributors.
Was there an endpoint to Drift when they started?
“An end? ‘Oh God, can you make it stop’?,” Hyde chuckles.
“An endpoint?,” Smith ponders, his brow furrowing. “Goals, yes; but not with a fixed point. More abstract. Too many things seem to be hidden and wasting, things I saw and skills and ideas that were always getting pushed back. We were not getting at these things I thought could really be exciting. So there was a goal in that, to release things, but not really knowing what would happen.”
He worried that they and others too easily would be locked in patterns, working to achieve the basics because it was possible. Did he think that having a narrow goal, such as a 10 or 12 track album, would limit interest in allowing more ideas and risks through?
“It was a combination of that and that somehow a target seems to have opposite effects on people. People sometimes relax and think okay we have six months then, then five and half months go by with not a lot happening and focus is not very good.”
Hyde says that it’s interesting that for 30 years they’ve talked about being “process driven” and yet the way they worked “didn’t really play to process in the best way”.
“Yes, it was process – and sometimes it’s difficult to say these things because they become legend, poetry: ‘oh yes, it was so easy’ and in summing up there’s a killing of the things. But it feels like process has been more aligned in this than …”
“almost ever,” says Smith, completing the sentence.
“When you do something that this you’ve got to take away the handrails,” Smith says. “And so if you’re not going to go nuts, you have to start to trust each other. So some of that for me was putting things in place that did actually make us feel uncomfortable, initially. But then, when you win small battles it’s very exciting, very encouraging. Every time you think that you’re lost and then find you’re not where you thought you were, but you’re not lost, it’s really empowering.”
He calls this past year or so “a nutty journey”. Did it begin with 2016’s Barbara Barbara. We Face A Shining Future, where he said at the time he wanted to do it without the plug-ins and music prepared earlier, but to start anew and trusting in the process in themselves?
“I don’t know about where start points out,” says Smith. “We’ve been together so long that some things we could pin down and say that started six months ago, that started two years ago. But we’ve been together so long that almost everything you can go well that was the point back there five years ago, or 30 years ago.
“But there’s the thing that people don’t talk about much: looking at how things aren’t working can be a real key, can be inspiring. Going, ‘we are failing there and failing there’ and we don’t want to talk about those things all the time. But you look at failure and mistakes and say what does that tell us?”
In some ways you could think of the past 12 months as the condensed version of David Bowie’s so-called Berlin period (actually France and Berlin), where he broke down and rebuilt how he wrote and recorded and thought. This is not really based on sound – though there are some connections there – but more on intellectual and tonal grounds, especially the fail/learn from failure/try again approach.
The Drift series is like an amalgam of Heroes, Lodger, Low and the crucial precursor – and clear influence on Underworld - Station To Station.
“There’s something about having kids that are grown up now and thinking what are you going to say to your kids: shit happens, good and bad and not necessarily your fault, and it’s how you deal with it and how you react to it that will define you,” says Smith. “Things will go wrong but are you going to give up, are you going to be upset discouraged, or are you going to use it to learn something?”
Adds Hyde, “Some of the most memorable successes, and they are only fleeting, have been from an amount of failure, but the embracing of that and responding to that. Taking them as positives.
“To have failed means you tried, and that is a true success.”
Tomorrow: in part 2, Smith and Hyde, via The Necks, on why not knowing where you’re going – with a song, with a project, with your life - is thrilling, and how being told “you are enough” means everything.
Drift Series 1 and Drift Series 1: Sampler edition are available now.