Yesterday, in part one as their massive, year-long project, Drift, emerges in both brief and voluminous arrangements, Rick Smith and Karl Hyde of Underworld began to explain the genesis of, and the methods in, this 52 tracks in 52 week assignment.
Today, from the same extended conversation conducted after their four-night run at the Sydney Opera House, we explore being willing to risk disaster to achieve nirvana, and how their bond, and Hyde’s inspiration, was reignited by three simple words. It’s electronica, but not as we’ve known it.
There have been rave reviews for the shows and a long history of connection, success and a deep well of affection for Underworld. That might be enough for many. At the very least, a sign of how things could go – should go – with new work. But no.
Without prompting, pre-emptively even, Rick Smith and Karl Hyde will tell you how achieving what they knew they were capable of holds little interest. Self-congratulation and familiarity just didn’t cut it.
The true excitement was in the new normal of finding the stomach-dropping answer to the question, “where are we?” being “I don’t know”, with Hyde adding the familiar, but nonetheless true line that “comfort doesn’t help creativity; comfort is a stumbling block to creativity”.
“I’ve been surprised by how much Rick has driven us, and we’ve had to embrace it really, driven us to a place where a lot of things aren’t ring-fenced, where a lot of things aren’t secure. There’s a lot of listening the goes on these days,” says Hyde, who has been very frank about how for many years the two had stopped talking and stopped listening. “People listen to each other, and when they don’t, it’s quite odd.
What has made them uncomfortable? And what had they enjoyed from that discomfort?
“Patterns,” says Smith. “When you start taking them away that can make people very uncomfortable. There is another way of looking at it, which is to see things as games and a game is something that’s meant to be joyful and not too serious, or predictable. A good game doesn’t necessarily mean that you are the winner. You can enjoy playing the game and not win; just enjoy taking part.
“There’s so much that has been uncomfortable, cutting something away, but it’s immediately followed by a feeling like ‘ooh, we didn’t need that’.”
Hyde, says “one of the things that came about as a general mindset was the phrase that Rick had coined for [2016 album, Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future], ‘you are enough’. That concept manifested in a far greater way on this project.”
The phrase was initially directed at Hyde whose feelings of insecurity and inadequacy within the process had often seen him escape from rather than dive into problematic areas with Smith. It was not just a boost of confidence, but a crucial tool in their reconnection.
“When you have a small group of people, a small team, you are enough — you better be,” Hyde explains. “You better bring yourself to the party because I believe in you, so are you listening? You have the answer, or we have the answer and if we get together we will find an answer.
“So that ‘you are enough’ phrase repeated on a daily basis, several times in a day. I don’t know what the answer is but if we talk and we listen we’ll find something that isn’t the go-to answer, the stock answer.”
It makes even more sense now, hearing this, that The Necks were perfect collaborators for them in this process, one of the outsiders contributing to the process. There, in that Australian trio, is the embodiment of listening, trust, and saying to the others “you are enough”.
Smith who was introduced to them by Hyde after he’d worked with them on a project with Brian Eno. found them funny and terrifying and brilliant.
“They’re real listeners, and gentle,” says Hyde, confirming that while one of the tracks on Drift part one features The Necks – A Very Silent Way – and three more tracks are in the box set, there is another hour of collaborative work with them which may yet emerge.
As anyone who has ever seen The Necks live, building a 60 minute set from nothing would already know, from the outside, following the 52 weeks of experiments and bold moves it seems brave to show not just the building blocks: the visible construction of what they’re working on but also the gaps, as Underworld has done.
Exposing their processes over this period has been great for those of us fascinated by how they work and why they make their decisions, but it’s not something most artists would do.
“In a way, the whole 52 weeks thing makes that easier,” says Smith. “Because there’s no need to be precious and worry that we need to make an album that is defined as a theme, that plays to our strengths. It’s kind of nice that you see these things as brave, but I don’t feel that it’s about bravery actually. It more feels like common sense. If there’s anything brave, it’s trying to understand how to operate from the heart when everything about our lives and logic and data and common sense steers us away from intuition and trust.”
How easy is it to accept from within that some of these things won’t exist from the moment they had in the week of release? That they won’t appear on an album or a box set?
“A bunch of it for me is really easy,” says Smith. “No matter how much time we invest in making a record or making a great track, or working on a film score, there’s this point, immediately after it’s the end and it’s out, where it’s [he says with a sigh] ‘that’s not very good is it’ or remembering, even if it is good, there were some really amazing moments two months ago that felt so exciting and somehow that’s got buried.
“One thing I’ve not found difficult [saying no to] is the idea that we should hold something back. Why? Because there will be need to be some kind of conclusion, resolution, we should hold something back because it’s really good we might not have something that good again? It’s all nasty stuff that. Everything conspires to stop you being in the moment, letting people know how you feel right there and then, and also holding things back doesn’t encourage you to strive more.
“We’re looking at Drift in the time we have left and we have ideas and some are looking very strong, but there’s no guarantee that we are not going to fuck it up next week. But the leaving of spaces that we need to fill, you could use the term bravery, but I don’t think it is. But just like The Necks when they go out on stage, and a whole lot of people, like Iggy: this is not predictable in the moment, and when people do know what is coming it becomes less than.”
Hyde, who had leant forward more and more, to take it all in as Smith’s answer expanded, sums it up.
“You are entering the workshop all the time and as Rick said, the mindset that we spent most of our time in [before], was one of okay, squirrel that one way, ooh that’s going to make a good one, and then you are not with what? All these shiny jewels, no rough edges, or a concept that was put in place, that didn’t come together naturally, and it’s a really good [album] because it has lots of good ones, whatever that is.
“We just created an environment that plays more to the unpredictable and gives us no choice.”
Tomorrow: in part 3, we explore the heart as the motivator, time as inconsequential, and why “your” Underworld might look nothing like someone else’s Underworld.
Drift Series 1 and Drift Series 1: Sampler edition, are available now.