Underworld’s latest project, Drift, has seen an unprecedented level of productivity from the British electronic titans.
Instead of a conventional follow-up to 2016’s Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future, last November the duo of vocalist Karl Hyde and producer Rick Smith began uploading a new song every week with accompanying visuals from their long time collaborators, Tomato.
The sessions have now been compiled into the seven-CD, Drift Series 1 release.
“Rick is one of the most surprising and challenging people I’ve ever worked with – probably the most surprising and challenging – and a project like this just amps that up,” says Hyde. “It’s a great place to be in terms of creativity. In terms of sleep it’s a really shit place to be.”
Smith and Hyde have been working together since the late 1970s and established Underworld in its current form in the early ‘90s. Darren Emerson was a member of the group up until 1999, but their last four albums have been made as a duo.
“A project like this, that demands you have to deliver something every week for 52 weeks, it means you’ve really got to pull together,” says Hyde. “That’s another upside of it – it brings us together a lot more to help solve problems.”
“It was challenging and it shook us up to be more in the moment in terms of our recorded output,” says Smith. “But also it’s been a chance to communicate – or try to learn how to communicate – with people rather than going silent for three years at a time and then dropping some lumpen album-esque object on people.”
Underworld have enjoyed mass popularity in Australia over the last couple of decades. The group’s 1996 single ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’ – which appeared in the final scene of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting – landed at number 65 in Triple J’s hottest 100 of all time and earlier this year Smith and Hyde played four sold-out shows at the Sydney Opera House.
The opportunity to establish a direct line of communication with their audience was a key motivating factor behind Drift.
“Rick’s initial idea had its roots in something like Netflix – a TV series, box set series that you can come into at any point. You don’t have to join it at the beginning,” says Hyde. “You can discover it, go back to the beginning and continue with the project.”
Disc six in the seven-CD release consists of three collaborations with Australian avant-jazz trio The Necks. Hyde first worked with The Necks at the 2009 Vivid LIVE festival, performing Brian Eno’s improvised work, Pure Scenius.
“First of all [I was] so intimidated by their musicianship that I thought I should just pack my bags and go home or make the tea or something,” he says. “Then [I realised] just what lovely blokes they were and how inclusive they were and how easy it was to work with them, and how they listened. They’re great listeners and very, very open.
“Then Rick just heard me rambling on about them for years and when this project came along one of the suggestions Rick made was why not get those guys in.”
“It worked out fantastic,” says Smith. “I’d do it again at the drop of a hat, any time, any place. I was surprised at how strong a connection we had when we started to make the music together. It’s something to do with trance and systems and then you add in the spirit of those three unique guys. They’re beautiful humans.”
Underworld’s last decade has been characterised by collaboration. Smith reconnected with Boyle to soundtrack the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games and provided the score to 2017’s T2 Trainspotting sequel. Hyde made his debut solo album, Edgeland, and in 2014 released a couple of albums in collaboration with Eno.
“There was definitely a need because of the way we’d been working together to just have a bit of space between us,” says Smith.
“And to experience what it was like to work with other people,” says Hyde. “The upside is you get to see how other people work, you learn from them, but you also learn what it is that you like about the relationship that we have and what you miss about it.”
Drift Series 1 is out now via Caroline.