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Underworld, the UK-based electronic duo of Rick Smith and Karl Hyde, has been the vehicle for an audio-video conflux that rose to prominence from the post-acid house scene of the '90s and really hit the public consciousness after the song "Born Slippy .NUXX" was used to great effect in Danny Boyle's 1996 film Trainspotting.
In the 15 years since its sound first hit the cineplex, the twosome's fluid, fluorescent style has been applied to all manner of stages, including live performance, the film studio, and now the playhouse — having just scored Boyle's adaptation of Frankenstein at London's National Theatre. The group has also been touring to promote Barking, Underworld's eighth full-length album and one of its most potent musical statements.
Decompressing briefly following the Frankenstein premiere, vocalist Karl Hyde took a moment to discuss the Underworld aesthetic.
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New Times: How do you marry your nonlinear sound design tendencies to a narrative for film or theater?
Karl Hyde: The director's vision enables us to focus on what is important in the play or film. Couple this with the voice of the script — and in the case of a film, the action and duration of scenes onscreen — and a template for the soundscape begins to emerge. In truth, we always saw our music as being the scores to short films or journeys.
As fans of both the moving and the still image, do you establish any visual reference when composing a piece? Hang photos around the studio? Watch specific films to set the mood?
I don't reference images. Asking the director for his musical references is always a good thing to do when starting a new score. Outside of this, my own points of references are the [film] scores that have inspired me in the past — plus the music of cities, [such as] rush hour traffic, sounds of the street, overheard conversations. It all started at age 11 when I had one of those life-changing experiences watching Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Did being a live band as well as a production outfit help you with the shift into live theater?
The fact that improvising has been integral to our working process since the early '90s enables us to enter into new projects with an open mind, armed with a palette of soundscapes and ideas that we can begin making marks with. Also, our methods of working make it much easier to throw out ideas and move on quickly if they don't work. There were many changes to be made during the writing [and] composing process for Frankenstein. They often needed to be made within minutes of the idea being put to us by Danny, mixed, and then put into the QLab system for inclusion in that day's run-through.
How does the space in which your sounds will be broadcast, whether it's a theater or the Ultra Music Festival arena, affect your means and ends?
It has an important influence on how the music needs to sound and how it should be performed. A dance set that is to be played at extreme volume to tens of thousands of people through a stereo sound system in a field has very different requirements [from] an underscore written to support live action in front of a sit-down theater audience and mixed to be played back on a surround-sound system over which actors' voices must be heard.
How has your improvisational lexicon changed over the years?
Each season provokes a reaction in us. Sometimes it drives us to improvise less, sometimes more. Every year, there are months of reprogramming to be done as the quality of new equipment improves. The notion of improvising also changes as we find different ways of approaching the concept and different areas of our live performance to express it through.
How have the platforms available for expression and distribution both freed you and challenged you as they have evolved?
The Internet, as just one example, has given us the freedom to publish work when we desire, something we dreamed of when we first started making music and art together. Whether through our daily diary on underworldlive.com; the free downloads; releases of music, sound, and artworks; or through being able to turn people on to other artists, the Internet is one of the most liberating tools in our kit.
Is there anything you've ever taken from an appearance in Miami that has affected your perspective on electronic music?