As first meetings go, it was strangely prescient. Karl Hyde, art student and frontman with a happening young band on the post-punk Cardiff music scene, had a malfunctioning amplifier. Rick Smith, an electronic and electrical engineering student who wanted to build synthesisers, had offered to fix it. Largely, Smith discovered, this meant removing a handful of errant cutlery. Even in the febrile and creative spirit of ’79, what kind of lunatic put spoons into an amplifier?
“I’d never met anybody as intriguing, infuriating and disturbing in equal measure,” recalls Smith of Hyde of that initial encounter in Hyde’s chaotic student digs. “It was a bit of a shock.”
“I remember thinking, ‘that’s a great overcoat he’s got on,’” says Hyde of Smith, “I remember coveting that.” And so, out of chaos, confusion, a coveted coat and lost cutlery, the seeds that were to grown into Underworld were sown.
And what an enduring, strange, curiously successful journey it continues to be, that thirty years on sees them appointed Music Directors on the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games. Hyde and Smith’s first band, The Screen Gemz, were no more than a local indie power pop band, but their second, Freur, received the John Peel seal of approval before becoming a major label electro-pop band who ended up – and ended themselves – touring American arenas supporting Eurythmics. To save their sanity, Smith and Hyde accepted a commission to write the score for an independent film called Underworld. The project worked well enough for these restless creatives to decide to embark on another new musical adventure. And while they were at it, Underworld was a pretty cool name too…
As the nineties progressed, they achieved international success, perhaps most notably with ‘Born Slippy’, the era-defining anthem that climaxed the 1996 film ‘Trainspotting’, directed by Danny Boyle. Their eight studio albums have collectively notched up millions of sales, and they’ve been touring the world for 20 years with constantly evolving live shows. When it comes to filling the dancefloor or filling the arena, few can match Underworld.
Away from the ever-seductive allure of the banging beat, Underworld – under Rick’s direction – are incessant music pioneers embarking on countless multi- media adventures, such as the RiverRun Project and being the first band to broadcast a gig live to the iPhone. In Japan in 2010 Karl Hyde, the deep-thinking wordsmith and visual artist, used the synaesthesia from which he “suffers” to create an exhibition of his paintings, entitled ‘What’s Going On In Your Head When You’re Dancing’ to which Rick Smith crafted one of his many accompanying sound installations.
They’ve developed online radio and TV projects; together with John Warwicker and Simon Taylor of tomato, established the group Art Jam, and between them have exhibited installations and artworks in galleries and spaces from London to New York to Tokyo; partnered with Oscar-winning composer Gabriel Yared to create the music for Anthony Minghella’s ‘Breaking And Entering’; and post- ‘Trainspotting’, they renewed their relationship with director Danny Boyle by supplying specially created music for ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, ‘The Beach’ and his 2007 sci-fi film ‘Sunshine’. In 2011 Underworld scaled another peak, when they wrote the score for the acclaimed National Theatre production of ‘Frankenstein’.
“The ‘Frankenstein’ project at the National Theatre was our opportunity to test ourselves as writers and music directors in a completely new environment” says Smith. “Danny asked us to take responsibility for every aspect of the sound and music and encouraged us to draw on a wide musical palette. It was a challenging piece of work with its roots in classic literature, that turned out to be the most fun I’ve ever had.”
But those weren’t the only spaces and areas of interest to Karl Hyde and Rick Smith. In the early 90’s, under the aegis of John Warwicker, former cohort in Freur and hugely respected Art director, the pair became founding members of Tomato, the renowned London-based art collective. Tomato continues to curate a plethora of commercial projects and exhibit artworks around the world.
“Underworld became a bridge that people could cross who were traditionally intimidated by art galleries,” says Hyde. He recalls one exhibition in Munich, where the attendees included a bunch of punks who’d travelled from Berlin. “They said they’d never been to a gallery before but they loved Underworld. That was almost a dream come true for us – the circle was complete.”
In 2013, you might say that the circle will be squared as both Rick and Karl take time to explore individual work and projects away from Underworld – a debut solo album ‘Edgeland’ (and accompanying film ‘The Outer Edges’) for Karl; an immersive soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s latest feature (‘Trance’) for Rick. Meetings planned to happen between the intriguing, infuriating and disturbing fellow and the guy with the great overcoat for later in the year.