On the eve of the release of the new Underworld DVD Everything Everything, Rick Smith called in from London to discuss the new release, the departure of Darren Emerson from the band, and his view ahead as they prepare to record their fourth studio album.
What kind of experiences you think you got out of producing the Everything Everything DVD that might carry over into the new album? Did the production of the DVD open up any new avenues or ideas for mixing an album?
Yeah, definitely. We had technical problems – which were too numerous to mention – that we overcame.… It’s a steep learning curve, but it’s the best way to learn, you know, have a go and screw it up yourself. There’s a whole pile of stuff just on that simple level, that technical level, which is part of the way that I approach work in the studio now. Simple little things, like, um.... At the same time I mixed the DVD in surround sound, I reckon at least half the time I was checking it on this little battery-powered Sony speaker, you know – like your Walkmans and stuff – just so you’d always have the feeling, even on something so appalling.Those are things that I apply now still. And mixing in surround sound is not frightening at all now. It comes in as second nature. So I’m hoping the next studio album will be mixed in surround now as well.
How difficult was it to convince everyone involved -- especially the record company -- to go ahead with the DVD?
Very difficult. Yes, very difficult. The original idea was for a DVD, never a CD or VHS – we wanted to do a DVD.
What finally brought them around?
Well, Karl and I paid for it ourselves. (Laughs)
Basically, I had the idea one day when I was on the M25 in the car, and I spoke with Jeff, our manager, who liked the idea. Then we looked at the gig schedule, which was like, “We’ve only got four or five shows left to the year,” maybe half a dozen that were suitable for recording. We had to turn the idea around in something like eight days! The following weekend, we were actually playing in Belgium with a seventy-two channel mobile and nine cameras. It had to happen really fast - the only way you can do that, you know, is you have to do it yourself.
And so we did that then for a period of about four or five months. We just kept the project alive as something we wanted to do, kind of knowing and hoping and praying that it would be embraced by the record company – which it was, eventually, well and truly. And thank God, because we did need their help financially. It turned out to be about five times as expensive as I’d originally thought and took.… I’d originally thought we’d be done in about three or four months, and that was done and dusted – it’s been fourteen months and it’s still going on! Even today, as we speak, I’m uploading files to the DVD/ROM site. And that’s going to be active for about a year. It’s become a never-ending project, really, this little one!
In a way, it seems like DVD was the only suitable outlet at this point in time for an experience like Underworld.
Yes. That’s exactly, really well put, and that’s how I felt. It was the first format that really stood a chance of giving you something immersive, you know?
I mean, I know how I feel when I’m at an Underworld show, and the DVD experience was so amazingly similar.
That’s fantastic! We used six live microphones at all the recordings because we didn’t want to use artificial ambiences. I wanted to actually capture the sound in the hall, the surround sound, and also to capture people, because the audience is such a crucial part of the shows. The way they respond vocally and physically inspires us. I thought, we’ve got to capture this audio-wise!
Well, you did it.
Yes, we did! And thank God, because actually, that was what made the project bearable for me. It’s very hard working on the same pieces of music, you know, again and again and again. We had some massive technical problems – we started the mix from scratch three times! But the highlights were always just being able to listen to people, the audience, and having the hairs come up on the back of my neck again, just remembering that particular place and the time.
It’s so great to hear a musician talk from the point of view that you’d normally hear a fan coming from.
I think – and I’ve said this before – the experience we’re having on stage is really not dissimilar, but in fact very similar to what someone in the audience is having. It certainly feels like we’re in this thing together. I just happen to be the one with my hands on all the faders and the mutes and the equipment, and Karl likewise. But it seems to me that it’s very, very similar.
Did the finished product of the DVD come close to or fall short of your original vision?
It surpassed what I’d originally imagined! Thank God, because it took long enough! (Laughs)
A lot of people got drawn into the project and brought some fantastic ideas. My original concept had been really simple: a film of one show; good, quality DVD visuals; and with surround sound. And the DVD has become so much more than that, thanks to people like the Tomato Interactive, Strong Room, the Pavement, the DVD Offering - these guys were crucial, really, just joining in the jam.
I’m not really used to being treated like a client, you know? The only way to really enjoy it is to actually really get stuck in with people and go, “What would be really exciting for you to do? What would start to push the boundaries in terms of your contribution?” Whether you be an encoding person or a masterer or a video operator.... We were very lucky because we had some great people like that.
In terms of the stuff that you guys are putting around in the studio with now, can you categorize it comparing it to the past three albums?
Um...not at the moment – it’s a little early. The only thing that I can say for sure that’s still in common is the electronics and the grooves. That’s the stuff that’s still there. But as to where we go with it now, I really don’t know. Our new site, www.underworldlive.com, launched on Monday, and in a sense, that DVD/ROM site reflects the only thought that I’ve got about the next album, which is that in the past we’ve been incredibly private about the work that we create until it’s finished. And now I want to put out work in progress.
What made you change your mind about that?
Because it was such a fundamental thing.... When Karl and I write, we really have no way of writing. It can happen in any way at all. It can be inspired by some rhythm I put together, or by an incomplete track…. Karl might sing for twenty minutes, half an hour, two hours, and we might use three words or the whole thing gets done in one take. It just changes all the time. By having that focus while we’re in the process of writing, as soon as something starts to feel like, “Well, look – this is a good thing!” it would dwindle out and might end up being a thirty-second introduction to a tune.
But at the moment [on the site], it exists as a five-minute piece of beautiful atmosphere, you know? All we’re doing is we’re putting that stuff out and seeing how we feel when we listen back to it and how quickly we get bored with it, that sort of thing. Seeing how people feel about it. It’s kind of nice. I don’t know – this might be the world’s worst idea. (Laughs) I just think that it’s something that we need to try.
Underworld seems to have always been about progressively take things to a higher level of interactivity.
I really hope so. We’ve got one idea, which I don’t want to talk about because I always spook these things – I spoil them! But over the next month or two there’s another idea that we have for jamming and playing live that we want to try. It keeps us alive…. And puts us in an early grave in terms of sleep patterns. (Laughs)
You brought up something I’ve always been curious about, which is the division of labor in Underworld. Can you tell me what you and Karl each bring to the sound, what kind of ideas each of you contributes, and which comes first, the lyrics or the music? It seems unclear from the outside but maybe that’s how it is for you, too.
The answer’s going to be “yes” to all sorts of variations. It’s a strange thing. I’ll give you an example.
Karl writes all day, every day. He’s always writing; he’s writing on the train, he’s writing on the tour bus, he’s writing halfway through an interview, he’s just writing! It’s natural to him and he carries these books full of prose and text.... And so that really is – if you want to focus on a task – the task that Karl does. And then of course, I’m obsessed with text myself, and I take this text and the things that other people say and use them in sound installations.
One of the best things about working with Karl is that he gives this stuff to me, whether it’s a vocal performance or a word of text, and he doesn’t care what I do with it. He might have given a piece of two thousand words and if I only want to use three words then that’s fine. There’s a certain trust. So even in our definitions – like if I said to you, “Yeah, I make grooves – that’s what I do. It’s not particularly a Karl thing...” – there are times when Karl comes up with something, you know.
These divisions...we don't really like them because they don’t help us. Sometimes it’s kind of like a red rag to a bull. Somebody says, “Well, you don’t play guitar,” and the first thing I want to do is grab a guitar and go, “You think so? You really think so? Just because I don’t play guitar means I can’t play guitar? Well, listen to this sample and this groove!”
We noticed as well very early on that things that people thought were synthesizers were actually guitars, and things that people thought were guitars were actually synthesizers. People were credited with work right from the beginning, and sometimes it’s irritating, but mostly I don’t really care – I’m just happy to have a form to express myself.
We here in the States have been hearing rumors over the past few months that you guys might be visiting soon. Is that true and if so when are you coming?
I wouldn’t even like to speculate at the moment, because my speculations are usually disastrous. I’ll say, “Six months,” and it’ll be two years, you know? We have no shows booked now, in the short to medium-term, that being the rest of this year. As for what we do next year...you know, I have no idea. We’re so snowed-under. (Laughs) We shoot our mouths out about what we’re going to do, and then we have to do it! We have to make the content for the Web site, and work on the new album...and we’re just kind of working and seeing how it comes out. We have three more shows left this year – one in North Wales, one in Dublin, and one in Japan – and that’s it thus far.
If only those places were closer to us…
Aw, we’ll be back! I mean, we’ve been to America a few times! We can’t do it a lot because we’re not really lovers of touring like, you know? We live for the concerts, which only occupy two hours and twenty-four…. So we’re never going to be the classic touring band, going around the world every day for months on end. It doesn’t work for us. The jam loses its freshness, if we do it too much. (Laughs) “He said, making mumbling excuses...” (Laughs)
From your point of view, what’s the change now that Darren Emerson isn’t a part of Underworld anymore? Can you talk about what we can expect that change to sound like?
I wouldn’t know how to put my finger on it. I think if you check, for example, with people who have seen us play live since Darren went, they’re the best people to ask about whether they enjoyed it, if it was different or better or worse. I know that I’m really happy. I hear that Darren’s really happy. It was a very timely decision. It’s not a good thing to stay with something that you’re not happy with, you know?
It can get really destructive. I don’t know what else to say, really – but you’re welcome to ask more if you want.
Well, we’ll just have to wait and hear what the new stuff sounds like.
Yeah, I think so – I mean, if you keep an eye on the Web site, the DVD Web site, over the next couple of months…maybe people will stop thinking that we’re going to make a rock album...
There are threads of thoughts there. Let’s put it like that. It’s really early days yet.
Your Web presence has been phenomenal from the start of Internet awareness within the general public. What are your goals or ideals for merging user interactivity online, at home and at shows with the technology that’s available today?
That’s a nice question. It’s difficult for me to express myself clearly – I always go kind of vague when there’s things I’m passionate about but have only just started exploring.
I’ve had feelings for a couple of years about what people call “interactivity”. There’s a very delicate balance between producing something that only a professional can make a decent noise with, and oversimplifying something and its interactivity so that a child of four could operate it but it has no depth. I’m interested in where the balances are.
How we can enjoy ourselves is always an issue. How we can enjoy and inspire. To inspire people, that would be cool – to show things to people and go, “Look! You can do things for your own pleasure that are no problem! Before you start thinking about it as a professional career, think twice! Here’s stuff that you can do yourself - you can express yourself in poetry and prose and music in these ways!”
We’ll see. I don’t have such lofty ideas, really. You know, at the end of the day when I’m sick of making music, I have very little on my mind except what I’m trying to tap into.