Verbal sparring with Rick Smith of Underworld at Coachella 1999
The middle of an interview with Rick Smith of Underworld is probably no time start wondering about the pronunciation differences between Brits and Americans. Yet, here I was, baking in the Indio, Calif. heat at the Coachella Valley Festival of Music and Arts, puzzling over the pronunciation of the word “Tomato.” Underworld, you see, run a design firm called “Tomato,” which they, being British, pronounce “tuh-mah-toe.” And like every good American boy, I say it “Toe-may-toe.” In the course of this interview, Smith mentioned the design firm, and I found myself careening through a response on autopilot toward using the “T” word without determining first how to pronounce it. Gershwin was probably cackling in his grave. When you see that exchange below, know that I erred on the side of courtesy and said “tuh-mah-toe” right back to him. I haven’t felt quite right about that, but it feels good to get it off my chest.
It felt even better to interact with Underworld in some fashion beyond just taking in their stunning live show,which was the high point of the Coachella Festival. Comprised of vocalist Karl Hyde, producer Rick Smith and DJ Darren Emerson, Underworld are one of a very few techno ensembles to achieve crossover success without bending to the dictates of rock music. Unlike, say, Prodigy or Fatboy Slim, who incorporate rock riffs and rock song structure to go over big outside the dance music audience, Underworld adhere to the aesthetics of deep house and trance techno that piqued their creative curiosity back in the mid-’80s . This is not to say they stifle themselves to stay true to genre sub-genre limits. As their latest, masterful album Beaucoup Fish demonstrates, the boys have as much a penchant for musical growth as they do for making an audience shake its collective ass. And despite my little semantic wrangling, Smith spoke amiably with me about his band’s epic touring schedule, the reason behind Underworld’s irregular release dates, and the digital chasm between Britain and America.
Sean Flinn: I’ll start off by asking you how your three-day U.S. tour has been.
Rick Smith: Extensive. [Laughter.] It’s going fine actually. Boston was energetic, and last night – San Francisco with the Chemical Brothers – was great.
Big audience response?
What venue did you play at?
We played the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to about 7,000 or something like that. Yeah, it was nice. Pretty mad. We enjoyed last night, actually, and in Boston. But last night particularly we were really fucking with the tracks and it was enjoyable. It was like, “Yeah!” And the audience was enjoying it too. Deconstructing, you know? And it felt nice. So we’ll see. Tonight’s a curious one, because this is very likely this century, so to speak.
Are you guys doing anything big for the millennium at all?
Lying real low, yeah. Horizontal.
No Y2K fears or anything?
Well, I had a little phase where I was like, “What the Hell is going on?” We’ll see … I’ve got me bunker dug. Stockpiled all the brown rice that I can manage …
Pulled all the money out of the bank?
Yeah. [Much laughter all around.]
Back on track … Have you guys ever played with the Chemical Brothers before?
Yeah, absolutely, yeah. This is probably the third or fourth time. I mean, more than that on festival dates. We go back quite a way, actually. It’s kind of nice, we played the Fuji Festival in Tokyo a couple of months ago, maybe three months ago now, and we did an interview with Tom and Ed for about two, three hours. It was the first time we’d had a real chance to chat and spend some time together for a long time. What happens most of the time is that you end up in places like this, and it’s “All right man, how’re you doin’?” “OK yeah, I’m just about to get some food and go sound check.” You know? So everything is like ships passing. I don’t socialize a great deal as well. I spend all my time in the studio so if I don’t meet people while I’m working I hardly meet people at all.
Speaking of that [the studio], I’ve heard you guys are quite gadget-friendly, quite tech-friendly. Has any of that fondness for technology spilled over into the area of online media at all? I mean, I know you guys offered up a download of a track …
Yeah, to some degree. My feelings with online stuff…You know I was just talking with this guy Jean-Paul just now and he was asking about the “Stay to Play” remixes, and you know in ’96 we stopped doing remixes. I find it really hard to spread my time between so many different things. And Tomato [the design firm that Underworld run] and Underworld both devour work that I make at an unbelievable rate. And my feelings about online stuff were that I never really had time to engage at all with it as a form because it couldn’t weigh up against this other stuff that I’m doing. But it becomes more present, doesn’t it? And these past six months have seen a huge change, as far as I’m concerned, from the point of view of … well, like modem speed in the past year in the U.K., things have improved greatly, and it becomes almost a pleasure going online. Waiting for hours I found immensely frustrating.
Have you had any chance to sample what the media market is around the Internet community in the U.S. vs. what it is in the UK at all?
In what sense?
Is the U.K. very Internet-friendly, would you say, as compared to the United States?
I’m really no expert, OK? But I’d say it’s nowhere as Internet-friendly as the United States. But, I mean, it all moves forward. It’s an old joke, you know, that the U.K. is about 10 years behind the States in many senses. Some of it’s kind of good. It was 10 years behind in getting McDonald’s. But other things are a little frustrating. We’re behind you in terms of DVDs and this kind of thing. So yes, [we’re] behind, but understandably so. I mean, the one shame, funnily enough, is that I know you’re far more advanced in terms of access speeds to being online, and there’s been testing going on here for years. You’ve got cable and speeds that are 50 times as fast as we have. And I find that’s really exciting, because these are enabling things for an artist, and it becomes something … you know, I’m starting up a label through Tomato called Bungalow with Stairs. The first release is coming out in a month or so, and my original notion was to have it downloadable off the Net. But none of the pieces are less than 15 minutes long. This is not realistic in the U.K. and Europe, you know what I’m saying? You know, spend hours online, it would cost you so much in phone calls, because also we don’t pay local calls like you do. The whole structure is very different. So we’ve got a lot of catching up to do, but it’ll happen. It’s happening really fast. It’s driven by people’s desire, that’s what I think is so good. So if the content continues to improve, which it seems to me it has, and the possibilities expand, then people will want it more and it will happen even quicker.
You mentioned the label, so I’ll get back into some music questions for you. What about this box set that you’re releasing? What inspired the release of that, and what are your hopes for it?
I have no idea what inspired the release of that. I think it’s a record company thing. I really couldn’t tell you. I can’t say, because I don’t know.
So it’s kind of out of your hands?
Yeah, to a very large degree, often. And then we get back to this stuff and go, “Hmmmm …”
Yeah, that seems to be changing the rules of the game a little bit.
My fear often is that people are being taken for a ride and being sold something again that they already had, and I really don’t like that notion. But if there’s something different about it, or if people found it particularly difficult to get a hold of…we have a very strange release schedule. You know? And I know that I’ve seen complaints from American fans on the Net on our site saying that they found it very difficult to get particular versions of tunes, and so there’s a good side to re-releasing these things, because it can include all these previously unavailable bits. There was a mix I did for “King of Snake” — that I don’t even think went on sale because I turned it in too late, which I quite liked, actually. So that can be good, because this stuff becomes available.
Do the weird release dates have something to do too with your schedule involving Tomato and Underworld and juggling your different projects? How do you manage your time between those two?
It’s very difficult. It is very hard to manage time and have some kind of family life as well. But, I’ve managed. I’m still reasonably sane. And, in terms of screwing with schedules, it screws with schedules in as much as you might notice this year that there are a lot of remixes being done by other people, which is something we never used to do. We actually had no choice. If we wanted to fulfill all the needs for the formats and fill up CDs and EPs and things we actually have to get other people mixing for us. Because otherwise it’s kind of like I’m making three albums, and I just can’t do that. I wouldn’t have a living, you know? I would not be paying my bills. And release schedules again are something that are very much dictated by strange business reasoning, by executives, which is sometimes good, and sometimes bad. I’ve got no particular axe to grind with our record company.
Do they give you pretty good control over the design of your album covers and things like that?
Pretty good, absolutely. There’ve been a few surprises over the past year or so. Curve balls as they call them. But on the whole it’s been pretty good. It’s an age-old problem, centuries old, for artists, how to marry … [at this point, Underworld’s publicist Janet McQueeny jaunts by, winding her hand in the air to let me know my time with her client is about up. Rick sees her out of the corner of his eye] … how to dance with a very strange sort of twirling motion…[laughter]…how to marry commerce and art, and for me it’s really THE issue. I’m not just interested in making art, I’m interested in marrying the two. I have to. I have a family to look after, and I want to continue. Karl [Hyde, Underworld’s vocalist/lyricist] and I have been together 20 years, and Darren [Emerson, Underworld’s DJ] and Karl and I have been together 10 years. It’s important. I don’t intend to stop.
Do you try to make Underworld and Tomato as “family-friendly” as possible?
In what sense, Sean?
In terms of time accommodations to your family and things like that.
Well, we’re doing three dates; this is what we call a tour. So, you know, very much. I want to see my kids grow up. It’s important. I have no time for the trappings of success. I only have time for creating what I create, and turning people on. That being said, I love to play live. It’s like, today is unfortunate: it’s an hour-and-a-half show, and there’s 24 hours in the day, and I just wish that it all kind of could accelerate. You know what I’m saying? But, you know, we need to do these things, otherwise people wouldn’t know what it was that I’d done. It has to be this way.
Do you find that the live performances really give you guys a chance to combine all of the elements – the visual elements and the design elements with the music?
Absolutely, yes. All of that and more. It’s a unique experience. It’s very much the music for the moment with this huge ingredient X, which is the audience. You know, it’s no joke that there’s a tremendous contribution by the people in the audience as to the energy and the flow of energy then within the music that happens because of them.
So they guide the live performance quite a lot and allow you to improvise on stage?
No, I guide the live performance, but they are a part of the journey with us. They are causing inflections all the time. You know, we never know what’s going to be the first song. We’ll decide at most five minutes before we go on stage, but often as a walkout on stage and as a feeling, which is a combination of common sense and intuition, of like, “OK, we’re gonna do this.” Last night was a good example. We kicked off and I really felt, “Tonight, this should be ‘Cowgirl,’ [from 1993’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman] but we’re gonna mess with this.” They’re not even gonna know – I didn’t even want the audience to know what it was we were doing for as long as possible. And I think we did pretty well. We went for maybe five, 10 minutes where we didn’t give it away. We just kept building the groove. And sometimes you know the audience is with you very quickly, you can sense that. Other times you can sense that the audience is so excited that there’s a need to calm down for a second, so that we can enjoy together, because you don’t want to go just completely mental and lose perspective.
It’s good to have crests and troughs and bring people a complete emotional experience.
There you go! Absolutely! Yes. Yes.