Why Miami audiences should feel special that Underworld is returning to Ultra Music Festival

Underworld's Karl Hyde, right, and Rick Smith are back together at Ultra for the first time in six years.

For longtime electronic music fans, Underworld needs no introduction.

But for the young’uns, here goes: The British duo – consisting of charismatic singer and frontman Karl Hyde and producer Rick Smith – has blessed us with some of the greatest anthems of all time over the past 23 years, including “Dark & Long,” “Cowgirl,” “Pearl’s Girl,” “Jumbo,” “Beautiful Burnout,” “Two Months Off” and, of course, “Born Slippy,” which provided the soundtrack to one of the more memorable moments of the groundbreaking 1996 film “Trainspotting.”

Underworld, whose blissfully paradoxical sound  – dangerous yet soothing, bracing yet sleek – returns to Miami for the first time in six years to headline the Ultra Music Festival’s Live Stage on Sunday night, just before French alt-disco duo Justice closes out the weekend.

The Ultra gig is Underworld’s only scheduled U.S. appearance in 2017, in support of its seventh studio album, “Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future,” so feel free to feel special, Miami music lovers.

Karl Hyde talked to the Miami.com about the gig, the new album and its recording process, and his new book “I Am Dogboy.”

Has it really been six years since Underworld headlined at Ultra?

Wow, really? Time really flies, doesn’t it? I know we’ve been there a few times, but that’s a bit of a shock.

The group Underworld performs at Ultra Fest inside Bicentennial Park, downtown Miami, Florida on March 29, 2008.Carl Juste

I imagine we’ll hear a few tracks from “Barbara Barbara”?

Yeah, for sure. That’s been a really popular album, and there’s quite a lot of tracks that we’re featuring in our live show now.

And will you have visuals by your art/design company Tomato?

Of course. We have a fantastic lighting designer that we’ve worked with since the 1990s. And everyone thinks that all the lights are queued up in some way, but he improvises them all every night, and he’s quite extraordinary. We take quite a different approach to video screens than most other artists, and that’s something that we’ll be bringing to the Miami festival.

Have you finalized your set list for Ultra?

No, it will often change the day before, depending on the vibe that we’re feeling from the event. We’re going off to do three theater shows in Utrecht in Holland next week, and we’ll be trying out different sets every night, building up to a two-hour show that we’re doing in London, and all of those will be different.

How do you choose from so many iconic tracks?

It’s interesting – Rick and I were reminiscing earlier in the week, and we were rehearsing for our London show. And even for a two-hour show, we have to leave out iconic tracks: We’re going, “I know that’s great, and I know people like that one, but are you gonna leave that one?” So what happens now is we bring in an external member of the team … who takes an overview of the set list, and helps us change it every night.

Do you have the freedom to improvise during the show, or is the set list set in stone?

We used to improvise radically – throughout the ’90s, everything was improvised, and we didn’t have any set lists. We would just start with the first track. Then we went through a phase of giving the set over to our road crew and saying, you decide. And then as audiences tastes changed, the desire from the audience to experience a lengthy journey of improvisation changed, and people were looking for something that was more succinct. 

Was the recording process for “Barbara Barbara” different this time for you and Rick?

Yeah, it was, in the sense that we were together, writing material all the time. Previously on most of our records, we started things quite often separately, come together, shared them, worked on them, worked on them apart, worked on them a little bit together. But with “Barbara Barbara,” we came together with nothing, just our equipment and some lyric books that I wrote going in. And that was it, and it was fantastic.

It must have felt good to get back into the studio with Rick after a six-year break, then.

Yeah! It really did, and we had another long break again because Rick was working on the soundtrack to “Trainspotting 2,” and I’ve been working on two new commissions, so the pair of us went from working together on the road pretty much solidly for two years, and hanging out together, to not seeing each other for two months, and that was pretty tough. And now we’re back together again.

How does the songwriting process work? Do you bring your lyrics in and start with a beat, or a keyboard riff, or what?

Yes, I turn up with a bunch of books, because I write every day and publish those words every day on the Internet, and some guitars, pedals, amps, and Rick will have his equipment. And somebody will make a noise. And the other person will go, “I like that – let’s record that.” And that’s the beginning of the conversation.

The title of your new book “I Am Dogboy” refers to a lyric from your dance-floor anthem “Born Slippy” – what were you going for with that?

What it really refers to is, the lyric for “Born Slippy” was kind of a cry for help, at a time when I was dying, basically, literally, and I needed help. And the Dogboy was this lone wolf, hunter-scavenger that was cruising through the streets at night, hunting for words, lyrics, excitement, danger. So it represented me at that time, and in some ways, the title of that book should have a question mark after it: “I Am Dogboy?” Because my life’s really different now. That title really refers to a story, which is a catalog of disasters, that led to a partnership with my buddy Rick.

Underworld’s music has always transcended the typical verse-chorus-verse structure of most pop and rock songs. Was that by design from the beginning?

We tried it for 10 years in the 1990s, put out four or five albums, and failed miserably. We were really bad actors, you know? [Laughs] We got dropped from major record labels so many times, and by the time house [music] and dance culture was exploding in the U.K., that felt like home to us, and it connected us to music that we loved as kids, which was German electronic music – Kraftwerk, NEU!, Faust – and all kinds of great bands that were coming out in the early ’70s.

And this momentum was happening in the U.K., and felt like home to us. Plus, we were turning to the original dance music from Detroit and Chicago, and these things were the antithesis to verse-chorus-verse songs, and they allowed us to go on journeys. So they kind of demanded that we find other forms of song structure.


What: Underworld at the Ultra Music Festival

When: Noon-11 p.m. Sunday (Underworld’s set is scheduled for 8:25-10 p.m.)

Where: Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Info: www.ultramusicfestival.com



Michael Hamersly Michael Hamersly is a freelance music and entertainment writer in Miami. He is a former rock star, professional chef and center fielder for the Red Sox. OK, he made that part up.