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Happiness in the Balance

British techno up-and-comers Underworld pursue career fulfillment in their own way.

April 11, 1999|STEVE HOCHMAN | Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar

Not many pop groups have their own building.

But then, British electronic dance music trio Underworld, whose entrancing third album "Beaucoup Fish" will be released in the United States on Tuesday, is not like many pop groups.

Two years ago, Prodigy and others in the then-hyped genre snapped up the mega-deals being offered by record labels. But Underworld, then the most coveted available techno act after Prodigy, made it very clear to suitors that a) they were in no hurry, b) money wasn't an issue and c) no one should expect another "Born Slippy," the group's 1996 breakthrough hit.

"We say no to more things than we say yes to because of the vibe we feel around them," says singer-guitarist Karl Hyde. "It's important that we can look ourselves in the mirror and say, 'You might be stupid, but you're all right.' . . . What we're interested in is sustaining our career, not just cashing in and being the biggest or the mostest."

Pretty nervy for a band whose last album, 1996's "Second Toughest in the Infants," sold just 86,000 copies in the U.S. and which since has been overshadowed here by Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim.

That's where the building comes in.

Technically, it's not the group's edifice, but rather the London headquarters of Tomato, a thriving design firm that numbers Underworld's Hyde and Rick Smith among its nine founder-partners. Tomato includes everything from graphic arts to print and television advertising to new film and interactive divisions. Underworld's third member, Darren Emerson, meanwhile, has a steady side career as a deejay and is much in demand for club and festival gigs throughout Europe.

Beyond financial security, the situation gives them creative comfort as well.

"It gives balance in our creative lives," says Hyde. "So [when contracts were being offered] we just disappeared into Tomato and worked on gallery exhibits for a while."

A team since 1981, when they met at art college in Cardiff, Wales, Hyde, 41, and keyboardist-programmer Smith, 39, had been through the music business mill several times already, first in the mid-'80s band Freur (which had the novelty dance hit "Doot-Doot") and a late-'80s Brit-funk band also called Underworld, with two albums on Sire.

Then in 1990 they hooked up with Emerson, a disenchanted financial whiz-kid who was deejaying on the side, and formed the current Underworld. The band's profile shot high when "Born Slippy" was featured prominently in the "Trainspotting" soundtrack, where its blood-rush pulse and mumbled chants captured the movie's druggy disorientation.

Underworld forged an alliance with the small English label Junior Boy's Own, licensing their recordings in the U.S. to the influential Chicago label Wax Trax. If they were going to sign with a major this time around, it had to be just as suitable a relationship.

Enter V2, the company started two years ago by Virgin Records founder Richard Branson with a philosophy that matches the group's emphasis on creative well-being over platinum sales.

"We'd like to [sell a million of this album]," says Sharon Lord, the group's product manager at V2. "But we want to market this the right way--we don't want to sell them out. We take into account that the 'Trainspotting' soundtrack sold 500,000 copies in the U.S., so there's basically that many people who know Underworld. We're targeting them."

Whatever attitude the musicians and the record company have toward "Beaucoup Fish," expectations are very high in dance-music circles.

CMJ New Music Monthly recently declared Underworld "the groove band of these times," and the enthusiasm of the technophiles at the trio's Mayan Theatre concert in L.A. in December was no more restrained. That appearance was part of a process designed to take the music in a different direction.

"On this album, for the first time we were able to road test [in concerts] four or five songs, which quite transformed the album," Hyde says. "We found that part of the problem was tracks were too complex--too much production and not enough content--to make them work on stage."

As a result, there's a coherence to the material in place of the elliptical, less unified quality of the 1994 debut album "dubnobasswithmyheadman" and "Second Toughest," without any loss of artistry or ambition. Several tracks seem virtual tributes to the electronic dance roots of '70s pioneers Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk, with a disturbing claustrophobia from Hyde's intoned, mantra-like phrases.

"That [roots consciousness] was a lot of the thought that went into it," says Emerson, 28, who also runs a small techno label called Underwater. "As it developed, we found we were making a style of music that came naturally. 'Born Slippy' was not that representative of what we always did."

In personal terms, the new record reflects the group's emphasis on sanity over success, says Hyde, who quit drinking last year and has just married his companion of 20 years.

"Making this record was over a period where things came into sharper focus and became calmer," Hyde explains. "A whole pile of stuff you don't want to do can be dealt with and life becomes simpler and you can concentrate on what you want to do. We're not here and there and everywhere running around like headless chickens wanting to be pop stars and at the top of the charts."


Underworld plays May 1 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main St., Santa Monica, 8 p.m. $25. (310) 458-8551.

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