DiS meets Karl Hyde of Underworld
Shortly before heading back out on the road, DiS caught up with Underworld's front man, wordsmith and general booty shaker Karl Hyde over a rather lovely cup of Earl Grey, discussing the new album Barking, their past glories and greasy spoon cafes on the Essex coast...
Karl: I like your notebook. It’s like a panorama…
DiS: Well thanks. You use a lot of landscapes in your work.
K: Yeah, and also that format is the windscreen of a car. Driving at night, growing up as a kid listening to the radio and seeing the dashboard, the headlights and road coming towards you. It feels like a film.
DiS: I’m glad you mentioned films. Do you think you’ll do any more scores sometime soon?
K: We don’t have anything concrete in the pipeline but I’d certainly hope so. We’re talking about a fairly serious other project with an American based company… And I hope Danny [Boyle] would offer us another project as it’s a joy to work with him.
DiS: The Sunshine soundtrack work you did was lovely, but I know there are songs featured in the film not yet released and that there were some issues getting the soundtrack out?
K: There was a version that came out. We scored the whole thing but Danny had already got someone else to work out all the orchestral parts, prior to knowing that we’d just finished Breaking and e Entering with Anthony Minghella and Gabriel Yared and that we’d learnt how to score for orchestra in the interim period, working with the London Philharmonic. The complete score we did for that film was great and heavily inspired the next album. Working with film is a joy because the pictures speak to you and you’ve got to support that vision and listen to where the film requires your presence. When it doesn’t, just butt out. I love working with Danny.
DiS: It shows. Anyhow, I was listening to Barking…
K: Haha, it sounds a bit like you’re stood there on a precinct listening to barking in the distance!
DiS: Yeah! I guess I ought to ask you where the title came from? The place?
K: Yeah, it started from the place, and then there were the connotations of dog barking and barking mad… but it started from the place because it reminds us about some of the cool things about Essex. Which might sound like an unusual thing to say but there’s a great spirit in south Essex and I’ve loved it from the first second I encountered it.
DiS: I’m an Essex boy too, from Southend.
K: Ah yeah, I went down to the seafront so many times to the cafes under the Arches near Rossi’s. I used to go down there in the wintertime and eat sausage and chips in the rain.
DiS: I almost prefer the British seaside out of season? There’s something wonderful about all these neon, ‘happy’ signs sitting idle against grey skies.
K: Fantastic. For a while we lived in Bexhill-on-Sea in a house right on the beach, and I mean right on the beach. The waves used to hit the front of the house. The winter was brilliant because you had it all to yourself; you’d wander up and down the seafront getting soaked and sit in a café - that was rammed in the summer but had just you in there in the winter - steaming up. Yeah, Southend… I kinda miss it. We’re not quite in that area but I do love it. I don’t want to leave Essex. We’re a bit further out in the country now because we needed the space for the new studio. Up until about 5 years ago it was in a terraced house in Romford. I should give the address out now to get fans going round there to nick the door handles!
DiS: I guess home recording and collaboration has always been important to you guys? Listening to Barking (read the DiS review here) I initially thought it was the odd one out in your history for featuring so many other artists, but then I recalled that over the years you’ve worked with Darren Emerson, Darren Price, Brian Eno, The Mysterons…
K: Yeah, and been open for ideas to come in. Rick and I grew up with John Peel and he planted that seed of eclecticism in us where you’d go somewhere to hear a particular kind of music, hear some other stuff that you might loathe and hate, but that would in turn introduce you to the routes of Blues or a hillbilly track or something hardcore. That was our schooling for music. Which is why when that first record of ours came out you saw these indie kids standing quite baffled looking at these other kids dancing; you could definitely see these two factions looking at each other thinking ‘Well we’ve turned up to see this band but who are THEY?’ And little by little you’d see enclaves of these groups of people as indie and dance crossed over and it became the norm where there wasn’t a dividing line anymore.
Plus twenty years of remixing has produced a positive frustration that we never got to work with those people. Often artists would present their point of view of our music and it would be so fascinating and inspiring that we’d hope to continue the process and carry on working on these tracks but the album was out, the remix was done and so that was that, fait accompli. Then we get to this place and after working with Gabriel Yared, Brian Eno, Mark Knight & D. Ramirez Rick says to me, ‘You know what, I think it’s time? I think it’s time we did it for real on this record’ We finished it, mixed it then looked for people specific to the types of track we’d got who were open minded enough to not just remix them but get into a musical dialogue where things go backwards and forwards. And we were lucky that everyone we found was up for it.
DiS: And I guess that’s made it a very different record to a ‘pure’ Underworld record? For example, there was a very early version of ‘Scribble’ on some of the live tracks you released in 2005. But here it’s a lot more ‘direct’ and short, alongside a few other tracks such as ‘Always Loved a Film’ and ‘Diamond Jigsaw’?
K: The sound is more stripped back and less dense too. It was all very deliberate, yet equally due to a series of coincidences. Like looking at a mates’ record collection a few years ago thinking ‘got that, need that’ and coming away with the names of a dozen or so records. I got into a few more Neu! things, bands of the era such as Harmonium and in particular some La Düsseldorf stuff, who had this straight ahead motorik sound, all the time thinking ‘this is why we got into electronic music’. You can hear the beat, there are no frills and I listened to that stuff for weeks on end in the car. And listening to contemporary music I got thinking, ‘actually you can hear La Düsseldorf in most tracks I’m hearing on the radio?’ That straight ahead beat reflecting those things going on in the early 80s when we were experimenting with electronics. Rick wanted to strip things back too and of course as you go out and start playing live, that more ‘full sound’ just doesn’t work or connect. Most of the tracks on the album were written and developed in front of a live audience. And then the people that we worked with are contemporary writers and producers so they’re not about to fill it up with things that are unnecessary so I’m thrilled with where we ended up.
The rehearsals we did earlier in the year when we went down to Australia felt like standing in front of a new group that had borrowed a couple of anthems off of an older group. There’d been a period of a few years, particularly around the last album, that hadn’t given us much that we could add to the show and it was starting to sound a bit… old? That was never in our vision, to be some kind of nostalgia trip. We wanted things to move on and to respond to things happening now, alongside remembering our routes. It’s that Peel thing again.
DiS: It’s always struck me that you’re really good at evolving the live set actually? I saw you three times in the space of a year once and each gig felt like a new experience; I recall ‘King of snake’ especially being different each set, with me not recognising it once until about 7 minutes had passed of you looping this vocal?
K: That’s probably just because I’d forgotten what was going on! I’m glad that happened, that’s when it’s working.
DiS: That’s the aspect of your live show I’ve always raved about to my friends over the years, the fact you’ll never quite know what you’ll get. I remember you dropping ‘Rowla’ a few years back out of the blue…
K: I do love it when that happens. A lot of our tunes are about people coming together to celebrate. Though having said that… we have for many years talked about taking over a theatre and playing all our songs that are not about that. We’ve talked about it for 6 or 7 years now and thought wouldn’t it be great to go out and perform these more intimate tunes in a seated auditorium.
DiS: I would love that. I think that on reflection Oblivion With Bells was a real return to form and it’d be great to hear some of these songs in a setting more suited to them, as you know a lot just wouldn’t work live in your normal set. Likewise the Riverrun series deserves more air time – will you ever do more with that?
K: I hope so. That was a big turning point for us. Personally, I felt really trapped by the LP / CD album format which had become very formulaic through the industry’s manipulation. It had to be a certain length due to the CD, the booklet had to have a restricted number of colours and a particular jewel case to rack properly and I felt like screaming ‘Come on mate, we’re making music here!’ How are you supposed to tell Miles Davis he can only make something that’s 3 minutes and 45 seconds? Music should be the length it needs to be and an album should be allowed to be 20 minutes or 3 hours. And if you want to put out 500 photographs with it you should be able to without having to argue the toss about where the staples go. It was becoming so restrictive that it was taking the wind out of my sails, and the Riverrun series was about reinforcing our freedom to publish as and when we wanted on the internet, something we’d fantasized about in the early 80s – this way of being in more than one place at once, this way of communicating with the world from your back bedroom in Cardiff. It was now a reality.
We’d been giving away material on the radio shows and it was a particular kind of music; the rough edged, unfinished diamonds Rick would find in the archive and say, ‘You know what, people will never hear this version, because it’ll get finished?’ But there’s a beauty to that and that series was all about putting these things together in a way that creates a contained group of tracks and underlines that we are free to publish as and when we want to. Once we’d done that, we were all ‘Oh great then, of course we can make records if you like’, because I love records – I like buying records, I love owning records and I love record shops.
Oddly, I was at the death of HMV in Japan recently, which was extraordinary and incredibly beautiful. Extraordinary because I’ve always loved record shopping out there and beautiful because the Japanese love their records so you’d find stuff way out of print here. But HMV - on the last night of the last day - over the sound system just played white noise. Isn’t that cool? Like hearing the death of music. It was great, so poetic.
I’ve come out of there before with carrier bags full of records and then gone back in to get more! I do occasionally download but I just feel nothing for them. I have to have the physical thing. An mp3 is just a convenient way of listening to something to me.
I think some fans think we favour the [Japanese market], but the reason we do the special editions is because they get swamped with imports cheaper than their own, so if we don’t then the local record companies wouldn’t sell anything. Which is also why it’s out there already, to give them a chance. Plus records are pretty expensive out there.
But right now I’m quite happy to do another record because we’re not trapped anymore. I’m sure somewhere down the line we’ll do something else like a Riverrun. It would be really nice to do a series of evenings that aren’t the anthems.
DiS: Definitely. And there did seem to be a period in your history where people would come to your live shows for THAT song. How do you feel about it now?
K: 'Born Slippy'? I’ve loved it ever since Danny did what he did with it in Trainspotting. I saw it and went ‘Pffft, he understands. He gets what it’s about; everything’s alright now’. Now I’m really happy playing it and it’s mutated from the era it was in – where people were saying it was ‘our song’ – to an anthem people have taken on which you never imagine you’ll write in your lifetime. You hope in your wildest dreams that you might get a number one, but you dream of writing an anthem that’ll go on to stand the test of time. And I look at those faces in the crowd and think ‘This is fantastic, how did this happen… this is ours?’ So it carries on being a joy.
DiS: It’s amazing the journey it’s made really. It was after all a B-side about some themes very dark and personal to you?
K: It’s really fought to find its place in the world. It was a B-side and we didn’t want Danny to put our music in his film. We got the wrong end of the stick about what the film was about and he had to convince us, and we understood very clearly once he showed us. And then we definitely weren’t going to let it be re-released, that was waayyy too cheesy. So Junior Boy’s Own got 100 DJs in the country to canvas us and 99 were like, ‘you’ve gotta re-release this, every time I drop this tune the place kicks off’. Interestingly the only DJ who didn’t like it and who absolutely slated it was a guy at the top ranking Cardiff club where we started out!
Though I’m really pleased we’ve now got songs like ‘Scribble’ since our work with High Contrast. When that drops it feels like that same euphoria in ‘Born Slippy’ to me, like ‘Two months off’. There are lots of these… moments. ‘Cowgirl’ feels like it to me. ‘Rez’ feels like it to me.
For many more people than those who know us, ‘Born Slippy’ represents all they know of our work. And that’s cool, and brought us to the attention of many millions more than would have known us, but I know when I feel the energy flow curves as we work through our set that it’s not the only song with that high. If it was, it’d be pretty depressing.
DiS: And I guess that’s a flow you must be constantly aware of, as you can’t have the highs without the lows?
K: Rick’s really good at that. And Steve Hall from JBO is still part of the team. With this particular tour for the first time we used a setlist. More recently we were letting the crew put the set together just before we were going on stage just so they could know what we were going to be doing; how the lights go or how to improvise the video, as they were having to come up with something to whatever tune Rick would drop. With this tour it’s been fantastic as we can think about something else now. If we’d had setlists 20 years ago we’d have been bored rigid but because they’re like a new invention to us we can work harder on other things.
DiS: Talking of 20 years ago, if you had to nominate one of your records to play through in order at a ‘Don’t Look Back’ show, would it be one of the first two?
K: Haha. You’d have to ask Rick, because I genuinely can’t remember anything. It’s true. My memory of things becomes soundbites and phrases. Generally Rick remembers far more detail than I do and he put together all of the records. And with a lot of them in the early days, because of my physical state, he was having to do it all alone and he has a very strong memory of who does what – which was mainly him. I think it’d be very interesting. I’d love to hear him talk through the process of putting together an album. I love his story about ‘Rez’.
We’d put out some club tunes that had done well and he’d got to a point where he’d gone into the studio and couldn’t write anything. He came downstairs distraught and said to his wife, ‘I think I’m finished? I don’t think I’ve got anything left?’ Imagine that, how long ago ‘Rez’ was? Things would have been very different if that was the case. Anyway, his missus said ‘get back in that studio and don’t come out until you’ve written a great tune’ and he wrote ‘Rez’. Which spawned ‘Cowgirl’. We have a lot to thank those Essex girls for…
In those days he was living in a terraced house in Romford and we ended up buying next door and turning that into our studio, but I remember him playing me that tune and thinking ‘this is so special’. I think I said: ‘I’d love to sing on it, but I don’t want to spoil it’. And he said ‘Well that’s ok, it could become something else’ and so it became ‘Cowgirl’.
DiS: It was always two separate tracks on record but they feel like one long entity now?
K: Yeah it does now because one has evolved out of the other. But yeah it is a magic moment for us.
DiS: The opening track on the new LP, ‘Bird1’, feels like it fits in that classic mould of what an Underworld track is to me; fractured lyrical observations, subdued rhythms, gradual build up…
K: It’s interestingly all from the same moment. I’m in Greece, lying down with the sunlight coming through an open door. I see things and I hear things and… ‘there is one bird in my house’, whatever that means to anybody. I know what it means to me, it’s very specific; things are really simple, not complicated right now and my belfry is not full of bats. It’s kind of like those fragmented lyrics from the past but I know that it hangs together as a story. But others on this record Rick had said to me ‘It’d be really great if you could build some doors into your world to let people in a little bit, just to let them know what you’re on about. So I said I’d try and let people in a bit. Sometimes it’d go a bit too far and I’d have to close off a couple again but I really enjoyed the experience.
As I’m walking the streets I’ll write down things that come to mind. If I can do two pages… Two pages is going to guarantee me enough ammo to make a fairly complete piece of work. If I can do three pages we’re quids in.
So after three lines on this record I’d drop in a clue. Rather than say ‘electric snake with lights’ just say ‘train’. ‘Steely twins’ I imagine people realise are ‘rails’, but once in a while I’d just say ‘rails’.
DiS: Do you think that abstract lyrical content and music has been the reason why you’ve stayed more relevant as you’ve gotten older than most of your other 90s dance peers, say The Prodigy?
K: It’s going to be interesting isn’t it? I think they’re a fantastic band and oddly we all live within a few miles of each other. It’s weird, there’s a very small community hamlet that is like techno central and we’ve all ended up in the same part of the world! I think their last record was absolutely of the time and yet it was also like a traditional Prodigy. It worked so brilliantly when I went to see them at Wembley. And, I know this isn’t really answering your question, but it reminded me of a time in the early 90s where Orbital, Sven Vath and Bjork would be down the Drum Club and we were just so happy that one of us was doing well, as it meant everybody else also stood a chance. Suddenly someone paving the way meant there was a road for a few of us to go down.
I don’t know how to answer your question. I work with an extraordinary producer and partner who has his ear to the ground and an uncanny way of getting us to change when it’s right by saying the right thing. When High Contrast responded to ‘You do scribble’ and gave us a brilliant instrumental track to which I didn’t want to sing - after my memories of ‘Rez’ – Rick went ‘Just try singing a new melody and vocal’ and hey presto. I thought this new record would be 40% instrumental but it’s actually a tiny percentage. I don’t know what goes on in his head when he’s dancing but I usually look back two years later and go ‘Oh… you Welsh are really clever!’
DiS: You use a lot of samples and snatches of dialogue too. Who is the woman who’s talked on your last few releases like ‘Moon on the water’?
K: It’s Daneille. [Points to person sitting right behind me]
DiS: Oh right… hi!
K: We’ve loved people’s voices since day one. It started with a fascination with people whose monotone wasn’t English and more beautiful than the way we constructed sentences. We’d get people to record our text and use that. There’s a lady called Petra and she’s the girl who says ‘Hmmmm skyscraper I love you’. She’s great, she’s German and she wasn’t here for very long and sounded so damn sexy in the way she would talk. Then there was Juanita who was at Tomato for a long time, and other people would come in…
DiS: Who did the intro for ‘Jumbo’?
K: Oh that was Phil. He’s a friend of Rick’s who lives in Louisiana. He was a military photographer in the Vietnam war and believe it or not opened up a very successful chain of hairdressers. He lives out in the swamps, and that was from a day he and Rick spent fishing out in them. Some years ago we were playing in New York and Rick flew him up to come out and do that line. It was great, he came out with this big beard and hair and when he started to speak, the room went ‘WAHEY! That’s him!’
DiS: You should fly him over for your residency!
K: Haha yeah! Though we’d have to fly over A LOT of people
Barking is out now. Underworld play the following live dates in the UK:
Saturday 20, Brixton Academy, LONDON
Thursday 25, Manchester Academy, MANCHESTER
Friday 26, Glasgow Barrowlands, GLASGOW
Saturday 27, RDS Simmonscourt, DUBLIN