Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Karl Hyde (Underworld) interview (2010)

Karl Hyde is positively beaming today. His new album with Underworld cohort Rick Smith is rapidly taking shape; news of a headline slot in Australia at the We Love Sounds festival has him singing praises, and he's in celebration mode for  his newly found sobriety. Life for the Romford (UK) artist is a much simpler all-round affair today, thanks to several well defined turns he's taken over the years. Starting our talk at his first major shift in gears, the death of Underworld – 'the power-rock years' - Karl, in spite of chart action in the form of Underneath The Radar, was far from comfortable with his band's early success.

"Underworld 'MK 1' felt like being trapped and floundering and just searching for what it was that we were about to be honest." Hyde begins. "Rick (Smith) really bought us back to our roots after that first phase. I mean we always loved Kraftwerk and we loved dub reggae and anything with a strong bass structure, but the penny never really dropped until the end of the '80s when acid house came along." He continues; "I remember we were on an Australian tour and for the very first time we started to infuse this acid house sound into our guitar based music. It was something of a revelation for us because up to that point, I felt like there was something really wrong with this band but as soon as we started making dance music, it was like we were finally being honest with ourselves."
The truth of Underworld's false start, Karl decides was down to a desire to be accepted; "We were kind of driven to be a part of the broader scene happening in Britain at the time, but I can look back now and know why I didn't feel at all happy with what we were doing. We were listening to the music we loved while playing something completely different and really, we should have been getting to the core of what we were passionate about." It was outside of regular band duties, that Karl and Rick maintained a hobby that would ultimately build the foundation for their future sound; "Whenever Rick and I were out of contract or on the dole, we would make this dub-electronic dance music." He pauses, "It was really peculiar because we never thought to release it as Underworld, yet at the same time we were sitting on these recordings, the music happening in clubs – which was a lot like what we were making – was becoming huge. It's weird to think it, but we actually didn't know much about the club scene at all, so the last ten years has been spent learning what we missed the previous ten years!"

Hyde's lack of grounding in the UK's dance movement has seen him develop outside the standard house influences. As a youth, Karl even harbored a somewhat reinforced distrust of club music; "When we were growing up, the rock kids all thought that dance music was disposable rubbish. Basically the lowest form of music." He claims, "But what we've discovered since then through making it is, it's an intensely creative process absolutely full of challenges. Plus the reaction we get to this music makes it so worthwhile." Karl explains, "The rock culture's quite violent really, I mean people used to beat the crap out of each other at concerts and so moving in to the dance music scene was very appealing to me because the people were so much friendlier." He laughs, "You know, everyone dresses up and there's these fantastic light shows and in a way it's this kind of throw back to the 1960s hippy culture, but it's also a reaction I think to the overly aggressive rock and punk scenes that came before. These days you can see how much the dance scene has infiltrated rock shows with things like The Flaming Lips, whose concerts really embrace that spirit of the rave scene."

Karl as a songwriter has forged an unmistakable style of his own. His usual shout-speak delivery comes across as half rant, half poetry and offers very few legible phrases to pick from. Examining his written work, it's reasonable to think he is just hanging words together that fit with the mood of each track. Yet as to be expected, there's a method to the apparent randomness and, as if triggered by the subject, Karl is not short on words when explaining his outpourings. "People talk about what I write as being like a kind of 'stream of consciousness', but that always makes me think of somebody sat in a dark room, feverishly writing whatever comes into their head, and it's not like that at all for me." Karl explains, excitedly, "I write down literally everything I see, not what I'm thinking. I can be sat in a café or a park and I'll just note down everything no matter how insignificant, in as much detail as I can." Usually, Karl's lyrics would make their way into his songs through a trial and error process until they develop a significance of their own. However, he adds there is still room for the occasional freestyle; "I recently did some shows with Brian Eno, which were all fully improvised performances, and for that I took a load of my note books on stage and just started picking bits out and reading them no matter what it was."
Hyde, in his songs, often sounds as if he's urgently relaying information from various sources; of either all or no importance leaving it up to the listener to decode. Karl describes; "Often what will happen is the most significant or most personal lyric to me will sound the cheesiest, which is a peculiar thing really. Sometimes when you try too hard to be honest in your writing, people think it's a bit too much and switch off to it. I mean a song like Born Slippy went over people's heads in a way, because to be completely honest I was asking for help." He reveals, continuing; "I was through with being unhappy and getting wasted to hide how unhappy I was, so I let it all out in that song. Unfortunately it became something of a drinking anthem, but in reality I was horribly depressed about my own drinking and having difficulty seeing a way out."

It's clear that Underworld have developed from the experimental acid house band of the early '90s into a vital form of expression for Karl. Whereas the rock kids of his youth saw dance music as disposable, it was Underworld MK 1 - 'the rock band' that was irreverent for Hyde. Even in the most anthemic of Underworld's club tracks, you'll usually find a voice, busy building a huge scale scenario up from minute detail with dream-like inconsistency. "I can't write in a traditional way though, I've tried to but it just never works." Karl shrugs, "I listen to Lou Reed, and he sings in conversational American. I think he just writes down what he hears people say and builds a song out of it. It's brilliant." He beams, "I'm also really inspired by Sam Shepard - a great play write who did The Motel Chronicles. I could never write as good as him but, I see the world in these tiny fragments which is exactly how he writes. I mean he'll describe the corner of a room or the wheel on a car and it's completely fascinating. He finds beauty in these things and is able to capture it so well in his writing."

One of Karl's objectives in Underworld has been to constantly re-interpret how he and Smith perform the songs live. The duo often records their concerts as a way of guiding them to not repeat themselves and make each show different from the previous; He discusses, "Aside from doing music, I'm  also a painter and as soon as I finish an artwork it kind of looks at me and goes, well then what next?" He grins, "It's exactly the same when putting the shows together, in that the music is never fully stationary. It's already done as a recorded piece of music, so when we play it live, each time it can become something new." He adds, "Whenever we play, I've already done the show over and over in my mind so that way, when it comes to the actual event, I feel I can be open to exploring ways of deconstructing everything and rebuilding it as its happening."


  1. Very nice! Was particularly intrigued by Karl speaking about his songwriting process - as a poet and writer, I found it quite inspiring.

    How did you manage to score an interview with Hyde, if you don't mind me asking? I'd fucking kill for the opportunity to do so...

    Dig the blog, good vibes from a fellow Melbournian!

  2. Hi Unwound Floors, thanks for taking the time to read my interview and for your comment. Inspiring is the word! He was such a great talker and I think he was happy to be asked about his writing as opposed to just his live shows or whatever. I'm a huge fan of his work, and had often wondered about his writing in the past, so as soon as the chance came to talk to him, the subject dominated the whole interview. I write for Beat magazine so I get sent requests to interview touring acts and choose who I want. (Underworld are playing in Melbourne on the Queen's Birthday long weekend.)

    Thanks once again for the vibes and your comments!

  3. great interview mate