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Face a Shining Future: A Conversation with Underworld’s Karl Hyde

on March 14, 2016, 12:00pm

The ‘90s almost killed Karl Hyde.

Despite being at the foreground of electronic music, the vocalist and lyricist for cerebral rave icons Underworld struggled with alcoholism and the void that comes with an empty bottle. “That whole era for all of the ‘90s was a very dark era for me. It was close to death most of the time. I was in a very lonely, bleak place,” he says over the phone. Luckily, the mesmerizing and sometimes bonkers modern techno sound collage of his band had many guises for him to lean on. His different hues were diffracted on each album’s prisms of culture, with musical partner Rick Smith right by his side, giving him an art form and a friendship he could trust.

karl hydeToday, Hyde brims with passion and superlatives. The eccentric 59-year-old now ticks to a faster tock and couldn’t be more enthusiastic, talking about his music that “turns a lot of people on.” The title of Underworld’s new album, Barbara, Barbara we face a shining future, is not tied to his past, yet it feels as if it could be. Instead, it was Smith’s father’s last words, said to Smith’s mother right before he passed away. After his own brush with death, though, Hyde is embracing his own bright future. “Now I wake up, and I think, ‘Well, I haven’t got that much time left.’”

He’s certainly using that time wisely, focused on the joy that art brings out in him: “The reason I make art is to discover what I’m thinking. I make art to see myself.” In its best moments, Barbara, Barbara we face a shining future insightfully captures something equally driven by reflection: the mind-morphing moment when darkness gives way to the light.

In one of his most in-depth discussions in years, Hyde talks with Consequence of Sound about his three-decade relationship with Smith and how it plucked him from a bad routine, Brian Eno’s profound effect on his career, and the real truth behind the notorious Trainspotting track, “Born Slippy”. I exhale.

screen shot 2015 11 24 at 11 13 53 am Face a Shining Future: A Conversation with Underworlds Karl Hyde

Art has always been very much a part of who you are, considering you graduated in it, were a performance artist in the ‘70s, and had a solo exhibition in Tokyo a few years back. But is the stage the spot where you’re the happiest?

The stage is the quietest place I have ever known in my life. I’ve been on stage since I was 11 years old. For me, it’s a place of great stillness. That might sound like a really weird thing to say, but in my head, it becomes a very peaceful place to be. Making art is a totally different thing … it’s not peaceful. Art has a different kind of intensity, but I love them both very much. I’m fortunate to be in Underworld because Underworld allows and encourages Rick[Smith] and myself to move around and do different things. That’s an extraordinary privilege to be part of something, which doesn’t frown upon you going off and doing other things, but actually embraces it.

Could you imagine if you were ever in a partnership where you felt constricted?

I’ve been in those situations previous to working with Rick, and I have been that kind of person that’s thought in a very one-dimensional way. That’s who I was in the past. What is wonderful is when Rick formed this version of Underworld in the early ’90s, things changed radically. It became more of a product of our honest reactions rather than coming out of an idea of what we should do in order to be successful.

Yet Underworld existed not like an art object sitting in a museum or in a frame, but with an element of pop culture attached to your music.

To us, everything is viable, whether it’s visual or psyche. Everything is active at all times, which is why our music is never rooted in any specific genre or style. Whilst a lot of people might think of us as that band who did “Born Slippy”, the people that know our albums know they’re eclectic.

If we’re talking about your career, then “Born Slippy” will always come up. When you sing, “Let your feelings slip boy, but never your mask boy,” it’s a juncture at which you find a truth in protecting yourself. I know that song was guzzled up by America, but did you feel like people kind of missed the point? Sure it was bookended with beautiful chords, and now it’s an anthem for people who are having a good time, but was it a cry for help?

That whole era for all of the ‘90s was a very dark era for me. It was close to death most of the time. I was in a very lonely, bleak place. Yet the beautiful music Rick was wrapping around it was the first thing that people heard, and I was pleased. We were very much inspired by David Bowie’s Low. I heard that, and I knew that was the blueprint for how I should be. We wanted you to hear the groove first and not be depressed by what was going on in my life. It’s a great dichotomy between very beautiful, uplifting sounds, but when you look inside, it’s wrapped around darkness. At the time, I was always celebrating the dirt that was on the streets. For me, it was like, “Why does dirt have to be negative?” There’s stuff out there that is beautiful poetry, the streets are beautiful, and all broken things are beautiful.

How far did that perspective reach? Into your personal life, or just the art that you were making?

It was really when I was in Debbie Harry’s band in the early ‘90s, with her and Chris Stein down in Greenwich Village just walking through the streets. All of a sudden, this part of the world people might have thought as a bit grimy was this beautiful gallery of poetic imagery and sounds of words. That was just easy pickings. I could just open my notebook, and the stuff fell out.

Do you wake up in the morning with lyrical ideas and write them down straight away?

Oh yeah, oh yeah, every morning! I wake up with sentence structures forming in my head – so don’t talk to me in the morning. I’ve written my diary every day for 16 years now. I’m normally at the café at about 7 a.m., and I write for an hour. It’s my discipline. It’s my morning ritual.

That’s so much better than waking up and fiddling about on Google. Although the benefits of reading interesting articles can be helpful, turning your focus toward yourself is vital for human progression and self-awareness.

I used to live in a very dark space a couple of years ago, especially whilst we were touring. Then I sorted myself out. Now I wake up, and I think, “Well, I haven’t got that much time left.” When I go work in the studio, I’ll take a pile of my notebooks, but we might end up using none of them. I’ve trained myself to be able to find viable words within combinations of words, as I did on this record.

Can you talk specifically about this record and where you adopted that approach?

Sometimes I would try stuff and nothing would work, so I had to look around the room and ask Rick questions and see what came back from him, then go, “Okay that’s great,” and use that to be able to create something immediately. But my lyrics are not gibberish, and it’s not cut up. Rick pointed this thing out, which is that I always add a photograph to my diary. I take hundreds of photographs every day, and the photograph is my recognition. Like molding a sculpture for an artist, it’s something that my eyes go to. The things we pass every day, like a traffic cone or some kind of mushed-up grass, is a beautiful sculptural statement.

When we came to do the lyrics for this, Rick pointed out to me that I should just see the world like I do my camera. This is what I’ve done for 25 years now because I’m unable to articulate how I feel with words. What I decided to do is use collections of words like objects to describe how I feel. So, in the past, if I was feeling happy, you knew it by the things I had collected. If I was feeling dark, the same thing. That’s what I’ve done to a much higher degree on this album, made those collections even more apparent.

UW new photo-credit Perou

You can definitely hear it on songs that pull your exuberant side out, like “I Exhale”, or the more wry, somber side on “Motorhome”, particularly when you sing, “What don’t lift you, drags you down, keep away from the dark side.” That’s really good advice from him.

You know, I don’t know what this is, but it’s not stream of conscious, and it’s not cut up. It’s actually me recognizing things that belong in groups within my state of mind. When I step back from them, like I would a painting, I leave the room and only then realize what it meant. My friend Brian Eno did some talks recently in London, and he posed the question, “Why do we make art?” His theory and reasoning were very valid of course, but what I said to him afterwards was that none of that was my reasoning for making art. The reason I make art is to discover what I’m thinking. I make art to see myself. I make art to see who it is I am at any given time. Collecting words and standing back is part of that.

As existential as this sounds, I’ve always lived by the modicum of “To see the full picture, you have to step out the frame.” Compartmentalizing thoughts and even comparing them to Brian Eno’s way of making art is so important. To reveal a perspective while making electronic music, which has the ability to be dark — with a lot of influence from industrial or post-punk – is crucial.

Never underestimate how much it helps that my partner takes a positive view on the world. He grew up in a church — no wonder those fantastic chords you spoke about earlier at the beginning and end of “Born Slippy” are his. They came out of church. He doesn’t hear the dark in what I do. What is fascinating is that he sees what I do. It’s not just a two-dimensional, myopic view of the world. It’s a new, multi-dimensional perspective.

Your lyrics are certainly critical of people selling a single idea of life.

I’d be like, “Wooow,” and he’d say, “Yeah, what were you looking at?” For a long time, we haven’t printed our lyrics. Quite often it was in the reinterpretation that was important. Sometimes I’d hear something better, a reinterpretation of what I was going on about.

I love the stages of a song and how many lives it can live, like broken telephone but for a song.

And often fans have made it more beautiful than my starting point.

Objectively, six years is a long time between albums, but in that time you’ve worked with Brian Eno and numerous others. Do you look at your career as a body of work, not just Underworld?

In those six years, as you know, we’ve scored [Trainspotting director] Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre. Rick then directed the music for the opening ceremony of 2012’s Summer Olympics. And I toured with a solo album and two albums with Brian Eno. All these things are really important because bands can often feel trapped. We could have new experiences and bring them back to our original artistic projects. Having a sense of an identity, of who we were, as being separate from something we’ve been doing for so long was important. You could take that for granted or just feel it’s a bit of a burden. Here, we did what came natural to us and were open with no ideas and then began making marks to see what that evoked in the other.

Considering how different you and Rick are, what brought you back together? 

It’s funny. First of all, what you said is absolutely right. We are definitely a Venn-diagram in which we overlap and we agree. At our extremes, we’re really different. It took us a long time for us to realize that that wasn’t a problem, but an asset. It’s kind of stupid it took us so long. It was taking that dubnobass album out on tour, something that I absolutely did not want to do. I didn’t want to go near that project. I’ve always found the reason artists take out their classic albums is because they have nothing better to say, and they’re selling off what’s left in the cupboard. I knew we weren’t finished. I didn’t want to live in the past. What happened is that Rick asked me to analyze that record, minutely and subtly, to reproduce it exactly, which meant that I had to listen to all the vocals soloed and then think what was going on in my mind. It was a scientific analysis, which made me see it as a challenge and exciting. I discovered that there were things that we left behind like piles of equipment, and not plug-in synthesizers and everything “being in the box” as they say. There were physical things that were idiosyncratic and unique to us. I missed that. I wondered why we stopped certain things, and there was this sense between us that we generated a response in the other that no one else in that six years could generate.

How did those rehearsals go? 

We got into the rehearsal room, and within a day, we’d gone from being polite and cautious around each other to clearing the room and knowing it’s just about the two of us evolving in what has to be now the happiest tour of my life, that drumnobass tour. We talk to each other very bluntly, which sometimes shocks people. After a show, I might ask some of the crew we’ve been with since 1983, how the show was, and they kept saying it was great. Rick once came to the dressing room and took me to the one side and said, “What was going on in your head when you walked onstage?” For three songs, my head wasn’t there. That kind of stuff is exciting because you can go beyond yourself and transcend falling into a rut.

Did working with Brian Eno and other musicians affect how you made music alone?

In terms of my confidence, it was really important to make and finish an album on my own and see that process through. I hadn’t put a band together since 1978. To learn that you are grown up, and you can do these things, and you don’t have to just advocate everything to someone else … Brian and I have been mates for 20-odd years. We’ve done all sorts of things together, but to work intensely for two months and make those two albums with a man whose philosophy I’ve grown up on? Wow. Sometimes I was suggesting ideas to him, and he’d say, “Ah, that’s fantastic,” and I’d say, “No, that’s your idea!” It was great to have someone you respect and admire and who is a friend encouraging you to be yourself. It was really fun and a bit like going back to school, a bit like having a refresher course. Then going to Rick after working with much younger people, too, with attitudes and enthusiasm about things that we’d grown tired of. It’s really essential to have young people around.

Which younger musicians are you around lately?

I’ve set up a whole writing network of people, like Jono Ma from Jagwar Ma, Yannis of the Foals, and the Efterklang boys over in Denmark. We just did a 90-minute score for a 3D video installation that I’ve yet to show the world, and suddenly it became fascinating picking up a flipping guitar.

Were you involved with Efterklang’s new outfit, Liima?

They’re really close mates, and I helped them a bit with that new album. What’s fantastic is the reason that we know Efterklang … you know John Peel, the DJ from the UK? When John Peel went away on that final holiday, which he died on, he asked me and Rick to look after his radio show, which to me was like the Pope asking me to look after the Vatican. He said we could play anything that we wanted, and we got a three-hour show. Rick said to him, “Well, is there anything that you’d like us to play?” John said, “There’s a first album by this band from Denmark called Efterklang,” and that he really liked it, so we must play it. That was the last album that John asked to be played on the air. So, when he passed away, I made a point to go and find them, and that’s how I started this network. It was John Peel. He was my best music teacher.

John Peel taught me most of what I know and how to connect with a particular feeling of a band. Does your new album give the feeling of “quintessential 2016 Underworld?” 

I don’t think Underworld has ever made a record like this. This is a record that’s split into two sections, with a divider in the middle, “Santiago Cuatro”. They are all quintessentially Underworld. For me, what happens in those first two tracks, “I Exhale” and “If Rah”, is I see those visually. I always see those tracks as someone laying down the Eiffel Tower on its side and cutting it up into these shards of rhythmic steel. And when you get to this moment of “Santiago Cuatro”, you can step back, take a moment, then come through this doorway and travel around on this vast, sunlit plane. We finally had the courage to be so focused in our sound. In the past, we tended to split tracks up into dark, light, smooth, hard. When Rick played it to me on the tour bus, I held my breath because it’s so not what people would expect an Underworld record to be.

I like focus. Even Brian Eno’s ambient sounds are very much in focus. There’s a set of clear ideas there with no muddling about. There’s a focus on barbara on space and story line with an ambience that I haven’t heard from you guys before.

This album is closer to who Rick and I are than anything we’ve done since Second Toughest in the Infants. For me, I forgot about Underworld. I deliberately shut it out in my head, so I wasn’t even in a band. I was with my mate Rick, and we were really fortunate that our management let us play in the sand pit. We used real equipment and the computer as a tape recorder. What came out is who we are. It’s a great burden — you have to forget who you are.

That’s the opposite of what people would normally say!

The tendency is to want to repeat success, but I can’t get my head around success anyway. For me, the greatest success is that Rick and me are still together and better mates now than we’ve ever been. Our plan now is to go straight back into the studio and prep rehearsals for the world tour as soon as this album is delivered. It’s been painful for us not to be back in the studio making another set of recordings, because we want to find out what happens next. So we’ve just designed a bunch of equipment where we can just go on the road and record in hotels or buses. “Santiago Cuatro” was recorded in a hotel. When we’re out doing Coachella, we’ve got time, so we’ve decided today, actually, we’re going to take recording gear and go on an American road trip. It’s the first time we’ve ever done this. We’re going to write on the road. For me, writing in diners and motels, that’s paradise.

A lot has changed in dance music in the last 25 years – how it’s gone mainstream, become bloated, got distributed, and almost put through a sieve. What position do you see yourself occupying now?

I think everyone on this planet, whether they’re making music or not, has a responsibility. I’m lucky to be in a band that turns a lot of people on. We walk out on stage, the kick drum drops, and hands go into the air with thousands of people smiling. To have been doing that for over 25 years is extraordinary.

I could reference “Born Slippy” again here.

There you go. Something that was terribly dark turned into something that makes people happy. If that didn’t happen, I would have just spiraled down into doom and gloom, but my partner had a responsibility and wouldn’t let me. It was Rick who first said to me, “Do you think you’ve got a drinking problem?” I’ve got a huge amount to thank him for. He never deserted me when I was clearly off the rails, and he gave me another alternative. He took all my darkness and transformed it into a positive alter ego.

It’s taken a long time, but I’m really thrilled that we’re still together and best mates for the first time ever. We saw too many great bands split up because they had differences of opinion, which to us, it was their difference in opinion that made their music so great. Solo careers are sometimes just a watered-down version of a toxic relationship. We didn’t need to like each other to make music, and that got us through a lot of years, but now we respect each other, and we’re making music that reflects exactly that.

~

Barbara, Barbara, we face a shining future is due March 18th via Astralwerks. Check out Underworld tour dates here.

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