TAS Interview: Karl Hyde of Underworld
Rick Smith and Karl Hyde of Underworld
Ambitious dance and electronica innovators Underworld kicked off their far-too-brief North American tour last night in Washington D.C., supporting their new, collaboration-driven album Barking which dropped in September on Om Records in the States (and Cooking Vinyl in the UK).
The record, a sunny, shimmering followup to 2007's darker-hued Oblivion with Bells, marks the first time the Essex-based duo of composer/producer Rick Smith and vocalist/lyricist/guitarist Karl Hyde has actively recruited outside producers (and friends) like High Contrast, Dubfire and Paul van Dyck, to illuminate their sound.
The experience offered the pair fresh perspectives on their own music and 30-year partnership. Underworld's music over the years has spanned the aching, propulsive expanse of "Dirty Epic," from 1994's dubnobasswithmyheadman, to the aggressive bite of "Peggy Sussed," from the 2005 digital release Lovely Broken Things, to a little hit song from 1996's Trainspotting soundtrack. Despite the wide range of production styles on Barking, from High Contrast's dub 'n' bass to Appleblim's Bristol-born dubstep, each track, like the singles "Scribble," "Always Loved A Film" and "Bird 1," all still sound undeniably like Underworld.
Underworld will take over New York's Roseland Ballroom on October 27 (and if you've never seen them play live, you're missing out on one of the most invigorating, transformative live performances you'll ever see), but first, they make their Stateside television debut on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" tonight, October 26.
The Alternate Side caught up with a slightly jet-lagged Hyde on the phone from Essex about a week ago and chatted about the fresh approach which sparked Barking, painting and his truly inimitable (and ever-expanding) record collection.
TAS: Are you still jet-lagged from your Japan tour? How were the shows over there?
Karl Hyde: I don’t know what I am! The shows were crazy, they were all sold out, we’ve got a number one album there. We had almost completely new audiences there of screaming girls and young guys - trendy-looking cool guys. It was really bizarre. Fantastic, but really strange. They hardly knew any of the old tunes. It was really strange (laughs). But it was kind of what we hoped.
TAS: Wasn’t part of the catalyst for recording Barking the need to rejuvenate your live shows?
Karl: It was. The live shows were suffering because with the previous album, [Oblivion With Bells], it had only really given us one tune that we added to the live set, so the set was sounding pretty old and that was an odd feeling for us, for a band that tries to keep moving forward and has always felt that we were moving forward. But it felt that we weren’t moving forward and it felt like other bands were moving past us. I didn’t like that feeling. Rick didn’t like that feeling. So we started to develop these shows on the road and based them on the responses from the crowd, like we’d done in the days when Rick would take a DAT tape or an acetate and [former Underworld member] Darren Emerson would play it in his set and Rick would check out the mix in the club and see how the audience reacted and change the mix a little bit, tweak it. And then, years later, writing “King of Snake” onstage in Dublin; there’s a tradition of that.
TAS: I vividly recall seeing “Scribble” - which began life as “You Do Scribble” - done a couple of years ago at a show at the Roundhouse in London.
Karl: It’s very different now, isn’t it?
TAS: Completely. I’m so struck by this album in how you really experience the evolution of your songs. Underworld, more than many other bands, really do write, reexamine, and explore new work constantly on stage. Which is a bit daring, dangerous and exhilarating?
Karl: Oh, I think not to do that is dangerous! To not do that for a group like us, certainly for Rick and me, would bring about boredom and stagnation. And a lot of it is down to Rick, bless him. He’s constantly finding ways of reinventing even the new tunes, finding stuff in the new music that isn’t on the album in the ways that we approach [the songs] and the arrangements on stage. Night after night, they’re changing. It’s an important part of what we do and it’s been in our blood for the last twenty years now.
TAS: You’re returning to New York after a couple of years; you played All Points West and Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield, but this is your first time at Roseland?
Karl: It’s the first time we’ve ever played the venue. It’s an old ballroom yes?
TAS: A former dime-a-dance kind of place.
Karl: Really? I love discovering new venues in cities, particularly in cities we’ve always had a strong following in, like New York. A new venue, a new stage, a new opportunity to present the show in a different way. Reconfiguring the show for different space and improvising with what the audience comes up with too.
Karl: Yeah, that was a real shame, but we’re doing it with the same people. Really like their attitude and the way they do things. It reminds us of where we’ve come from in terms of dance music, of things happening by word of mouth, of a party being so good that friends tell friends and then the next time, the party’s bigger and it grows and evolves in a very natural way as opposed to a hyped way. We really like the way the HARD people work.
TAS: You and Rick usually work as a team, but you’ve collaborated in the past with Gabriel Yared [on the soundtrack for "Breaking and Entering"] and you’ve worked with Brian Eno on the Pure Scenius project. But is it true that the real spark for Barking, all of these collaborations on the album, came from “Downpipe,” a track you did wiith Mark E. Knight and Dean Ramirez?
Karl: That really nailed it. We’ve known Brian for a really long time. [The work with] Gabriel was collaborative, but it was a film project. But when Mark and Dean approached us, asking me to sing on “Downpipe” - and then Rick did some experiments with it as well - that was in our territory, that was on our turf, which was dance music. That had gone so well; they’d made life so easy for us and had been such positive people to work with, that it made it a no-brainer for us to open the doors to the possibility of collaboration. There was also the frustration of having our material remixed by aspiring artists, but not being able to get into the studio with them because it was a done deal and it was too late because the album was out and we were off on tour. This time, Rick was really adamant that we had to experience working with other people on these tunes just to find out what would happen. We’ve been a band together for 30 years and there’s a strong possibility of stagnation and becoming repetitive, using the same processes because we’re the same people. Miles Davis was a real inspiration in that, inasmuch as he was never afraid to bring in younger artists and learn from them and cross pollinate and exchange ideas. It goes back to Rick looking for 17-year old Darren Emerson. It’s the way we’ve always worked, just that we haven’t worked that way for a few albums and it was time to work that way again.
TAS: Did you match people with certain tracks or did you, say, give Appleblim the choice of what song he wanted to work on? Was there great specificity about what producer/artist would fit with which track?
Karl: Most of the people we knew. With [dub ‘n’ bass producer] High Contrast, it was kind of obvious which one we were going to ask him to do (“Scribble”). The fact that he chose “Moon in Water” was kind of fantastic. And Appleblim, again, “Hamburg Hotel” was a dubstep track which that Rick had done. “Bird 1” we had sent to Dubfire and then there was “Telematic,” which is [now] called “Grace.” (laughs). Titles! Again, that’s one he’d chosen as well in addition to the one we’d ask if he’d have a look at. With Paul van Dyck we’d asked him if he’d have a look at “Diamond Jigsaw.”
TAS: Wasn’t there originally some connection with Brian Eno on the last track “Louisiana” which you and Rick ended up doing on your own? That you offered it to him, but he turned it down since he felt the track was beautiful as you’d done it.
TAS: There’s a little note about it your box set!
Karl: I should read our own notes, shouldn’t I! Do I remember that? I remember Brian coming up to the studio when we had the roughs of most of the tracks and we played him stuff, and yeah, he did actually say to leave it alone. We didn’t (laughs). Rick and I carried on with that one. It’s funny because that’s the only track that carried on without an outside collaborator.
TAS: Did it surprise you that so many of the producers remained true to your sound? They wanted to make an Underworld track.
Karl: I think that’s testament to their talent and the command that they have over their production skills. These are really talented people who aren’t blasting away over the top of something. They’re helping us be us. That’s the great quality of a really good producer. He helps artists be themselves. It was interesting with some of these tracks we gave to other artists; they came back sounding more like Underworld than the tracks we’d originally sent them (laughs). “Diamond Jigsaw” was a real problem. It started off as Keith Richards-meets-NEU! I’d written this track and it sounded good and rough, but it didn’t sound like Underworld. We tried it [out] loads of times, I think on a U.S. tour, but it just didn’t sound like us. It was going down well, but it didn’t sound like us. We gave it to Paul van Dyck and he gave it back to us and in the first iteration, before Rick responded to him, it sounded more like us than our version.
TAS: Didn’t Rick also prod you lyrically to push the envelope a bit? How different was Barking for you both vocally and lyrically?
Karl: There was just a kind of lightness of concept off Rick, as there often is. He asked if it were at all possible, and it wasn’t a problem if it were impossible, could I build a couple of doors into my lyrics to let people in a little bit. He didn’t want me to change the way I wrote; he just wanted me to write them and put a couple of doors into them. And I thought, “well, that’s an interesting problem.” I’ll see if I can address it and we’ll see what happens! As you know, my discipline is to write every day and when it came to some of these tracks, not all of them since I think some of them like “Bird 1” are intact as they are and I didn’t want to change that. But others like “Always Loved A Film,” “Scribble” and “Diamond Jigsaw” I’d written the words and then I’d redraft them which was a new experience for me when I saw what would happen when I put in a couple of doors and let people in.
TAS: I imagine that also woke you as a writer too, finding back doors into your usual process.
Karl: It was being more rigorous than I usually am. I’m normally, “well, okay, that’s it, there you go” and Rick has to get rigorous and move things around after its been recorded. There was a lot of rerecording with this album. Although sometimes the original lyric, like for “Bird 1” or “Grace,” [is the] original recording, the very first take. In “Louisiana,” the first verse and the first chorus is the original take which were recorded several years before the second verse and the second chorus. With some of these Rick would say, “I really like it, I think that’s the take, now do it again. Do it again.” Even with “Grace” I did it again. And he’d say, “What would happen if you did it again?” (laughs). Sometimes the brief was not even to change anything, just to do it again. I found it fascinating. With “You Do Scribble,” we had a lyric, we had a vocal and it was working, and when High Contrast’s version came back to us, Rick said, “Try a completely different melody with completely different words and see what happens.” And I’m really glad he did.
TAS: So the beginning process of Barking was easily, given all of this work, a couple of years ago, correct?
Karl: God no, really several years ago, out on the road. “Louisiana” has been around for a long time. It was a very small drawing really, just a first verse and a chorus, that’s it. I’m dead pleased that it became a complete piece. It was beautiful as a short draft, but it was always one of those that begged to be taken on a journey and with that one, it was a really strange way of writing for us. We literally got together in the studio, Rick on piano, we had a drum machine and I had a microphone. We clocked on as singer-songwriters; it was a very strange and really lovely experience but we’ve never worked that way before. I don’t think we’d worked that way in 30 years. It was very different and weird and to most songwriters, that’s the way they work all of the time.
TAS: Do you think that now you’ve done that, you’ll do it again?
Karl: Yeah, why not? And for other people too! There’s the concept of writing tracks for other people. I think that’s definitely come out of this record that Rick and I have proved to ourselves. That’s something that we could not only do, but we’d actually like to do.
TAS: You had your very first solo exhibit in Japan not long ago, “What's Going on in Your Head When You're Dancing?" What did you take away from that entire experience in the gallery, in terms of your artwork?
Karl: That I can’t turn back now. I’m dedicated to a career as a fine artist. That’s where I started in the 70s, I’m an art school graduate. That’s where I want to be. I love doing it. It’s in my blood. It always was as a little kid; that’s the place I went to escape. Now, it’s not a place of escape, but discovery. Also, the performed art, the performed pieces that I did out there: the painting on the shed is now on the roof of an architect’s building as an office, they’ve got it on loan and work in one of my artworks (laughs). It’s not only the making of paintings that get hung on walls, but the performing of artworks as a member of an ArtJam and as an individual artist is something I’m passionate about now.
TAS: Do you paint every day?
Karl: No, I don’t, but I make marks every day. We just moved out of our house to rebuild it so I had to move out of my studio into another temporary space, but I make marks every day. I’ve just done a painting for the cover of a magazine in Japan called Brain Magazine with quite a shockingly different color scheme. [Underworld and Tomato collaborator] John Warwicker proposed it and I thought I’d take it on a journey and I really dug what happened. It’s very vibrant colors and I’m going to pursue that for a while.
TAS: You always turn me on, via the Underworld site, to new music. What are five songs or albums that are running around your brain this week?
Karl: I dunno! I went to a record shop for the first time in ages today! Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Gang of Four, A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. Penguin Café Orchestra’s Preludes, Airs & Yodels. What else did I pick up? I bought some Japanese stuff and a couple things off iTunes. Jim Reeves' “He’ll Have to Go” and Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year.” (laughs). I picked up this other album by a [Japanese]band called Mannequin and Guitar. Agraph and the album is called Equals. I got the Kano album; I enjoy that and there’s a track I really like called “Maad.” Those are some recent acquisitions.
TAS: How many CDs and vinyl albums do you own?
Karl: I did some calculating because I’ve moved it several times. There’s a lad who comes and moves it for me because he boxes it really well (laughs). In fact, I’m sat in my temporary studio right now and all of my CD shelves are empty because they’re all sat in boxes outside and it’s really disturbing because when people ask me questions, I can’t answer them. But thousands. Yeah, thousands.
Underworld North American Fall Tour
Oct 27 - Roseland Ballroom, New York, NY,
Oct 29 - Cow Palace, San Francisco, CA
Oct 30 - 4th & B, San Diego, CA
Oct 31 - The Shrine Expo Hall, HARD Haunted Mansion, Los Angeles CA