INTERVIEW: Underworld’s Karl Hyde (2003)
Dance artists rarely make it past one album, much less to a greatest hits album. Underworld is not a typical dance artist and Anthology 1992-2002 is not a greatest hits album, but rather a collection of songs that document ten years of music from white labels to major soundtracks by one of the most important electronic music artists. Karl Hyde spoke to us about the progression of Underworld through their unique live shows and creative visions that keep us all jumping on the dancefloor.
DJ Ron Slomowicz: What made the group decide to do a greatest hits album?
Karl Hyde: It’s not a greatest hits, it’s really more of a retrospective. We agreed to do it when Junior Boys Own Records came to us with the idea and we said to put something together. They came back with this collection of tunes that they saw as more than a historical document that charted the development of the group. From selling records out the back of a car, through the underground and then out to where we are today, they saw these songs as big tunes for both our development and the development of the UK dance scene and we really enjoyed listening to it. Coupled with their story, we felt it made an interesting document and, knowing us, it would be twenty years before we ever came round to being open to this situation again, so they had one shot and it worked.
RS: Were there any songs on the new album that you wanted to have on there but didn’t make it on there?
Karl: Yes, there was a lot. On the anthology it was originally going to be a triple album and the third CD was much more chilled and ambient, the aspect of Underworld which is really important that some people know us for “Born Slippy” type tunes. You’ve got people who know us for a lot of high-energy tunes because we tended to play whatever, main stage or late at night at-large events. But people who know our records know there’s a very important other side to us that goes very deep, just music for chilling out to or music for driving to late at night, it’s a whole different kind of head and it would have been great to have put that third CD on the set.
RS: You could always put it on the web site.
Karl: Well, what stopped us was it was pretty clear to us that it was going to be so expensive to buy in the shops that we couldn’t do that, you know, that records are expensive enough as it is and we just kind of felt no, that would be just taking the piss. So, our thoughts have been about how we can put that third CD out in a more interesting way.
RS: Do you guys have your own studio, or do you have more than one or do you record other places?
Karl: We used to pay a lot of money to record in expensive studios in the 80s and it was always really depressing. We’d had like a four track at home and we’d always have like a little studio set up at home for writing, and then we’d go and record these albums and then, just when you were up to speed, you kind of get finished an album, you get kicked back out on to the street again.
Towards the end of the 80s, when we were with Sire Records, we used the advance to build our own studio, and when we went bankrupt Rick salvaged some of that studio and set it up in his back bedroom at the house he was living in at the time. And that’s where the DubNoBassWithMyHeadMan album was made, and then we kind of moved into another little house and that’s where all the other records have been made. We’ve got a couple of studios in there and a video studio, and that’s where a lot of the internet activity is run from. Now, of course, we carry other studios on our PowerBooks, so therefore the last, this new album has been mostly recorded on the road in hotels and airplanes on our PowerBooks.
RS: Speaking about that, a friend of mine noticed on your site how you list the Nord Lead Three synth on your site as your favorite things. Is that one of your favorite instruments or are there other ones that stand out in your head?
Karl: It’s certainly something that Rick is very good with. One of my favorite instruments that he uses is the DX7, the Yamaha DX7, it’s kind of something that I think is synonymous with Rick Smith. But really anything, just really picking up on anything, whether it’s a vintage guitar from the 50s or a drum from Africa or the latest piece of software. But a lot of what we’re using at the moment it either software-based or using beautiful microphones to record live acoustic instruments.
RS: Going back to that 80s sound, have you every thought about revisiting those songs or re-doing them?
Karl: No, we haven’t. They were part of what formed where we are at today. We had to go through all of that in order to be quite certain that we didn’t want to go there again. That’s the experience of the 80s, a lot of mistakes and a lot of the things that we did in good faith, but kind of misguided good faith, really have stood us in good stead for what we’re doing now.
RS: How has your live show developed over the years?
Karl: Well, we’ve tried to maintain that notion of improvisation. We still don’t rehearse or have a setlist. We are inspired by the best DJs that don’t have a setlist who respond to the moment as well as jazz improvisation. Our intention is always to create something which is of the moment and is changing depending on where you are in the world and who you’re playing to and what their response is. Things have changed and obviously technology enables us to develop our instruments so that it becomes more expressive and enables us to do more of the things that we’ve always wanted to do.
We’re continually looking to being in that place where we’re unsettled so whenever we get comfortable it just doesn’t work. If something works one night, we deliberately set out to not do it the next night. Except if things are really slick, we deliberately set out to make a horrible mistake so that we can kind of get out of a kind of slick state of mind.
RS: So, tell me one of your strangest stories behind a live gig?
Karl: To be still here after twenty-three years is pretty damn strange. I don’t remember these things, because for me they’re extraordinary experiences. The last twelve years of playing live with this version of Underworld and with Rick has been extraordinary, pretty much every show we’ve done, playing to people who are giving you back so much energy and joy that you are lifted and taken somewhere else. Never needed drugs, never took drugs and never took anything on stage, because the energy that was coming back to us was extraordinary. For all the time previous to that, we’d never experienced anything like that, it was a fairly lackluster affair, mostly because we were pretty lackluster people ourselves. These things have turned into extraordinary events: we’ve played on mountains, we’ve played on beaches, we’ve played in deserts, we’ve played in ancient Roman amphitheaters. We’re pretty lucky to have been part of this thing and everything becomes extraordinary. I will say probably two gigs spring to mind, one is in New Jersey this year at Giants’ Stadium, where the Field Day Festival was transferred from a two-day event to one day in the pouring rain. Instead of headlining a stage with all our production, we go on at three o’clock in the afternoon in the pouring rain with the equipment breaking down and instead of to a full stadium to about fifteen thousand people. The spirit there was amazing, from the people in the crowd through to the people working the stage and the organizers. Everybody had a smile on their face and everybody was kind of pulling out their very best to make something special, and that’s probably one of the most spiritually uplifting experiences in my life actually.
RS: Will you be doing anymore live dates or are you doing the USA, Ibiza, et al?
Karl: I don’t anticipate doing any live dates now until we’ve finished the next studio album. There is some discussion about something out in California around July, but as yet that’s still kind of being batted about as to how it could be made special. So, there’s been no intention to play any more live shows, we’ve just come back from playing live in Japan, and we have one more thing to do which has been an ambition for thirty-odd years and that’s to play the John Peel show, here on the BBC. He is a legendary man who’s probably done more to inform my musical tastes than anyone else, so that’s pretty special. So next Wednesday on the 10th we’re playing live to air, which is a buzz, to be playing live to air is so exciting. Great, because anything could happen.
RS: I am very happy with what you said because there was this rumor that I heard on Radio One that you all were planning on retiring, and I’m glad that’s so not true.
Karl: I think we retired from the music business about 1989, and we’ve been having fun ever since.
RS: Let’s also go back to your first live performance at Glastonbury back in ‘92, what was it like hitting the stage that first time?
Karl: It felt exciting, like we were going into unknown territory. A large group of people had come together; people that build sound systems, people like Function One who used to own Till Bass Sound. There was Sheba Photonic that were the projection people. There were people that had built the stage at Glastonbury who built this two-level tower and the quadraphonic sound system around the outside. We played from this tower in the middle of the crowd. Everything about it was from the point of view of not being in a band and not conforming to making something that a singer’s ego could roam around and explore. It was a very, very tight space that was filled with DJs and us, a big console took up most of the space and a drummer friend of ours, Trevor Morace, had an electronic kit.
On the floor above us was bristling with Keith Robinson-type projectors and slide projectors for a big circular arm around the outside of the crowd that they were projecting on to for eighteen hours. We happened to have a singer in our midst, so we’ll give you two square feet to stand on and that’s all you’re getting, and because this is about music, and that was so refreshing. Rather than this enormous space that you are normally given, the singer that I was was given far too much space for what I gave back, so it was a lovely challenge. Also, there were no crash barriers and no security, so we were right there on a platform raised maybe ten inches off the ground, where people were literally climbing all over it.
Michael Eavis at Glastonbury gave us our own field for three days. At one point on the Saturday night, another sound system kind of overtook us and that was really interesting as well. It was open to pretty much anything happening. The cool thing was that at that time the spirit was so positive and peaceful that nothing bad happened, it turned into something really positive.
RS: One last question on the live thing, very few dance and electronic acts do live CDs/DVDs, how did the live DVD capture your vision, especially if it changes every night, how were you able to get one vision on that DVD per se?
Karl: Yes, that’s an interesting point of view because it is changing every night, but what we wanted to do was make a document of the group as it was up until that point. There were three of us and we were taking out the Tomato visuals, which we were very proud of and had been an ambition of ours for many, many years. We ended up amalgamating several shows from around the world. Rick, whose project it was, was told about all these things that DVD technology could do and there were other layers that you could look at and there were other layers that you could hide games in, there were other layers where you could put code to link you to web sites, and so we did all those things.
So this thing became a document that was about how the band had been up until that point, to that year, that season, and a statement of intent about what Rick and I would be going on to do in terms of our internet activities, in terms of interactivity, and we’re fulfilling those things now.
It was a tricky one because no one in the UK that we spoke to was enthusiastic about DVD, they were all kind of saying either what is a DVD, , what can it do or it will never catch on, which is kind of fairly ludicrous if you look back now. And so Rick and I had to invest our own money in that project for quite some time to get it to a point where we can show to people look, this is what a DVD does, and Rick had already done his research, spoken to people in America and it was fairly evident that DVD was going to be the next thing that was the most important carrier of music. And over here it was small but talking to the stores, it was again fairly evident it was the fastest growing area, and so we kind of knew that if we made something good, there would be a place to sell it. And it’s something that I’m still really proud of, even the live CD itself, I think it’s one of my favorite live albums of any that I’ve got.
RS: You mentioned it just now, what led to the development of Tomato, your visual arts side?
Karl: Well, again, it was the end of the 1980s, Rich and I had lost our record deal with Sire Records, you know, we’d just come off of a tour supporting the Eurthymics, their farewell tour of America, we had no band, we were pretty much bankrupt, and together with a friend of ours, John Warwicker, who’d been in the original band Fur in 1982 and had always done the artwork and stuff like that for our albums. A bunch of people got together at his office, that was going belly-up, and they were other artists and we all talked about our displeasure with our experience of the 1980s and how we’d like to do something about that. And we felt that there was strength in numbers and that we liked each other’s work a lot and that in itself was enough to draw us together, just to be inspired by being around other people’s work, that were people that were open minded enough to share their ideas with one another. And we just said look, we just want to get paid well for doing work that we enjoy doing, and that was it, we went yes, that’s a good idea. And it was so nice to be around non-musicians, you know, and I had a background in the arts in the 70s, but again it sort of felt so disgruntled with the way that it was a pretty exclusive area of the world and why I turned to music really because it was more accessible. And then I met this group of artist and it kind of fired me up again, everything about them fired me and Rick up, and that’s kind of really been the story every since, for whatever storms we’ve weathered together, when Rick and I see their work we get excited.
RS: Another thing that excites me about your work, your videos are always very creative, very striking. Are there any stories behind the videos for “Push Upstairs” or “King of Snake?”
Karl: “Push Upstairs,” that was made by Graham Wood, you know, one of our long-time collaborators at Tomato, who has done most of the videos that Underworld’s put out. And at that point we’d become kind of bankable and programmable by music television, so he had pressure on him to make something that was television-friendly, you know, that had a look, and yet retained some integrity. So we spoke about it and what we wanted to do is we wanted to be filmed playing live in the landscape, you know, so we thought let’s go to Scotland and do it up in the mountains, and we’d take cameras up there and we’d take a mobile recording studio and we’d build a stage up there and we’d do a gig, and that would be part of the show and then we’d use the recordings for something else. And everyone said that’s ridiculous, in Scotland it’s going to be raining, it’s going to be wet, everyone’s going to be sodden, you know, and then this possibility to do the Big Day Out Tour in Australia came up and so we said fantastic, OK, let’s go down there a bit early, we’ll film it in Australia, no problem, the weather’s going to be fantastic, scenery for miles. Graham Wood went down there, found this spot up in the Blue Mountains, where on the edge on the edge of this cliff, we’d build the stage on the edge of this cliff and we’d play to hundreds of miles of beautiful landscape. Well, we woke up in the morning and it was pouring down with rain, and it was a cloudy day and you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of your face, and basically it was Scotland with Gum trees. And I have these DV films of Graham Wood in this poncho, stood on the end of this cliff looking out into the abyss, and you know, you can see, do I jump or do I try and pull this one out the bag? And I think he did a fantastic job, needless to say if it had been a sunny day, we would have been fried to a crisp.
RS: Speaking about being fried to a crisp, this relates to Trainspotting, how did you react to seeing “Born Slippy” used to eloquently in that movie?
Karl: Oh, it was a joy, it’s such a joy. We’d met (director) Danny (Boyle) before that and it was one of those things where we were reluctant to be involved in the film because, not having read Irvine Welsh’s book but having heard people’s rather one-sided description of the book as being a kind of Cannabis paradise, we were like, ‘we don’t sit comfortably with our music being associated with drugs, violence or anything like that, we don’t see dance music that way at all.’ And it was like ‘Oh my God, we’re going to be in a film about drugs and violence, I don’t think so.’ But people convinced us to go along with Danny and look at some rushes and we were blown away, it was like it was pretty clear that we’d been misled, extremely misled about this book and this film. And we thought that it was kind of, it no way glorified dug culture, quite the opposite, so we were really happy that Danny used it, and knowing Danny as we do now, he’s a man who loves music. He’s one of those rare film directors who asks for the music upfront and is listening to it while he is making the film, and he’s very, very musical in his editing, he enhances the music and the music enhances the film, which is the way it should be.
RS: So, where did the title Born Slippy come from?
Karl: It came from a greyhound, a racing dog. We’ve got a fairly well-known greyhound track here in the East of London, and sometimes we’d go down to the races and spend a night out at the dogs. And they have the most amazing names, you know, it’s like Born Slippy, Pearl’s Girl, Sappies Curry are all titles from tracks of ours and they’re all racing dogs.
RS: Did you ever think Born Slippy would become the big drinking anthem?
Karl: No, because really it was so, it was such the antithesis of that really, it was all about the horrors I’d experienced whilst being over mediated on alcohol for a lot of years. And I kind of thought if I just write out this autobiographical piece that’s horrific, you know, people will go ‘Oh, my God, Jesus, what’s that about? That’s horrible, what’s that about?’ And I’d be able to say ‘That’s about me, hows about a bit of help?’ But we came out and explained it and then Danny did what he did with the film, and I think that the whole balance was redressed and it’s fine if people want to use it as a drinking anthem, I really don’t have any problem with that now, that’s really, really fine. You know, I’ve said my bit so, you know, it’s probably domain now.
RS: As producers, you’ve been very selective with the number of mixes that you create, how do you approach a remix as opposed to an original production?
Karl: That’s really difficult to say because it’s Rick who does the remixes. I mean I know he agonizes over them, I know he locks himself away and will go to the point of despair sometimes. The last two pieces that he did before kind of coming back with Born Slippy just recently was “Barrel Of A Gun” by Depeche Mode, and there was a track with Goldie and the Metalheadz and you know, he was lost, he was seriously lost up until the eleventh hour. And then, as he inevitably does, he kind of rewrites the whole thing and makes a new piece of music and finds another perspective, which is always what he’s looking for, the other perspective. And then again, it’s in the eleventh hour he will come up with the goods.
RS: Is there a vocalist that you’d like to work with that you haven’t been working with yet?
Karl: I don’t know, we always invite friends to speak on our records and to speak my words, which we’ve done that since on Skyscraper I Love You. Because we meet people with such interesting voices, particularly people who come from non-English speaking countries and when they speak English they speak it in such a beautiful way that that intrigues us. So we’ve often had friends record voices onto our records, and that’s something we’re likely to keep doing. Working with Bono has been really stimulating, you know, really inspiring, and that’s something that we’d like continue doing.
RS: This is goofy question a friend of mine sent me, she’s just dying to know, boxers or briefs?
Karl: Well, we just have to leave that one to the imagination.
RS: OK, I’ll tell her that.
Karl: I’m sure somebody knows out there.
Interview conducted December 2003.