A succession of seminal moments
Karl Hyde looks
back on Underworld's history
Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
As the minibus speeds toward Narita Airport on a
pleasant late September morning, Karl Hyde, founding member of British
electronic dance duo Underworld, reveals the importance he puts on playing in
In Tokyo to promote Underworld's Oblivion Ball at
Makuhari Messe, in Chiba, in November, Hyde was ebullient about the new show.
"We're very much part of [British art and
design group] Tomato again so we're bringing some new Tomato films, there's
gonna be a Tomato/Underworld installation and art space in the venue...and, as
always, the improvisations. No set lists, no rehearsals and everybody, the
whole crew, jamming," he says enthusiastically.
And Hyde is nothing if not enthusiastic. After
four days of doing the rounds of the Japanese media there were no signs of him
flagging, right up to the time he checked in for his British Airways flight to
With their fifth studio album, Oblivion With
Bells, out Wednesday, the day before the group start the European leg of their
global trek in Dublin, Underworld seem busier than ever. So how does the
50-year-old keep coming up with ideas for his lyrics?
"I just remain open. If we weren't talking,
I'd just be in the van and I'd be writing all of this that I'm seeing out of
the window...you see a color and a tree and a concrete bridge and the back of
his head, the lace doily on the back of the seat. Then you hear something else.
Then you stop for a moment and carry on again. You just remain open," he
Underworld's first album since 2002 has a healthy
mix of dance tracks and more ambient tunes that reflect the group's interest in
soundtracks. It's the end of a long journey of discovery. "There's never a
plan for it to be a dance album or a filmic album or any kind of album--we go
on a journey," he says.
The journey involves Hyde and partner Rick Smith
collaborating on tunes, sharing computer files and reworking tracks as
necessary. "A kind of very egoless conversation was happening over the
last five years, things passing backwards and forwards," Hyde explains.
So did the destination measure up to the journey?
"[I'm] really happy with the results, because
they're honest and the more I listen to it, the more it surprises me how much
it's caught what Rick and I have been doing for the last five years, the film
scores and listening to German club music again, which has been a huge
inspiration," he adds.
Underworld's interest in German music and film
soundtracks stem back to Hyde's formative years growing up in a small country
town near England's second-largest city, Birmingham, although the first LP he
bought was more mainstream.
"The first album I bought was Simon and
Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme because of the harmonies. I
remember hearing 'Scarborough Fair' and thinking, 'The harmonies are
amazing,'" he says.
But it was his next purchase that would prove a
turning point. "The second album was the score to 2001, because of Ligeti
and those beautiful choral themes and 'Lux Aeterna' and 'Atmospheres.' To this
day I would say that's a seminal album in my life," he says.
Though his earliest influences were the sounds of
Tamla Motown and producers like Joe Meek and Phil Spector, it wasn't until he
started listening to John Peel on BBC Radio 1 that he discovered his real
"John [Peel] started playing this electronic
stuff from Germany and I imagined Germany as this exotic kind of satellite that
was somewhere out there in the east that was generating all this weird stuff
and it was moving across Europe and becoming normalized. Then eventually it
would get to the U.K., and we would make it into a sound that the Americans
could understand and then they'd take it and turn it into something really
glossy and global and sell it back to the Germans," he explains.
And perhaps the fact that he didn't visit the home
of "Kraut rock" until the '80s might go some way to explain the
teenage Hyde's image of Germany.
"For a long time I had this idea of this
strange place with laboratories where people were deliberately thinking up
obscure stuff to pump out into the world," he admits.
Not surprisingly, Kraftwerk were a major source of
inspiration for Hyde, though he had not discarded all interest in rock music.
"Hearing [Kraftwerk's] 'Autobahn,' that was a transformation for me. There
was that and Hawkwind's 'Silver Machine' and those two records in that era were
unlike anything that was being played on the radio," he says.
Hyde got a chance to record in Germany when CBS
Records offered his band Freur a contract in the '80s.
"They [CBS] sent us off to work with
[producer] Conny Plank in Cologne. That was the first time we met Holger Czukay
and heard bands like Kowalski, using power tools along with guitars and
electronic drum kit," he says.
And they were also introduced to a new band by
"He played us this album and said, 'Check
this out, I've just recorded this album, it's by a band that used to be called
the Europeans and they're gonna call themselves the Eurythmics'.
"Again, that was seminal so we were driving
around in this big, old German car playing this electronic fusion music.
Funnily enough, at the end of the '80s, our last tour as Underworld MK I, was
supporting the Eurythmics on their farewell tour of the [United] States,"
And before long, Underworld MK II would be
enjoying the kind of fame that Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart did in the '80s
when film director Danny Boyle chose to use the Underworld track, "Born
Slippy.NUXX," in his movie Trainspotting.
"Trainspotting, 'Born Slippy,' Danny Boyle,
Underworld. Those four, they're synonymous. You can't say one without the
other,' he says emphatically.
And he's well aware of the importance of that song
on the group's progress. "It opened a door for us to a lot more things a
lot quicker than it would have done had we carried on on the trajectory that we
were. It helped us make the leap to the main stage at the festivals and for the
rock promoters to want to start booking dance acts really. It was one of the
first crossover records that helped the genre become much bigger," he
One of those festivals that welcomed them was Fuji
"The first time we played Fuji Rock...they
had to close the field off, because they couldn't get any more people in and [I
was] thinking, 'Wow, this is Fuji Rock, a famous place, they can't get any more
guys into this field.'
"And the last time we played, we headlined
the main stage and the same thing happened there. It was throwing it down with
rain and they couldn't get any more in the field. [I remember] Watching
thousands of people dancing, and this going in waves right to the back where
the field curves up, and looking at each and thinking, 'This is a good job,
innit?'" he says.
Yet it was another outdoor festival in Japan that
Hyde remembers most of all.
"When we played on the slopes of Mt. Fuji at
Rainbow 2000...lots of extraordinary memories there, not least of all the sun
coming up opposite the stage and there was the mountain, cloudless," he
Yet it would take one of Japan's most famous rock
music exports to provide another magic moment for him
"One of the guys from the YMO [Yellow Magic
Orchestra] had the ambient field, absolutely amazing--another seminal
moment--that's something that we want to do. We want to do an ambient field
just like he did, it was extraordinary," he says.
Another seminal moment for Underworld. How many
more can one group have in their career? Whether another such moment will occur
at the Oblivion Ball remains to be seen.
(Oct. 5, 2007)