Silence is preserving a voice / Walking in the wind at the waters edge / Comes close to covering my rubber feet / Listening to the barbed wire hanging --Karl Hyde on Underworlds Juanita
Amid all the lights and noise, Underworld’s mythic image goes something like this: a slight Englishman with close cropped hair on the other side of 40, dancing like a madman in origami shapes singing fragmented reports from the future, moving onlookers off the scripted page to shuffle the night away. That man is Karl Hyde, one half of the creative powerhouse that is Underworld.
After entrancing EDM fans with countless tours and acclaimed albums like 1994‘s Dubnobasswithmyheadman and 2007‘s Oblivion With Bells, Underworld conquered the globe last summer with their celebrated music direction of the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. All the while, Hyde and music partner Rick Smith threw themselves into several side projects. Smith recently scored Danny Boyle’s new film, Trance, while Hyde recorded a stellar solo album with Leo Abrahams, cleverly titled Edgeland.
Which brings us to the other side of Hyde: the Romantic beat poet and techno bluesman with guitar in hand. A polymath, he’s a wordsmith, designer and painter too. In each medium, he brings his magpie eye, looking out the window of a speeding train in eternal loops from London to Essex. That passing view mile after mile has inspired Hyde for many years, flint-ing classics like "Juanita," “Dirty Epic,” and “Beautiful Burnout.”
In the spirit of Underworld’s quieter moments, Edgeland songs “Cut Clouds” and “Sleepless” mix brittle sounds with a hushed beauty for private corners. The pulse of “Shoulda Been A Painter” and the steamboat riffs of “The Boy With Jigsaw Puzzle Fingers” set us out on adventure. Others, like the ecstatic “Slummin‘ It On The Weekend,” are pure genius, right up there with Underworld’s best work.
“What are you doing now? What are you doing tonight?” Hyde asks again and again to its rising chords, his words amassing in river-run rhythms. “'I haven’t changed,' she said, 'I feel so dirty.' I see 'RESERECTION.' Dripping down walls of tunnels as we pull into the station. It's a divided -- nation.”
FROM SKYSCRAPERS TO FORESTS AND BACK AGAIN
Before Hyde and Smith teamed up with a young DJ Darren Emerson to launch Underworld in the early ‘90s with rave classics “Cowgirl” and “Born Slippy,” Hyde wandered America as a session guitarist, working at Prince’s Paisley Park studio and touring with Blondie’s Debby Harry. While in New York, he composed the words to “Mmm Skyscraper I Love You,” releasing a typographic book of the same name with John Warwicker, a paean for graphic designers to a great city.
Wanderlust is in Hyde’s DNA and the album Edgeland continues his explorations in splendid tales of London’s hinterlands. Lyrics like “a car crash behind the bus -- full of African Queens” and “all the lights of the city in the rear view mirror,” speak of his restless search. As much as Hyde has found his home in the Essex countryside, the spirit that carried him across the world ever wakes at the doorstep.
Talking with Hyde by phone from England, his friendly voice skimming off my frothy angst at Los Angeles’ freeway traffic, we cover a lot of ground: Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, his love of trains and autos, his friendship with Brian Eno, the folkways of Woody Guthrie, the polyrhythmic blues of Africa, the great American road trip and Underworld’s future.
They’re kind of like outsider artists. They make up their own language. They have a very idiosyncratic architecture and a way of looking at the world. They rarely get documented…
I’m in LA and I was actually in traffic just now. I’m a little out of breath. But it’s funny, as I was driving, I was listening again to Edgeland and as I was listening, I thought, “This is exactly where I want to be right now, instead of in traffic.”
Karl Hyde: [Laughing] That’s good, that’s really good.
Outside Edgeland’s beautiful sound and sensitive lyrics, could you describe why you chose the title “Edgeland” and how its theme came about?
There’s a lot that went into the record really. The theme of Edgeland came up afterwards. My preoccupation for the last 20 years with Underworld has been in the city. It has been documenting the rhythm of people and the things I see and overhear on the streets of cities.
And it occurred to me as I traveled in and out of London in particular, I was traveling through this no-man’s-land between the countryside and the city where a different kind of tribe lives, a tribe of outsiders who refuse to play the game of the city but don’t want to live in the idyll of the countryside.
They’re kind of like outsider artists. They make up their own language. They have a very idiosyncratic architecture and a way of looking at the world. They rarely get documented. But to me there’s something very positive about these people that live on the edge of cities and I wanted to explore that. That’s where I started in terms of lyrical focus.
Was this a tribe of people you were familiar with beforehand? You say “travel” but how were you interacting with these people? Was it more as an observer or were you friends already through art?
I kind of knew the areas because they were some of the areas we lived in when Underworld first moved out to East London. There’s something incredibly positive about them. They’ve always got an answer to any problem. Nothing bothers them too much. A recession comes along and they just work through it and they find solutions. There’s a great positivism about the people I met and lived amongst on the east side of London and on the edge there and there’s a very rich history that I began to discover about that area, which I started to explore after the album was finished.
I’ve always been an observer of people. I’ve always listened in on conversations and amalgamated them into my lyrics and documented the topography of the places I’m going through. It’s just with Underworld, the language of that has been much more fragmentary. With this album, I wanted to move on from abstract fragments to indicate where I was and I wanted to start to let people in on it, if you know what I mean? Give people clues as to what I was talking about, really.
And that took me a long time because my early experiments just seemed overly simplistic, quite naive and they lacked the charm and idiosyncrasy of the lyrics I’d done in years past. So I had to work very hard and went through some really dark times where I felt I couldn’t do it, that it wasn’t possible for me to put in these little clues as to what it was I was talking about without destroying the charms of the little fragments I was collecting. It took me a long time. I eventually got there. But it was a few long dark nights. [Laughing]
In terms of that voice, was that a voice you felt you had lost over time or was that a newer voice, or a combination of the two?
It was looking for a newer voice and yet not wanting to completely wipe away something that I loved about the way I write lyrics. I work as a painter as well, as a fine artist, and as a painter, you’re continually revisiting things that you are fascinated by. There is no necessity to completely reinvent. You’re always looping back, looking at stuff, picking it back up and reworking it again.
For me, I’m still interested in writing lyrics in the way as I’ve always have done, it’s just I wanted to make an addition to that, which has built a bridge really, that lets people in, rather than, “Oh, Hyde is just off on another one of his random ramblings again. Distractions.” No, it’s just that would be quite repetitive and dull if I just did that. I wanted to expand on the vocabulary.
Listening to the album from start to finish, it definitely tells you a story and takes you on a journey. In the beginning, lyrically it starts off on a lonelier tone, then it becomes more ecstatic and by the time it gets to “Slummin’ It On The Weekend” and then onto “Shoulda Been A Painter,” it achieves a perfect flow.
It does sound different from the Underworld albums in that sense, which feel more multi-angular. On a narrative level, I can hear that bridge. I can sense a message coming through about living in a place and it’s fun to be on that journey with you.
I’m pleased you said that. That was the hardest work of all. Working in the studio with Leo Abrahams was easy. It was fun. It was spontaneous and it was very natural. It was something we both enjoyed a lot. But I had to go there prepared with words that were strong.
We tried a couple sessions where I went there with hundreds of words and thought I would find it on the day but I never did and we ended up scrapping those days. And so for me, I couldn’t work with him unless I had words that were already fully formed and strong enough on their own right.
Quite often he would phone me up and say, “You want to come over and do some work?” And I would say, “I would love to, but I’m not good enough today.” He’d say, “Yeah but it’ll be great.” And I’d say, “No, no , it won’t be great. It really won’t. I’m not going to waste your time until I’ve got a batch of stuff that I feel is strong.”
After 34 years of working together, you either split up because you’re frustrated by working together, or you do some of your work apart...
In terms of this being a solo album, what has this been like as a journey to do it without Rick who has been your creative partner for so long. I can see you have moved into a phase where you are exploring your voices individually as artists which is cool. How has that felt?
After 34 years of working together, you either split up because you’re frustrated by working together, or you do some of your work apart and you answer some of your frustrations somewhere else so that you’re not imposing all your needs on the one project. And I could feel that. I could feel that we as Underworld, I was in danger of getting to that dangerous place of accusing it of being restrictive. I thought, “I can’t do that. I can’t do that.”
So fortunately, Brian Eno and I started to work together several years ago. Although very little has been released, we’ve recorded hours and hours of material. Through those collaborations and then our live concerts together, Pure Scenius, where he put me in the spot of singer, but improvised singer at the front of an improvised ensemble -- I loved that, I just felt freedom to express myself in a way that I hadn’t felt for a long time.
It reminded me of the first Underworld album, Dubnobass, where Rick and I had been in the studio and we had jammed and had produced that album which I loved. I love exchanges, musical exchanges, jamming, conversations between musicians in the same room. I love that.
Brian is very much someone who works in that way. At the same time I started exhibiting again in galleries and I was really enjoying the autonomy and the exploration of my own language without having to impose that on Rick. I also knew from my experiences in the ‘90s of being a session player, it was really good to go in and work on somebody else’s album and then come back and bring that experience to the group.
We hadn’t done anything like that for a while. We had been working solidly together for a long, long time and the experiences of Frankenstein, and something like Sunshine, where I contributed a lot, I started to think, “You know what, I think I need to explore stuff here” and not get to a place where I was frustrated with Underworld.
It’s funny that you mentioned Dubnobass because when “Slummin’ It For The Weekend” came on, I felt like I could hear the grain, you have a really nice grain to your voice, and I could hear the last part of “Mmm Skyscraper I Love You” and “Tongue,” I could hear a similar soulfulness from those songs.
I’m so so happy, really happy, at what you’re saying, because for me, one of the things I was really keen to explore is that side of Underworld, that side you are talking about. “Tongue,” “Skym,” “River of Bass.” It was that side of Underworld, that was on the albums but never got played out live. And so it wasn’t evolving. I don’t know what you’d even call it really.
I wanted so much to go back and explore that part of Underworld, as a painter would, say, “Here’s some marks I did early on and I’ve never really developed them. I was developing these other ones.” And then one day you sat there looking at a painting and going, “You know, I love those marks. It’s about time I explored them.”
And with Underworld, we were starting to hone down our sound over the last couple of albums kind of away from that side of us. And I felt that was something I wanted to pick up and go back and explore. So really this album is as a direct result of being inspired by those early explorations outside of the dance floor that Underworld was doing.
As a fan of Underworld, it would be cool to hear you bring that back when you guys collaborate again.
That would be nice. I would like that. With my live band interestingly enough when we perform we’re going to be playing the whole album and then five or six Underworld tracks, processed through the language of my band. It’s so great, playing those songs and loving that album, Dubnobass.
MUSIC FOR TRAINS, BLUES AT THE CROSSROADS
Hyde is one of modern music’s great nomads. He not only journeys physically but through ideas in his songs. From the lightning in “Dark & Long” to the blue-domed church of “Bird 1” and the iron bones of industry in Edgeland’s “Shadow Boy,” he gets you to see the world anew. He paints with words instead of telling you exactly how to feel. The fragility of lyrics spellbinds as they unravel into broken fragments of meaning only to reconnect in your own life.
Brushstrokes and pen marks form letters and pictures out of a series of actions. Hyde’s game has always been to dance to these movements with joy. His recent art exhibition “What’s Going On In Your Head When You're Dancing?” splashes crimson and black mixed with cursive strokes that evoke 19th-century Japanese painter Hiroshige as if he were lost on Saturn’s outer rings or Jackson Pollock shot through a lawn mower. His daily diary throws up photos of snowy roads, odd graffiti, flowers in concrete cracks and urban decay, an endless catalog of life’s accidental charms.
When two marks cross, or a note counterpoints a beat, there’s a conversation that only works when you connect them as one thing. His photos are no different, flashing like pebbles in the river of time. This is what Hyde does with his dancing too. On stage, he cuts shapes in geometric patterns while kicking his tennis shoes in hoops and triangles with video game dexterity.
If we were to paint a picture of Hyde, there’s one image I think fits better than most. He’s in the middle of everywhere dropping in and out, in contrast to Underworld’s show for the masses. It’s the bluesman of old plucking his banjo, the troubadour happy at the crossroads, under a cyber sky of technicolor delight.
“You keep talking to him until the lights go off in the city,” he sings on Edgeland. “Holding the light of the world at bay,” he echoes on “Your Perfume Was The Best Thing.” On “Cut Clouds,” the words get more bluesy: “I miss you most when we were lovers and I loved you best... when you were gone.”
When you hear his voice or his guitar over synthetic beats, that alone-ness bolsters Smith’s electronic clangs and gusts. That contrast sharpens the human. It’s no surprise that Hyde clicked with Brian Eno, lord of ambient rock—the studio whiz behind U2, Coldplay and David Bowie—and a master of nostalgia for the future.
Looking out the window of a moving vehicle has always been like a film to me…the windshield becomes a movie screen…You turn the radio on and it becomes the score...
Going back to Eno and Abrahams, how did you get into working with these other artists? I remember reading when Oblivion with Bells came out that you guys would run things by Brian Eno to get his feedback. How did some of those friendships begin?
Brian and I met back in the ‘90s when he invited me to be a contributor and fundraiser for the charity War Child. Together a whole bunch of us raised money to build a school in Mostar, for the rehabilitation of children scarred by the Bosnian War. That’s how I met Brian originally. We just got talking on the plane to Mostar, about lyric writing. I’d send him a bunch of lyrics and we’d talk about his records and the way he sang. It went from there and then one day eight or nine years ago, he came to our studio and we started jamming, and from there on he started inviting me into his studio to start recording together.
It’s great how people come in and out of one’s life and can trigger new journeys. You mentioned earlier how you’ve always been an observer. It’s interesting because as a journalist, when I listen to this album in particular — as you said, you’re building more complete thoughts and images -- it reminds me of reporting. It still has a bit of that fragmentary element, but maybe it’s part of your painting, there is more of a complete image coming together.
Or enough clues so you know where we are in the journey. Or you know who the people are in the room. That was important to me. It was a train journey and encountering some people on the train journey. And then looking out the window and seeing some things and describing the landscape. I’ve done that for years but I wanted to do it in a way which invited you in more that made you actually feel like you were in the picture with me and you’re going through that trip.
It really does come across. It’s funny you mentioned the train journey because I was listening to “Shadow Boy” and you have a lyric in there about “riding the train into the sun.” Why do you love trains so much, it is a common theme in your lyrics, because you spend so much time on them?
Yeah, I’m traveling in and out of the city. I love trains because you’re not behind the wheel. I can use a pen and I can write and I’ve got a camera and I’m photographing out the window and I’m contemplating and I’m seeing things move by like a film.
Looking out the window of a moving vehicle has always been like a film to me since I was a little kid, traveling with my dad at night, and the windshield becomes a movie screen. You’ve got the dashboard and the radio’s on and the dials and it’s all these magic lights. You turn the radio on and it becomes the score to all the things that come through the windshield.
So for me, traveling and music are synonymous. That’s my favorite place to listen to music. The radio is the underscore to this movie. Trains are where I can use both hands to write and take pictures while I take it in.
It’s one of those things as a Brit, you hear about Route 66, you read Jack Kerouac, the two-lane blacktop, the whole mythology of the American car and the long journey...We did it. It was pretty fantastic. I would do it again.
I’ve always thought of you and your unique voice, especially within dance music, as a traveling bluesman of some sort. I haven’t asked about your guitar playing on this album yet but I wanted to ask you how guitar music of the past has influenced you over time and how technology influences that?
I’ve heard elements of country in your music before, European influences, even bluesy-ness, like the Underworld track “Blueski.” I remember reading in a story years ago in URB magazine how you were about to take a road trip across the United States with a friend?
Yeah, we did that and we turned that into a film, a 360 degree film surrounding an entire room and it’s called “Van Halen, Van Halen, Rock Guitar Band.” It’s a completely obscure title and has nothing to do with the travel—I just phoned somebody up and said, “Give me a title for the film.” And when they said that, I said, “OK.” But it was a layering montage of images from LA to New York, moving my mate who was moving house, who said the only way he could do it was if I traveled with him and his dog across America.
It’s one of those things as a Brit, you hear about Route 66, you read Jack Kerouac, the two-lane blacktop, the whole mythology of the American car and the long journey. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up, once in a lifetime. We did it. It was pretty fantastic. I would do it again.
In terms of the context of Edgeland and traveling, I was thinking about that journey you took across the United States, of it being a solo album. For some reason the image I have in my mind is of you guitar playing on such a trip and the whole tradition of folk musicians, where even rock ‘n’ roll began in the South.
Yeah, Woody Guthrie came to mind a lot when I was thinking about this record. Guthrie and early Bob Dylan were kind of taunting me as I made this record. Yes, of the traveling bluesman of the documenter of a nation if you like.
Also going over to African culture if you like, of people like Ali Farka Toure, that tradition of African music which is used to transmit information, whether its about crops or medicine or how to look after your village, music as a carrier of information to help people.
For me, again, there was a whole tradition of singing guitarists or musicians who were very seriously documenting their environment. And there I was in some way not coming up to that, you know? I was starting to feel like I was a little bit shallow. But I didn’t know how to tell you what I was feeling.
People said to me in the time leading up to Edgeland, “Just write down what you’re feeling.” And I’d say, “I don’t know what I’m feeling.” I spent 20 years just being an outsider telling you this stuff of what I’ve observed and hoping you would understand how I feel by hearing what I’ve picked up, you know? If it’s dark stuff then I’m feeling dark. If it’s light stuff then I’m feeling happy.
“I don’t know how to tell you how I feel.” Well what does it feel like when you ride the train into the city, what does that feel like? “I don’t know.” I mean real crisis. And I’m listening to Woody Guthrie and his Dust Bowl songs and thinking, “Man!,” and early Dylan, “Geez! How do you write this stuff? How do you tell people how you feel on what is going on around you? How do you do that?” “I don’t know!”
I was literally sending stuff off to my writing mates. I’ve got a screenwriting mate in LA, friends who are writers over here, and they would kind of mock my words, and send it back to me and go, “This is good, this is good, scrap that.” Little by little, I sort of went back to school, taught by my friends who were professional writers, to what part of me it was that was carrying the message.
Most people don’t know that I’m fascinated by collecting vintage guitars...I love the sound of real instruments.
And how much did the guitar playing factor into helping support that voice and carry that message?
Well, big. I’ve played the guitar since I was seven years old. I’ve played a lot of guitar on Underworld albums. It is always heavily processed, which is fine, I love that—a lot of acoustic guitars that end up sounding like something else because they are so processed.
And when it comes to playing live of course, we’ve tried me playing lots of live guitar. But it’s too live. It’s too different all the time. It’s too human. The kind of music we play requires the sounds to be repetitive in a way we find beautiful and always sound more like the record that we find beautiful. So I never get to play much guitar on stage.
Brian got me to play loads of guitar. I played loads of guitar with Debby Harry. I was once doing loads of guitar with other artists. And at home I play the guitar every day. Particularly, I play the blues, a lot of acoustic picking, a lot of country or folk, and polyrhythmic guitar playing.
I was attracted to play with Leo Abrahams because he is an amazing guitar player. He’s the first guitarist I’ve been able to sit down with and talk to in 20 years. Most of my friends are DJs or programmers. [Laughter] It was like, “Hey, do you mind me asking what strings you use? What pedals are in your pedal board, man?”
Most people don’t know that I’m fascinated by collecting vintage guitars. I get guitars from a guy up in San Francisco a lot, who sends me stuff over or builds stuff for me. Because I love the sound of real instruments.
Working with Leo was great because I could say, “You play guitar and I’ll sing and we’ll just go on a journey.” So all of these songs are improvised. All of the vocals are first take. There’s no overdubbing of vocals. There’s no retakes. All of his guitars are original guitar, all first take. Then we’d say, “Let’s overdub some piano.” Or he’d say, “You know, you’ve got to play some guitar on this record. Play some guitar.”
Listening to you talk, I’ve always seen you as an artist that is at a crossroads and in terms of the sound you guys developed as Underworld and even Edgeland sounds like a crossroads period in your life — it’s interesting in the last few years “EDM” is what we’re calling it now in the US and it’s getting really big. It’s become the big music now.
I’m really relieved it’s finally taking off in the States. It took a long time.
It did. Which is sort of interesting because a lot of the roots of it are from here too. And a lot of Americans don’t quite know that. It’s interesting to see that. And to see you guys work on the Olympics, and it’s great to see you guys having a lot of artistic fire at this time. It’s fun to watch. In terms of doing a band setup, you’ll be touring, are you just going to be playing in the U.S.?
I would really love to play in the U.S. Our agency there is looking into bringing us out there. I really want to do it. I’d love a run in America. It’s a fantastic country to tour in. Truck stops, pulling into the cities and on the edge of the cities. I love crossing the states in my bunk [laughs] and waking up in the middle of a new city and pulling my guitar out and into the venue and doing a soundcheck. That’s home to me.
America is a fantastic country in terms of its music and its rich imagery. A lot of what I love in terms of art came out of America, has always come out of America. My favorite artists, painters and art are American. There’s a whole culture that came out of jazz, Miles Davis and the abstract expressionists. That’s complete home to me.
You add to that imagery from a kid like American Graffiti the film, Booker T. and the M.G.'s playing “Green Onion” as you go out to the strip to drag race. “That’s America. That’s home.” Put some Dylan on the radio and we’re off. Some bluegrass and I’m happy.
BLACK COUNTRY ROOTS UNDER CAR PARKS IN HEAVEN
Would it be too much to say that Karl Hyde is the voice of techno? I think more than anyone, he’s earned that right. In an age when engineers are programming robots and computers with algorithms to tell us what to read and buy, Hyde reminds us that there’s another way. We’ve been coding humans for centuries with stories, starting with scratches in stone. His fragmented cycle from city trickster to eavesdropping poet to edge-land bard, switching the radio dial from station to station, closes the loop when you enter the picture.
If you look at the long span of Underworld’s career, it’s a combination of persistence and experimentation. Take Hyde’s “Van Halen, Van Halen, Rock Guitar Band.” He documented his American journey with a camera and pen that Smith cocooned in an ambient swirl, sprinkling it with Hyde’s impressions: “land of Dairy Queen,” “the entire Rio Grande,” “eagles in the sky circling,” and “escaped murderers on the loose.”
Hyde’s words translate to people across cultures because he picks expansive subjects. But there’s also a humanity that keeps despair at bay. His hometown is near Birmingham, where belching factories and coal soot helped power the Industrial Revolution. Danny Boyle paid homage to this period of English history in the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, evoking the fires of Mordor. The land of Hyde’s childhood is still known as the Black Country.
His working class roots help give Underworld its power to the people. As part of the Edgeland project, he worked with filmmaker Kieran Evans to document London’s fringes. Titled The Outer Edges, it gives voice to a world far from the glamor of Manhattan or Cannes: “Life on the road. Life on the land. Life on the river. Life on the streets.” Hyde gives testament to everything ever-changing.
One of his most under-appreciated gifts is not just his lyrics or guitar but his actual voice. It carries with it a wisdom that welcomes the world’s tilt. He sings in a variety of modes and rhythms, from high to low. He switches subtly between characters and moods. He hurries and hums. It’s that vocal dimension that gives Underworld much of its glory.
From “River of Bass” to “Best Mamgu Ever,” Hyde guides listeners with soul. “Breathing your breath,” he whispers on “Sleepless.” On “Faxed Invitation,” his deep voice doubles as a bass line, pinball melodies ricocheting overhead as he sings, “Bang, Jesus loves me on a yellow xylophone. Going home.”
Thirty years ago, Hyde and Smith recorded the hit single “Doot-Doot” as the New Wave band Freur. From then to now, his voice rings with a heartache that could tame the machine age. “What’s in a name?” he sings with longing. “Face on a stage. Where are you now? Memory fades, you take a bow.”
I hope fans in the States get a chance to see your band play live. It seems to me you and Rick are going through yet another renaissance. Can you describe what is different about this band from your work with Underworld?
It’s an unusual set up. We’ve got two keyboard players, some laptops, a bass player who plays electronics, and me with a big pedal board and guitars and vocals. One guy is Brian Eno’s righthand man, who is my music director. Another lady on keyboards who is from Peter Gabriel’s band. And of course I have to have a Welshman in the band, and that is the bass player, that’s a dancing, crazy fool.
And together we make this beautiful sound. It’s kind of a shock to me. It wasn’t an image of a group I had. But Peter, who is my MD, we got together and talked about it and he said, “No, it should be like this.” On this project, I’ve made space for other people’s ideas. It’s about people. You pick good people. My job is to encourage them to do what they’re good at. So if someone comes in with an idea that is a tangent to me, I just think, “Ok, great, let’s do that.” It just expands my vocabulary. Let’s try it out.
I was no good at football, soccer, so I became a painter and I went to art school.
I wanted to come back to something you said earlier. You talked so passionately about Africa. Have you been there before or were you talking in general about its musical influence?
Sadly, Brian and I were meant to go to Mali to work with Tinariwen. I’m going to do a warm up show soon at the place where I met Tinariwen. I’ve loved them since their first album, Radio Tisdas Sessions. I just loved it. The idea of this electric guitar blues meets African music in the desert. “What’s that about!?”
We met up with them a few times. The idea was that Brian and I would go out to Mali and spend time in Tinariwen’s village and record with them and other musicians in surrounding villages and spend time with them for a few months out there. Sadly, Underworld did lots of touring so it hasn’t happened yet.
But it’s still on the cards for me. Most of my acoustic guitars are in a tuning where I can play the desert blues because I love people like Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen, players that fuse those African polyrhythms, which to me are the roots of techno music and Steve Reich and all that, and fused together with the blues. It’s a sound I love.
So now that you’re renewed and you’re pursuing Edgeland and the band and these passion projects, for the Underworld fans out there, are you guys still planning to do a lot of work or albums together? People often get scared when bands they love start going in solo directions.
Yeah! Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I would say get scared if Rick and I weren’t doing other things. Rick just scored Danny Boyle’s new movie, Trance. If we weren’t doing other things I think we’d start to burn out together.
We just came back from Mexico City, and Underworld was headlining one of the nights of their big festival out there. And the other night was Blur. And a couple of my mates are in Blur. We were talking about this, with Graham Coxon and he was saying the great thing about having your own project is you don’t get tired of your main band. You start to enjoy your main band again. You don’t become jaded about it. It becomes fun to get back together and be in the band again. “Yeah, that’s right! It does.”
I think for me, if I weren’t doing these other things with Brian and my exhibitions and solo projects, I would probably be thinking about moving on from Underworld. But because I’m doing those other things, all I can think about is what is good about being in Underworld now.
About the painting again. You mentioned how important it is to you. What is it about painting and drawing exactly, though you explained some about it before, but what is it about it that gives you so much joy?
That’s the thing I did first of all. Since as a two-year-old, that’s all I ever did. I escaped my small town and I escaped working in the factory by going to art school. I was no good at football, soccer, so I became a painter and I went to art school.
So to me that is what I am first and foremost. I became a musician and I put aside art for a while. But through music started to bring people back into the galleries again. I love that solitary activity of being in my painting studio and working on new work and I can answer a lot of problems I have in music through painting.
I’ll go to my painting studio and I’ll start to make work and I’ll realize how I can solve a problem back in my recording studio and I’ll go back across my yard and finish off there. It’s a different kind of expression but it’s a place where I can work out my problems, you know?
I think this says a lot about the kind of artist you are and the journey you’ve been on all these years. What was the small town you grew up in?
It’s a tiny little town on the edge of a river to the west of Birmingham. They call it the Black Country. It’s all factories, steelworks, it’s where Black Sabbath formed. Actually in my village is where Robert Plant lives and where some of Black Sabbath lived. It’s a kind of weird small town where on the one side of the river Robert Plant lives, and is still a mate, and Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath lived on the other side of the river.
And us kids went to school in the middle and went “Oh my god! Oh my god!” But of course it was always unattainable. They were gods who went off around the world doing their stuff and we occasionally saw them buying chicken wire at the hardware store and that was kind of about it.
It was a tiny nowhere town that made carpets. It was a carpet factory town. It was a town that had a forest. All of my mates were farmers’ kids. I was the odd one out. What was I going to do? Join a band. It’s called Kidderminster. All the factories are gone. They’re just car parks now.
Edgeland will be released worldwide by Universal on May 7th on iTunes and Amazon. A deluxe DVD/CD edition includes the documentary film "The Outer Edge." Vinyl and digital downloads are also available for order at Underworldlive.comhere. Live dates can be found at Karl Hyde's solo site here. Rick Smith's score for Danny Boyle's Trance is also out on Universal.