Underworld: ‘The longer the band goes on, the more you need to get out of your comfort zone’
For 35 years, Underworld have been the ultimate dance music outsiders, forever moving to their own beat. Founder Karl Hyde reflects on what a long, loud trip it’s been
For Underworld, the past 12 months have been tinged by nostalgia. The 20th anniversary of their Dubnobasswithmyheadman album was the cue for a lavish box-set reissue, a gala performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall, and a tour to mark the occasion.
Karl Hyde is not normally one for looking back to what the group were doing in ’94. “I’m not nostalgic. I shy away from it. It’s repulsive in many ways. It gives me the shivers”, he says. Emphatically.
Yet Hyde found the experience with the tour and the focus on that particular album to be interesting in many ways.
“It turned out to be illuminating in that we were reunited with feelings, attitudes and approaches that we had at that time,” he says. “Far from being about nostalgia, far from reliving something, it kind of reconnected us with an outlook that we may had lost or had gone a long way from.
“That outlook was a way of approaching our music, a way of approaching things around us, the kind of people we were at that time, the things that were going on around us and stimulating us, what we reacting to and reacting against. It seemed viable again and made us wonder why had we walked away from this state of mind.”
Underworld prior to the release of that third album were a much different proposition, he recalls. “Before Dubnobass, there wasn’t a band. We’d come out of the ashes of Underworld mark one and just kept the name because it was a good name and put out twelves.
“We’d no intention of having a career in music any more. We didn’t think we were good at that, so we put out the music that we wanted to while we were making music for TV ads with Tomato. We were putting food on the table by doing that and we had a freedom to make the music we wanted to make rather than the music we thought we had to do in order to have a career.
“We were perfectly happy making 12s and not being a band when Rick [Smith] turned round and said we’ve got an album that he’d been making on the sly. My initial reaction was ‘oh, what a pity’, and then he played it to me and it was very good. We became a band, we became Underworld.”
Underworld were not the only dance culture outsiders to find themselves welcomed inside the tent, Hyde says.
“A lot of us who were outsiders in dance culture were embraced by the traditional industry and it became an easier route to take. We’re outsiders who got invited in, and that’s a great thing. I am extremely grateful to be here now, to be a group of people who are both inside and outside.”
A place to belong
Dance culture allowed Hyde and Smith to feel like they fitted in, for once.
“We’re an awkward shape and didn’t fit in for years. As much as we loved the underground and the music John Peel turned us onto, we have loved pop culture since we were kids. Then dance music came along and we fitted that huge outsider culture and we then found that doing music for film and theatre and so on fitted us too.
“We found our place and where we were meant to be, which is to be transient and always in motion between these different areas.”
He says his relationship with Smith has changed over four decades. “We’re probably friends with each other now for the first time in 36 years. I’m not sure we had that great a friendship for most of those years. We recognised the fact that something was happening by the two of us being together, and there was an uneasy relationship for many years. I don’t think we necessarily needed to be friends to make that magic.
“Looking back on some of my favourite groups like The Beatles, their differences were what made them special and we understood that early on.
“In more recent years, we’ve moved to a place where we can look at each other and go ‘I really like you’ [laughs] and ‘I like what you do’ and ‘I’m really glad you’re my mate’. It’s the highlight of my week to get together with Rick to work in the studio or go onstage. It’s funny because at this age and this stage of our careers, we’re supposed to be travelling in separate cars [laughs].”
As has always been the case, Underworld is just one of Hyde’s many musical outlets.
“The longer the band goes on, the more you need to get out of your comfort zone. It was essential for me to work with Danny Boyle and the National Theatre on the Frankenstein production. It was essential for me to have my own band and go around the world with them so I didn’t have the Underworld safety net.
“After so many years, the safety net starts to make you atrophy. I know that my buddies and crew will always be there for me onstage, so what happens when I have to go out and put my own band together? That was really important for me to do. Same with working with Brian Eno.”
Married to the music
He says that “I don’t see myself married 100 per cent to Underworld. It is my priority, though you need other stuff to be ticking along in the background”.
Hyde remains a member of the Tomato design collective. “I still go into the office every few weeks. We did some film paintings earlier in the year that are yet to come out and they continue to work on all the artwork for all the projects I do. They’ll phone me up and say there’s some random project, like an architectural project, and do I want to be involved.
“That’s very important to me, to be working with other artists, and it’s crucial to have those jams, those exchanges, between people. As you go on in life, it’s very easy to become comfortable and isolated and just amongst people who corroborate your point of view. I prefer to be with people who bring in a tangential point of view and Tomato is great for that.”
For Hyde, all of this work continues to amplify the importance of outsider culture for him.
“The underground culture is always there, and it’s a great source of energy for people and for us too,” he says. “That culture is devoid of the desire to be a star and the baggage that comes with it. When you’re thinking about charts or sales or monetary success, it just diminishes the palette that an artist can draw from.
“We need that freedom from the desire to be a star or the desire to have loads of money or the desire to comply to get loads of money. There’s always someone railing against the mainstream – and thank God for it because we need that.”