#TBT July 2009
Interview by Mike Bax
Back in 1994, I was passed a copy of Underworld‘s dubnobasswithmyheadman to review. After repeat listens, it became my favourite album of 1994, and remains one of my most played albums to date. Tying to articulate in a written review what Underworld sound like back in 1994 was as challenging then as it is today. They are somewhat of an anti-band… utilizing loops and beats, synths and guitars in a manner that is unique to their band. You;d expect their live show to be a DJ set and nothing more, yet their lively stage presence mixed with Tomato’s distinct visuals and an arresting light show allow Underworld to deliver a live show that surpasses most bands in both sound and experience.
With an upcoming Toronto and Montreal live show, and a new iDrum application for the iPhone just released (that is a truly wonderful application), I was given the opportunity to chat with Karl Hyde by phone a few weeks ago. What follows is an unabridged transcription of our conversation. My conversation was bumped back a bit, as there were some phone problems. So rather than being Karl’s first interview of the day, I wound up being moved to his last…
Karl: I’m pretty good, thank you very much.
Mike: Excellent, I’m glad I got a chance to talk to you today, sir.
Karl: Yeah listen, thank you. I’m sorry about all the mucking about, we had a bit of a shenanigan with the phone here and now it’s, now every thing’s fine. So thank you for bearing with us.
Mike: No worries at all. Can you talk a little bit about what you have been up to since Oblivion With Bells came out?
Karl: Gosh. Ooh crikey. You know we toured the world a couple of times. We kicked off (Art Jam) which is kind of an art collective with Rick and myself and friends from, artists from around the world plus a couple of friends from Tomato. So we did a major art happening in Tokyo another major gallery exhibition in New York, we’ve been publishing artwork on our website (underworldlive.com) I’ve been working as a painter, quite heavily. We’ve been writing and recording brand new material. I did three improvised shows with Brian Eno at the Sydney Opera House…
Karl: …a couple of months ago. There’s a new track, a new collaboration with a DJ, a guy called Mark Knight, coming out in August. We’ve been working on an application called the iDrum that we’ve put something together for the iPhone and for the iTouch, which is coming out in August. And we are re-releasing our entire back catalogue on iTunes because we, obviously, we own all that back catalogue and that’s happening.
Karl: And we have put together a brand new live show, that we’ve been trying out over here in Europe and along with the new tunes it’s been pretty exciting, I’ve got to say.
Mike: Do you currently work with a label, Karl? Like a record label?
Karl: We have labels yeah, we have labels and we’re kind of looking at whether we carry on working with them on the next album. But we do have labels. We have labels in the States, a label in Japan and here for Europe too, yeah.
Mike: I ask because of the River Run downloads.
Karl: We try and keep things so that if either party wants to move on they can do that, y’know. We’re not the kind of people that tie anybody down to long-term things if it’s not working
Mike: Right. It was my understanding that The River Run Project was released without a label, you guys just wanted to do that yourselves, that’s correct right?
Karl: Yeah, that was very important to us just to try something out without having to schedule it, without it having to be physical. That was a major breakthrough for us because we could, we could… On The River Run Project it will be an ongoing thing y’know, but, those three download only albums and the several 12”s that we put out at that time, it was very important for us to break away from only putting things out on CD or DVD, it started to become very stale for us, and restrictive to only be able to put things out on physical medium.
Mike: Do you feel that traditional albums are a thing of the past? You seem to be experimenting.
Karl: I love ‘em. I go and buy loads of albums.
(Karl and Mike laugh)
Karl: I really do, I’ll come out of a record store with carry-abouts full of records, I’m very excited about physical records.
Mike: You mentioned your iDrum application, and you also mentioned that you’d done three evenings with Brian Eno, which is interesting because he has his bloom application, which I utterly love. Is your application going to be something similar or will there be more involved with iDrum?
Karl: Ours is, with iDrum, it’s… iZotope, who are software developers… they made things for the iDrum, they approached us to release what will be twelve of our classic tunes plus a completely brand new, unreleased, piece made specifically for this iDrum application and a very good friend of ours, Dave Spears, runs a company called G-Force, who developed classic software synthesizers, he has reprogrammed, and reworked the pieces to work for the iDrum, in development with my partner, Rick, and then the whole thing has been, the look, has been designed by John Warriker from Tomato in his inimitable way, it’s a very cool thing and something that we might even try to incorporate into the live show, ‘cause it’s such a funky thing.
Karl: Yeah, it’s been, a very painless relationship, actually I’ve got to say, y’know. Working with Apple has been very painless.
Mike: That’s good to hear. I’ve always considered Underworld a band that’s been a step ahead of most bands, yet I find that mainstream fame has eluded you in North America. In the sense that I tell people about Underworld and they seem to know your music but not necessarily your band’s name.
Karl: Well, it depends who you talk to because, in North America we have some of the most hardcore Underworld fans y’know? That our online, web-based following grew out of North America.
Mike: Agreed, yeah.
Karl: And so there is some serious hardcore fans there, who’ve been with us for so long that actually some of them work with us now, y’know, in the organization. So it really depends on where you go and who you talk to. But y’know it’s no bad thing we’ve had a very long career and possibly longer for not having gone overground too soon y’know? We have a good time, we are able to do the things that we want to do in the way that we want to do them and also have a life, so I really don’t have any complaints.
Mike: Awesome. And I have to say, I love your live show, I always look forward to when you’re coming around and I’m looking forward to your Toronto show. They’re always brilliant.
Karl: It’s been a while since we’ve been in Canada.
Mike: Yeah, it has.
Karl: I’m really pleased that we’re gonna be coming back up there, it’s.. I often think about the shows that we’ve done up there and when we were told we were coming up there, it’s great ‘cause I’ve got a family up there anyway so it’s great y’know, we get to drop in and see family.
Karl: But, it’s always good to come back to places that you haven’t been in a while and show people where you’re at now, because Underworld has continued to go forward we’ve not, we’re never been a band that relies on the past, never been a band that stays still. The production has continued to grow and expand, and of course y’know depending on the size of the place we’re in we can either do a huge production or scale the production depending on the venue that we’re in. Everything just continued to be even more improvised really than before, it’s a very live show y’know. [Karl laughs] If it wasn’t I wouldn’t be interested…
Karl: …if it was the same every night, even if it was the same two nights running y’know I’d jack it in. I know Rick would too. It has to be something that takes us by surprise every night and it has to be the real thing y’know, what you see up there when I walk out on stage, I don’t want to fake anything, I’m not interested in faking anything.
Mike: I’m just trying to think of the last time you played Toronto and what possibly would you have, new, that fans can expect to see in August when you come back and play live at the Kool Haus?
Karl: Wow, y’know, new tunes that are being tried out on stage ready for the next album, tunes that have been going down very well y’know, there’s a freshness to the sound that I haven’t heard for a long time and the way that Rick has redeveloped the instruments for stage, not only brings about, everybody, the whole crew is saying, people that have been with us for 15 years, they’re saying “Wow, I’ve never heard it sound so vibrant.” and also the way that we’re able to play is, we’re just able to throw lots more curve balls in and take it off in directions quicker than we’ve been able to before. At the same time, y’know, we’re incorporating some really old bits of kit, like I’ve got a really old (7 tubes fender amp) that I’m putting my guitar through so some really traditional old thing, bits of kit in there that are in with some of the latest technology to enable us to just play as we feel really I suppose.
Mike: Nice. One of my favourite tracks off of Oblivion is ‘To Heal’. Is that a song that you guys play live?
Karl: Which track?
Mike: ‘To Heal’, it was on the umm…
Karl: Oh ‘To Heal!’ Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mike: Yeah it was on the Sunshine soundtrack.
Karl: Y’know we haven’t played that one live, we could, we certainly could, we certainly could but we haven’t. I don’t know why really…
Mike: It’s such a lovely little song.
Karl: It depends where we’re playing. If we’re doing our own shows and we’re playing for maybe two hours then you can take, you can take a lot more curves…
Karl: …in the dynamics of the show if we’re playing a festival and we’ve got ninety minutes, or we’re playing a place where, a venue where people have come, really to dance, then there’s a different kind of dynamic is required. So that one isn’t one that we’ve tried out this year.
Mike: Ah, well.
Karl: It’s one I’ve loved for years.
Mike: When I fist heard it in the movie by Danny Boyle, I was just stunned by it. It was one of those moments where I thought “that is just such a good song”. It really worked in that scene in the film y’know?
Karl: Yea we did use it in Danny’s film. But Rick wrote it many, many years ago and it’s beautiful and with his dad talking over the top of it, a recording of his dad speaking over top of it, which always makes me want to cry. A beautiful piece. Rick writes beautiful chords.
Mike: Yeah. I’ve always liked ‘8 Ball’ a lot as well. The first time I heard that was another Danny Boyle movie.
Karl: Yeah, ‘8 Ball’ is something that we want to do live even and we haven’t been able to do it in time to, for us to come out again on this tour, but, that’s something that is being worked up so that we can, we can play it again. In fact, y’know that we’ve never even ever played that live.
Karl: It’s a favourite of ours.
Mike: It’s a really good song.
Karl: Yeah. It’s got a good heart.
Mike: Yeah it does, it does. I really liked it in The Beach I thought it really worked and that y’know when I think of that movie now I just I think of that song and not much else, oddly.
Karl: Yeah! Yeah, Yeah. No I know exactly what you mean, it’s got a lot of sunshine.
Mike: Doing soundtracks always seemed like a logical place for Underworld to go so it’s great to see that you’ve done a few over the past few years.
Karl: Yeah, I’ve uh, we’ve always thought of our music having elements of film music in it.
Karl: We think in terms of film, and a travel of our music being about a journey and about filmscape and in the early days, really, there were very few things that we wanted to be involved in, but one of them was making music for moving images so, films, and oddly enough, TV commercials because we always felt that if you had a beautiful piece of music, on a 30 second, 20 second, 15 second ad it actually changed the space, it changed your living room…
Karl: …for 15 seconds, it can make you feel, ooh, peaceful, or good, or positive and we thought that was actually quite an important thing to be bringing into the real world, y’know?
Karl: So, it was something that we started off just wanting to do that really.
Mike: Do you find composing music for film and for television is more challenging than composing your albums?
Karl: In some ways its easier because you’ve got a director that has a point of view and you need to listen to, and pay respect to and you’ve got moving images which are actually telling you what they want you to be playing so…
Karl: …it’s kind of easier.
Mike: You seem to have a good working relationship with Danny Boyle. Is that going to continue?
Karl: Danny’s great, Danny’s like the fourth member of Underworld
Karl: He’s like the fifth Beatle. We work with Danny then we don’t see him for a couple of years, then he walks back through the door and it’s like we carry on the conversation as if we’d been never apart. He understands that and he knows how to get the best out of us. He’s a great director.
Mike: He’s one of my favourite directors. I really like his movies.
Karl: He’s a great bloke. He loves music.
Mike: It’s so obvious… Right from Shallow Grave that was obvious.
Karl: And then Anthony Minghella as well. Getting together with another director that loves music.
Mike: Breaking and Entering was a nice score as well. Quite different for Underworld.
Karl: We’re very privileged to work with two people like that.
Mike: Nice. Alright so I think I’ve got more than my allotment of time, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me and I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks again.
Karl: Good talking, Mike.
Mike: Cheers. Bye.
Karl: I’m really looking forward to coming up there and doing it again, getting sweaty.
Mike: Oh the Toronto show’s going to be awesome, I can’t wait, I’m totally looking forward to it. It’s been at least 5 or 6 years so.
Karl: I think it’s been even longer than that. (laughs) “When was the last time you were in such and such a place, and you go “Oh it was like two years ago” and you realize “No, it was ten” and you go “What!?”
Mike: I do that a lot those days.
Karl: Yeah, so we’re looking forward to it very much.