Music

Close to the Edgeland: An Interview with Underworld's Karl Hyde

Phil Mason

Karl Hyde's new album consolidates Underworld's lyrical themes through his own unique sense of place, crafting an album which celebrates a generation of British "un-identity". Here, Hyde discusses the album in vivid detail, including his fascination with cities, and the cultural schizophrenia of the modern generation.


Karl Hyde

Edgeland

Label: Universal
US/UK release date: 2013-04-22
Amazon
iTunes

You probably wouldn’t think it from his work with Underworld, but Karl Hyde is a bit of a country music fan. Indeed, during recent time away from the band, he even considered recording a collection of what he refers to as ‘drinking songs’. Momentarily battling with incongruous thoughts of Saturday nights out in Romford, I ask him to clarify.

“I was at a point where I wanted to produce something more musically esoteric and song-driven,” he says. “That evolved into the idea of me doing a kind of country thing, along the lines of a very dark Johnny Cash album. Covering Laura Cantrell’s 'The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter' – that sort of thing. Probably something fairly twisted.”

Had it come off that way, Hyde would've hardly been the first pop artist to make the Nashville leap. What would have raised eyebrows however is that he is better-known for plugging away on an iMac than he is for wielding a guitar.

The actual result of that work, however, is Edgeland, a beguiling, 40-odd minutes of ambient pop, recorded while under the influence of Eno. Listening to it, it’s immediately clear that the urge to pursue different interests never left him, as the album contains not one single, solitary dance-floor anthem. The most apparent influence on its hazy grooves though is not Hank Williams after all, so much as John Martyn and Robert Wyatt.

When I ask him about the need to do something quite so different, his answer is straightforward enough:

“Because I love this kind of music, and in Underworld it was always something that was pushed slightly to the side. It appears in our film work, but not so often with the band. Working with Brian's clearly had a lot to do with it. Being involved with Pure Scenius [Eno's improvised musical collective] meant I got to experiment with melody, which I definitely wanted to do more of. Through Brian I also met Leo Abrahams, and we started working like Rick and I had on Dubnobass. We’d go into the studio with some prepared sounds and just see."

So a lot of the record was improvised?

"All of it was -- we originally had something like 60 or 70 tunes written in eight days. The overdubs were minimal and the vocals are all first take. Leo and I would start playing and just follow each other. I got to sing in a far gentler style -- and play the guitar much more."

As much as Edgeland is a musical departure, at least as striking is the way it consolidates Underworld's lyrical themes. Like much of Hyde's writing it's overwhelmingly concerned with the urban environment out of which it comes, as well as that environment's attendant implications for identity. It's also coherent enough that you could mistake it for a concept album.

The notion of British identity is continually being fought over. We are -- to paraphrase Joyce -- an unfortunate class-ridden race, riven with regional, religious and, occasionally, racial difference. At the same time, years of unrestrained liberal capitalism has positioned the UK as arguably the most consumerist nation in the world.

All this has led to two not-quite-mutually-exclusive ways of being. Even now, there are still legions of Brits for whom modernity is something to be waited out. At the same time, to reference Fredric Jameson, we also suffer from chronic cultural ‘schizophrenia’ -- occasioned, post-globalization, by simply having too many options. In accepting everything we become a composite of nothing; products of an environment in which one thing is ultimately as just as valid as any another.

Underworld has always been adept at capturing the sense of the liminal that runs through contemporary British life, articulating a profound sense of place, coupled with a singularly postmodern disorientation. Take for instance “Dirty Epic”, in which a train ride collapses into a psycho-sexual nightmare involving phone sex and what the singer refers to as ‘designer voodoo’. “Born Slippy” meanwhile is even more impressionistic, its narrator auto-critiquing his own experiences even as their meaning slips away from him. With Edgeland, Hyde makes the space between a central theme of the album -- creating something that doesn't just represent this 'un-identity' but celebrates it.

The record shares its title with an idea associated with environmentalist Marion Shoard. 'Edgelands': the semi-dehumanized zone of landfill sites and shopping centers separating the city from the countryside. For Hyde however, the concept has at least as much to do with 'psycho' as it does with geography.

I ask him about his abiding fascination with cities, as well as the decision on this album to focus on suburban areas such as Lewisham. “I've documented my journeys across cities for something like 20 years now, and its probably where I get most of my inspiration. It certainly was for the first few Underworld albums which had London and New York as a background," he says. "That reliance on place meant that when we moved out to the countryside, I needed to travel a lot more to get ideas. I ended up going to places like Brent Cross, Dagenham Market and Purfleet. They were my muse on this album."

He continues: "Edgeland is a state of mind belonging to someone living on those boundaries. Its kind of a wasteland really; a place where people have almost created their own language and way of life to go with their outsider status. This is about meeting the tribes that live on the edges of the city.”

Given how -- dystopian is the only word -- much of the environment in question is, you might expect Edgeland to sound pretty dark. On the contrary however the album has a distinct dream-pop edge, with barely a hint of the Iain Sinclairs to be found anywhere. At the same time, it bears witness to a refinement of Hyde's lyric-writing, coupling the cut-up style that he's known for with a new-found interest in conventional narrative. The result is something akin to a South London Hissing of the Summer Lawns, with the ennui replaced with impressionistic, urban flights of fancy.

Take album highlight “Your Perfume Was the Best Thing” as an example. Beginning with yet another train ride, it tells (or at least seems to) the story of a man who narrowly avoids being knocked down while crossing the road. Billboards shout and trees dance as if to warn him of the danger, before the perfume-wearer of the title descends like an angel to kiss him out of his reverie.

Like his musical swerve, this new writing style also came, in part, from a desire not to be stereotyped according to his role in Underworld. He says: "My way of looking at the world is fragmented, which I believe is how we all see things. That always came out in my writing, but with this album, I didn’t just want to be known as ‘the cut-up bloke’. I wanted to give people clues as to what I was talking about, which meant putting myself in the picture."

Hyde is originally from the Midlands, something still obvious from a distinct brummie twang in his accent, kept-hold-of despite years of living down south. However, it was only when he got to Essex -- an area of the world name-checked on any number of Underworld tracks -- that he felt he'd finally found his "tribe".

As unfashionable as certain areas of Outer London are, Hyde says he's always been astounded by the sense of community to be found there. He is also (rightly) proud of the way the edgeland acquitted itself last summer when the Olympics came to town -- something Underworld associated themselves with directly when they collaborated with Danny Boyle on the music for the opening ceremony.

Smart as he is, Boyle's grand symbolic celebration of 'Britishness' strongly reflected the context of a broader -- global -- pluralism. Underworld's contribution meanwhile, ironically evoked the kind of 'tribes' that Karl is so fond of speaking of, for instance via the primal rumble of “And I Will Kiss”. With that in mind, it occurs that Underworld now doesn't just reflect a stiched-together, quintessentially British postmodernity so much as exemplify it.

Going back to the subject of Pure Scenius, I ask Karl if he's familiar with Brian Eno's 'ecology of talent' idea. (In which culture is re-conceived as a continually evolving sum of disparate parts, which themselves constantly evolve). "That certainly does sound like Brian," he says with a laugh in his voice. "We did used to have something that we'd always go back to, which was the more philosophical aspects of Frippertronics. Networks of small, mobile, intelligent units - which was Fripp's metaphor for breaking away from the behemoth of King Crimson.

"We read it as being about groups of specialists that would support each other, transferring information and exchanging ideas. It was demonstrated with what John Peel did on the radio, and then again with acid house, which was about musicians exchanging ideas freely and supporting one another. There wasn’t the isolation that you sometimes get with rock music, at least not at the beginning."

Mention of Peel brings us back to where we came in. As any fan of British alternative music will tell you, there was no greater champion of the esoteric than St John. In the words of Pete Townshend, he was a DJ with almost no censorial mandate - Peel played what he loved, and what he loved was just about everything.

This isn't a million miles away from what Underworld have been doing throughout their career, and even now the meme that the group is ‘dance music for rock fans’ is still going strong. As it turns out, this bringing together of the tribes was a big part of the project from the beginning: "We did have a lot of indie fans, and we were certainly amongst the first to bridge the gap between rock and dance”, he says. “I remember doing an all-nighter at Brixton Academy and the indie and dance kids were just looking at each other as if to say: ‘What are you doing here? This is my band’. It was great -- made me smile at the time."

While not quite up there with the likes of Eno and Bowie, Karl Hyde is still one of the most interesting -- and committed -- utopian thinkers of British pop music. His pursuit of a singular vision, across decades now, is becoming increasingly rare. At the same time, Underworld's fusion of different genres, puts them firmly in the tradition of New Order and The Clash - acts which kept things vital by refusing to work within rigid boundaries.

Just before we finish, I tell him that it occurs to me that dance and folk music aren't that far away from one another. It’s an idea that chimes with him: “Dance music is our contemporary folk music, absolutely. It tells the story of a zeitgeist, of tribes within nations -- particularly through the ‘90s, when it reflected exactly how we were feeling. Think about it -- The Chieftains, Fairport Convention, they’ve all got a lineage that’s to do with tribalism, locality and story-telling. When I mention it, people are sometimes skeptical, but they get it eventually. Dance music tells our story.”

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image