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

Karl Hyde

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.”