After over three decades of Underworld, various art and design projects, collaborations with the likes of Brian Eno and director Danny Boyle, the Olympics‘ opening ceremony, films, exhibitions and much more, Karl Hyde has finally got round to making a solo album. Released on Monday (22 April), Edgeland was recorded last year exclusively in Homerton, London, with producer Leo Abrahams and sees Hyde adopt a more singer-songwriter approach as he examines the lives of those who chose to live on the edge of London, the point where city touches the countryside. Along with the songs, the story of lives lived on the rim is also told in an accompanying film The Outer Edges, made in collaboration with director Kieran Evans. In our Q&a – plus an exclusive video interview you can watch below – Hyde explains why he is drawn to the fringes.
How the devil are you?
“Pretty good thanks. Lovely day, isn’t it?”
So we’re here to talk about your first solo record. What kept you?
“Good question! Underworld was always doing stuff and I think I was trying to find a voice. You just let things come together. When I work as a painter and as artist things have to form before there’s a flurry of activity. For years people have been saying, You could do a solo record like this or like that, and I’d say, I could… but why? Then a number things came together. Working with Brian Eno on the Pure Scenius project was quite a major catalyst for me. I had stories to tell that couldn’t be told in the form of music Underworld was doing at the time, plus Rick [Smith, bandmate] was doing some beautiful things and it didn’t seem he could express himself in form that we were working at the time. There was always different music we’d make between those banging Underworld tunes. It just came out of us naturally whenever Rick and I got in the studio, and I felt I wanted at least one of us to express that.”
Was the fact you have a number of other artistic outlets something that delayed ‘going solo’? A sense of why use your time off from Underworld to do music?
“Yeah. I’ve done two solo painting shows, but think what happened was me sobering up – it takes a long time for the head to clear, years – you begin to realise you have the capacity and desire to do projects without destroying the thing you’ve been doing for years as well. It was finding vehicles to enable me to do that. I needed enough pieces to fall into place – finding people to work with like Leo Abraham – otherwise I might still be album-less.”
To make this record you tried to recreate the sense of place that David Bowie had with his Berlin records for this album, why?
“That Berlin mystic thing was powerful in my life as a kid. I was reading about all the mythology at the same time. Rick and I had spoken about doing something similar for a long time. We should go to Jamaica and make record! We should go Mount Fuji… mine turned out to be Homerton!”
Something of a short straw?
“It was great! I just felt I’m meant to be in this place making a record. It was a whole journey. Working with Brian, some of the recordings we still haven’t released, was nudging in that direction: his enthusiasm for my words and encouraging me to sing more. In dance music it always seemed inappropriate to sing lots of words, it negates the beauty of the rhythm section. So I’ve amassed a lot of text that just doesn’t get a place to come out. Brian and I did a performance for the Serpentine Gallery a few years back and that was an encouragement. It was trying to find a vehicle for all this material to come out and also not wanting to come to a place where I was so frustrated that I wouldn’t want to work with Rick any more.”
What was the appeal of the Edgeland? Why are the fringes so much different to the centre of a city?
“It’s where outsiders live. I’m from the Midlands I’ve come from the Edgeland of Birmingham. It’s where outsiders go, they don’t want to be city folk and neither do they want to be farmers. They want to plot their own course. It’s where they paint their own signs for garages, where they get away with extensions because the council didn’t really bother to look down their cul-de-sac. It’s a bit like seaside towns out of season. There’s a powerful community that just gets on with it and lives in the day. They’re not aspiring to be like Paris or Barcelona, and neither is it like the prairies of Minnesota. It’s where individual architecture crops up, it’s where the kettle gets put on and you get on with it: I know a bloke with a van so I can sort you out… It’s where the magic of stuff happens and it gets overlooked all the time. It doesn’t make the headlines unless something horrific happens there. That’s fascinated me on the streets of cities for the past 20 years or more. I always love the brutal architecture of towns like Romford, which some might thing is ugly but I don’t. It’s got a poetry and a positivity to it. I was really inspired by the Olympics. I saw this great positivity emerge in my nation that I’d heard legend of back in the day. I thought Yeah there are millions and millions of people who get on with the day and keep a positive direction going.”
So is Edgeland more than urban sprawl, it’s not just the poorest being forced to the periphery?
“For me it’s a sense of tribalism. There’s a long history of people living in those areas and making something out of what they’ve got. Being tenacious. There’s an energy and a vast quirkiness to their ideas. It’s what I grew up with: that’s a strange colour to paint a house, but Ok! Or why are these fields full of ponies? Who’s ponies are they? What goes on here? I find there’s a very strong sense of tribe perhaps because those areas aren’t traditionally seen as beautiful or somewhere to aspire to live or places that will be the next hotspots.”
How do you distil that into a record?
“I take notes all the time. I’ve done that since the 80s, just documenting what I’m seeing as fragments. The problem for me was I was always perceived as being this weird, Burrows devotee, doing cut ups or stream of consciousness gibberish. Having done that for so many years, it’s easy for people to become numb to what I do, Oh that’s the guy who rants about weird stuff.”
Shouting lager, lager…
“There you go, yeah! [laughs] Whereas as for me I wasn’t writing about random stuff, I was writing about journeys. Born Slippy is about a journey from The Ship on Wardour Street up to Tottenham Court Road tube station and then catching the night train back to Romford. I can plot it out through the words. It was pointed out to me it might be good to leave a few clues as to what you’re talking about and there was a real crisis for me there. I had to turn to a lot of writer mates just to get me through dark times. How do you do that? I’m interested in the abstract and collecting these fragments that I write down as I see them and working more like a painter. This was asking me more to write like a writer and let people in. How do I do that without turning into something quite vacuous and obvious? I dunno! There was a real crisis for me there. A lot and writer mates helped me, people like Benjamin Zephaniah. I’d be on the phone to them going, I think I’m finished…”
You set yourself quite a challenge with this record. It’s not an Underworld side project that just sounds like Underworld but with a different name on it. There are songs…
“With Leo that starting point was to improvise. We did eight days and came out with 70 or 80 pieces. The idea was we’d start with some music and I would have my books of words and we’d improvise the melody. We’d follow each other, listening to each. So that’s how the songs were written. They’ve been edited very little since. One of the things I loved about the early days of Underworld was the music didn’t follow a song structure, it went on a journey, you never knew what was the chorus. Sometimes they’d be three or four, none that repeated themselves. I really cherished getting into a room with another musician and jamming, it as open ended. The ones that sounded most complete were the ones we went with.”
Do you feel with the way you recorded this album, along with projects soundtracking Frankenstein at the National Theatre and doing the Olympics opening ceremony that you’re putting yourself outside your comfort zone a lot at the moment?
“It’s really important to do that. If there was one thing that scared me it was things were comfortable and I didn’t want that. It’s the death of creativity. A lot of this was not to be comfortable. Going out onstage and playing with Rick is fantastic, we know we have each other’s back so even if something goes wrong it’s a really safe place to be. Going out Brian Eno meant the safety net was removed, so to do a record without the comfort of my fantastic mate was really important to me. It’s important I come back to the party with some new experiences, otherwise you keep repeating yourself and it just gets smaller.”
True, but isn’t this now three or four such projects on the trot?
[laughs] “Yeah! It is getting to the point where the elastic band is getting stretched as far as it goes and I’m looking forward to going back to Underworld. I really want to be back in a room with my mate! We’re doing some shows in Mexico soon and I’m really looking forward to it. We only did one last year, which was in Madrid and I remember looking at him and going, I really like working with you. This music is great!”
There’s one final leap of faith still through, rather than make music videos for Edgeland, you’ve created a film, The Outer Edges, about people and characters you met while travelling around Edgeland. Why take that approach?
“I was inspired by the Olympic volunteers I encountered travelling to record the Edgeland album every day. They spread a spirit of such positivity that I was reminded of all the people I met when I first moved to Romford. There’s such a positive we can do it attitude there that prevails through most of South Essex and I wanted to see if that existed along the outer eastern edge of the London. With director Kieran Evans we met people who carry within them that positive and infectious spirit I encountered in the Olympic Volunteers. Having met them, we wanted to allow them to convey their approach to daily life and their ability to move forward with inspiringly heartening attitudes, regardless of political or natural climate. It was so inspiring that Kieran and I are going back to meet and film more people from there and around the UK!”
You’re currently gearing to tour as a solo artist, are you getting into the frontman role?
“Yeah, in a different way. I become the reluctant frontman of Underworld over the years and I enjoyed that role and understood what it required. I don’t really understand what this role requires because it’s a gentler, intimate music. I had a desire to talk to audience and communicate in a different way, which is great in theory so every so often I think, You wanted this!”
There will be gaps between songs, you know…
“I’m going to delegate the banter, I’ll bring a compere. Seriously, with dance music you don’t want a guy rattling on, it just breaks up the vibe. So it’s not something I’ve practised for a really long time. I can’t say I was good at it when I did it. It’s an unknown and something I’m exciting about. You’ve got to leave some unknowns. I’ve no idea what the singer is going to be like on the day!”
If it goes well as a solo artist is it something you will go back to? You’ve focused it seems on a very specific Edgeland, east London, are there other fringes you want explore?
“Definitely! People’s stories fascinate me. I’m obsessed with them. I’m obsessed with the people who are under the radar, who don’t show up in the news everyday and just get on with their lives and create extraordinary stories. I’m trying to set up a sound archive with a friend in the Midlands to record people’s stories. It’s something that’s fascinated us for years and I know there’s an endless well to be tapped here. Rick and I are working on our parallel projects at the same time, which is really important. We don’t want to get bored or frustrated and so to do that you’ve got to go away to come back. There are things I can’t wait to bring back to him and I know he will have had experiences on his projects that will change the way we work together too. That’s important, because my vision was always was we’d grow old and die doing Underworld together and that would be such a smile!” [laughs]
For more head to Karlhyde.com.