Inpress APRIL 24, 2013 - by Matt O'Neill


Underworld are so much more than just legends of the dance floor, as Karl Hyde's experimental new solo album Edgeland demonstrates. Matt O'Neill speaks to the vocalist about the blossoming of his other talents.

In recent years, Underworld have been almost inescapable. They famously acted as musical directors of Danny Boyle's universally acclaimed 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. They've also provided the scores to that same director's recent film Trance (co-founder Rick Smith flying solo) and 2011 Royal National Theatre production of Frankenstein - in addition to releasing their eighth studio album Barking in 2010.

Lately, it seems Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have undergone something of a creative renaissance. Whereas once known solely as purveyors of a particularly cinematic breed of '90s dance music, their recent years have been spent branching out. Not just with film scores, either. Hyde has spent the past handful of years exhibiting his visual artwork and collaborating with Brian Eno. He's just released his debut solo album Edgeland.

"I feel really good. It's been given a great response. I feel like getting it made was the main hurdle and I can just enjoy it being out there in the world now," Hyde laughs. "You know, there was the whole process of doing something without the familiar band and people and processes of doing things - that, in itself, was unusual. Then, of course, there was a voyage of rediscovery for lyric writing."

"I had to spend quite a long time just looking at myself and figuring out if I was capable of going further with my lyric writing than I had in the past twenty years. There were moments there where I definitely had to seek out a lot of help from my writer mates. You know, get them to guide me through the rapids," the frontman continues. "I'm not so nervous about it, though. I was so delighted with the way it worked out on the first day I was just buzzing."

It's a strange record. Hyde's baritone vocal and idiosyncratic poetics brand it as an Underworld offshoot. Similarly, there's an air of angular melancholy that seems to hang over the album. Yet, it's far from club-friendly. Heavily improvised (between Hyde and collaborator Leo Abrahams) and profoundly abstract, it's an album of atmospherics and experimentation. A weird, post-electronic-folk, pre-dawn blur of a record.

"They're all improvised. The vocals, the instruments. They're all first take," Hyde explains. "I did have a day where I just tried going in with what I'd normally do with Underworld. Notebooks full of words, really. Utterly uncrafted. It ended up as a day I just discarded, though. It didn't work at all. That was when I realised this solo album business was going to be harder than I thought."

"What's interesting is the band I've assembled for this project is playing both the album and revisiting Underworld tracks, which was a very deliberate decision on my part," the frontman continues. "Because I wanted to draw a line between the sounds Underworld have always made that have perhaps been a bit obscured as we've gone a bit more dance-focussed."

The idea for the album came from Hyde's experiments with Brian Eno in Pure Scenius. Employed alongside a host of fellow groundbreaking musicians (including Australian trio The Necks) for a performance at Eno's Luminous Festival in Sydney in 2009, Hyde was challenged as a vocalist to think about lyrics and composition from a different perspective, specifically, an improvisational perspective.

"It started around the time I came down to Sydney with Brian Eno. I'd been talking with Brian a lot and working in the studio on our own collaborations and he'd been encouraging me to use words more. More than I do with Underworld," he says. "The nature of Underworld's music is that it doesn't require a lot of words. I've always agreed with that, too. Dance music is often hampered by too many words."

"So, as Underworld was heading in that direction, Brian encouraged me to actually use more words. And, at a sound check at the Sydney Opera House, I stood there and had a very clear vision that that was where I wanted Underworld to be standing at some point in the near future."

"You know, between the dance tunes," he explains. "Songs, really. Stuff on the first album, like Tongue. That's been the case on all our records and yet the band has never really explored that live. I started to feel that desire, very strongly, to explore that and perform with a different temperament. Those feelings and thoughts that came together at the Opera House with Brian made me realise I needed to go explore that."

The genesis of Edgeland says something about Underworld, though. Ideally, it puts paid to the notion that their current diversity of projects is a recent development. While their work roster has been particularly eclectic in recent years, they've never been simply a successful dance act. This, after all, is a partnership formed while both players were at art school in the '70s.

For example, both members of Underworld were founding members of art/design collective Tomato. Underworld's entire visual aesthetic since the '90s has been handled by the collective. Their relationship with film dates back to 1996's Trainspotting. Their debut film score was actually back in 2006 for Anthony Minghella's Breaking And Entering. It's really not surprising at all to see Hyde and Smith exploring new avenues.

"Had we been more traditional, I think you'd have had the Barking album, two or three years of touring and then you'd have had another album." Hyde explains. "Instead, since Barking, you've had the Frankenstein score, a couple of art exhibitions, the Olympics, the Trance score and now Edgeland. That honestly hadn't occurred to me until a friend pointed it out recently. I thought to myself, 'well, that's good, isn't it?'"

"I mean, life isn't boring. When people ask what motivates me, I honestly have to say boredom. Without boredom, I just keep ticking over. Boredom's great, though, because, what happens is, I'll start getting bored and asking myself what I'd really love to do - 'Oh, what I'd really love to do is paint'; 'what I'd really love to do is make a movie'. And my head goes; 'Well, why don't you?'"

"I mean, life's too short for just one album every three years," he laughs. "I think Underworld has many audiences. I think Rick and I may have misunderstood Underworld and the potential of Underworld and we're just now really starting to use our different voices and different faces. I think maybe our disparate audiences have been neglected by us just focussing on dance music."

"That's why I went back to exhibiting in galleries. That's why I answered the call from Brian. That's why Frankenstein," he says emphatically. "I think we've finally woken up to just what it is we've got with Underworld."

Karl Hyde will be playing the following dates: Saturday, May 25 - Recital Centre, Melbourne; Monday, May 27 - Opera House, Sydney