Underworld's Karl Hyde on Moving Beyond Trance and "Getting Off" at Ultra

Karl Hyde (left) and Rick Smith
Karl Hyde (left) and Rick Smith
Photo by Perou
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There's a 2007 episode of the BBC Two program The Culture Show that closes with Underworld performing its seminal 1996 hit, "Born Slippy .NUXX" in an anonymous English field. While his longtime creative partner Rick Smith and Underworld touring member Darren Price fiddle away at the monolithic mixing board in front of them, band frontman and lyricist Karl Hyde writhes in tight-fitting jeans and a tee better suited for a lanky, angst-ridden teenager than a 50-year-old Englishman. With the song and show winding to their inevitable conclusion, Hyde begins prancing about, hopping over a dalmatian and rattling off a series of non sequiturs: "We live in a field! We come from Essex! I wasn't always like this, you know!"

As even the most casual Underworld fan could tell you, seemingly incoherent musings that add up to a greater poetic whole are nothing new from Hyde; this is, after all, the man who completed the Herculean task of transforming "Mmm... Skyscraper I Love You" from a nonsensical phrase scribbled in his notebook into a head-nodding, club-booming generational touchstone. No, what's weird about this performance is the notion that Hyde didn't emerge from the womb fully formed with a trickster's smile and a keenly developed sense of the weird and exciting.

According to Hyde, it's this same sense — an essential part of his creative process, which sees him roaming streets around the world to render people and places into perfervid impressionistic lyrics — that has left him unable to recall a single memorable Miami anecdote despite having swung through the city several times over the course of his travels.

"Because of the way I write, I'm more documenting little details — wandering the streets, kind of bump[ing] into characters out on the streets at night or in the early morning," Hyde explains. "So I'm documenting all these little details, and they never make really good stories. They make fantastic lyrics, but in terms of anecdotes... [laughs]."

When Underworld returns to Ultra's Live Stage March 26, it will mark the fourth time the techno pioneers have graced the orgiastic Miami music festival with their presence, having previously performed in 2003, 2008, and 2011. As a veteran of the electronic music scene, Hyde is all too aware of the ever-evolving nature of both Ultra audiences and Underworld's own live shows.

"One of the great things about the explosion of EDM in the U.S. is that it introduced a vast audience to a genre of music we've been a part of for almost 30 years," Hyde says, "and so there are hundreds of thousands of people who want to know where this stuff came from, want to know about the history of it."

When speaking about that history, Hyde is as articulate as his lyrics are fragmented; unlike the disco-and-R&B-indebted dance music that pervaded American nightclubs and discotheques in the '80s and '90s, Underworld found much of its early inspiration in '70s avant-pop music. "Rick [Smith] and I grew up reading the philosophies of people like [King Crimson leader and guitarist] Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, and we were very heavily influenced by that generation — people like Kraftwerk and David Bowie as well. They were all very important to us."

Besides conveniently preparing Hyde for his eventual collaborations with Eno, Hyde and Smith's studious appreciation of their forebears enabled their work as Underworld to stand apart, leaving a legacy far beyond from the DJ mixes and illegal warehouse raves in which their music initially gained traction. Even records as recent as the band's latest, 2016's Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future, have seen Hyde and Smith continually influenced by their creative predecessors rather than their contemporaries.

"When CD culture was around, CDs became the equivalent of double albums that you saw around the vinyl era. And it kind of got boring — they were too long," Hyde says of the sometimes unwieldy length of earlier Underworld records. "It's great to explore again what it was that was so exciting about vinyl, and the idea that there were two sides and you flip them over and then you got to the end of side two. If you really enjoyed it, you wanted to go back to side one again. If the collection was too big, then your ears just get tired and you kind of get fed up. We wanted to... make the collection of tracks shorter than previous albums so that there was a sense of loss, if you like, at the end of that record — that you wanted to hear it again."

It's a decision that seems to have paid off. As Hyde himself notes, Barbara Barbara brought a number of younger listeners into the Underworld fold, many of whom will see the band for the first time at Ultra. Per Hyde, the group's headlining status at Ultra precludes the possibility of the sort of freewheeling show for which the band was once known.

"The dimension of audiences changes over the years. In the '90s, all of our shows were totally improvised, and that was indicative of the scene that was going on at the time," Hyde observes. "It was about trance; it was about exploring sounds and deconstructing the songs so that they became about generating grooves and vocal performances that enhanced that feeling of 'we've all come together to dance and to celebrate.' Over the years, audiences change, and things like trance became something of the past, and we all moved on. With a festival audience, it's different from an audience [there only for an Underworld performance].

"Most of the people who come to our own gigs know the material, so you can explore a looser way of working. But with a festival, you're largely playing to lots of people who don't know most of what you're playing, so you need to put a show together which is going to be your most exciting and your most appealing... that's going to draw people in. So in that case, you have to think about crafting something. We need to stay fresh and [for the music] to remain a challenge to us so that what people experience is us," Hyde chuckles, "really getting off on the music we're playing."

As the foremost wordsmith of electronic music, Hyde has forged a successful career out of conjuring both emotional resonance and dance-floor ecstasy from deliberately obtuse observations and lyrics. Given his three decades of fruitful creative collaboration with Smith, Hyde doesn't see any reason to tinker with a proven formula, and the two plan to polish new Underworld material that was recorded while on the road last year.

"Barbara, Barbara underlined the fact that we experience something together that we don't experience with anybody else. There's this surprise and challenge... Because we've known each other for so long, we can look at each other and push each other over the edge, and that's where we like to be; we like to be over the edge. And that happens in those moments where Rick and I get together in the room and look at each other and go... 'OK, what've you got?'"


On the Live Stage at Ultra Music Festival. 8:25 p.m. Sunday, March 26, at Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-358-7550; bayfrontparkmiami.com. General-admission tickets are sold out; VIP tickets cost $1,249.95 via ultramusicfestival.com.

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