Arts

Underworld's Karl Hyde on their belated Belfast debut at Biggest Weekend

Dance legends Underworld make their Northern Ireland debut at BBC Music's The Biggest Weekend in Belfast on Saturday night. David Roy quizzed singer and lyricist Karl Hyde about why the duo took so long to get here and why he and musical partner Rick Smith are happier than ever to be touring together after 37 years

Rick Smith and Karl Hyde of Underworld, who headline BBC Music's The Biggest Weekend in Belfast on Saturday

HELLO Karl, we've been waiting a long time to see Underworld in the north. What's kept you?

I know – what a shocker! I really don't understand. We've asked to come for years and just when you think "it will never happen" then we've ended up doing this, which is fantastic.

[The Biggest Weekend] is extraordinary. We've got a long history of working with the BBC, so to be able to bring all that together with 6Music is brilliant. And what a site for a show as well.

It's going to be fantastic – we've got a few surprises for you!

Yourself and Rick are off to Ibiza just before you play in Belfast to collect your International Music Summit Legends Award. Are you looking forward to that?

Thank you, I'm not quite sure what the award is for – just for keeping going, I think. No, it's nice. It's being presented by our good friend Pete Tong, who we have a long history with, so it should be a good night.

Speaking of old friends, your pals/peers Orbital are playing the night before you at The Biggest Weekend, will you be hoping to catch them in action?

Yeah, we're coming to see them. Phil and Paul [Hartnoll] we go back a long way with. They were around ahead of us and then we did some tours together, so we've a lot of good memories of them.

They're really good guys. A couple of years ago my youngest went to an Orbital show and they really looked after him, so you don't forget things like that.

The Manics are old friends of ours as well, so we'll definitely be in to see their show too. Some of our crew work on the Manics' tour too, so it's a nice opportunity for a big gathering.

You published your memoir I Am Dogboy [titled for the lyric in their era-defining hit Born Slippy as featured in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting] a couple of years ago which includes a memorable account of The Experimental Sound Field at Glastonbury 1992. Was that a pivotal moment in Underworld's evolution at the time?


That was a hell of a thing. In some ways, for me, that sound system was something of a blueprint: we were very improvised, and it was quite open – you could leave the stage to get a different perspective and then get back on stage with some new inspiration.

I just thought 'what an interesting concept for a band' and in some ways we did take on those ideas. A lot of interesting things went down that night, not the least of which was having the stage temporarily over-run by another sound system and then witnessing a beautiful, peaceful audience turn because they didn't like what was happening to the music they'd been enjoying up until that point.

That's something I won't ever forget – that you treat your audience with respect, because they're not stupid. They really know what they want.


You were back at Glastonbury in 2016 after the release of your last album Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future, when you headlined the West Holts stage. Was it good for you?

We hadn't been back to Glastonbury since we did 1997 and 1998 back-to-back.

So, coming after such a long period of not playing a festival which meant a lot to us, it was a big deal.

It was muddy – of course – and the BBC captured an amazing show. They did a fantastic job of conveying the energy that was present that night between us and the audience. And, I think, between me and Rick too: they captured something quite special about the way we feel about each other.

It was like, "oh my God, they got it – we look like we like each other!".


Barbara Barbara was the first Underworld album following a six year period focused on 'extra-curricular' activity such as becoming the musical directors of Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, your solo debut Edgeland and albums with Brian Eno and Rick's soundtracks for Boyle's projects Babylon and Trance. How do you feel looking back on it now?

Barbara Barbara is still a great record, probably because it came along after a long period of doing things apart.

The Olympic ceremony really fired us up to go off and do other things. Even though we were still touring together after that [including a 10th anniversary tour for much loved 1994 album dubnobasswithmyheadman], a lot of the material we were putting out was separate from each other.

So, making that album was the first coming together again. I remember walking into the studio and I guess we were both feeling slightly nervous, like "I really hope this goes well, because if it doesn't we're in trouble!" – and it went great.

The first thing we did was the track Ova Nova and we walked away from that first day buoyed up by what we'd experienced. It wasn't us coming together and being polite and it certainly wasn't re-visiting the past – it was bringing together all the experiences we'd had separately since the Olympics and pooling them.

It was exciting to see how we'd both changed and what we'd learned and what we'd picked up from other people. We worked in a very open way where we wouldn't shut each other's ideas out: even if one of us didn't like something, we'd put it down and see how we felt about it in a few weeks time. It was very very productive.


Do you still feel propelled by that renewed creative momentum?

What's happened since then is that we've done quite a lot of touring around the world and written a lot in hotel rooms.

In many ways, we prefer being on the road because we get to spend all day together: we'll spend half of every day writing, then the other half having meetings and strategising before going out for dinner with the crew – and then we get to do these fantastic shows.

That might sound really odd since we've been working together now for 37 years. You might think we'd be sick of the sight of each other – I would have thought Rick would definitely be sick of the sight of me! – but it's quite the opposite.

We actually kind of get a bit down if we're apart from each other for too long now!

:: Underworld headline BBC Music's The Biggest Weekend in Belfast on Saturday May 25. Tickets and full line-up details available via BBC.co.uk/biggestweekend

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