Underworld interview: ‘Romford is my New York’

As Karl Hyde gears up to revisit the past with bandmate Rick Smith, we hear of his love for ‘Trainspotting’, the Olympics and the Central line

© Perou

Underworld are one of the great innovators in modern music. Though they’ve never been exactly mainstream, no other musical act can rival the psychic wave they sent around the world as musical orchestrators of the 2012 London Olympics (which charmed an audience of 1 billion live viewers).

Global feats of strength aside, they’ve been steadily altering minds for decades now. Their second LP, 1994’s ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’, changed the idea of what electronic music could be – lyrical, personal, introspective and human. As Karl Hyde (pictured, above right) and his partner Rick Smith perform it in full, 20 years since its release, Hyde casts back to its Essex roots and the trials of playing techno in a concert hall.

‘I wrote most of my lyrics on the Central line’

Are you nervous about playing to an all-seated audience?
‘Yeah, it’s going to be very different! Over the years we’ve evolved into a band that plays in quite high-energy environments. A couple of weeks after we play the Royal Festival Hall – a beautiful, classical establishment – we headline I Love Techno in a huge warehouse complex in Belgium! Most of our music has been more chilled than that, yet we’ve never had the opportunity to be that aspect of ourselves. So these shows allow us to be a different kind of Underworld.’

How do you prepare for the transformation?
‘We’ve been rehearsing for a few weeks to get the vibe of the album, and for me to practise singing like someone 20 years ago. We’re going to deliver the record in the closest possible way we can. And yet, there might be that glimmer in the eye that goes, “Yeah, but if something goes wrong, shall we just go off on one?”’

Neither you nor co-founder Rick Smith are from Essex. What drew you there?
‘What I like about Romford and south Essex is that it has a can-do spirit. Nothing is impossible. I haven’t left Essex since we first arrived here and I probably never will. Romford has got an energy about it. It’s my New York.’

How did Essex have an influence on Underworld at the time?
‘When “Dubnobass...” was being created, it was a difficult time for us, both financially and personally. But we were surrounded by a tribe that was supportive, who gave us the strength to keep going. And it was powerful, really powerful. The album couldn’t have come about without it. It’s curious because I realise now how important Romford is to my lyric writing, and how much I need to return to Romford’s streets and immerse myself back 
into the tribe, you know?’

Where else in London influenced Underworld?
‘The north side of the Embankment, because we used to listen to pirate radio there in the late ’80s, which really got us into rave culture. We used to park up at Embankment station, buy coffees at the sandwich kiosk and just listen. And the Central line – I wrote most of my lyrics on the Central line!’

Has the capital always welcomed the band?
‘London has been amazing to us. That sounds like a sycophantic thing to say, but it’s true. What can I say? Right from the very first gig in the DJ booth at the Ministry of Sound to playing at Hyde Park.’

And obviously there was some kind of Olympic ceremony…
‘Yeah, I did hear about that! I think Danny [Boyle] did an extraordinary job. I know hardcore cynics who were just putting it down beforehand. Then, on the night, phoned up afterwards, and went, “That was amazing, I was wrong.”’

And are you philosophical about ‘Trainspotting’?
‘That soundtrack was extraordinary, as it used music that a lot of us knew really well in ways that became fresh and re-evaluated their meaning. “Trainspotting” gathered together an era, a moment in time, a little like Woodstock did. “Trainspotting” was our Woodstock.’

See Underworld live in London

Underworld

  • Critics choice

Romford's finest bring their viscerally engaging and always inventive post-techno to London, launching their new album ‘Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future’ and wheeling out some ’90s classics too. Read our interview with Underworld’s Karl Hyde.

  1. Roundhouse Chalk Farm Rd, NW1 8EH
  2. Thu Mar 24 - Fri Mar 25
Buy tickets


See Underworld live in London

Underworld

  • Critics choice

Romford's finest bring their viscerally engaging and always inventive

  1. Roundhouse Chalk Farm Rd, NW1 8EH
  2. Thu Mar 24 - Fri Mar 25
Buy tickets

Listen to ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’

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