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Interview: Karl Hyde

The Underworld vocalist on art, his love of Japanese audiences and where he goes to find peace in Tokyo

Karl Hyde has never been your average rock star. Despite post-techno juggernaut Underworld’s globe-spanning, stadium-filling success, Hyde has always embraced experimentalism both in music and art. It was art that brought Hyde to Tokyo in March this year, and music that will bring him back again in August for Summer Sonic.

The March visit was part of the 25th anniversary celebrations of Tomato – the art and design collective he co-founded. The collective took over Parco’s department store in Shibuya for three weeks, during which it was visited by over 20,000 people.

Hyde worked with assistant Toru Yoshikawa to create an installation, Tokyo Street Poem, for the residency. Painted onto waste cardboard to reference the bedding materials of the homeless living on the streets. As Hyde danced, paintbrush and chalk in hand, he covered every surface, including himself, in marks inspired by the energy he encounters as he walks the city’s streets.

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Underworld opened the exhibition with a silent gig on the roof of Parco. Those scenes – where bemused onlookers were unable to understand why a band complete with strobe lights and a wildly dancing audience of 200, wasn’t making a sound – couldn’t be more different from the barnstorming set the pair promise at this year’s Summer Sonic festival.

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With 35,000 expected at the festival, things are liable to get loud, but the duo won’t let their status as headliners serve as an excuse for an auto-pilot ‘greatest hits’ set. ‘One of the reasons we love playing in Japan is that the audience always demands something new,’ says Hyde. ‘Because of that, we’re able to avoid becoming complacent and lazy. Whenever we come to Japan, we’re always thinking about the new things we can show our fans. That’s the kind of supportive approach our Japanese fans have.’

So alongside hits such as ‘Born Slippy’ and ‘Push Upstairs’, Summer Sonic’s fields will also echo to the sounds of the duo’s new release Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future, the group’s ninth studio album. Hyde is excited to share the tracks in a live environment.

‘There’s an “intuitive freedom” to this album compared to previous Underworld records,’ he says. ‘This one draws on a wider range of influences. It’s like we’re going back to our roots, to the time when we first became interested in electronic music. Rick [Smith – the other half of today’s Underworld] built this big modular synth and created all the sounds for the album on it. That really ties this work directly to the roots and history of electronic music.’

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If Japan loves Underworld, then the feeling is mutual and there’s one place Hyde always seeks out when he’s in Tokyo – Meiji Shrine. ‘The fact a place like that, a shrine surrounded by a forest, exists right in the heart of this unbelievably exciting metropolis is incredible,’ he says.

‘Meiji Shrine is like a small Narnia, a magical wardrobe in the centre of the city. One moment you’re right in the middle of this hectic, ever-changing city, but as soon as you open the door of that wardrobe, another world opens in front of your eyes. You’re drawn into this lush forest and are like “Whoa, what just happened?”. Just walking along the road going through those woods, I feel like I’m back in the place where I grew up. It’s just a place that gets you in a pure, peaceful mood.’ A small wonder capable of surprising you and transporting you to another place? He could be talking about his own work.

Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future, is out now. Underworld play Chiba’s Summer Sonic on August 20, and you can watch a video of Karl Hyde’s Tokyo Street Poem here.

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