Karl Hyde of Underworld recently returned home after a rain-soaked day spent walking London's streets, lamenting his very wet shoes, scribbling down notes and buying a "bag of twelves" (i.e. 12-inch singles) from vinyl mecca Phonica Records. It was just a matter of days until Underworld's fifth studio album — or "physical release," as he calls it — Oblivion With Bells begins to roll out worldwide, culminating in a U.S. release on October 16.
Although the album is the long-running U.K. outfit's first non-soundtrack or non-Internet-based release since 2002's shimmering A Hundred Days Off, over the last five years, Underworld fans have kept up with the prolific output from Hyde, longtime collaborator Rick Smith and the Tomato design collective (of which the band is a part) on the group's Web site, UnderworldLive.com.
But as Hyde, the group's fast-dancing frontman, explained at length over the phone last week, it was time to get a little old-school and release a tangible album.
"We really like records, and a physical record is a calling card," Hyde said, "and no matter how many downloads we did, until the perception changes significantly, they'd always be seen as the poor cousin to a real album. And if we want people to come into the world of Underworld, we had to say, 'Here's something recognizable.' "
And Oblivion With Bells is undeniably Underworld: a sensually crafted auditory landscape from an always-provocative group that first altered perceptions of electronic music with the release of 1993's seminal dubnobasswithmyheadman. Curiously, Oblivion unwinds like a contemplative companion to that album's darkly urban odyssey. It revels in quieter, chilled passages, like the cascading pulse of "Faxed Invitation," which offers the album's title buried in Hyde's sibilant, treated vocals, and the luminous instrumental "To Heal," which also appears on the soundtrack for "Trainspotting" director Danny Boyle's sci-fi film "Sunshine." (Hyde said that the full version of that track, featuring a looped sermon from Smith's lay-preacher father, will appear online one day.)
Although songs like the propulsive single "Crocodile," the erotically charged "Beautiful Burnout" (born on the road as "Biro the Leggy"), and the slinky "Holding the Moth" are meant for what Hyde cheerfully calls "body-grooving celebration," there's definitely an overcast, melancholic rumble to Oblivion With Bells. He laughs softly at the descriptions he's heard — like "introverted," "introspective," "shuddering with dread" — which he finds pretty funny since, well, he and Smith are so damn happy.
"I can't express how good we feel about what's going on in our working lives right now," said Hyde, chortling, "But this doesn't seem to be necessarily the message given out by the record! Some people say, 'Are you consciously reflecting these uncertain times?' And you go, 'God, I don't know!' But what I do know is, if you walk the streets for long enough and soak up what's happening and put that out in an unconsidered way, it's quite likely you would have scooped up that kind of zeitgeist."
Hyde, who constantly travels on foot and public transport armed with notebook and mobile-phone camera, explored his hometown of Romford (in outer London) for one of the album's more surprising tracks, the percussive, didgeridoo-fueled narrative "Ring Road." It explicitly details a fevered April stroll Hyde took on a sunny St. George's Day after Smith presented him with "a nice groove" as they swapped laptops and files, "writing on top of each other's work." Frustrated, Hyde couldn't find any lyrics in his journals that he wanted to sing. So he made a pact with himself — he'd walk his town's ring road and sing about whatever he saw.
"I've been a fan of [pioneering rappers] the Last Poets for a long, long time," Hyde recalled. "I come from a very different background and I admire what they've done and what they've written about. That coupled with a recent experience of doing some shows with Kraftwerk where I felt they were writing about a very German-ness. It was like, 'Well, go out on the street and write about being in East London,' you know? 'That's where you are, that's where you live. Go and write about it.' "
Starting with more than 200 tracks for Oblivion With Bells — some of which ultimately became part of the Internet-only Riverrun Project and the soundtracks to "Breaking and Entering" and "Sunshine" — Hyde and Smith asked for the opinions of DJ and production friends like Igor Tchkotoua and Dan Duncan (Pig & Dan); Pete Heller; James Holden; Darren Price; Junior Boys Own label head Steven Hall; and Sven Väth, guru of the Cocoon Club in Frankfurt, Germany.
"They started to pull together lists of favorites," said Hyde, "but not only favorite tracks, but favorite versions of those tracks that might have gone back a couple of years."
Four of the songs — "Crocodile," "Holding the Moth," "Beautiful Burnout" and "Faxed Invitation" — were written onstage, in front of audiences, over a period of 18 months. Hyde says he and Smith were intrigued by the continuous flow on Santana's 1972 album Caravanserai and played with the idea of "just one long track that went through different movements." However, it didn't work and the idea was abandoned — until Smith began piecing together some transitions or tracks that felt similar, like "Ring Road" into "Glam Bucket." They recruited friends like U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. to play on the wiry, sexy rocker "Boy, Boy, Boy," and even Brian Eno gave the duo a much-coveted "nod," as Hyde puts it, signaling his approval when the album was finished.
But it all comes back to Underworld's own savvy about their constantly evolving sound that determines the logic of their jams and informs their legendary, improvised live sets. When building a track, Hyde credits Smith with his ability to "intuitively sense that there's something within the very crude form that we have."
"He's like, 'There's something in here,' " said Hyde, "and I'm thinking, 'You're mad, we've tried it and it's really not going anywhere, I really don't like the beat and I can't tell what the groove is and look, my body doesn't know what to do!' " Hyde exclaimed. "Then he'll take it away and come back and he'll have totally altered the groove, changed the balance of things and [I] go, 'I see what you're getting at now!' "
He points to one of his favorite tracks on the album, "Best Mamgu Ever" (mamgu, pronounced "mam-ghee," is Welsh for "grandmother"), which Hyde calls an "expansive painting" that went through several different incarnations.
"In the end, Rick did the great thing for me," Hyde explained. "It starts off with this sort of gated conversation between him and a friend of ours, forming this rhythm and I'm not even in there at all, just some guitar. And then, I kind of appear out of this cloud and sing these phrases ... and then disappear again. It makes me smile, it's a correct use of vocals and it's a journey, isn't it?"
The long, strange trip that Hyde and Smith have experienced together since the early 1980s — from bands the Screen Gemz and Freur to 1995's worldwide hit single "Born Slippy" to Oblivion With Bells — has only served to fuel their artistic decision to enter what Hyde calls "the next phase of Underworld." A longtime admirer of nonconformists like Miles Davis and Spanish abstract painter Antoni Tàpies, Hyde gently voices his dissent against what he views as a highly restrictive, major-label music industry that is in flux, can't respond quickly to the "winds of change" and too often has got "nothing to do with art."
Hyde and Smith intentionally but amicably let their major-label contract expire following A Hundred Days Off, preferring to be Internet- and indie-based (OWB will be distributed in conjunction with ATO Records in the States). They're planning to release Internet-only material that didn't make the album, like "You Do Scribble," a title coined by Hyde's daughters, and "Bungalow With Stairs." They're doing more audio/visual experiments under The Riverrun Project umbrella, plus performance installations, a monthly publication called The Book of Jam, photography, film and support of other artists — all through the portal of their Web site.
In addition, Underworld and the entire Tomato collective are exploring Web television programming in collaboration with friends at Quicktime and Apple who helped Underworld broadcast a four-hour 2006 concert from the Cocoon Club. Hyde says a live Web television broadcast is in the works for their three-day London stand at the Roundhouse, October 17-19.
Inspired by the late, legendary BBC Radio 1 disc jockey John Peel, Underworld also have their own nonprofit Internet radio station, www.dirtyradio.net. In fact, Hyde and Smith did a streamed broadcast on Monday (October 8), mixing Simian Mobile Disco and Radio Slave records on their laptops from backstage in Southampton, England, where Underworld have a gig.
Hyde also made a DVD film for a German art installation that will likely crop up on the site too, called Van Halen, Van Halen, Rock Guitar Band. Plus he and Smith plan to record with New York singer/songwriter Nina Nastasia and are considering more intimate venues at which to perform their quieter material.
And most radically, Hyde, who is 50, said that he and Smith, 48, are even plotting ways that the Underworld collective can continue indefinitely — without them.
"We would like some younger people to take over Underworld," said Hyde enthusiastically, "and for Rick and me to move on and be associated, but do other things around sound and the visual arts. Why not? This thing could go on for a very long time. Wouldn't that be fantastic? It's like an art factory and people come in and they help us realize ideas, and [we're] taking them out on the road and going, 'Look, you sing, you do it. I'll stand back, I've got some painting to do and I'm working in the theater with Rick now.' "
But when asked if that's going to happen anytime soon, Hyde demurred.
"Well, I don't think so," he said, laughing again. "I don't think it's going to happen that soon, but it's what we're building — an art factory — and that's where we're happy, you know?"