How We Met: Rick Smith & Karl Hyde

'He's a loose cannon – our relationship is a constant mix of inspiration and irritation'

Interviews,Hugh Montgomery
Sunday 14 November 2010 01:00
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Karl Hyde, 53, is the vocalist and lyricist in veteran techno duo Underworld, best known for their 1996 club anthem 'Born Slippy', featured on the soundtrack to 'Trainspotting'. Prior to Underworld's formation in 1986, he performed with Rick Smith in various bands. He lives in Essex with his family.

The first time I met Rick was in the corridor of my flat in Cardiff. His mate was in the band I was in, and he came to repair our amplifier. As it turned out, it was full of knives and forks, which was why it didn't work. I remember that expression on his face, that bemused look of "You're an idiot," which he still often has. After that, we needed a new keyboard player and we decided to ask him. We went looking for him on his birthday, and we ended up having this conversation with him while he was lying in the bath with his clothes on and a bottle of champagne in his hand. It's funny, as that's so unlike Rick, I've never seen him [in such a state] since.

Rick is most definitely a producer: he has a vision in a way that I don't have. [In the early days of Underworld] he twigged that we should be making dance music long before me. It was towards the end of the 1980s: we were touring the US with Eurythmics, and we ended up hating it, as we were playing this [funk-rock] music that didn't seem like us. At the end of the tour, I stayed in the US, and he went back to the UK. Then he said, "I'm going to make dance music. If you want to come with me, come. If you don't, don't." He set up a studio in his bedroom, and it was very much about making music as a cottage industry. That's been his message to me throughout our history: stop thinking that we need to be the biggest act in the world.

For years, it felt like we were at either end of a line of people: we communicated through our bandmates. But when Darren [Emerson, Underworld's third member between 1990-2000] left, it was suddenly just the two of us and we were like, "Crikey, we're going to have to really talk to each other." I saw the difficulties he'd been having around me had come from my behaviour. And I realised, my god, this guy is incredibly generous and works so hard and I'm really blessed to be with him.

I struggled with alcoholism for many years, and the impact on him must have been huge. He was the first person to say, "Karl, do you think you've got a drink problem?" I remember feeling outraged at the time. But the fact I respected him so much meant what he said kept going round my head. That was enough for me to entertain the idea of giving up.

I hope this is a musical partnership for life. The laugh would be that we die doing this together. It would be sticking up two fingers to all the bands that split because, "Oh, I didn't like his wife," or "Oh, he was earning more money than me." Just grow up and celebrate your differences.

Rick Smith, 51, is the producer and keyboard player in Underworld. He lives in Essex with his family

When we met [in the late 1970s], Karl had recently finished art college and I was at the University of Wales doing electronics. A good friend of mine was in a band with him, and they were desperate for a synthesizer player. I don't know what I was thinking at the time: I'd never really thought about a career in music. I think it was just unbelievable stupidity on my part. They were one of the biggest bands in Cardiff, and I'd just seen them do this gig on the roof of the student union, and it seemed so glamorous. Then after a month I thought, "Shit, what have I done?"

Our experiences growing up were very similar. We were both from small-town, working-class backgrounds, and had our sights set on getting out. But our personalities are very different. Karl loves social intercourse, whereas I'm not very comfortable with people a lot of the time.

The end of the 1980s was not a great time for us and we kind of split up. We finished a US tour with Eurythmics, and everyone walked off – our management, our record company – and Karl stayed in LA. We were hugely in debt, and I spent a year trying to pay it off. I felt very low; I thought, "Why is it all my responsibility?" But our relationship is a real mix of inspiration and irritation – and it's how you cope when things go wrong that defines it.

Creatively, Karl is a loose cannon. I still can't second-guess what he'll want to express or why. It does irritate me when people talk about Karl writing stream-of-consciousness lyrics as if it's cheap. Whether you spend 24 hours working on something or two minutes, it's irrelevant. There was this piece that we did called "Stagger": I remember vividly I was pissed off at the time and just didn't want to work, but Karl was like "Come on, why don't we plug in the keyboard and you play, and I'll sing." I think we did it in one take – it took all of 10 minutes – and it's one of my favourite things we've ever done.

We've been together 30 years now. It's difficult to keep the creative spark going for that long, and I don't think we've succeeded all the time. But to get out of disaster together, again and again, is a great feeling. Too many people in this world are too quick to run away from problems.

Underworld's new album, 'Barking', is out now on Cooking Vinyl. Their UK tour begins at the O2 Academy, Brixton (tel: 0844 477 2000, underworldlive.com) on 20 November

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