Your Window Shattering: Underworld And The City At Night

Mat Colegate goes to see Underworld live and talks to Karl Hyde about the joys of being a flâneur

“In discovering a small world we discover the whole world.”

Bill Humber

“We’re developing journeys across cities. It does fascinate me: maps and keys and clues. It’s about leaving clues.”

Karl Hyde

“My thumbs on a tetris key ring/moving in brilliant timing.”


Anyone who works and plays within a major city will tell you that urban living is all dislocation. Denied a unified field of vision the eye darts from advert to car park; from rotting takeaway sign to your brand new trainers. Your ears snatch for ten seconds of hummed pop while a car backfires outside a cinema. That’s the matter of the city. Garish, compact and close.

Underworld are in good company mapping these spaces. That serious bunch of motherfuckers encompassing The Situationists, Iain Sinclair, Baudelaire and Thomas De Quincy. Using a mess of chance encounters, dumb lucky scrapes and snatched notes, front man Karl Hyde interrogates his surroundings before sifting through the debris and rearranging it into narratives – Walks, drinks, a night drive, the distance between your house and the cash point, that girl’s name – uncovering previously hidden levels of meaning and tactility, as well as presenting a soulful and affecting autobiography. The kind that only pop music can provide.

“This apparently serious term ‘psychogeography’ comprises an art of conversation and drunkeness, and everything leads us to believe that Guy Debord excelled at both”

Vincent Kaufman

“It was a pact – a deal – I’d send the drunk me out on the streets to experience stuff that the straight me would never dream of going anywhere near. And all this technicolour stuff came back.”

Karl Hyde

“Going back to Romford/hi mom are you having fun/and now are you on your way/to a new tension”


Psychogeographer’s love getting hammered. De Quincy wafted through London on a plume of opium smoke, goggling as the street corners sprouted fauna. The Lettrists staggered around Paris in trousers stencilled with revolutionary slogans, stopping only to vomit into the Seine and engage in political infighting. Unconsciously or not, Underworld drink from the same bottle.

“We all see the world as just a series of fragments that we string together. A memory of a holiday is not so much the “I was on Clacton beach,” it was what Uncle so-and-so’s cardigan was like, that pair of shoes or that key ring you had. It’s the details that are the issue…”

He’s a smart bloke, Karl Hyde. In every sense. His clothing is immaculately casual, his manner easy and his conversation animated. A decent fella to shoot the shit with.

“I started to be interested in snap shot photography. Using ten quid cameras but shooting from the hip. Literally, like a drunk would – because I was a drunk – put the camera on flash and just wander the back streets of Soho night after night. And so these things started to work. They pulled together note books which were walks through cities. And then when Rick came up with a piece that inspired me I’d look through the books and start putting my fingers in the pages and flicking them back and forth. I’d improvise and head off on a journey with the music.”

This method of composition – the reassembling of random information through chance, the inebriation required to gather the information, the simple decision to use raw reportage as your clay – harks back to William Burroughs’ and Brion Gysin’s development of the cut-up method, not to mention Arthur Rimbaud’s excuse for 16-year-old boys to act like wankers everywhere with his declaration that the closest way to seer-ship was systematic "derangement of the senses".

I would not want you to think from the above that I was positioning Karl Hyde as a seer. Nonsense. For a start he doesn’t drink anymore and I’d rather leave words like "seer" and "shaman" to the wankers, thank you very much. What he represents is a simple, artful approach to the challenge of what a single voice can achieve in pop music. A medium where the concept of narrative is practically unchallenged. We tend to believe that when a singer refers to an "I" they are referring to themselves. As in their actual selves – the person who poured milk on their own cereal that morning, or had their heart broken, or pulled off a crack deal. Underworld leave all this apparency out – all the actuals, whys and whats – and we’re left with a list, a catalogue, a true and right biography in a fractured tradition.

“I’m going to tell you about me as I am today by what I collect around me: this sofa, that smell, a girl that walked into the room, and that sound of that car and this thought that I’m having. D’you get it? It makes perfect sense to me. I’m telling you I’m having a real time here. Listen.”

The difficulty of autobiography is in the residue. Karl calls ‘Born Slippy’ – Underworld’s biggest hit and a musical excuse to turn previously innocent country bonfires into dodgy orgies – "my failure". With the benefit of retrospect ‘Born Slippy’ is an obvious howl of disgrace. A back-alley vomit turned mid-nineties call to arms. Yet despite this previous misinterpretation, Hyde refuses to take his muse away from the hands of chance. He records everything. He gives it to co-conspirator Rick Smith. Rick Smith chops and time changes the livid heart back into it. Karl reports back from the laboratory. Word by word. Burroughs and Gysin in Kappa tops.

“We’d always loved that energy that happens between the absolutely bang-on machine metronome and this human drift across the top.”

Karl Hyde

“Reading with the eye ————– Reading out loud

from semantics ———————– from semantics

to calligraphy ————————- to phonetics

Hieroglyphic silence ————– Oral complexities

fixed in space —————- existing only in time

From shape —————————— to sound”

Bob Cobbing

“… thunder thunder lightning ahead/now I kiss you dark and long/shout your love…”


The deal-break occurs when the jaw is loosened.

Because he’s a vocalist, y’know? Takes his position seriously. Puts himself into scrapes and sings what he’s seen. And his voice eroticises and humanises and turns the steel sighing beneath him into the beatings of a human heart. At their show at the Forum a few days ago Karl danced like a mixture between a bikram yoga instructor and a human lightning rod, physically becoming one of the semi-lucid hieroglyphs that decorate Underworld’s album covers; a grinning channel for a mess of registration plates, graffiti tags and sudden interruptions. It felt like a culmination: over a hundred years of interrogation by a host of visionaries broken down into a stream of glittering fragments. The sound of the city breathing through him and saying what, in the end, all cities have to say…

…which is everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything everything…


The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today