An infamous gonzo godfather once wrote, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Described once as the Hunter S. Thompson of DJs, James Lavelle’s legendary reputation was once the heart and soul of 90’s dance culture. At the height of its own brand of excess and insanity, the echoes of the gonzo beats ebbed and flowed. The sheer force of his label MoWax (launched on a loan of just £1000) was a magnet for fellow artistes-on-bail including designer Alexander McQueen, photographer David Bailey, fellow contemporaries DJ Shadow and 3D, and even wandering thespian Rufus Sewell. James Lavelle’s creation wasn’t just a label, it was a lifestyle. And as such, is one that can never be repeated. That was then. This is now. Much has changed, but the relevance of UNKLE is ever constant. Perhaps now more than ever…
“I haven’t done an interview in a while…” Lavelle thoughtfully asserts as he escorts Clash down through a spiralling maze of iron clad doors and staircases, battling through lock-codes before finally settling into his studio, nestled quietly in the unassuming climbs of his “Surrender All” enterprise near London’s Edgware Road. It’s a far stretch away from the frenetic sparks of UNKLE’s birth almost 10 years ago. Beginning as a loose concept, initially envisioned as a MoWax “supergroup”, the enterprise came into existence under the helm of James, Tim Goldsworthy (DFA Records) and Kudo (Major Force) before it was reduced down to a partnership with fellow MoWax musician and friend DJ Shadow. Their debut 1998 record ‘Psyence Fiction’ was by Lavelle’s own admission an “experiment” that fused his production prowess with recruited guest vocalists such as Thom Yorke and Badly Drawn Boy. Its glorious moment of sheer experimental beauty was achieved with legendary track ‘Lonely Soul’ featuring the soul-searching vocals of Verve front man Richard Ashcroft.
I could tell you a million stories about going out and getting fucked. I’ve been as rock ‘n’ roll as most, if not more so. But I don’t think that that’s something for the music.
It has been five years since UNKLE’s last offering. 2002 follow-up ‘Never Never Land’ experienced even more shake-ups when the partnership was trimmed down to a duo of Lavelle and singer/producer Richard File. Under their guidance, the record explored the deepest darkest depths of electronic abstraction, bringing a striking experimental dimension to their sound. Now the partnership is back with third album ‘War Stories’, and the feel is decidedly different. Recorded in the Californian desert with Queens Of The Stone Age producer Chris Goss, the guitars are out in force. The bass lines grind. UNKLE are back. And they’re in a rock state of mind.
“It sounded a lot more rock then it does now,” James Lavelle jokes as he recalls the long process that the latest album experienced. “We recorded a lot of songs but it all had to come back. We wanted it to be more live and more guitar but not in a London band kind of way.” Hitting the nail on the head, Lavelle concludes, “It needed to sound like UNKLE.” The UNKLE sound has been an evolving creation that has arguably always been in a constant moving cycle: defying any form of static state. Now that the line-up has achieved constancy with both Lavelle and File, the duo were able to capitalise on mistakes made in the past, to create a record that Lavelle asserts is the best of all three. “It’s the first time when I can personally listen to one of my records without cringing. For me personally, it sounds like what an UNKLE record should sound like. I just felt bullied on the last two records. We’re now much more studio savvy then we ever used to be, and in the last few years we’ve become technically more crafted.” Craft is something that certainly sets the record apart from most, and was an inevitable contributing factor to a year-long producing process. “I read the other day that Kasabian took 5 weeks to make their last record and Oasis with ‘Definitely Maybe’ took 5 days. I think the thing with making these kind of records is because you’re dealing with so many things that you can’t control, the process tends to be more drawn out. I suppose there’s an extra element of studio production than maybe there is in a traditional record.” The expert production on each Lavelle record is what makes UNKLE so awe-inspiringly unique. As each track weaves so seamlessly into the next, their music becomes more than just a selection of songs on a disk. It becomes a journey. The artistry of their work is uncompromising.
UNKLE’s first tale of absolution grew wings and took flight with Richard Ashcroft’s epic ‘Lonely Soul’; a haunting search for truth that ends in soulful resurrection. It’s a progression that makes up the spirit of the collective. UNKLE records as an entity embody this painful search for self. Whatever that may be. The two bookends of new record ‘War Stories’ begin with plea (“please forgive me”) and karmically end with release (“all is forgiven”). What is expressed in between is a poetic exploration of life. Asked about his thoughts on this very concept, Lavelle muses the suggestion. “I don’t think that it’s intentional. I think it’s interesting because our records will always have elements that are different in different albums sonically, but there will always be that overall connection. That is our sound really. There’s always going to be that journey. That’s UNKLE.”
The journey is set into motion vividly throughout ‘War Stories’ by a host of vocal collaborators who include Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Duke Spirit, Gavin Clark, UNKLE veteran 3D and The Cult’s Ian Astbury. The latter is arguably the reigning glory of the album’s sound, as he lands ceremonially on ‘Burn My Shadow’ like a crested eagle-eyed Jim Morrison. Last track ‘When Things Explode’ unfolds masterfully against beautifully mournful strings. It is a lamenting tale of a life lived that more than echoes Johnny Cash’s swan song ‘Hurt’. Astbury’s coffee grinder voice encapsulates moments lost, words not spoken, a life not shared. Speaking of his collaboration with Ian Astbury, Lavelle admits: “I always found with Ian’s voice…” he trails, “what’s the word…that it was slightly over the top with The Cult. Which worked for what that was, but I wanted him to do something new. I was a bit like, you’re 45: just let out where you’ve been in your life, and let that resonate. I wanted him to sound like Johnny Cash.” Both the final track and ‘Price You Pay’ expose fragility and vulnerability over a landscape of searching strings. It’s a love affair that struck James from the very beginning. “‘Unfinished Sympathy’ for me was always the tune. That was it. They [Massive Attack] are the dons really…” Accompanied by cello and keys on ‘Price You Pay’, Richard File’s unblemished vocals are both heartfelt and heartbroken. As the beats reign in 2 minutes later, the overwhelming feeling of abandonment is only heightened. “I’m falling away,” he so painfully reveals. It is a masterful example of production expertise and feeling, and as such is one of the highlights of the record.
Pointing out the impressive vocals of File on ‘Hold My Hand’, Lavelle quickly jumps in, “no that was me!” It is the first time that James has tried his hand at feature vocals for UNKLE. So what made him change his mind for ‘War Stories’? “Chris Goss pretty much just handed me the microphone. I just needed the encouragement – nobody had actually done that before.” It’s a move that aptly mirrors Richard File’s vocal involvement in UNKLE, when Lavelle overheard File singing to himself in a shared taxi-cab all those years ago.
I felt bullied on the last two records.
Characteristically, the record is a frantic mesh of sights, sounds and colours: the most complete album they’ve created to date. Duality reigns supreme on ‘War Stories’ as aggression-fuelled beats and guitars flow dreamily through pacified strings. Although two poles apart, they are inextricably linked together. The dark dramatics of UNKLE is constantly present throughout the album, and as the term “theatre” is brought into the mix, Lavelle full-heartedly agrees. “Well, that’s what it is to me.” As instrumental ‘Chemistry’ winds its guitars to electronic abstraction, as relentless as it is awe-inspiring; ‘Hold My Hand’ smoulders and grinds to a BRMC inspired rock track that subverts the rules at every turn; whereas ‘Keys To The Kingdom’ demonstrates the claustrophobic beats and percussion they do so well. Yet still, ‘Persons & Machinery’ featuring Autolux, and ‘Twilight’ featuring Massive Attack’s 3D still hark back to the jarring, electronic fuelled landscape of ‘Never Never Land’, in all its frenetic disorder. The lessons of both ‘Psyence Fiction’ and ‘Never Never Land’ have been learnt, and it is with this (their third coming) that the collective truly find their voice. Speaking of the philosophy that spurns them ever further, Lavelle concludes “we strive to do something new”. Where UNKLE truly soar is in their rejection of genre and categorisation. The very fact that they have spent so many years away from the limelight only adds to their undisturbed existence. “A lot of things round here at the moment are based on new bands,” James muses, “and I think with a record like this, it is quite unique. I don’t think there is anything else quite like it around at the moment.”
Lavelle’s own life story has been as subversive as any of his contemporaries, yet his dignified vow to weave tales through music is the one fundamental truth that sets his career aside from the masses. “What is the story?” Lavelle passionately asks. “What’s my story about? I could tell you a million stories about going out and getting fucked. I’ve been as rock ‘n’ roll as most, if not more so. But I don’t think that that’s something for the music. It’s not going to be about my social life. It’s not going to be about my love life. All that you’ve got is the strength of the music.” Understanding his place within today’s tabloid-obsessed world he furthers, “If you’re talking about Pete Doherty or Robbie Williams, you’re not written just about the music you make. I think for what we [UNKLE] do, that’s all we really have. I’m not a celebrity. Yeah, I’ve had some messy periods. I’ve fucked up a few times. But for me, all I care about with my legacy now is to achieve the best I possibly can. I think ultimately what will sell the record is the music. I don’t know if that’s enough to do well or not. Who knows. I think we’ve made a good record.”
Lavelle’s ability to accept his mistakes and create soulful music from them is surely the fundamental meaning behind ‘War Stories’. It’s as much about absolution as it is about letting go of the past. In addition to recognising “the world that we’re living in at the moment”, at its most beautiful these songs are the “tales you tell down the pub over a few pints.” The tales you lament amongst friends: lost love, words unspoken, gestures unmade and life’s constant obstacles thrown in its wake. Recognising its aptness within his own journey, James Lavelle laughs at the inconstancy of it all. “I’ve had a few of those,” he chuckles…