UNKLE's James Lavelle refuses to cry 'uncle' despite 'hard lessons'
As the man from UNKLE -- the shape-shifting sound system responsible for some of the most forbodingly cerebral, beat-driven tunage of the last dozen years -- James Lavelle has demonstrated a knack for picking collaborators who can help enable his singular goal. That is, exploding the boundaries of electronic music in pursuit of an ideal that transcends the dance floor and careens into darker terrain.
Creating the right marriage of sensibilities for such a project requires a rare skill. It’s one mitigated only by the tastemaking producer’s secondary tendency: to drive a stake between himself and his collaborators almost the minute a new CD hits retail -- and sometimes well before.
But now, after a three-year recording hiatus, Lavelle, 36, is back with a new partnership; his old pal Pablo Clements now rounds out the official UNKLE roster. And there’s a well-reviewed new CD, “Where Did the Night Fall,” which came out Tuesday.
It features collabos with the likes of Angeleno shoegazer band Autolux, Texas psych-rockers the Black Angels and ex-Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age vocalist Mark Lanegan. In a review this month, BBC Music described “Where Did the Night Fall” as “electronic psychedelic groove flushed with drama. Neither space rock nor alt-dance but flickering somewhere on the cusp of both,” also hailing the fifth UNKLE album as “a stirring, seductive minor classic.”
Sipping a beer poolside at a Sunset Strip hotel, on the third leg of a publicity tour that had already taken him to New York City and Tokyo, Lavelle seemed somewhat wearied by decades in the industry and a zillion late nights on the celebrity DJ circuit -- his sideline that helps cover UNKLE-incurred expenses. But after grasping Gorillaz-size superstardom in the late '90s and having launched the influential London label Mo’ Wax Records at age 18 (selling it later to a major), the producer seemed resigned to the “trainspotting aesthetic” of UNKLE’s current appeal; he appeared more or less content to keep on keepin’ on without becoming obscenely rich or famous in mainstream terms.
“I’ve learned some hard … lessons,” Lavelle said. “Classic, textbook music industry B.S. My life was complicated. I realize that I make it complicated. I was attracted to a certain amount of self-inflicted pain. It’s a tough industry, though. Being creative is hard.”
Lavelle started UNKLE in 1994 with Tim Goldsworthy, co-founder and ex-chief of New York’s trend-setting dance-punk label DFA Records (LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, Hercules and Love Affair). But when Lavelle and Goldsworthy arrived in Los Angeles to cut an album in '95, the duo partied more like Monsters of Rock than studio wonks and ended up dissolving the partnership before releasing anything.
Fast-forward to UNKLE’s 1998 debut album, “Psyence Fiction.” Oxford, U.K.-native Lavelle enlisted a murderer’s row of Brit-pop superstars -- Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft, and Ian Brown of the Stone Roses, among them -- pairing the vocalists with such rap luminaries as Kool G Rap and Mike D from the Beastie Boys over a sonic infrastructure provided by his UNKLE cohort DJ Shadow, an acclaimed turntablist known for sample-based hip-hop.
Released to critical hosannas, “Psyence Fiction” became one of the touchstone recordings of the trip-hop era. It connected the dots between the Tokyo-London-New York axis of global beat culture as no one had done before and commercialized an underground sound right into the U.K. Top 10. But the album also ultimately led to a fracture with Shadow over creative credit and profit sharing that’s still a sore point with Lavelle.
“I don’t have any publishing on that record,” Lavelle said. “Consequently, I never made a penny off a record that’s made a lot of money.” He added: “Something that annoys me is when people think Shadow did the music. It wasn’t Shadow’s idea to do ‘Lonely Soul’ as a tribute to adagio for strings. He didn’t know who Radiohead or the Verve were. He didn’t come from that background.”
Likewise, UNKLE’s 2004 release, “Never, Never, Land,” and the group’s 2007 album, “War Stories,” resulted in rifts between Lavelle and (respectively) producer Ant Genn and band mate Richard File. Currently, Lavelle is getting a divorce from his wife of two years, Janet.
“So, every record has had some kind of massive relationship upheaval,” the producer said, appearing restive behind aviator sunglasses. “In ‘War Stories,’ I fell out with Rich. ‘Psyence Fiction,’ I fell out with Shadow. ‘Never, Never, Land,’ I fell out with Ant. And with this one, I was going through the pain with Janet. Emotionally, that was really, really hard.”
Regrouping himself in early 2008, Lavelle joined forces with Clements (a friend of 15 or so years who was formerly signed to Mo’Wax as part of the Psychonauts) and began the recording process in earnest after performing a gig at Australia’s Big Day Out. They laid down tracks there at a studio in Melbourne and followed up with sessions in Ibiza, Spain; Los Angeles; and London. As well, in a first for UNKLE, they began sending tracks out digitally to a host of more obscure artists they admired such as San Francisco psychedelic rockers Sleepy Sun and Baltimore’s Big in Japan.
“We met people and heard music and then made music for the people who came along,” Clements said of the process. “We did that because we wanted to be inspired by new music, bands, things that made us excited.”
As conventional thinking on the matter goes, “Psyence Fiction” is viewed as “UNKLE does hip-hop,” “Never, Never, Land” is the group’s take on the music of such groups as Joy Division and New Order, “War Stories” – recorded with the help of Queens of the Stone Age’s frontman Josh Homme and longtime producer Chris Goss – is UNKLE “doing metal.”
“Where Did the Night Go,” meanwhile, takes its most obvious cues from Krautrock and Afro Beat; the CD is being released on Lavelle’s boutique label Surrender Records.
“UNKLE is never going to make a country and western record,” Clements said with a laugh. “This is an amalgamation of our influences, us trying not to focus on a concept. What haven’t we done and how can we do it?”
The group will be performing dates across Europe, the U.K. and Scandinavia this summer with tentative plans to tour Asia, Australia and North America through next year. Still, for whatever his pride at having achieved a level of worldwide popularity, Lavelle can’t hide his distaste for the band’s moniker 12 years in.
“I … hate the name,” Lavelle exclaimed. “I came up with it when I was 16 years old. Like, me and Tim, ‘Oh we can be the men from UNKLE. That’ll be a cool production name and logo.’ And then suddenly we’re this band and I’m thinking, ‘I wish we were called the Stone Roses or Massive Attack!’ ”
-- Chris Lee
Photo: James Lavelle. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times
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