As a founder member of the eclectic beat-orientated combo that is UNKLE, James Lavelle requires little by way of introduction. Since 1994 he has been creating unique soundscapes with a host of collaborators both in his own right and under the UNKLE guise that has helped cement his reputation as one of the most forward-thinking artists-cum-producers of his generation.
Having first achieved both critical acclaim and commercial recognition back in 1998 via groundbreaking debut long player Psyence Fiction, Lavelle has since embarked on numerous incarnations of the UNKLE project, working with the likes of DJ Shadow, Thom Yorke, Josh Homme and Gavin Clark along the way. Aside from his work with UNKLE Lavelle is also a successful club DJ himself, whilst going on to mix and revamp records by the likes of Beck, Massive Attack and The Global Underground.
This summer saw the release of the fifth UNKLE album Where Did The Night Fall (reviewed here), their first for own label Surrender All which features collaborations with the likes of The Black Angels, Mark Lanegan and Sleepy Sun. DiS caught up with Lavelle for a chat during a rare break from the studio and found him to be a most philosophical and engaging character not only about the past and present, but also whereabouts his next move will take him in the future.
DiS: Your new record Where Did The Night Fall seems more guitar orientated than its predecessors, something which is illustrated by your choice of collaborators. How did these collusions come about?
James Lavelle: They always come about in weird ways! It's never as simple as when you've a regular band as such. It's like with The Black Angels for example. I was aware of them and we were working on some artwork for the album, and the people I was working with kept incessantly playing one of their records, and we'd worked on a couple of tracks previously that were similar in style to what The Black Angels seemed to be doing, so we got in touch with them and it all moved on from there, and I've since worked with them on the 'Eclipse' soundtrack as well.
DiS: Some of the other collaborators on Where Did The Night Fall such as Elle J perhaps aren't as well known as the likes of Mark Lanegan or The Black Angels. How did you get to hear about her and what was it like working together?
JL: Elle J I first met a few years ago through her boyfriend, who's a film director. She gave me a CD of some demos she'd recorded and it kind of sat on my desk in the studio for ages - I've always got piles and piles of CDs in there that I struggle to find time to listen to - and I remember listening to it a while back and thinking she was someone I could work with or maybe even use her vocal as a sample somewhere. When we were touring we had a few issues with female vocalists even though it's something we'd like to integrate into the live band on a regular basis, and I went back to listen to the CD and realised she totally had the range for what we needed and hooked up again for the tour and eventually became really close. When it came to Where Did The Night Fall I asked her if she'd be interested in writing something for the record, and both 'On A Wire' and 'The Runaway' came out of that.
DiS: In terms of lyrics for the record is this how you worked for every song off the album, you contributing the music and your guest/collaborator the lyrics?
JL: Not all the time no. It just depends on who it is to be honest. Most of the artists we collaborate with write their own pieces, but at the same time we tend to write a fair bit as well. A lot can bear on who it is and what they're up to at the time really.
DiS: Your sound has constantly evolved with every record. Where do you see UNKLE these days in terms of genre definition?
JL: Hmmm...in the eclectic section! I don't know really to be honest. We try and grow in terms of what we're doing in the same way that artists like Radiohead or Massive Attack would. I think one thing we have in common with those two is that we all try and fuse elements of the past and present to create something entirely unique out of it. As far as where we sit, I guess that's something I'd rather leave to journalists really.
DiS: I've seen Where Did The Night Fall described as "shoegaze with beats" among other descriptions. Do you think that's a fair summary or would you rather people interpret the record in their own way?
JL: That's a tough one really. There are so many different sounds and styles on that record it would be churlish to try and limit it to one area or genre. To me, UNKLE is about the richness of the sound and there tends to always be a lot going on in the individual tracks almost like being taken on a journey while at the same time playing on a lot of classic melancholic influences, and I think that's something we've taken right back from the days of Psyence Fiction through to this record really. When I listen to the Mark Lanegan song 'Another Night Out' it screams "classic UNKLE!" to me really. I think you could put that track on any of our previous albums and it would flow.
DiS: It's interesting you say that because most people still tend to cite Psyence Fiction as being the definitive UNKLE record. Do you feel you have to keep justifying yourself all over again with every subsequent release?
JL: I don't really think about things like that any more. I don't really care. If you have a first album like Psyence Fiction then I can appreciate it is a tough act to follow and people will always be looking to compare you against it in the future, but it's like any aspect of life really. Once you've achieved a certain goal or pinnacle, you have to be looking to move on to the next level really. Compared to a lot of bands and producers out there, I honestly think UNKLE is fairly unique in that we've never once stood still or rested on our laurels. We've always tended to re-invent ourselves and try and grow in as many ways as possible. I don't think we could ever get stuck, and that's important because when you're as an eclectic mix as we are it can be difficult for people to take a polarized view and gravitate towards one specific thing. I mean, Psyence Fiction was such an important record for that period of time. We were all very naive and yet in many ways, went on to become quite renowned in our own fields of music as it were. I don't think you could ever go that far back again so it's always going to resonate in a certain way. I sometimes think Psyence Fiction has been analysed and debated that much you tend to wonder what more anyone can get out of it. There are tracks on that record I don't particularly like any more. I think looking back through all of UNKLE's records there's a good three to four tracks that stand the test of time which we'll always try to include as part of our live set, but in terms of one body of work Psyence Fiction is more of its time than the present. I'd much rather listen to the new one personally.
DiS: It's interesting you say that about Psyence Fiction. Which tracks would you leave off that record or approach differently were you to be given that chance nowadays?
JL: Quite a few actually! I look back at all our albums and it's easier to pick out the ones I'm most proud of than those I'm not to be honest. 'Eye For An Eye' and 'Reign' off Never, Never, Land for example still sound as fresh as they did back when they were first recorded, 'Lonely Soul' and 'Rabbit In Your Headlights' off Psyence Fiction too, but then there's 'Burn My Shadow' off War Stories that is classic UNKLE as well. All of those songs are still constantly being licensed for films and soundtracks. I think it would be difficult to name an album by any artist where you can honestly say you love every single track on that record, whether it be Back In Black, Led Zeppelin I to ...IV or Is This It.
DiS: Where Did The Night Fall is also the first release on your new Surrender All label. Did you set that up as a means of getting away from all the industry bullshit and weight of expectation that follows a band like UNKLE around?
JL: I think we're a difficult band to try and market, certainly from the perspective of the record industry where they tend to focus on one particular corner of the market. Rather than being big in one place or field, we tend to do reasonably well all over which isn't really the way a major record label tends to work. It can be quite complicated dealing with records like ours because all of the collaborations can be very laborious for starters, and when you've some businessman quoting timescales and budgets for such a project as ours it takes a lot away from the entire concept really.
DiS: Where Did The Night Fall is also the first UNKLE record not to feature Richard File in over a decade. What made him leave UNKLE and how different is it working with Pablo Clements as your main foil?
JL: When you've worked with someone for so long and toured together and been through so much with each other outside of the band as well, there comes a point where you have to go your separate ways. The whole thing had become draining not just for Richard but me as well. In hindsight, I actually think we achieved far too much too soon. There were many other things going on in my life at the time; I fathered a child for starters, and I think we were so naive to the trappings of the industry that we just didn't know what to expect or how to deal with what came along as a result. Looking back, Richard had a much more methodical approach to making records than me, and I think it was obvious our personalities would clash, whereas Pablo is the exact opposite.
DiS: Do you see yourself ever working with Richard again?
JL: At this moment in time, probably not, but then again you never know what might happen in the future.
DiS: You're still doing DJ sets in your own right. Do you enjoy that side of your work as much as creating your own music and what can we find on a James Lavelle playlist in 2010?
JL: I haven't actually been able to DJ that much this year due to finishing and touring the new record, but it is still something I feel quite passionate about and there's nothing more satisfying than watching people in a club lose themselves in the music you're playing. I guess my current DJ set is pretty similar to where I see myself with UNKLE. I tend to play an eclectic mix of dark house and euphoric techno, and at this moment in time a lot of what I'm listening to and playing revolves around James Holden and Carl Craig.
DiS: Finally, are you planning any new collaborations for the sixth UNKLE album and is their a target date for its completion?
JL: I have a few people in mind, although I think Gavin Clark will probably feature on the next record, Elle J too. Apart from those two I don't want to say too much at this stage in case their record labels or management read this!
Catch UNKLE at the following shows:-
3 County Laois, Ireland Electric Picnic Festival
19 London Brixton Academy
The album Where Did The Night Fall and EP 'The Answer' are both out now on Surrender All Records.