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Interview: Unkle

9th October 2008

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UNKLE’s James Lavelle has been at cutting edge of dance music for over a decade. Magazine’s Rob Stares waxed lyrical with the electronic-maverick before his set at Nottingham’s Rock City.

UnkleTonight is one of the first nights that show the noticeable shift in the pattern of the seasons, as the cold winter air blows through the streets.

It all feels a million miles away from the vast expanse of the Joshua Tree desert, situated outside of Los Angeles, California where the seeds of UNKLE’s third studio album were sewn. As the public file past the entrance to Nottingham’s Rock City, occasionally one steps out of the twilight crowd and adjust their eyes to see who is playing.

Occasionally, one of these bright-eyed individuals is transformed. More than one fully-grown male was reduced to an infantile state as they cling to their peers and practically beg for entrance to the gig. There is a near-comparison to the startling video for UNKLE’s very own ‘Eye For An Eye’, where seemingly innocent human-like figures are destroyed by alien beings after being drawn to a giant form of their own self.

It’s this sort of sub-conscious psychological domination that has seen James Lavelle, the man behind UNKLE, rise from the cool of London’s club scene to an undisputed titan of the dance arena. A brief history of the Oxford-born musician reads like this. In 1992, he formed the Mo’ Wax label that gave early releases to artists like DJ Shadow, Air and Blackalicious.

He teamed up with DJ Shadow for UNKLE’s debut release, 1998’s Psyence Fiction on Mo’ Wax. Five years later, and album two followed in the shape of Never, Never, Land, before this years’ third LP, entitled War Stories arrived. Collaborations have been an integral part of the UNKLE makeup so far, with artists ranging from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, the Beastie Boys’ Mike D and Josh Homme of Queens of The Stone Age appearing.

If the name still doesn’t ring any bells, there is a good chance you would’ve heard a number of recent tracks on the BBC. ‘Chemistry’ features on the advert for BBC One’s new series of Spooks, and instrumental versions of other highlights from War Stories regularly appear on the new series of Top Gear.

Meeting up with Lavelle before the start of the briefest of UK tours in Nottingham (Glasgow, Manchester and London’s Roundhouse are the only other destinations), it is firstly noticeable how tired he is. After jetting back from a DJ set in China only 24 hours previous, he’s slightly bleary eyed as he settles down on the back of the tour bus. With under an hour before the show starts, it feels slightly unnerving that he’s not concerned about it.

He yawns a few times during our chat through necessity rather than ignorance, but with only the sound of a paused Xbox 360 whirring in the corner and the arid veil of second-hand smoke in the room, it’s not exactly an atmosphere of urgency; more lethargic nervous tension.

After creating two albums that didn’t necessarily lean toward live production, with Psyence Fiction focussed on hip-hop, and Never, Never, Land breaching the electronic threshold, War Stories breaks into the rock genre, and according to Lavelle, it is something that is here for a while at least:

“I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s all pretty unique really, but it’s different from in the past where I’ve done DJ orientated sets whether it being related to UNKLE or not, or just playing other people’s records, so when it comes to UNKLE, I wouldn’t want to go back, from doing it as a live band,” he says, with solid conviction.

The live band itself is a steadily rotating hive of activity. When the show starts this evening, between the stunning light show and giant video screen backdrop, Lavelle and other mainstay Richard File are the visual kingpins as guest vocals and musicians revolve around them like they’re on a micro solar system. It’s an enthralling sight, as well as sound, as they not only shadow Queens of The Stone Age musically, but in sheer volume too.

The other new addition is seeing Lavelle taking on vocal duties on a number of tracks both on record and on stage, which has been a big step: “It’s totally different with singing songs, whereas usually you’re playing other peoples’ records. It’s a totally different buzz. They balance each other in different ways, so you get different experiences from them, but I’ve enjoyed it.”

“I didn’t have any expectations to start with, I didn’t know what to expect, so in that way it’s gone beyond the album.” He stares into the distance briefly, with a gaze that looks toward the future.

It’s also a slight surprise to find that he had issues of self-confidence when it came to stepping up to the microphone previously, and it wasn’t until the decision was made to work with Masters of Reality member and ‘desert rock’ super-producer Chriss Goss, that this original barricade was deconstructed:

“I guess when you reach a certain point you realise that you can put up a lot of walls and guards to things that you then realise how you shouldn’t really worry so much,” says Lavelle. “In that way it was really good to work with Chriss because (pauses) he made everything feel just a lot easier. He was very encouraging in that way.”

“In retrospect now I realise how important that was to be able to move forward and to be able to take from what we’ve learned from all those experiences now and put it into a more focused way into the next record. I think he’s an important factor in (pauses) being able to change, I think.” His hands twitch and gesture slightly as he explains the reasons, with his immaculately painted black fingernails absorbing the light.

Considering Lavelle is someone seen as a musical leader in some parts, it’s humbling to hear that even people who appear to be ‘ultra cool’ are humans too. He also finds suggestions from previous articles that he is arrogant as wide of the mark: “I think being shy and not wanting to talk about certain subjects isn’t arrogant, I just tend to want to avoid certain conversations,” he states, in a naturally defensive tone.

He’s got every right to be defensive too. His falling out with DJ Shadow during the production for their second album saw Shadow depart and go off on his own steam, whilst Lavelle has since had troubles with major record labels that helped put the final nail in Mo’ Wax. Add in criticisms from over-zealous fans about the musical direction of UNKLE, and there’s a cocktail difficult for most to handle.

A chance to record the new album in the desert provided a great chance to unwind, have some space, breathe and re-focus attention, as Lavelle mentions during the course of the interview, but it didn’t stop him from sometimes giving into temptation and reading reviews of UNKLE in the press after War Stories’ release in July:

“I’ve read a few, but I find it very hit and miss, so I tend to not. I’d be a liar if I said that I read ones that I knew were really good reviews. I find them up and down with UNKLE, and I just have to ride it through. You have the occasional night where you start trawling through the net when you’re bored and I just get frustrated and turn it off usually. I take the negative, that’s what seems to be the problem really.”

A rueful smile rolls into his face for a matter of seconds. The negativity does also stem from a moment in his life that occurred before the recordings of War Stories, where he describes himself as being burned out. Past relationships and other personal issues had come to the fore, meaning that Lavelle needed to take five:

“Right now I’m still dealing with a lot of stuff from the past, but it’s definitely more manageable now, just a lot of changes in a lot of relationships and a lot of stuff that’s had to be dealt with head on. I think it reached a point where I had to address where I was at in my life. I suppose it’s what a lot of people go through at some point or another in their life,” he says philosophically, whilst keeping his cards close to his chest.

It’s not because he doesn’t enjoy interviews either. He openly admits and enthuses about interviews, and how he enjoys good journalism, but is then quick to note how this is often found outside of the UK. A visible frustration is stressed in every intonation of what he then says:

“Most people want to talk about business and failure here [in the UK] rather than the music, and I find that very frustrating. Most of the interviews I read about don’t focus on what was made musically on the record, they talk about the past, they talk about Mo-Wax, they talk about DJ Shadow, they talk about Psyence Fiction or they talk about (pauses) financial things or what the state of the record industry is in.”

He continues: “It’s like the real matter in hand is about what you have done musically, and if that’s something you like or not. That is essentially what it’s about and people don’t really do that when it comes to UNKLE in my opinion, here. Maybe I can seem arrogant with English journalists because again I just find a lot of the time a lot of the interviews miss the point.”

The door suddenly splinters open, sounding like cardboard on dried Sellotape. They’ve got twenty minutes until they’re on stage, and Lavelle needs to get ready. It’s an impossibility to wait any longer, and there is a slightly stunned undertone to his voice when he realises its a good cue to say our goodbyes.

As timing would have it, his final words leave a level of hypocrisy hanging over this article, with no chance to alter it. In some ways, it’s fitting. James Lavelle has always had a level of mystery surrounding him, but you can’t begrudge a man from keeping his private life separate from his work.

Spending a short amount of time with Lavelle shows that he is a man that has evidently been burned in the past by the music industry and the media mouthpiece. He picks his words carefully when describing somebody (whether this is down to his tiredness or his reservations of British journalism is unclear), and seems to be unsettled by the tougher moments in recent years.

On previous albums, UNKLE have sounded deeply psychological, spiritual, ethereal; creating synapses through musical bombasts that seem detached from reality and create an other worldly presence. With War Stories, he’s succeeded in creating a body of work that is organic, and for the first time, mortal.

He’s almost landed back at square one again, with a new label, and a new act in the form of the live band. Just before he leaves, he mentions that the collaborative elements of former releases may have to be re-thought, which would notion toward Lavelle taking a leading role on vocal duties.

It’s a statement of quiet confidence from Lavelle that speaks volumes, as he seems to be re-building his world from the ground up once again with renewed purpose. The well-versed bridges that have been burned have given him a chance to take stock and re-generate.

It also suggests that he believes in his abilities to a level not seen before by himself musically, which is a startling and thrilling prospect. With James Lavelle conquering his wrangles with self-confidence, you have to feel incredibly optimistic for his, and UNKLE’s, future.

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