Everything James Lavelle has created and initiated has been driven by the same irrepressible sense of curiosity and an incorruptible willingness to take risks. The music released today under the banner of UNKLE is very different from early UNKLE records. The spirit is the same.
James Lavelle was a fresh-faced fourteen-year-old when he began to travel every Sunday from Oxford, where he lived, to the Soul 2 Soul shop in London. “Soul 2 Soul were my heroes”, he says. “Them, and The Wild Bunch. It was my sort of Punk. My escape.” Before long, he was working himself behind the counters of two of the most influential record shops in town, first Bluebird Records, then Honest Jon’s. James made friends easily, and he applied an extraordinary dedication to the discovery of music - old or new, whatever the style. The early 90s were an inspirational time in London. Acid Jazz, House and Hip-Hop had vastly expanded the horizons. The boom in clubs, all attempting to forge a distinctive identity, provided a fertile breeding ground for idiosyncratic music. Aged nineteen, James Lavelle had established himself as a DJ who refused to stick to conventions, welding together to joyful effect all that was blaring out of the windows of Britain’s inner cities. When he started Mo’ Wax Records in 1993, he naturally brought the same approach to the label. DJ Krush, DJ Shadow, Beastie Boys-cohort Money Mark, Air, Blackalicious and many more thrived under his enthusiastic and anti-authoritarian guidance. Mo’ Wax, like Stiff and Island in previous eras, became the record label that defined the zeitgeist.
Lavelle’s striking remixes were a vital cog in Mo’ Wax’s programme. In 1996, he went one step farther and, together with old school pal Tim Goldsworthy and Kudo from Japanese Hip-Hop outfit Major Force, formed UNKLE. UNKLE was not the name of a band – it was the label Lavelle intended to use for his own musical ventures, recorded with anyone who might happen to be around. In the meantime, A&M Records had offered Mo’ Wax an irresistible licensing deal that also covered UNKLE. A first attempt at recording a debut album in Los Angeles went awry. Kudo and Goldsworthy jumped ship – the latter eventually to resurface as the co-founder of DFA Records in New York. Lavelle turned to DJ Shadow, another Mo’ Wax artist, for help. The UNKLE debut Psyence Fiction with contributions from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Metallica’s Jason Newstead. The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft and Talk Talk’s Mike Hollis, appeared, at long last, in summer 1998. The album was an unqualified success, reaching number 4 in the British album charts.
“Until Psyence Fiction it was all pretty damn good fun. An amazing time”, says Lavelle. “And then it just crumbled.” The week Psyence Fiction was released, A&M was absorbed by Universal Records. The person responsible for Mo’ Wax at A&M left, and so Lavelle, too, quit. “From being a kid putting out records for fun, you’ve ended up with all this pressure,” he says, “it just burns you out.” He continued to DJ around the world, releasing an electronic DJ mix set in 2001, Do Androids Dream of Electric Beats?, compiled with long-term collaborator Richard File under the name UNKLEsounds. Two years later came the second UNKLE album proper, Never, Never Land. Within a fortnight, despite a top 40 album, and two top 20 singles, UNKLE were dropped. No wonder Lavelle became angrier as he grew older. Being dropped by Universal had one great advantage, however. Lavelle had his freedom back. He promptly set up a new record and fashion label, Surrender All. And he joined up with Chris Goss’s and Josh Homme’s West Coast desert rockers crew for one of their improvised recording sessions in Joshua Tree. “Before, the beats always came first”, Lavelle says. “Now, I started falling in love with songs.”
Out of this discovery grew “War Stories”. Released in 2007, War Stories, with contributions from Homme, Ian Astbury, 3D, The Duke Spirit, Autolux and others, fused the hypnotic qualities of Techno with the textures of Rock, producing a fascinating loud/quiet dynamic. The album was much darker and heavier then previous UNKLE recordings, and yet it sparkled with a palpable sense of batteries renewed and excitement levels drastically raised. The resulting guitar- and drums-driven UNKLE live experience, complete with astonishing visuals, toured the world to ever increasing acclaim. “It’s a lot better being on the road with lots of people”, Lavelle says. “DJing can be a bit lonely.” Richard File preferred to remain studio-bound. In January 2008 he left to concentrate on his own projects. Lavelle, keen to maintain the momentum, invited his old pal Pablo Clements of The Psychonauts to join him in UNKLE.
Most projects Lavelle has ever undertaken have contained a strong visual component. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that in composing – as he puts it - “music inspired by the moving image”, he has discovered a hugely enjoyable new challenge. Apart from his contributions to advertising campaigns for BMW, Mercedes, European Football League and Eristoff Vodka, his music can be heard in films like Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, Danny Cannon’s football film Goal!, Alex Grazioli’s documentary Odyssey in Rome about Abel Ferrara, and the Spike Jonze skate video Fully Flared. Such one-off projects are no less carefully or adventurously assembled than any other UNKLE undertaking.
Saddened by the fact that due to the transient nature of their dissemination these pieces were destined to be forgotten, Lavelle decided to gather together the best, flesh them out where needed, and release them as an album. End Titles…Stories for Film is a collection of similarly conceived music inspired by the moving image, recorded with – amongst others - White Denim’s James Petralli, The Big Pink’s Robbie Furze and Canadians Black Mountain.
Working with his brother Aidan and Pablo Clements in the Surrender All-Studio one floor down from the Surrender All-offices just round the corner from the old Bluebird Records, James Lavelle has truly rediscovered his sense of musical adventure. “With all the madness I’ve encountered through the years it would have been easy to lose the plot”, he says. “I nearly did. But I’ve managed to keep it together by surrounding myself with creative people who understand what I am trying to achieve. And that’s what I intend to keep on doing – striving to keep writing songs that reflect where I am at in my life.”