Jockey Slut August / September 1998
Aug/Sep 1998 Vol. 2 no. 15
James Lavelle talks with Jockey Slut Magazine about creating the new UNKLE album. The article was entitled "The Horror! The Horror!", a reference to the final chapter of The Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad which was adapted in to the film Apocalypse Now.
Transcript from Sole Sides website.
The UNKLE album is this summer’s blockbuster. James Lavelle and DJ Shadow have called it their ‘Apocalypse Now’. A billion years in the making, it stars Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke and Mike D. John Burgess meets the director and producer.
Meat Loaf’s old house set high in the Hollywood hills has been invaded by some of the coolest people on earth. They are the personnel of UNKLE, they’ve arrived from all four corners of the globe and they’re licensed to chill. Mo’ Wax boss James Lavelle heads up the project and childhood buddy Tim Goldsworthy and Masayuki Kudo – of Japanese collective Major Force – are the other permanent two-thirds but this is looking more and more like an ensemble piece. San Francisco hip hop evangelist and vinyl obsessive DJ Shadow, singer Zoe Bedeaux and Money Mark’s manager Max Burgos are poolside. The Beastie Boys and their producer Marco Caroldo Jnr? (Mario Caldato Jr.) are expected to join the party. It is a big house but there are so many people involved in UNKLE that Shadow sleeps on the couch and graffiti genius Futura 2000, who’s taking care of the artwork, beds down with the laundry.
The four week jaunt is funded by a new A&M licensing deal so after three years of solid graft as an ‘indie’ the pressure is off for the Mo’ Wax posse and they seem more keen to indulge in what Lavelle calls "excessive behavior" than the studio. Tim, James and Futura take a trip to Las Vegas, they gamble through the night and miss several flights back to work. They attend Ad Rock’s wife Ione Skye’s birthday party joining various movie stars, models and porn actresses. They have a ball.
Amazingly some work does get done and they return to London with fifteen tracks and an album release date is scheduled for February. That’s February 1996. Thirty months ago. The tracks are shelved. "When I left L.A," says DJ Shadow, "I said I’d never work with UNKLE again."
July 1998. The UNKLE album is finished and is one of the years most anticipated releases not least because it includes performances by The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and the Beastie Boys’ Mike D. At a photography studio hidden in North London DJ Shadow, now one half of UNKLE joins James Lavelle on a couch to unravel their story. They are both pale and disoriented from jetlag just having just returned from press junkets in Japan and, last night, Amsterdam. Shadow, 26, looks every inch the Hip Hop head; ubiquitous wool hat, Jurassic 5 t-shirt and stone pants large enough to sail a boat. Lavelle, 24, changes out of one painfully hip Very Ape t-shirt into, his trademark Travis Bickle mohican has been shorn leaving a couple of reed-thin lines across his suedehead. Two huge silver rings of Cornelius from Planet of the Apes and Star Wars’ anti-hero Boba Fett dwarf his fingers. Movies are a constant throughout our conversation. In fact James has likened the three year recording of Psyence Fiction to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now even sampling its docu-drama ‘Hearts of Darkness’ on ‘Main Title Theme’. "There were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment and little by little we went insane". Directed by James Lavelle and produced by DJ Shadow, delivered way behind schedule and over budget, Psyence Fiction is this year’s summer blockbuster.
"We went to L.A and it all just fell apart really, relationship-wise," James begins. "We recorded quite a lot of stuff but apart from ‘Berry meditation’ (Mo’ Wax 12" August 1996) there wasn’t anything that represented how I wanted UNKLE to sound." Nothing remains of the L.A project on Psyence Fiction. It was once known as UNKLE/Belmondo but ironically, "Unkle was supposed to be the fun stuff and Belmondo the more serious project". So what happened to Tim Goldsworthy and Kudo? "It was a childhood romantic dream rather than a carefully thought out thing," James says referring to Tim. "But it became a traveling circus. Everybody was in the same house, singers, Kudo, Kudo’s family, Tim and then people like Futura, Shadow…everybody was just having a laugh rather than focussing on the record."
What I was trying to achieve wasn’t what everybody else was trying to achieve. I was concerned it was going to represent snatches from time rather than being timeless." Dj Shadow – Josh Davis – came over to L.A from his home in San Francisco near the end of the sessions. He was Mo’ Wax’s brightest hope having released the genre-defining ‘Influx’ and ‘What Does Your Soul look Like?’ The tracks Shadow recorded mirrored Lavelle’s vision: "They were song-led, melodious and contained beats and scratching. The sound I was more comfortable with was what Josh was doing."
The catalyst for making Lavelle realize he wanted to move away from the UNKLE of L.A was ironically supplied by Goldsworthy who introduced him to The Verve’s second albumNorthern Soul. "My frustration was that I didn’t want to make weird instrumental hip hop records. We could’ve easily achieved that but I wanted songs. Listening to Richard Ashcroft was a revelation because I thought, ‘If I could bring that ilk of singer in with what I was hearing from Shadow I’ll crack it’."
"I felt like I knew what James was trying to say but it wasn’t my group," Shadow shrugs. "I didn’t know how involved I was supposed to be and didn’t want to mess up any kind of dynamic."
The seed had been planted in Lavelle’s mind. As he told Jockey Slut two years ago he was "searching for the Holy Grail" and it seemed nothing was going to get in his way of finding it. Unhappy with the L.A recordings James shelved the tracks resulting in Tim’s resignation. "He needed space," says James. "It had been going on too long. I was perhaps too overpowering and I wanted to do something different, something bigger. I think maybe he did as well but I think he thought it was all getting a joke. It wasn’t a bad thing when we split up. We’re a lot closer now." In August 1996 James asked DJ Shadow to produce UNKLE.
When Shadow was a kid his favorite toy was a little turntable. His record collection consisted of ‘Snoop vs. the Red Baron’, ‘Joy to the World’, ‘Peanuts Christmas’ and several by Disney. "I was intrigued by the circular motion of the turntable so I used to put little toy men on my records. You can do a lot of things with records, you can roll them down a driveway, look at yourself in the reflection or use them as a table." He wasn’t exactly the fervent trainspotter he is nowadays, protecting and cataloging his priceless collection.
Growing up in the middle class college town of David, near San Francisco his mother was a school teacher and his father was what Shadow refers to as a "big equipment inspector. Tractors, cranes, that kind of stuff." Everybody who lived in David seemed to be a professor, teacher or worked on campus. Shadow ended up studying Communications, "Because I was watching MTV Raps in 1988 and Kool Moe Dee had said that he got Communications. "It proves how much music can affect you," he laughs. Hip hop had been a major part of his life since he heard ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash. In 1990 Josh Davis became DJ Shadow, a superhero figure out to destroy the likes of Hammer and Vanilla Ice who were commercializing his art.
The young Shadow used to go to the cinema often. He recalls fondly that in the days before the multiplex there’d be just one vast screen. "I remember watching Star Wars and the stormtroopers are shooting down this triangular corridor. I remember watching the lasers disappear down the corridor through the smoke and at a point I thought, ‘shit this might actually be real’ because before that I’d had an incling it was pretend." His favorite film is Raiders of the Lost Ark which he talks about fondly like his rites of passage. "The scenes where the faces were melting…it was so loud and it felt like my hair was actually being blown back. It was so intense for a kid but I was just able to handle it. I felt like an adult at that point because I’d made it through this movie. When you watch things like Superman II after it you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m not a kid I ain’t buying it’."
‘I ain’t buying it’ was probably also the phrase he used when he dabbled in petty crime. "When I was 14 I got arrested," he laughs. "Stealing gags like itching powder. It was ironic because we took what we had in our hands and stuffed it in our pockets near all these expensive knives. The shopkeepers thought we were stealing knives so we ‘fessed up’." And instead of a deadly weapon Shadow produced a fart whistle. "I’m not exactly a hardcore felon."
James Lavelle also admits ‘The Message’ was his first hip hop purchase but confesses, "I’m not as hardcore as Shadow was. I was also into things like Duran Duran." When he was a kid growing up in Oxford he idolized Star Wars (still his favorite film), although Empire Strikes Back was the first film of the trilogy he was actually old enough to see in a cinema. Alongside his action Action Man he owned numerous Star Wars figures. "I’d build space ships out of paper mache and little worlds out of polystyrene containers." In homage, perhaps, to the Star Wars merchandise Mo’ Wax have produced a couple UNKLE toys based on the coneheaded aliens in Futura 2000’s artwork. Something for James’ one year old daughter Llyla-Blue to play with.
Lavelle’s mother was a housewife and an artist, his father became a lawyer though his first love was music. "He was a drummer in his spare time and he was a brilliant folk singer. He wasn’t allowed to pursue his dreams because it wasn’t viewed as stable by his family." His parents split up when he was 12 and James’ adolescence was an unhappy one. He smoked his first spliff at 12, dabbled in alcohol and graffiti and skived off in school. "It was a state school and I didn’t fit in. I felt very alone."
James wanted to study Greek mythology when he left school, then he spent nine years learning the art of Kung Fu and decided he wanted to become an instructor. Instead, unlike his father, he put music first and started a jazz club – Mo’ Wax Please – with his (older) friend Tim Goldsworthy in Oxford. He worked in Honest Jon’s Records and wrote a column for jazz mag Straight No Chaser before borrowing 1,000 pounds from the shop to start Mo’ Wax releasing the sort of weird instrumental hip hop records he was championing in print. Five years on Mo’ Wax has become one of the most important labels in Britain.
James Lavelle is the restless, quick-talking hustler. Shadow the laidback, eloquent artiste. Though socially different they share the same cultural icons and the studio-phobic Lavelle would discuss sounds for Psyence Fiction to Shadow visually. T2 and Star Wars, again, came in handy.
"We had to put Kool G Rap in a context," Shadows says of the hip hop legend, "what role he played on the record. So he was The Terminator because he’s so aggressive comparedd to everyone else on the record. We were inspired by archetypal narrative structures so we open with his track, ‘Guns’ Blazing’ because, to use Star Wars as a common reference point, it starts out with the rebel being attacked by the Empire. Star Wars also starts out with ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far far away’ and we have our little statement (both of them speak) ‘Somewhere in space this may all be happening right now’."
Psyence Fiction covers all bases for a generation for whom Verve albums are as important as their collection of white labels. As Shadow explains, "There’s a rock ‘n’ roll approach to hip hop but there’s very seldom a hip hop approach to rock ‘n’ roll."
On ‘Nursery Rhyme’ Badly Drawn Boy sings about the mind of a foetus over hardcore rock, Atlantique Khan’s beautiful ‘Chaos’ could’ve appeared on Prince’s Parade, Thom Yorke’s suburban angst is backed (quietly) by frantic beats, Mike D and Metallica’s Jason Newstead lighten the mood with the comic ‘The Knock’, Wil Malone’s emotive string arrangements will leave a lump in your throat and, well, then there’s the instrumentals, familiar ground for DJ Shadow who played around with guitars on his last single ‘High Noon’. And then, of course, there’s Richard Ashcroft.
When James contacted The Verve’s management in the summer of 1996 to approach Richard Ashcroft he was informed the band had just split up. "I didn’t hear anything for a little while, then out of the blue I got a call to meet him." They met in a pub in Hamstead and started talking about music. Ashcroft was getting into New York hip hop and James could refer him to DJ Shadow’s just released debut album Endtroducing for a vibe. The vocals were recorded in London in September 1996 and the first soulful demo is the one they eventually chose for the album. "It was a real spiritual moment for me recording that song," Lavelle says. "There was this sense we could go so far with the song which was exciting. There was this outro that Josh had left on and Richard sang over it so we thought ‘Let’s make this bigger, more extreme and bring this back out’. It became a bench mark because it was so inspiring." The track was finished, with ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ orchestrator Wil Malone adding strings, a year later.
James Lavelle naturally gravitates towards people with a similar mindset to him and the other artists chosen for Psyence Fiction are all part of this world. Thom Yorke became involved after James noticed he’d chosen Headz, the first Mo’ Wax compilation, as his favored home listening in the NME. The "journey through sound" James discovered in Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden was not a million miles away from the soundscapes of trip hop (but without the beats) so Mark Hollis was contacted. Mike D, the big cheese of Grand Royal and X-Large is like an older version of James with a New York accent. A b-boy with a head for business. Alice Temple was a BMX champion, Badly Drawn Boy is not disimilar to Mo’ Wax singer/songwriter Money Mark. Everyone involved makes sense. They’re all ‘very James Lavelle’.
And then there’s Shadow. "I completely identified with him," James says. "Although we are quite individual in our own social areas all the things I talk about he understands. To ring someone up halfway across the world and talk about British hip hop records and Major Force and have similar obsessions…I think he’s a genius as an artist," he adds.
"James is very intense," Shadow says of his partner recalling their first few meetings. "I felt very insulated because I’d grown up in a small town. When I came to London I realized he was able to make things happen. He had so much on his plate at his age that he made me feel I was taking it too slow back home. If it wasn’t for him this record would have been impossible."
"We have a similar love for music and a desire to make things happen. I have a streak in me that’s like ‘If they fuck with us we’ll fuck ‘em over.’ If our managers were trying to fuck with us I’d say ‘I’ll sit on a street corner and bootleg the record. I don’t care.’ When I get like that he can turn it into something positive instead of self destructive."
Later on Mike D is in the house bouncing around in a shirt and tie, being Mr. Shouty, a Beastie Boy on stage at the Brixton Academy.
James is in the crowd watching one of his album’s artists, wondering, no doubt if he’ll ever be able to put UNKLE up on stage. There’s been rumours of an Albert Hall show, but the chances of pulling all the album’s stars together would, yet again, be a headache.
Later still James is DJing at the Beasties aftershow, keenly watching the mixture of liggers and children’s TV presenters for a reaction to ‘Guns Blazing’. I hear the girl next to me drunkenly slur, "This is ace," though she doesn’t go and look at the record to see who it’s by. Thom Yorke though is shaking his head. Furiously. Yes, he does like what he hears, this is the way he, er, dances. James passes him a copy of the finished CD complete with Futura 2000 artwork. Shadow? He retired to bed before the gig. UNKLE’s worn him out.
So is this the beginning of the UNKLE saga? Will there be a trilogy of albums? DJ Shadow doesn’t want to think about it. For him the biggest nightmare is just about to begin. He’s got to talk through this album in endless interviews, got to ‘throw shapes’ for photographers. "I just want to hang with my crew back home and not have to make a profound statement." He sighs. But he gives it one last go anyway. "We did want to make an epic record, whatever that means. It doesn’t mean length, number of samples used in one chunk, hopefully it’s not that brainiac. It was more a sense of ‘let’s try and do something that’s going to last.’" Then he pauses and smiles. "I’m certainly not going to rush my next album."
The Men (and Women) from UNKLE
Kool G Rap; Vocals on ‘Guns Blazing’ (Recorded October 1997)
Shadow: "This is the only one I chose. I wanted someone involved who I grew up listening to. He was one of my favorite lyricists and probably a rapper most people wouldn’t choose. He was given a breakbreat and the only instruction he was given, which were the same ones we gave to everybody else, were ‘just be yourself’. The only thing I said he should try and avoid was the killer hoe type material. But then if you’re gonna ask for Kool G Rap you’re gonna get Kool G Rap!"
Alice Temple Vocals on ‘Bloodstain’ (Recorded in August 1997)
James: "I just fell in love with her. I wanted to sign her to Mo’ Wax. She represented a lot of things from the environment I’d grown up in. She was a BMX champion as a kid and very left of centre. I didn’t know how to fit Alice into the album but then I went round to the flat Josh was working out of and he played me this track and I was like ‘that’s Alice Temple’."
Richard Ashcroft Vocals on ‘Lonely Soul’ (Recorded in September 1996)
James: "If I had to record with him now I don’t know whether I’d be able to do it because I know so much about him on a media level. If I’d read all about him before meeting him I would’ve got strung out.
Wil Malone Arranged and conducted strings on ‘Lonely Soul’ ‘Celestial Annihilation’ (Recorded in September 1997)
James: "He did the strings for ‘Unfinished Sympathy’. I hooked up with him after I’d done the original demo with Richard. He was into the track so we asked him to do the strings for it, to write an end piece and also write, as a featured artist, his own piece which is ‘Celestial Annihilation’. He’s like our Yoda. He’s just so special. He’s got that wizard shine to him."
Badly Drawn Boy Vocals on ‘Nursery Rhyme’ (Recorded February 1998)
James: "I was desperate to get a central character and I’d heard his 7" and really liked it. We met up and presented him with the ideas and at the time thought he’d become involved in a lot more tracks. Josh was working on a hardcore track for somebody and it felt right for him. If Damon’s kind of lo-fi in the way he records himself then ‘Nursery Rhyme’ is the most fucked up sounding so the two work well together."
Mike D Vocals on ‘The Knock’ (Recorded March 1998)
James: "He’s a friend of mine who’s always really supported Mo’ Wax. He really influenced me as a kid so it was like working with a childhood hero but I’ve never had that strange relationship with him where I’ve been made to feel like that. For somebody in his position he was one of the easiest people to deal with."
Jason Newstead Bass guitar and Theremin on ‘The Knock’ (Recorded February 1998)
James: "Shadow needed a bass player to play on the Mike D track because he couldn’t find a bass-line to sample that was right. We were in the Bay Area of San Francisco and we said, "We need to find a bass player’. I said, ‘Why don’t we get Metallica,’ and Shadow said, ‘Yeah, that’d be great’. It was a really fun session. Jason really wanted to meet Shadow because he was really into what he’d done with Metallica loops on Endtroducing. I wanted to include some of Shadow’s history in an alternative sense so that’s why it seemed like the right thing to do."
Atlantique Khan Vocals on ‘Chaos’ (Recorded August 1997)
James: "I met her when she was 17. Her’s were the first demos me and Tim ever worked on. We became very good friends. I asked her to write in English and she wrote ‘Chaos’. I wasn’t comfortable with her singing French. So ‘Chaos’ is the first track she’s recorded in English.
Mark Hollis Piano on ‘Chaos’ (Recorded September 1997)
James: I wanted to release a Mark Hollis album on Mo’ Wax. Spirit of Eden was one record I really got into because I don’t like conventionally structured records. I like records that create soundscapes as well as being emotional, that journey through sound. He was uneasy with the idea of contributing vocals but was keen to collaborate. All the music on his last album was recorded live so he didn’t want to do anything too programmed. Originally we thought he was going to play guitar but he came back and said he loved the track and wanted to play piano."
Thom Yorke Vocals on ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’ (Recorded July 1997)
James: "This was discussed before Richard because I’d been inspired by their music a lot longer than the Verve’s. I really liked the drums on The Bends and the emotions in the songs and sounds. I told Josh to check their stuff out. Originally I was going to collaborate with the band as a whole but I think he wanted to step away from what he was doing, it was an opportunity for him to do something completely different. It took him longer to get on board because they were always touring or recording. Thom had got acceptance through OK Computer, that massive reaction from press and fans, so he then was able to slightly dissociate himself from what he needed to attain with Radiohead. We developed a far stronger relationship over a long period of time and he really wanted to work with Josh so finally last year we managed to hook up for two days."
Futura 2000 Sleeve artwork, toys
James: "I’ve been into him since I was a kid, he’s always inspired me. He’s a living legend, almost a mythical character. I really wanted him to create an image that would not involve our faces. He’s just created that UNKLE world. We wanted a universe of characters that I want people to see and instantly think of UNKLE. He’s also based the toys on these characters."