The Sunday Times 26 July 1998

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The Sunday Times
PhotographerWill Bankhead

In July 26 1998's Sunday Times James Lavelle and DJ Shadow were interviewed about the forthcoming UNKLE album. Photography for the article was provided by Will Bankhead.


The men from Unkle

Psyence Fiction promises to be an album that defines 1990s British pop. ANDREW SMITH talks to the UK/US duo behind the project

In 1992, an awkward, skinny, 18-year-old kid named James Lavelle borrowed £1,000 from his boss at Honest Jon's Records in Notting Hill, West London, so that he could start a record label. On the whole, bankrolling record labels provides investors with little more than an uncommonly efficient way to lose money, but Mark Ainley wasn't worried. Lavelle had been commuting every day from his mother's home in Oxford, working for free to begin with. He had a particular love of Acid Jazz and the slow-beat hip-hop pioneered by Massive Attack, but his knowledge extended to every area of dance music and beyond. Three years later, the boy would license Mo' Wax, by then the hippest record label in the country, if not the world, to A&M Records for a reported sum of £350,000 and was routinely being referred to as a "21-year-old, self-made millionaire".

For the record, Lavelle denies ever having had Pounds 1m, but his boss got his cash back and, now, at the age of 24, Mo' Wax's founder is ready to raise the stakes dramatically. His outfit's reputation was established by a seemingly endless stream of quality underground hit singles by the likes of Air, Carl Craig, DJ Krush, DJ Shadow and Keyboard Money Mark. Wildly acclaimed, genre-busting albums by the latter two - Shadow's edgy hip-hop collage, Endtroducing...and Money Mark's deliciously pop Push the Button - have latterly extended it, pushing the label overground and into the charts. August 24, however, sees the release of Psyence Fiction, an album he and DJ Shadow have put together under the name Unkle, and which amounts to a vivid, kaleidoscopic summation of all Mo' Wax has been working towards over the past six years. In its breezy free associ ation of sounds and styles, and its range of star collaborators, Psyence Fiction may also be seen as a definitive, logical conclusion of everything that's been happening in British pop during that time.

DJ Shadow, real name Josh Davis, from San Francisco, took on the exhausting task of co-ordinating Unkle's music, but the idea and initial passion came from his label boss. A non-musician, but a skilled club DJ and remixer in his own right, Lavelle was able to pull in collaborators of the stature of Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft of the Verve, former Talk Talk maverick Mark Hollis, Beastie Boys' Mike D, Massive Attack orchestrator Wil Malone, Metallica's Jason Newstead and the rapper Kool G Rap. Featured up- and-coming artists include singers Alice Temple, Badly Drawn Boy and Atlantique Khanh. Over a phone line, Shadow admits that, when work began hesitantly at Meat Loaf's old house in LA in September 1995, he wasn't sure that he wanted to be involved. Too much time was being spent hanging out with the likes of Amanda de Cadenet and Donovan Leitch and the Beastie Boys. Little music was being made.

"Twice, I decided I didn't want anything to do with it," he chuckles. "I felt that there was nobody grabbing the reigns and giving the project shape. Those first two weeks in LA, nobody did anything. It was only after the Thom Yorke song that I knew it would work. That was where the album got its soul." Lavelle is keen to point out that, when he persuaded Yorke and Richard Ashcroft to get involved, neither were stars. Radiohead had issued their patchy debut album, but not The Bends, their superlative second. The Verve, meanwhile, had split up, after years as a fine but only moderately successful cult indie act. Lavelle had heard both and been moved by them. In fact, Lonely Soul, Ashcroft's contribution, is one of the patchier tunes on Psyence Fiction, meandering vaguely for at least half of its nine minutes' duration, before gathering and launching itself towards a grandly swelling, orchestrated climax. Lonely Soul, Shadow confesses, was "laborious, a struggle", though they got where they wanted to go in the end.

In contrast, Yorke's Rabbit in Your Headlights "seemed really organic. It was the quickest track and one of the most rewarding for me: Thom didn't just turn up, then climb into a limo and disappear - he stuck around for two whole days and really threw himself into it". The result, predicated on a lingering, Satie-like piano figure, mixes jazzy rhythms and driving bass with snippets of sampled dialogue and ethereal synths, capped by Yorke's sometimes soaring, sometimes cracked and melancholy voice. This is a song made up entirely of contrasting elements. It sounds like one of pop's most inventive musician/producers meeting one its best singers, which is precisely what it is. Furthermore, Rabbit in Your Headlights is by no means alone. Nursery Rhyme, a visceral rocker featuring vocals by Badly Drawn Boy, hits the mark, as does the menacing hip-hop of Cool G Rap's Guns Blazing and the jangly, jazzy Bloodstain, with Alice Temple. These and others are integrated and arranged into a surprisingly consistent and coherent whole. Quite some achievement.

After three years of juggling his beloved Unkle project with Mo' Wax's normal busy schedule, James Lavelle is feeling tired but pleased with the results. He's a funny bloke, a strange mix of big kid and brusque businessman, with his nerdy wire specs and hip-hop hairdo. One whole wall of his Fulham HQ office is given over to a life-size display of characters from Star Wars, while huge stormtrooper cutouts, Luke Skywalker plasma guns and the odd interloping figure from Planet of the Apes fight boxes of records for space in the rest of the room. Not yet 25, he has his own company, thirty-something girlfriend and one-year-old daughter, both of whom he clearly dotes on. Lavelle, for all his child-like enthusiasms has clearly been in a hurry to grow up, a fact he attributes partly to his "disjointed" childhood: his father, a lawyer and sometime jazz drummer, walking out when James was 12.

"That crippled the family. I al ways wanted a kid, so I could build my own family, as I wanted it to be," Lavelle says, though he admits that the ructions taught him self- sufficiency and determination. "It fuelled my fire, I guess, yeah."

Like so many before and since, it was music that saved him - specifically, hip-hop. "That gave me my identity. It was exciting, especially when most of my contemporaries were into retro rock. And there was an attitude that went with it. When you were into hip-hop, you were naughtier and you had a madder time and, I suppose, when you're at school that whole lifestyle thing is important."

Lavelle got to know Jim Abbiss, who mixed Psyence Fiction, because he was "the kid selling nicked VW badges at school". Later, Abbiss would turn Lavelle on to Radiohead and The Verve. It may seem like a long way from there to here, but after Unkle, Lavelle and DJ Shadow would now seem to have a good deal further yet to go.

Copyright News International Newspapers Ltd. Jul 26, 1998