UNKLE, the stage name of musician James LaVelle, is a master of electronic music and one of the heavyweights of British trip-hop. The founder of the iconic Mo Wax record label has shown a continued drive to showcase cutting-edge, avant-garde, genre-pushing music. The release of the groundbreaking album Psyence Fiction, created with DJ Shadow and featuring collaborations with artists like Thom Yorke, Jason Newsted, Richard Ashcroft and more, spawned a generation of idolizers. From there LaVelle continued pursuing new electronic music with high-profile and unexpected collaborations including Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and Ian Astbury of The Cult.
UNKLE’s newest record is the second of a two-part album. The Road Part 1 came after seven years on hiatus with the UNKLE moniker. The Road Part 2 picks up where the first one left off with some of LaVelle’s most dense, beautiful and piercing music. mxdwn spoke with LaVelle to discuss The Road Part 1 and The Road Part 2 – Lost Highway, the unorthodox collaborations on his records, the legacy of Mo Wax Records and the current state of music in general.
mxdwn: The Road project showcased UNKLE almost as a solo act coming back after seven years. What was it like putting together this record almost solo versus having somebody else be part of that record?
UNKLE: I don’t think when you’re making records unless you’re Jeff Lynne or something, you know, you always collaborate. Because you’re working with engineers and muses and just the technical side of things, unless you do it all yourself, which I don’t, and most people don’t in the great scheme of things. Even if you’ve recorded all your instruments, a lot of people have somebody else mix it or produce it or co-produce it or whatever. So I think the sense of me being on my own, it’s not the sense that I’m entirely on my own in the process of making the records. It’s more that I have a sense of vision and I’m able to fulfill that vision without having to partner with somebody else. That’s because of numerous sort of fallouts and all of the sort of things that have gone on over the years. But I just felt that after the last incarnation I didn’t want to… I just wanted to be able to make records the way I wanted to make them. For better or for worse I just felt that was where I wanted to be.
So to be honest with you it’s made the process a lot easier, because for me I feel in control of what I’m doing. But I am very mindful that I work with a lot of people and I have people that I appreciate their opinions hugely. So it’s not like a kind of, try to be a kind of dictatorship within making records. It’s just about, it’s more the purely business sort of practical vision point of view that I’ve done it and I just felt that this was the time for me to just do it the way I wanted to do it entirely. But again it doesn’t always work out that way because you’re working with so many different people and you’re working with different singers and musicians. So people also bring those opinions into the mix. But it was about a more streamlined way of working for me.
And that can be lonely, because a lot of those people that you work with, their relationships sort of grow from childhood in the past, so there’s a certain connection, emotional connection. But it’s just sort of the way things have ended up, I think in an ideal world I wish that, in a nostalgic way it’d be nice not to ever have to change, you know? And it’d be great to still be making records for Tim Goldsworthy, but it’s just the way these things happen, because they’re not really traditional. It’s not like a traditional band in that respect.
mxdwn: Let’s talk about those collaborations, because you always have such wonderful people on your record. Mark Lanegan’s on this record, Josh Homme, Mick Jones, Dhani Harrison. When you sit down to write and produce art, are those collaborations already in your head, or do you piece them together after the fact? Do you write those songs specifically for those singers or is it more of a give and take?
UNKLE: Yeah. Sometimes you might send multiple tracks just depending on the artist, you know? But I sort of have an idea of…I think what tends to happen is you have an idea of who you want to work with and you also have an idea of when you’re putting a record together, because I still try and make records in a traditional sense…having a beginning and middle and end, go on about a singles thing, or every track has to be a certain style. It’s about taking you on a journey, it’s almost like this sort of collage, where you’re going ‘So we got that,’ ‘So how do we get this?’ ‘Who would be best to work with on this?’ We’ve got something really banging, we need something more mellow, something more guitar inflated or something electronic. So it’s a combination of a game of putting together a puzzle, you know?
mxdwn: I like what you said about putting together a record. I think that is a lost art, one that goes across more than just a single.
Yeah but some of the best records of all time were not singles-led records. The Dark Side of the Moon, you know? And Beethoven definitely wasn’t a singles market.
mxdwn: What is the story that you’re trying to tell with The Road Part 2 / The Lost Highway? What is the listener meant to take away from the story?
UNKLE: See, imagine the first part is like…if you imagine something like the Odyssey or something, the first part is leaving home, and that first record is about me finding myself again after a break from making albums and what had happened with the last carnation of UNKLE. It was like finding and going back to certain ways of making songs and I wanted something that had a certain kind of…I didn’t want it to be too ambitious in the sense of time. It needed to, I don’t know, I just wanted it to feel quite cohesive in a simpler way, as a record, not like the first record I put out, which came in under an hour, things like that.
And I wanted to try and identify the things I loved about UNKLE records, try and have a record that engaged with the past and hopefully the present and the future with that. I think this record is more like, in a metaphor is like the journey, life’s journey, the experiences you have once you get out there and you start living your life, and the ups and the downs, and the growing up, and the guilty pleasures. This record to me is like a sort of time lapse of life, whether it’s a beginning of the day to the end of the day. A journey of growing up, and becoming as a metaphor, a man, in a sense of becoming an adult.
I also wanted to do it as a double. I wanted to have something which was much more eclectic, so I wanted the aesthetic of it more like it was a radio show or you’re on a road trip, imagine you’re driving down Route 66 and you’re just playing the radio, putting on your favorite songs, the way I would would be compiling that in different emotions in different points of the day. So like a mixtape, or a tape, a cassette back in the day when I was starting. I wanted it to have that kind of journey to it really. And then the idea would be that the third record is about coming home.
mxdwn: The “Iter” tracks that you have throughout the record are very profound statements and nicely break up the record into quadrants. Are all those segues connected in some way?
UNKLE: Kind of, yeah. In the sense of they are. I love skits and records, I grew up on hip-hop records, I love that kind of thing as having skits and like what we’re doing, side sections or introducing and things like that. But it’s also a way of having a sort of weird narrative, you can create this ambiguous slightly, you can sort of communicate things in a certain way. Yeah it sort of just adds to the narrative of the record. It helps break up things and introduce things, so it’s important to me that it kind of creates a certain space and adds to the narrative and what’s going on.
mxdwn: It’s a good palate cleanser.
UNKLE: Yeah it’s sort of the sorbet between each part of the meal.
mxdwn: Your version of “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” is haunting. Why did you choose that song, besides the obvious that it’s a beautiful song?
UNKLE: I’ve never really covered records before, but it was a song I’ve always wanted to cover, and Keaton also always wanted to cover it, so it kind of was a perfect marriage in doing something like that. Well I think he does it justice, I tried my best to just keep it there, but I think he does it justice. Not an easy record to cover, because…the reverse flat version is so phenomenal. But I think he’s done it incredibly. His take on it is pretty phenomenal I think. But it’s a one-take, kind of…it’s got that feeling of, his performance I think encapsulates the feeling, that feeling of what the song says, which is so important, but it’s quite…sometimes can be very hard. I think he’s just very, very powerful with a certain kind of emotion. He’s got that Jeff Buckley/Thom Yorke thing in that respect, the way he can move his voice around.
mxdwn: Mo’ Wax got its start in 1992 and was a turning point in electronic music. Looking back, how hard was it for you to sustain that label and do you see its legacy in these next iterations of electronic musicians and other music in general?
UNKLE: Yeah I do. Because it was very hard to sustain, I was very young and it was a very different industry then. There was a lot of wonderful moments but it was tough and hence in the end I couldn’t sustain it. I think what its legacy is is that it’s basically whether it’s the merchandising things and the more investing in design and packaging, through to collectivism, or the elegance of the people that came through that label and what they ended up doing. And that, as well as it’s not just musicians. For instance, when I left XL I hired Nick Huggett and he signed Adele and M.I.A. and Dizzee Rascal, which pretty much changed the British music industry. So the story and the relationships, whether it was with Fading Ape or Supreme or combining, putting different, much more eclectic ideas of electronic music, because there were a lot of boundaries within those communities at the time. I think all that stuff is very much part of the modern music industry.
mxdwn: What is the most difficult thing about you doing your live show?
UNKLE: Kind or prohibitive. So for years people expect that Thom Yorke’s going to be touring with you or something it’s a bit like, reality (laughs). It’s been an interesting journey and it continues to be so. So when I first started doing things, doing an electronic performance without singers or whatever was kind of a real no-no, it was really using track or when you’re making an UNKLE record and there’s 150 vocal takes, plus string takes, it’s pretty much an impossibility to go and perform everything live. I think what’s interesting now is the younger generation growing on music, it’s not unusual for them to see a DJ performing or being bigger than a band now. When you go see a lot of electronic acts it’s two guys on laptops. So I think the perception of how music is performed and what live music is has changed.
I was watching last night, I just some reason my girlfriend we were just watching Queen at Live Aid and that type of show is not received in the same way it was then. You’re lucky you still have people performing, even with something on that scale there’s an element of very raw and quite basic actually, but the performances excel because of the ability of the musician. But I think now what people expect is people are much more into, this is just the climate of right now. And I’m not saying that about everybody, but the expectation of things is it’s much more show-like in the sense of what’s going on with the visuals and lighting and all of those things, which I think wasn’t necessarily as important before. And I think it’s very much because electronic music and hip-hop has become the center of the music industry, financially and economically right now. People’s expectations are different.
So in a certain way it allows you to present things in a different way, which for someone like me is actually relatively helpful. But it’s just changed the nature. It also depends on the environment in which you’re playing. If I’m playing a show in London at the Royal Festival Hall or something like that, by proximity it’s easier to put on something with a lot of collaborators and people. If you’re suddenly going to Greece or Milwaukee it’s slightly different, but you kinda got to…I try to adapt. You have to, with what I do, is adapt shows for different experiences and also because the thing with UNKLE is we’re not a straight rock-and-roll band, or a straight hip-hop band or anything. It’s very eclectic, so in certain ways you can sort of fit yourselves into different environment depending on what the musical direction is. If I’m going to go and play a heavier guitar-based festival then I can go and play more of a War Stories set. If I’m going to play an electronic festival I can engage more with the remix side of what we’ve done. For me it’s actually way more creative now for what I’m doing, because people are more understanding of what you’re trying to do. It’s not about having to have the band aesthetic, it’s about what I think people expect from me is more of an experience. Whereas if you go see Radiohead you want to see a band.
But when I started that was very hard. People are very, very aggressive about it. It was not a nice…people are so aggressive about these things, about it not being fully live or ‘Where’s Thom York or Richard Ashcroft?’ or whatever.
mxdwn: Yeah it’s interesting when you think about that, about electronic music in the ’90s and coming up you saw it first hand, about live shows. I don’t think people really talk about that very much, they want to go to a concert, they want to see a live show, but as far as the perspective of the live show how much that has changed over the years.
UNKLE: Yeah, I think the last decade has changed phenomenally. And some of that’s great, but other sides of it is ridiculous. In the sense that going to see somebody with a helmet on their head DJing to me is just…Wait a minute I’m going to get myself into trouble here…I love Daft Punk, don’t get me wrong. But Daft Punk has something where the music has always been very cerebral and the experience of what they created is quite cerebral. I never saw Daft Punk as being gimmicky with the robots. So what is to come and it’s always been there in the music, don’t get me wrong, or any of the arts, there’s a huge entertainment factor to what’s going on right now. And that’s okay, but it’s different, so some of it’s brilliant but some of it has just got a bit absurd.
mxdwn: It gets watered down, just like anything else.
UNKLE: Yeah, very watered down. But so, it’s interesting how also massively financially driven it’s become. It’s sort of like it’s become this sort of circus-ness to it at times. And I’m talking more about electronic music, not necessarily in live music in the traditional sense of rock-and-roll. Because on the flip side what you’re getting is I think that because of that there is a rise. For instance jazz has become very popular again lately and I think part of that is because you’ve probably got a generation of kids going ‘Anybody can do that I want to do something which is more than that and I want to be crafted. I want to pick up and play the drums, or play the saxophone’ or whatever instrument it might be in a professional way. There’s something unique about that.
So there’s a flip side where people are. It seems like the art of things is also rearing its head more because we’re in a very sort of Populist, quite disposable [society.] A lot of it’s become very like…fast food, instant-gratification. But also socially in the sense, a lot of it also I think came about because we’re in an era of the ‘self.’ The individual, the one person, online playing your game, the pop singer. The band mentality has been not as popular, because of the ways that I think youth culture is communicating. Probably going to find that in a few years time, going on Facebook will come with a fucking health warning.
And you do need to go outside and play with people and engage with people. So there’s something about that side of live music which is really important. Because there’s a human interaction that you can’t replicate from being on a computer, or ‘da de da de da’ necessarily. So I think it’s an interesting climate right now of where this change is going to happen, in the same way that in the late ’80s it all became sort of hairspray rock-and-roll and not really great songs….and disco, the cheesier elements of disco, we’re in a very disco period and where that reaction is going to be. You had that punk and then you had that with grunge. Where’s the Nirvana, where’s the Sex Pistols, as an example. Where’s the Public Enemy? And I think, I’m hoping that and I think it is circular, we’re in a very selfish time right now. And you can see that vastly in politics and money. It’s all about this sort of the individual becoming this sort of, the Citizen Kane type scenario.
mxdwn: Very interesting. And it’s right. It’s all cyclical.
UNKLE: But don’t forget as well when pop music started it was very much a singles market. The Beatles were really the band that changed the album market. Before The Beatles. bands weren’t really allowed to write their own songs on a record.
mxdwn: Isn’t that crazy?
UNKLE: Yeah. That’s one of the things. When The Beatles did their deal with the EMI, the whole thing was ‘We’ll do the deal with you, but we have to be able to record our own songs’ But if you think about it, it was all about Jukebox 45s before, which is a bit like where we are right now with streaming. So it’s been interesting to see how all these things culminate in new ways of communicating. I do get a sense that’s why things like jazz and certain areas of music in that way are having more of a comeback. I think everybody should be able to enjoy music and everybody should be able to enjoy creativity but it doesn’t always mean you’re good at doing it.
There has to be some point where if you’re uber-DJs or uber-acts where you’ve got millions and millions of these people making your records, you’re not really…I find with a lot of the biggest DJs in the world, and the biggest very much ‘in that world,’ but I don’t really see where the sense is. I’m not saying it’s a disrespect thing or whatever but I’m like, ‘What does this person mean?’ Because one minute they’re making an R&B record, the next minute it’s a house record, the next minute it’s a fucking techno record. Which it’s fine to make eclectic music, it’s like we’re in a massive factory element to how music’s being made. And I’m sure that for a lot of kids they’re sitting there going, ‘I want to be really good at playing this, I want to be the best at it, I can actually do and perform it and be a certain kind of truth to it.’ So I think again it’s very disco, it’s very like jukebox culture at the moment. And I’m sure things will change.
mxdwn: Do you think you would ever make another record with DJ Shadow?
UNKLE: You know, who knows. The future is unwritten as… god I’ve gone blank. I was going to try to do some very prophetic thing and I’ve entirely forgotten. Joe Strummer said ‘The future is unwritten.’ So let’s see.