Few electronic artists have pioneered as many new sounds as James Lavelle, the mastermind behind the British outfit UNKLE and the record label Mo’ Wax. Over the years Lavelle has brought a diverse lineup of artists in to the studio to collaborate with UNKLE – including Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, and instrumental hip-hop pioneer DJ Shadow, to name a few. It’s that diversity that has helped UNKLE explode preconceptions about electronic music and gain a worldwide cult following in the process.
Today we’re looking back at a 2007 chat with UNKLE’s James Lavelle that took place just after the release of the group’s third full-length release, War Stories. A new direction for UNKLE at the time, War Stories relied primarily on live instrumentation to create its multi-textured, genre-busting sound. The group called on friends such as Marilyn Manson’s Twiggy Ramirez (bass), Psychonauts’ Pablo Clements (synths), Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws (guitar), and others to help flesh out the songs. Read on for Lavelle’s thoughts on the album, the collaborative process, and more.
Ticketmaster: The new album’s first single, “Burn My Shadow,” was the first track made for the album. What was it like recording the track and what, if any, personal significance does the song have for you?
James Lavelle of UNKLE: It was the first track that started the relationship with (producer) Chris Goss. Ian Brown introduced me to Chris and we thought it would be a good idea for us to record a track together. That was recorded about a year before the album was then recorded. It was kind of the seed for what we wanted to do with the record. And the process was really enjoyable. In that respect, it was pretty significant in that it was the track that started everything off. Me and Ian were going through changes and relationship things. There is a lot of personal stuff in that song. But I think more from Ian really.
TM: After that you went to Joshua Tree to continue recording. Did the desert setting of Joshua Tree have any influence on the sound of the record?
JL: Yeah, definitely. You know, not all of the songs were recorded in the desert, but some of them were. It was a great writing period and a great place to let go and throw yourself into the recording process. In that way, it was a huge influence because it really opened us up. It was very pivotal to me. That’s where I started singing. It was where a lot of my and Rich File’s best moments in our own songs came from. A lot of the other tracks were done in different places and weren’t done in the desert. Some were done in LA, some were done in London.
TM: Can you talk a bit about what you have in store for the current tour? How does it differ from your past tours?
JL: It’s live so there’s a band. It’s drums, bass, guitar, keyboards. Me, Gavin (Clark) and Rich (File) on vocals. And then, depending on where we are, the guests may be able to do some shows. We’re going to do some shows, I think, with Leila (Moss) from the Duke Spirit. And maybe some shows later in the year with Ian Astbury, hopefully. It’s sort of a mixture of visuals, vocals from existing tracks and a band playing, and tracks that we’re singing ourselves. So it’s kind of a mixture of different things as a show. But that’s kind of the nature of where the records come from. It has an element of electronic music in that respect, so it’s kind of an electronic show, but it’s also a more traditional rock show.
TM: There’s been a special edition of the album that was released in England. It comes with a CD with the instrumental tracks, another CD with the proper album, and a booklet of artwork and other material. Can you talk about your unique approach to packaging and your collaborations with artists for your albums?
JL: We worked with 3D from Massive Attack on the artwork for this album. And Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones—a design and photography duo. Will Bankhead has always done photos for UNKLE and myself. And [Ben] Drury, who designed the other UNKLE records. In the limited edition, there’s a 50-page booklet with photos and images we’ve collected for the record basically. I’ve worked on the record for a few years, so I think it’s important to present it in the most beautiful way possible. With the current scheme of things, MP3s seem to rule the record-buying public’s lives. I just hope that something that has a bit more effort put into it will be appreciated by fans.
TM: Speaking of MP3s, where do you stand on the issue of illegal sharing of music files? Besides releasing work with great packaging, are there any other things you’re doing to fight off the illegal sharing of your work?
JL: No, I appreciate what goes on. I think it’s a part of what it’s about. But I think there’s a degree where it’s positive and a degree where it’s negative. If I didn’t make any money on this record, then there won’t be another record. So there is a reality and an economic issue that one has to address. I also find that if a record comes out the day after mastering, and it’s been on the internet for six months because that’s how long it takes to manufacture and produce the packaging and the artwork…people can get bored quickly. So people have to be patient sometimes. I don’t know what effects it’s going to have on this record. If I’m going to be able to sell enough records to make another one or not.