The band share a career-spanning new mix and James Lavelle discusses how their new album The Road: Part I is about growing up, looking back and moving forward
UNKLE are often spoken about in the same breath as artists like Massive Attack, Portishead, Aphex Twin, and Goldie for forming a UK movement in the early 1990s that brought revellers in from the fields to the inner cities. Throughout the past two decades, UNKLE have undergone many incarnations and second, third, and fourth comings, but their one constant has been the presence of James Lavelle, who has been at the helm of the band since their formation in 1992.
Lavelle’s influence on British youth culture cannot be underestimated. His Mo’ Wax label became the go-to outlet for beanie-hatted, baggy-jeaned hip hop introverts throughout the 90s. Mo’ Wax became the UK’s answer to Def Jam, a label that gave hip hop a long-needed British identity and made art, fashion, and graffiti appealing to kids being raised on jungle sound systems.
In spite of this, Lavelle has always trodden a line between mainstream success and underground esteem – yet the past few years have been something of a reflective period for the artist. In 2014 he curated the Southbank’s annual Meltdown Festival, a coming together of his musical infatuations past and present that became the ethos behind The Road: Part I, UNKLE’s sixth album and their first with Lavelle adopting the UNKLE moniker as a solo endeavour. Crafted as a way to showcase London’s multicultural make-up, The Road: Part I became a cathartic experience for Lavelle – therapeutic even, given the excess that comes with being a figure of 90s dance music.
Before The Road: Part I hits the shelves this Friday (August 18), UNKLE have helmed our latest Dazed Mix. Subtitled James Lavelle presents Unkle AI Def Mix and mixed by Lavelle with Steve Weston, the mix spans the band’s entire catalogue, taking in their range of influences and showing what’s kept Lavelle at the forefront of club culture since its beginnings.
It’s been quite a while since your last album, and while I was listening to The Road: Part I it made me think of when you first began in the early 90s, and the social and musical parallels you can draw between that time and today. Was that a conscious thing for you on this new album?
James Lavelle: I’ve definitely wanted to dip my toe back into that period. When I was doing Psyence Fiction with DJ Shadow, there was much more of a reference towards names like Massive Attack and Portishead – but before we knew it, we made this rockier, vocal collaboration with sample-based music. We still took that hip hop aesthetic, but it didn’t reference anything I grew up on, so when it came to this record I felt that I wanted to (both) look back and look to the future. I wanted to reference the sound system culture I grew up with, but work with new kids who do things differently – artists like YSÉE, Keaton Henson, ESKA, and Elliott Power. They represent London multiculturalism. It’s a bit mad. Elliott discovered my records through his mum’s record collection, and it was the first time I met a scene of kids who had an interest in my world, both musically and visually.
I suppose they are one of the first generations of music makers to have been heavily influenced by bands like UNKLE, Massive Attack, Portishead...
James Lavelle: Their knowledge of what I and my contemporaries were involved in was incredible, so I wanted to bring that into the record. UNKLE had always been a partnership which by the end of it became… not good. The last record became very much about a band dynamic, and that dynamic had unfortunately become very toxic. But making art is a difficult thing. Sometimes a band comes together and when that’s amazing, you get a Beatles, a Blur, or a Radiohead. (In those cases) there tends to be someone who’s leading the charge, like Thom Yorke said ‘Radiohead is the UN and he’s America.’ Those lines became very blurred in the end for me. I’ve known Tim (Goldsworthy, UNKLE co-founder) since I was 12, DJ Shadow since 18, and Pablo (Clements, former UNKLE member) from 20, and in the end, the creativity became marred with a lot of history and politics. So this was a fresh start for me to step outside of that world. It allowed me to have my vision and see that through with people who felt a similar way.
“UNKLE had always been a partnership which by the end of it became… not good. The last record became very much about a band dynamic, and that dynamic had unfortunately become very toxic” – James Lavelle
So have you become more like an orchestral composer on this album? Taking elements from each act and bringing them together as a band? You mention the emotional attachment towards this – now that that UNKLE is your solo project, have you rediscovered that emotional attachment to what you’re doing?
James Lavelle: In a way, yeah. Everything has to have a personal and emotional connection of course, but I don’t exist very well when I’m on my own either. Mo’ Wax, UNKLE, my work with DJ Shadow – all my projects involved lots of people, so when things broke down with UNKLE seven years ago it was quite emotionally difficult. For a couple of years I was sitting around thinking ‘What am I doing?’, and for a while I had to try to find my feet. I had to find myself, find new people, and create some new experiences.
I’ve done my time, and I felt that this album couldn’t be another record about getting hammered. Well, the only time I did (get hammered) was when I was recording the original demos in Somerset. Me and the people I was working with in the studio all went to see Underworld and we had a… very fun night. We were working on the album track ‘Sunrise’ at the time, and it just wasn’t going in the direction that we wanted. It needed to feel old school but not dated, so we gave ourself a pass to see Underworld only if we went back to the studio afterwards, didn’t talk shit all night and made something out of it, and we did. We went back and wrote the lyrics for ‘Sunrise’, and because of that experience the track became a quite euphoric thing. It was brilliant, but it was a constructive situation…
Sometimes that’s quite important. If you were famous in the 90s and you’re still doing the same things today, what you’re writing about is either not real, or – if you are still living that lifestyle – pretty sad.
James Lavelle: Well, when you’re in the 90s, you have yourself a record deal – which was generally quite lucrative – and it was the lunatics running the asylum. ‘Here’s a record deal, here are the drugs, here’s the alcohol, everything is one big party and it’s great.’ When you’ve done that for 25 years, then at the age of 43 you want to make a record that’s a bit more present, mentally. There’s also a lot of shit that makes good stories and you can reminisce about certain things, but in the end the productivity of what you’re doing gets very affected. But I need to move forward in my way.
“I’m starting again, which is really exciting, with this great community of people who see the value of what they’re doing because it’s so much harder out there today” – James Lavelle
Is there an element of reminiscence to that time on the album?
James Lavelle: It’s about reengaging. I have a 20-year-old daughter, what’s she into? Is she going to listen to what I do, and can I still engage in that world? I’m starting again, which is really exciting, with this great community of people who see the value of what they’re doing because it’s so much harder out there today. We were lucky and were cursed, because there was a lot of excess…
And you were probably one of the last generations to experience that.
James Lavelle: You can’t really roll like that anymore. You have to be mindful of the whole business, which in an interesting way is what everyone dissed me for at the beginning. Making toys, and all that. The irony now is that that’s the business. You go on tour, you have a merchandise stall, make shit, collaborate with people and maybe work with Louis Vuitton along the way. But UNKLE’s always been a strange thing. We’ve won and we’ve lost. We’ve had success in different areas, but never in one place. And with this record I think, ‘How is that going to translate?’ And I think people will understand it now more than they ever have.