Unkle – Interview 2017

UnkleJames Lavelle was the founder of the seminal Mo’Wax label back in 1993, fermenting a heady mash up of hip-hop, jazz and trip-hop. It was very much a label with an internationalist outlook, with acts as far afield as Japan, France, and the USA featuring prominently, as well as from the UK. Moreover, it was more than just about music; art and culture were intrinsically woven into the ethos, and Mo’Wax became one of the biggest cult labels of the 90s. At the same time, Lavelle forged his own musical project Unkle, eventually releasing his debut album Psyence Fiction, in 1998. Featuring contributions from the likes of Ian Brown, DJ Shadow, Thom Yorke and Richard Ashcroft, it set the template for Unkle, one that has continuously forged links with other artists, musical and otherwise. Mixing a career of DJ’ing, curating and recording, Lavelle curated Meltdown in 2014, and just recently released The Road Pt.1, Unkle’s sixth album.

So, is Mo’Wax no more?
I put a record out last year as a collaboration, with Elliot Power, on a label called Marathon, which was run by the guy who started Source, a kind of parallel to Mo’Wax in the 90s. I find the process quite difficult now. Mo’Wax was very much about a time and a group of people and, a bit like Factory Records, it’s probably best left alone.

With Unkle I get to do most of the things I did with Mo’Wax. I collaborate with different musicians and artists, I get to work within the world of video and art. It allows me to be responsible for just myself, without sounding too irresponsible, and not having to run a record label where you’re responsible for bigger people’s careers. Right now, I don’t have that mindset.

So, that’s a no then!?
Never say never. But I do think Mo’Wax was a bit like a band and so when it split up, I think when you look at something like 24 Hour Party People it was a similar kind of dynamic in many ways.

The new album is called The Road, Pt. 1. Will there be a part two?
That is my intention, yeah. I like the title, it is a metaphor for many different things. I feel on a creative level it’s the road you travel, creating, and the people you meet on the way. I feel it might become something like Bob Dylan’s never ending tour. It might be the title that continues for a long time. I don’t know. I always saw it as a trilogy, but we’ll see.

You seem to thrive on collaborations…
Yeah, it’s the way my working has developed over the years, and it’s what I feel comfortable doing as an artist. Someone like DJ Shadow, for instance, is very much about being a one-man army. I’ve never really felt like that. I’ve being about this collage of things that become something. In the same way you build a house, I want to have the best plumber, and the best architects, rather than doing it all myself.

I’m always impressed that you work with new artists as well as established artists, such as Mark Lanegan…
There are quite a few players that are well known, people like Troy (Van Leeuwen) from Queens of the Stone Age, Twiggy from Marilyn Manson, and Will Malone doing strings. Most of the vocalists on this record are newer, or slightly more cult. Eska’s been around a long time, but has flourished of late as a solo artist. Keaton Heason is a very interesting cult artist. Then you’ve got Elliott Power and Mink, who are coming up now.

How do these collaborations come about?
I suppose the easiest way to describe it is how you meet friends. Things happen in strange and weird ways. I think the social side of it was more prevalent before, now that I am older. I was in a club seven days a week when I first started. A lot of people on this record I met through Meltdown, a load from the past. Things happen from when people say they like what you do.

How does an Unkle track evolve?
I usually write a series of tracks before sending them to people. We wrote about 30 before starting the record. There’s also a big visual side to how it develops as well. So during the process of making most of the records you’re looking at both what you’re doing musically and visually, and how that works as a community, and a shared experience. But the process of making this record was different because it was lot more fluid, less dramatic. I always felt making an Unkle record was like building a pyramid from the top down, from when you first started and you’re very naive and hypothetical, full of great ideas, through to the last record which was incredibly painful. Then, it was all about analogue sounds and the right drum takes before you have songs. On this record I wanted to make sure the melodies from the demos were the main focus, and how things built from there, rhythm-wise, and the ‘sound’ came later.

I read that Meltdown was a catalyst for this record…
For me, having the last incarnation of Unkle separated, you find yourself in a period of working out what you’re going to do. It’s like a divorce. You either run straight back into a relationship, or you spin plates for a while and get your feet back on the ground, which is what I ended up doing. Then Meltdown happened and that gave me some confidence, and a push, and that passion again. It was very humbling, and very inspiring to have a lot of these people into this world that you’d been a part of, and helped create the last 25 years.

Tell me about the Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick exhibition you helped organise last year…
There were 69 artists who reacted to the world of Kubrick, ranging from musicians, sculptors, painters; from Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk, to Anish Kapoor. I worked on through his wife, and it was a monumental thing for me. To be allowed into that inner circle for a while was pretty amazing.

What about the more recent history of Unkle exhibitions you’ve organised?
What I find interesting with music at the moment, is how people react to music in different environments. We’ve been through this decade or so of a digital relationship with music, which has had its benefits, and its negatives. Part of that negativity is the environment people listen in, and how people exchange music. When you put music in a gallery, or stop and see an installation, it gives people a different headspace rather than just downloading something off iTunes, or listening to something on Spotify. When you’ve spent a lot of time crafting this work… we’re all artists, your work should ideally be respected and consumed in the right way. So, environment is incredibly important for the arts.

What is Unkle Sounds?
It is more of a DJ take on Unkle, and also remixes, re-edits, classic tracks, DJ’ing with visuals. Again, it’s different environments where the music works. I spin a lot of plates still. Last weekend I was in Zurich and Croatia. When I play I like a lot of very euphoric techno-inspired records. I could play anything from Innervations to Sasha, and mix it up with lots of strange things.

I happen to have a very early remix of yours, for United Future Organisation (UFO), which I think was your first release?
Yeah, the first official release, 1993. It was incredibly bongo-heavy. I wished the bongos would stop for a second! It was for their cover of ‘Moondance’, by Van Morrison. At the time, the aim was anything to put a record out! I did it with Brendan Lynch, who worked a lot with Paul Weller, and it was all done to tape, cut and edited on tape. It was Simon Richmond on bongos, and there were lots of bongos. The beat was ‘Sneakin in The Back’ (Tom Scott & The L.A. Express, 1974) which had been used previously by Massive Attack for their ‘Blue Lines’ track.

Jeff Hemmings

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