James Lavelle knows a lot about grand undertakings, big adventures, epic journeys. He knows a lot about fat tunes too. In the early Nineties, while still a teenager, he set up groundbreaking record label Mo’ Wax. It gave the world California’s DJ Shadow, Japan’s DJ Krush, the UK’s Psychonauts, a new kind of British dance music, and some of the greatest sleeve art ever created.
When he wasn’t running the label and DJ’ing all over the place, Lavelle was heading up the band UNKLE. Working with DJ Shadow, Lavelle pulled together a staggering array of vocal talent (Mike D, Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft, Badly Drawn Boy) for 1998’s cinematic-psychedelic-hip-hopera debut Psyence Fiction.
For UNKLE’s second album, 2003’s Never, Never Land, he ripped it up again. Partnered with Richard File, Lavelle wrangled a further selection of guest vocalists and collaborators 3D from Massive Attack, Ian Brown, Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Jarvis Cocker, Brian Eno, Mani to name but a few – on a killer group of electronic soul songs including the huge club hit “In A State”. This record took UNKLE into more of a singer songwriter direction with Richard File also contributing to vocals.
Their third album War Stories (2007) saw James and Rich decamp to Los Angeles and Joshua Tree teaming up with desert rock svengali Chris Goss, and taking their sound further into the realms of a more band type aesthetic. It employed The Cult’s Ian Astbury, The Duke Spirit, Autolux, Eagles of Death Metal and Twiggy of Marilyn Manson fame. War Stories saw the return of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Massive Attack’s 3D. The album saw Richard File contribute to vocals for a second time and featured James Lavelle’s vocal debut. It was here that the long-term relationship between UNKLE and singer songwriter Gavin Clark began.
This record allowed the band to shift into a more organic sound always trying to evolve and move forward and was the catalyst for James’ new independent label Surrender All taking him full circle back to independent creative control. ‘I wanted to create my own little world, similar to Mo’ Wax,’ says Lavelle of the business set-up that supports his endeavours. Having survived record deals with A&M, Island and XL, he is now self-published, self-released and owns his own studio and production house. ‘With the way the music industry is now, we have created a totally self-sufficient environment which is both reflective of and reactionary to today’s ever changing music industry. When you sell upwards of 200,000 albums worldwide, as UNKLE did with War Stories, Lavelle is taking care of business in all the right ways.
Three years on from their third album proper, after time spent touring the world and working on myriad soundtrack and advertising commissions, Lavelle and UNKLE are back with Where Did The Night Fall a big, deep, kaleidoscopic record. It’s both widescreen and intimate, propulsive and reflective, drawing in influences as diverse as krautrock, psychedelia, techno, afrobeat and their grass root sample sound.
After splitting with Richard File, James is now collaborating full time with former Psychonaut Pablo Clements, James Griffith from the UNKLE Live band, his brother Aidan Lavelle and Joel Cadbury (formerly of the band South).
It’s an album that began life on the road during Australia’s Big Day Out festival in early 2008 with the initial writing of “The Healing” which once again features vocals from long-term collaborator Gavin Clark (whose music regularly appears in film director Shane Meadow’s work). Of Gavin, James says, ‘To me he is an integral part of the soul of the band, both in the studio and live. Relationships like this are essential to us moving forward. It means that we have more of a traditional band aesthetic to the writing process and Gavin is an integral part of how we now work.’ James and Gavin crafted “The Healing” on the tour bus in Australia. The album was finally completed earlier this year, 24 months later.
‘We ended up recording so much material– about 35, 40 songs,’ says Lavelle with a rueful shake of the head. ‘We just couldn’t let anything go,’ he admits. ‘For about a year we just worked on 30 tracks simultaneously. And it just did our heads in but shows how productive we have become since creating our new environment…’
As much as there was so much going on they knew they were onto something, not least because the track “Follow Me Down” was an early highlight. Featuring San Francisco’s Sleepy Sun, the track is a sweeping kind of world music, evoking North Africa, Bollywood and underground London clubland.
‘We were listening to all this new music and going to all these shows. Pablo’s mad professor obsession with finding obscure music combined with my history and James Griffith’s more traditional recording approach allowed us to really spin this around. We thought it would be good to seek out and discover new talent – taking me back to what was one of my great joys in the Mo’ Wax days. It’s a great creative collaboration; the energy that people put in… We have a long history and because we aren’t a traditional band it allows us to be more free not having to focus on one individual. We are lucky that we have that and hopefully for a band like Sleepy Sun it’s gonna get them out to a whole new audience, while we get this massive injection of enthusiasm with the energy that young bands have. It’s amazing. The idea was to collaborate on stuff that felt a little more underground.’
So, The Black Angels pitched in on the galloping synth-rock-meets-doo-wop of “Natural Selection”. The atmospheric soundscapes of “Joy Factory” were rounded out by Los Angeles’ Autolux. The stirring melancholy of “The Answer” is fronted by Baltimore’s Big In Japan. Joel Cadbury lends his heartfelt vocals to the dramatic “Ever Rest”. Elle J, vocalist on “The Runaway” (heavy funk) and “On A Wire” (urgent New Wave/New Order disco-jitter), Lavelle found closer to home. She’s from Oxford too, and her mum and his mum are friends. He hooked up with her again in Brighton a few years ago; she gave him a CD of her stuff. When Lavelle needed a female vocalist for the last tour she was the obvious choice. ‘She’s got a got a great voice and feel – she’s like a gracious Commes De Garçons character, really elegant and very cerebral. She has a very thoughtful and articulate process to songwriting.’
Katrina Ford of Celebration and collaborator with TV On The Radio provides vocals on the wonderfully theatrical “Caged Bird”. James Lavelle himself adds vocals to the self-reflective classic UNKLE beats and strings banger “Ablivion”. We also see Gavin Clark change style on the euphoric electronic hymn “Falling Stars”.
Gradually they pulled together the disparate elements they needed. They recorded a ‘mad’ drum session with Mike Pelanconi who does the Drum Drop sample CDs, and has worked with a range of artists from Graham Coxon to Lily Allen. ‘He’s amazing at re-recording and getting the right sounds of drums. If you want to get a really authentic sound then he’s your man. He can recreate any sample beat which is what we love.’ Josh Block from White Denim also contributed drums to these sessions and The Heritage Orchestra, who last year interpreted a set of UNKLE songs at London’s Union Chapel, provide strings and horns.
One of the final pieces of the puzzle was Mark Lanegan. The American proto-grunge legend provides basement voice and soul-searching lyrics on “Another Night Out”. ‘We sent Mark a load of demos. The song that became “Another Night Out” was a track we had originally worked on which was just a very simple Beatles like guitar and piano piece, very fragile, and he came back with an incredible vocal take. His lyrics really sum up the mood of what the record’s about. Another night out, where did the night fall – those ideas are really about letting go… You know, where’s it all gone? You spend your life in this nocturnal, crazy world that you love so much – but you walk away from it and there’s nothing there. You end up really having to look at yourself and letting go of what you thought you were.’
Hence, then this shift, the thrilling, panoramic Where Did The Night Fall, ‘an upbeat, more optimistic record’, made on Lavelle and the band’s terms, on their money, and their (sometimes, as James’ admits) tortuous schedule.
‘Yeah, it was difficult, and it took a lot longer than I anticipated,’ says Lavelle, enthusiasm for the music rippling through him – you can see why he’s still in high demand as a DJ, from his long-running relationships with London’s Fabric, Tokyo’s Womb and Berlin’s Watergate to name a few.
‘But,’ he continues, ‘that’s what making records is like. That’s what’s important about this: we have a core group of people who are all part of the process. I had Polygram behind me with Mo’ Wax, then they were sold. I was involved in the early stages of XL helping to bring in acts like Dizzee Racal, MIA and Adele – the label has now grown into the most important independent label in the world. I have also been signed as UNKLE to Island Records. However the nature of the record industry is such that relationships come and go.’
‘For me it is all about doing our own thing and keeping some semblance of control in an ever changing world. I don’t wanna be dropped again. I don’t wanna be in that environment with the A&R man changing every month and the accountants and marketing people running things. This, what we’ve done with Where Did The Night Fall, is what making music’s about. We’ve created our own world. And hopefully that’s a positive thing for people to see and hear. With this record we really feel like we are at the beginning of our careers. The last 15 years have been our education and now we are about to go out into the real world. We have learnt that it is not about one individual. It is about communal spirit and essentially the music rules.’