Lost Highway: James Lavelle And The Continuing Mission Of UNKLE

The Mo’Wax mastermind reflects on his latest band of collaborators...

It was only last August that Clash caught up with James Lavelle, but things have been characteristically busy in the UNKLE camp in the intervening months.

Following the release of stellar documentary The Man from Mo’Wax last year, Lavelle has been hard at work on the second part of The Road, an ambitious trilogy of new albums. Part I, released in 2017, marked UNKLE’s triumphant return to the limelight after a seven-year absence.

During that time, Lavelle was still firing on all cylinders, juggling his time between scoring work, curating his iteration of Meltdown in 2014 and an exhibition on the life and work of Stanley Kubrick in 2016. Lavelle’s work on Meltdown served as the catalyst that would ultimately get him back in to the studio in earnest, where he began work on the sessions that would eventually pave the way to The Road.

With Part II now available (we liked it a lot – Clash review) and work underway on the final part of the trilogy, Paul Weedon sat down with Lavelle again to discuss his new band of collaborators as well as paying homage to Stanley Kubrick and figuring out the right time and place for a quality cover version.

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Congratulations on the album, James. Had you always conceived The Road as a trilogy?

Yeah, I wanted to do a trilogy of records. It’s something that I’d wanted to do for a while and I wanted to break it up in that way… It felt like there was a start, middle and an end point. So if you sort of imagine something like the Odyssey or Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, it’s that sort of thing where the first record was about starting again and that journey. I suppose the second album is more about when you’re on your life’s journey and the experiments you make, throughout that period in your life.

And I suppose the idea of third record, which I’m making and will be out at some point, is more about coming home, really.

You’ve mentioned the fact that what you were doing now with these records feels very similar to what you were doing back in the days of Mo’Wax. Can you elaborate on that a little?

I think it was more with certain tracks, like Ar.Mour, where it brought me back to the Mo’Wax mindset really and sort of referencing records and things that were coming more from that period in my life, as well as looking back a bit… When we were talking about the first single, it was engaging with that idea of being more ‘beatsy’ and more ‘sampley’ and how those elements would collide. But I think this second record is really just a reflection of the last twenty years in the eclecticness of it… I think all of my records are pretty eclectic, but with the first record there was a certain kind of focus as to how I wanted it to be put together. It was 48 minutes, or something… With this record, I wanted to go much more on a journey and be much more sort of referential to that eclecticism and put more of a mixtape or radio show feeling in to it.

Talk me through how you go about assembling a group of collaborators like this – figuring out where their contribution fits within the scope of the project as a whole.

It’s quite an organic process. I think the thing is with The Road trilogy is that it started four years ago and will finish on the third part and so, in a weird way, it’s sort of like a diary of music that’s been recorded over those periods. Some of the stuff on this record goes right back to when I first started writing these records to stuff that’s been literally made and finished a week before you’re mastering it.

I think, for me, it was very much trying to create a situation of constantly being on the road… You end up in these weird, wonderful situations where you’re collaborating with people for various reasons – whether it’s just because you want to make a song or you’re working on an exhibition, or you find yourself in a situation where you’re collaborating with someone whilst you’re away and trying to put all that stuff in to create albums, rather than go in to a studio for three months and making a record, which was kind of more typical in the past.

Did you have a bank of individuals in mind that you wanted to get involved with the project right from the beginning?

Yeah, sometimes, sure. Yeah, definitely. Depending on the singer, you’re working on ideas musically and there are things that are very specific to people. There are things that you’ve worked on that you then end up in a position where there’s an opportunity to kind of present various ideas that you think would suit that person… The idea of an album is you’re also looking for different moods, different highs and lows etc. and so you might sometimes think, “Okay, right, I’m going to write with this person.”

Depending on their style as a creative, whether it’s a singer or a musician, you’re thinking, well, it would be really great because I’ve done some upbeat things or downbeat things… So it becomes a sort of puzzle and you end up having these pieces and putting these pieces together and realising that actually you’re missing these pieces here, or you need to focus in on that style of song.

And that style of song would work really great with this person… And you know that you really like this track that you did ages ago, but it didn’t work in that situation. I really want it to be part of this experience and so how do I get from A to B?

And in terms of orchestral work, how does collaborating with someone like Philip Sheppard or Wil Malone work? At what stage do they become involved in a track?

Usually a little bit later. You usually would have a strong basis of what the track is melodically, and someone like Wil works very old school, so you’d present him with a track, or a song and you talk about what it is that you’re trying to create emotionally and references of mood and he will write sheet music in a very traditional arranger way… When I did Lonely Soul, my first reference to him was that I wanted to do a song like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. So you talk about those references.

And Philip?

Philip would go and record and send you his recordings. And it’s interesting because Philip is basically a one-man orchestra. It’s amazing to be able to work with somebody like that, because recording orchestras is an expensive process, so we don’t always have the luxury of being able to do that and what he also brings is obviously a very individual thing. With Wil, you’re going in to AIR Studios and places like that and recording an orchestra and those tend to be a bit different. So the Philip Sheppard collaborations are just him. Wil Malone is him writing and arranging, but you’re then working with a twenty, thirty piece orchestra. You get a different sound from the different experiences. You get a more intimate sound with Philip and you get grander orchestral sound with Wil.

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You’ve worked extensively with Elliot Power and Miink across both of these records. How did you come to collaborate with them?

I met Elliot and Miink when I worked on Elliot’s first album. I worked with him with a label called Marathon and I did a Mo’Wax collaboration with him for the first record.

They were sort of this young generation that I was meeting from West London and they were the first generation of kids who had grown up on UNKLE and Mo’Wax and had had all the reference points – whether it was from the music, the fashion, the visual identities, the history – we’d be talking about Buffalo, to A Bathing Ape, to Futura, Basquiat, to records that we loved – it was this really great sort of period of meeting young musicians in London who had really kind of got what it was that we were doing before, from Mo’Wax through to the UNKLE records that came later on. And it was really exciting to work with some really new young exciting artists who were really in to that history.

How does the creative process work with those guys? Do you co-write with them?

Everything depends, but most of the time people write their own songs, lyrically… It really depends on the artist. It depends on the scenario. Sometimes there is an essence of something that you want to guide further, or you talk about… So, Cowboys and Indians on the last record, we all wrote in the room in one afternoon together. Everything was just done as a sort of collective thing.

Something like 'Only You', I had a conversation with Dorian [Lutz AKA Miink] about what it was that I was trying to achieve with the track. He then went back and sent me some ideas, we’d go back and forth, but he very much wrote his own lyrical parts. So Dorian and Elliot write their own lyrics generally, but it depends on how the process of the track is. Something like Ar.Mour, we did that in the room together like Cowboys.

But also, Dorian’s really great at production, so he also tends to like to come in, work with you and then take it away and do his time at home in his own studio and come back to you.

Do you have a particular preference?

No. To be honest with you, there’s nothing really better than being a room together. I mean, you know, sometimes for various reasons, especially when you’re recording with someone who’s on the road, or they’re in America or whatever, it doesn’t always work that way, and that’s the wonder of modern technology…

Like, 'Psyence Fiction', you couldn’t get in a room for a year with Thom Yorke, so you’d have to wait because you couldn’t do it. Whereas now you can have a conversation on Skype, talk about it, that person goes away and sends you a vocal, or whatever, and you can go back and forth that way, so you’re not financially limited by the fact that you have to fly to the States and you have to record something.

But it’s always a nicer experience to be in the room with somebody, if you can. And most of the time you are, but sometimes you’re not.

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One of the other collaborators I wanted to ask you about was Dhani Harrison.

Oh, yeah. That was recorded at Friar Park. That’s the Harrison home, which was quite extraordinary.

I bet. How did that collaboration come about?

He reached out to me a few years ago. And we talked about working together and eventually an opportunity came where he invited me to his dad’s… well, it’s his studio now, but the Harrison studio, which was his father’s studio and that was quite a week.

That week, I recorded with Mick Jones at his place, which was quite extraordinary. If you’re a Clash fan, it was the Holy Grail of that world and I went down to Friar Park to record in the Harrison studio where every guitar that was played on every Beatles record – the first ever Mellotron, the first MOOG… it was the studio that he made all of his solo records in. That was pretty extraordinary…

“Do you want to play on the Magical Mystery Tour guitar? Do you want to play on the 1950s Berlin-Hamburg guitar? This is the only guitar that was played on every Beatles record, which was given to him by John Lennon.” That was pretty insane.

I can’t imagine that’s something you ever get used to.

No. I think people do when you’re born in to it and you experience it. I don’t know… Some people are born in to a life where they’re surrounded by, because of parents or whatever… but at the end of the day, for any of us, when you’re a fan, you’re a fan and so it doesn’t matter…

Look at somebody like, I don’t know, as an example… Dave Grohl. He’s like the ultimate fan boy, but he’s still the biggest rock musician in the world… If you’re going to walk in to Dr Dre’s studio, as an example, you’re going to freak out. It doesn’t matter who you are.

It doesn’t even have to be anybody famous either, you know? But I think that’s also this incredible joy – and that’s why these records are called The Road… I recorded one of the tracks at Stanley Kubrick’s house.

I was going to get on to that. Christiane Kubrick’s spoken word contribution is a particularly striking moment on the album. I’m assuming that was off the back of the Daydreaming exhibition?

I basically had a corridor of music that I curated for the exhibition where there was this Chris Levine laser piece and along the corridor I had an interview that I recorded, which was part of where that was taken from, with Christiane. I’d been told that it might have been the last interview she would do, so I was very fortunate to have this experience with her where I curated this exhibition and she gave me the blessing to do it…

She was an artist and was very much involved in his artistic side of film – i.e. she was mixing paint and glitter in water with Douglas Trumbull to create effects for 2001, or for Eyes Wide Shut, the paintings in the houses are all her paintings, or she was in Venice with her brother, who was Stanley’s producer, choosing all of the masks for Eyes Wide Shut, as examples…

What I realised, because Stanley obviously was not around, was that I didn’t want to do the exhibition without her supporting it, but I really wanted her to engage with the exhibition and I sort of ended up making the exhibition, in many ways for her, because that was the conduit for this situation…

What was important to me was that I really wanted her to be part of it, to feel part of it and so the day before she came to the exhibition opening, what I realised was, “Oh, fuck. I hope she likes it.”

Did she?

Oh, yeah. Well, she said to me that it was her favourite ever Kubrick exhibition. But she turned around to me and said, “Look, I just want to tell you one thing,” which was very wonderful to hear.

She said, “If Stanley was alive, he’d have been absolutely thrilled. He would have loved this. This is what he would have wanted.”

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Changing tack slightly, the album features two cover versions, which bookend both halves. What was it about The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Touch Me that made you want to cover them and choose them to close both halves of the album?

Because I mostly I felt they worked as bookends. Like, as a journey, this idea of a sort of mixtape, if you imagine a sort of timelapse where you’re going from day to night… I don’t want to hear just one sound all day, I want to start with something lighter, maybe get a bit more ‘beatsier’ as I go along and then I want to kind of play some guilty pleasures. So it was more like that idea of that long drive with your friend, or with your partner – whoever it is – that you’re playing records that you love over a long period of time, but you condense it down…

For me, I always sort of imagine songs as short films, so with something like Touch Me at the end, it’s like if I have to represent everything euphoric in one moment – a dance moment – then that sort of sums up being in a nightclub. Whereas Long Gone sums up me listening to something like 'Rumours', you know. Or Ar.Mour – that reminds me of being at The Blue Note, or Kubrick reminds me of watching a film. And so you’re trying to condense a whole mood in to one song…

Like, 'Crucifixion' is like… that’s my rock and roll thing. That’s my relationship with Queens of the Stone Age and all those bands… That’s my War Stories moment in one song. I didn’t want to make a whole album that was electronic, or hip hop – for this record. So I’m trying to condense all of that energy in to one song.

In a way, both parts of 'The Road' that have been released to date almost feel like an entry point for anyone coming to UNKLE afresh. It’s kind of all-encompassing of the various genres you’ve tackled over the past 25 years, or so. Was that a conscious thing?

Yeah. Kind of. Because you had this sort of tag of like, “Okay, first record UNKLE does hip-hop. Second record, UNKLE does electronic. Third record UNKLE does rock”… So I’m kind of like, okay, well let’s just put all of that in to these records, somehow – if I can.

Going back to 'Touch Me' as an album closer, what was it that appealed to you most about covering that track specifically?

'Touch Me' was like one of these really guilty pleasures that I loved as a DJ and it kind of summed up a certain period for me, but it was a guilty pleasure between me and Ben Drury, who designed Mo’Wax.

We used to always talk about 'Touch Me' and we were talking about it one day and he was like, “You know what? I did this mad version of it,” and he’d just slowed the original track down… I heard him playing it and I was like, “What is this?” and he was like, “Oh, I just did this for a laugh.” And I was like, “Fuck me… You could do something cool with this.” But it was one of those really fine lines… I love the vibe of it, but how can I change the vocals so it’s not this sort of slightly more bombastic, 90s hours thing, which tended to be sort of big vocals, performance-wise?

And Liela [Moss] has just got the most incredible voice. Liela can really do the rock and roll thing, but she pulls herself back and she can do this just unbelievably sensual, intimate thing and I just said, “Will you just try? It could be the worst thing ever, but it could be really brilliant.” And that’s how it came about.

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'The Road: Part II' is out now. Catch UNKLE at the Royal Festival Hall, London on April 19th; James Lavelle DJs at the Southbank Centre, London on April 18th as part of Concrete Lates.

Words: Paul Weedon // @Twotafkap

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