James Lavelle talks hmv.com through the making of The Road: Part 1, UNKLE’s first new album in seven years…
It’s been 25 years since James Lavelle first released music under the name UNKLE and it’s fair to say he’s never been a fast worker.
UNKLE has meant many things with many different people, it’s a project that has at one time featured DJ Shadow, DFA founder Tim Goldsworthy and multi-instrumentalist Rich File, as well as collaborating with the likes of Ian Brown, Richard Ashcroft, Josh Homme and Jarvis Cocker.
It has seen Lavelle do film scores, epic tours and hit remixes, but it’s never moved very quickly, hence the arrival of The Road: Part 1, Lavelle’s brand new album under the UNKLE brand, only his fifth full-length studio album and his first for seven years.
For this new LP Lavelle has assembled another excellent crop of guest vocalists, including rapper Eska, singer Keaton Henson, The Duke Spirit's Liela Moss and grunge veteran Mark Lanegan.
As the album comes to shelves, we sat down with Lavelle to talk about making the new album, his new lease of life and why he was glad to leave the drama behind...
It’s been seven years since your last studio album, if you could sum up those seven years, how would you do it?
“It’s been a combination of re-finding myself, trying new things. I curated Meltdown and my Stanley Kubrick exhibition, I worked with Queens Of The Stone Age and then there was a lull after I split from the previous situation with Pablo (Clements). It wasn’t until after Meltdown that I got focused again, I had a long time where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do musically, especially with UNKLE, it’s really taken seven years to work it out.”
Have you been collecting new music for those seven years? Or has this album come out of one particularly intense period?
“No, it wasn’t one period, it was done over a couple of years. It started with me going to work with Josh Homme on the last Queens Of The Stone Age album, that got me back in the studio. Then I met this kid called Jack Leonard and we co-wrote the record together. We did it over periods of time, we’d go in and write, then go away and tour, or DJ or I’d work on other things. That was a year and a half all in all.”
Did you record in the same place?
“There were sessions in Los Angeles, weird places, like in Venice where I recorded on this barge with Michelle Lamy, then in Naples, some in Somerset, the record went in a lot of different directions, broken up over two years.”
Is that how you’ve always worked?
“No. Most of the records have been very intense periods, far too intense. I felt like I’d been building pyramids from the top down and I wanted to work from the bottom. The references that I had for this album were very different, I had no partner this time, I’ve had lots of important contributors, but it was everyone sharing in my vision. This was a joyful record to make, the last one was done in the middle of me getting divorced, in fact, the record before that I was getting divorced too! There was a fair bit of drama around and that did end up impacting on the album. I wanted to keep things simple and not over-complicate things. Work from a piano, guitar, bass and computer. No sitting in front of 200 synthesisers or spending two weeks obsessing over one note.”
It’s a younger generation at work too…
“I was working with a lot of young people on this album. I’m used to working with older people, people with understandably different priorities, whether that’s kids or money or whatever. This time it was a lot of young musicians and that took away a lot of drama from the process.”
You’ve got a great range of collaborators on there, how did you decide who to work with?
“Meltdown was a big thing in that regard. Keaton Henson, we share management and I knew about him, but I met Eska at Meltdown and loved him. I met Mink and Elliot Power through friends. It was the first time meeting people who’d grown up listening to my stuff, kids who’ve discovered me through their parents’ record collection. It helped me come back with a record that’s more multi-cultural. I wanted there to be more black music in there, I wanted to get back to what I really like about UNKLE and that’s how it came together.”
Did you leave the lyrics up to your collaborators?
“Me and Jack actually wrote quite a lot of them on this album, which was a change for me, but some vocalists bring their own. It’s about half and half between us and collaborators. I enjoyed the lyrics, I just really enjoyed making this album and I didn’t enjoy making the last UNKLE album at all, this wasn’t a dramatic record or one fuelled by tension. Sometimes that’s a good thing and can fuel the process, sometimes though you just think it’s fuelling the process and it’s baggage you don’t need. I’ve been around too much f**king drama for too long.”
Where did the title come from?
“I had it before I started, it was the first thing I settled on. I always need a title before I begin, I need to know where I’m going, musically and visually.”
This is Part One, so presumably, we can expect Part Two?
“Yes, I hope so, I’ve done a lot of it already. The only thing actually that’s been difficult about this record is getting it out. Things are so different to how they were seven years ago, especially with vinyl pressing, I thought this record would be out in January and we could have Part Two out now. But then I got bored of things, so I had Part Two, and maybe I think now we’ll use half of it and I’ll do a new half. I see this as a trilogy, but it might go beyond that…”
What kind of live set do you have planned? Will you be looking to do as much new material as you can?
“I’m hoping to do half and half. The shows we’ve done so far have been quite focused on the past, but once the album is out I’m hoping we can step it up. The show is more soulful this time, but it’s a great production and I’ve got a great group of vocalist coming out with me.”
Is your whole back catalogue up for grabs? Or are there songs you won’t play anymore?
“Oh, there’s tonne of stuff I wouldn’t play. I’ve made some good records, but I’ve made some s**t ones too. I feel pretty blessed with what I’ve got, I think there are three or four on every record that I still really like it. It’s a balance of what appeals to you and what appeals to other people, there are key songs like ‘Lonely Soul’ and ‘Burn My Shadow’ that you need in the set.”