UNKLE main man James Lavelle is one of those people who you just want to hate. Having worked with everyone from DJ Shadow to Josh Homme and even Thom Yorke, he’s never exactly been close-minded when it comes to taking new directions and incorporating varying influences into his works.
UNKLE’s latest album Where Did The Night Fall continues this tradition, moving even further away from the groups trip-hop roots following the rockier and more psychedelic direction Lavelle and Co took with 2007’s War Stories.
With all this genre hopping the UNKLE sound is then understandably a little difficult to nail down. “It’s got to have elements of melancholy and there’s a certain density that needs to be in the songs, but it’s hard to pinpoint,’ Lavelle explains. “We’re always saying it needs to sound like an UNKLE record, but you don’t know what that is until you hear it.”
It seems trying to pinpoint the sound wasn’t the only obstacle in the recording process this time around as Lavelle and his recording partner Pablo Clements went for a ‘more is more’ approach leading to a somewhat chaotic scramble to finish everything. “I mean at one point we were working on twenty eight songs at the same time,” he tells me with a sigh and a laugh. “At moments it was great and at others we just absolutely couldn’t see the wood for the trees. It was never negative though. There were times where, because we’d all spent so much time together in our quite small studio it definitely became a little Das Boot if you know what I mean, but it was always quite a good shared experience.”
Comparisons to Nazi maritime crises aside though, Lavelle managed to draft in a massive crew of collaborators yet again, this time working with a varied selection including San Francisco psych lords Sleepy Sun, Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan as well as The Black Angels and Autolux. However despite this impressive list Lavelle remains quite ambivalent as to how he manages to put together such epic line-ups for his albums. “It’s sort of like choosing friends really, isn’t it?”
While some of the artists such as Mark Lanegan only came on board after years of communication with Lavelle, it seems that this isn’t always the case. “With Black Angels, that was quite random actually. We had a few tracks that we just weren’t getting the right vocals for, and while we were shooting the artwork one of the people I was working with on the shoot just kept playing their records and by the end of it I was just like fuck it, I just gotta try and get a hold of them. It had just been ingrained in my brain after twelve hours of hearing Black Angels getting played non-stop at this photo shoot, and yeah, the next day we got in contact with them and we were doing a track.”
With a reputation like Lavelle’s, you’d expect that he goes through some torturous Stanley Kubrick like process when collaborating with other artists (images of Josh Homme crashing through a door with an axe in his hand over and over again spring to mind) yet in reality, Lavelle seems to be pretty hands off. “All these things are in many ways based on pot luck, you don’t know what’s going to come out of it and you just hope for the best because of all the crazy people you’re working with you know. I’ve always felt it’s important to let people go off though, Pablo’s like that, he’ll just meander off into his own world and I have to just try and pull the really good parts back so it doesn’t go too far off. Mind you I’m sure that’s what Pablo would say about me, but it’s an interesting process and it isn’t easy.”
However, while he may sometime surrender to the will of the musical gods, this doesn’t mean everything is just left up in the air as Lavelle has to act as a sort of mediator in between all this creative flux.
“All good music comes from collaborations between great individuals, whether it’s within a band like Radiohead or whatever else, when you get that sort of energy then you’re going to get a lot of great stuff. Equally though it can also lead to things going off on tangents and there is always a lot of opinion that’s going to be getting thrown around. You know it’s funny, I sometimes sort of think I’m just trying to find the middle ground, you know, I kind of feel like a politician.”
Judging by the results it would seem Lavelle is quite adept when it comes to politics, almost like a musical Churchill, cigar firmly clasped betwixt his mighty molars. However as everyone from Bush Snr to Bush Jnr has shown being a politician is a lot harder than it seems.
“I think a lot of people assume that because I work with the kind of bands that I do it’s just an easy thing,” he explains, “but it’s actually quite difficult and can be a very anxious process at times cos you’re just kind of waiting and hoping that you’re going to get the right results. I mean making art is never an easy thing.”
“Pablo put it well the other day. He was talking about how you can be sitting there waiting for things sometimes and it’s like you’re just rolling a dice, like sometimes you’re just like ‘fuck, that’s unbelievable,’ and at other times it’s just like ‘shit…’ you know, that’s the process you have to go through.”
UNKLE’s new album Where Did The Night Fall is out Friday 7th May.