UNKLE: The 13th Floor Interview

The new UNKLE album, The Road Pt.1 has just been released and it signals a very different musical direction for the band. Perhaps “band” is the wrong word, as the composition of the act has whittled down to one…founding member James Lavelle.

Although LaVelle is man in charge, he has surrounded himself with an impressive array of collaborators, including some of the UK’s most heralded young talent including Eska, Keaton Henson and Elliott Power.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to James Lavelle recently…in fact, it was the day before The Road Pt.1 was due to be released…and talked to him about the seven-year journey that he took making The Road.

Click here to listen to the interview with UNKLE’s Jame Lavelle:


Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: I’ve had a listen to it (The Road). I think people are going to find it quite surprising, and possibly, not quite what they expected. Is that part of what you wanted to achieve with this record?

JL: Not necessarily. I think, when I worked on the record, I just wanted to make what  I thought was an UNKLE record; and that was just referencing and looking back at the past. I’ve been doing quite a lot of stuff, in relation to that with books and working on Meltdown, and stuff like that; but also just looking at the future. Really, I just wanted to make a record I just felt was a contemporary UNKLE record, and I didn’t want it to be particularly referencing of any particular genre, or be too specific. I just wanted  it to be what I thought I liked about the records I wanted to be involved with.

MD: You mentioned Meltdown. My understanding is that the record was kind of inspired by your experience of curating the Meltdown Festival in 2014. Can you elaborate on that?

JL: I think it was a great place to start. It was an inspiring, very humbling thing to be involved with. I worked with a lot of new people – there was a lot of really positive energy – and I think, from that, it gave me the impetus to start working on a new record, to take part  of the experience of what I had there, and channel that into what I do to making music. Yeah, I was [the youngest person to curate] at the time. I think MIA is now, probably, younger than I was; but, at the time, I was the youngest to do it.

MD: Was it a daunting experience to be given that mantle?

JL: A little bit. I think that – for me – the people that have curated it in the past are very successful, classic music icons in their alternative fields – whether it be David Bowie through to Lee Scratch Perry to Ornette Coleman to Massive Attack, Morrissey to Nick Cave – so, I didn’t really feel that was me. I looked at it as more about what I’d been involved with culturally, and tried to bring a culture together, in that way that would be great to represent within that environment, and try and curate it like I had DJ sets and the records that I’d made. It was daunting, but it was very humbling as well, and I think what was great about it was this celebration of a lot of the work, and the people that I’ve worked with over the years, within this environment; and that was really exciting. It brought a lot of people together. It was a real sense of a community coming together in London; and I felt very, very proud to do that, and be part of that.

MD: It was an amazing, diverse group of artists and people that you had working on that – from Grand Master Flash to Chrissie Hynde and Mark Lanegan – it was pretty wild. The new record, and UNKLE in general, is you on your own, but it’s still a very collaborative record. I’m wondering, from your perspective, is it a different process now that you are UNKLE and yet you’re working with other people?

JL: I think, on this record, everybody was gunning for the same thing. Everybody had a similar vision, the people that I was working with, and it made the process… it was also a lot less complicated. I think that there were lots of reasons of what went on in the past, there were lots of very positive things, but there’s also a lot of stuff that develops over time; so, this was a fresh canvas, and I think everybody was in it to achieve the same goal. I felt that – especially in the last period of recording – it was very much like building a pyramid from the top down, and I just wanted to build something with a lot of stability on the ground level; so, I think that process – in the way that the record was made – was different, and it was – for me – much more enjoyable. Like I said: it was a blank canvas, in a certain way, as far as a lot of politics and the stuff that goes on that develops over long term relationships. It wasn’t the situation that I thought I was going to be in – you never think it’s going to change – but I seem to be a little bit like an Elizabeth Taylor character: I’ve had a lot of divorces along the way; so, I think, this time around, it was very much about trying to create a very joyful and calm environment; and it was. Ninety percent of the time, it was great. Any job, or especially anything creative, where there’s a lot of passion involved, always has moments of tension, but it’s how those moments of tension resolve, and how those are also dealt with; and this record was very different and great for me. I really enjoyed making this record a lot.

MD: When you approached other folks to work with you on the record, was there a way that you described what it was you were trying to get across? How do you draw people into working with you?

JL: I think you just have these relationships with people where you communicate on a certain level anyway; so, when it comes to making music, it tends to be a pretty good understanding of what you’re trying to achieve. I think most of the people that have been on this record, maybe one of the reoccurring themes is just where one’s at in life – especially in this very extreme, virtual world we live in – and that was definitely a conversation that was going around a lot. I think usually you end up talking about what you’re going to do, and it tends to be a bit of juxtaposition: sometimes somebody might come out at it at a different angle, and that can be really exciting… a lot of people, when you collaborate, you give them various options of what you think might work with them, and if they like something, they’ll go for a certain option; sometimes that can be quite interesting. With Eska: once she did The Road – she went for the most hardcore track, and she’s a really interesting character, because she’s very psychedelic, but she’s got this incredibly powerful, soul voice – she really liked the juxtaposition of doing something more up-tempo, more heavy. That track originally, when we were doing this song it was called “John Paul Jones”, because it was a Led Zeppelin reference of certain arrangements – it’s Jon Theodore from Queens of the Stone Age on drums – so, it’s got this very bombastic drum way of how it works; so, things like that happen, but it’s exciting. It’s always an interesting process.

MD: I’m interested in the thought behind linking everything with these spoken word segments that you have throughout the record. What was going on there?

JL:  When I was growing up – especially in the ‘90s, with hip hop records – there was always this great thing with skits and links, and there was a lot of stuff that I’d recorded, over the period of doing this record, where I was in unusual situations with an art exhibition, or whatever, doing weird, strange installations, and I’d find myself recording people – when I’m away and it’s an interesting environment sonically… I’ll record it – so, I wanted to take those things, and use them within the record, to create a slightly surreal narrative within the record.

MD: I noticed that you took a little snippet of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock in the middle of all that.

JL: My friend read the poem; so, let’s put it as that. Nice of you to point out. Yes, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

MD: Okay! One of the voices that stands out is Keaton Henson.

JL: Yeah! He’s amazing!

MD: Why did you pick him to do what he did, and how did that process work?

JL: I was very fortunate to work with him. He’s a very interesting artist/musician. Very considered and is very shy. We share the same management company, and I’d heard his stuff over a period of time. I basically, convinced him to do the Meltdown show, the UNKLE show with me, and a live show of himself. He doesn’t like playing live. He hates being on stage, but he has this unbelievable power to his voice! He has that kind of delivery where great, very fragile singers can convey incredible emotion – like Thom Yorke or Jeff Buckley – in the sense of being… not a soul singer, but more of a folk singer, in many ways. He’s incredibly shy, and I sent him some tracks, and, originally, he went for the last track on the album, and I convinced him, begged him to do the track, Sonata, on the record. He didn’t want to do something traditional, and I was really encouraging of that, because… I thought it was interesting that he created something quite unique, soundscape wise, and messed with the way he used his voice: he’s got incredible harmonies, and he’s got this amazing delivery; so, I was really pleased that he went and did it in the way that he did. I think his fear was it was going to be like…traditional song on ballad… and actually, the fact that he flipped it, I think the music is very complementary in that way, and it really created something quite unique. I think it was really brave for him, but I think it was also the right step out of his box, and to trust one in that way. We also did a really amazing conversion of The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, which we performed at Meltdown. He did that, and he performed Rabbit in Your Headlights – Thom Yorke’s song from Psyence Fiction – he was amazing. His only demand was that he would only do it if he could sit with his back to the audience, behind me.

MD: The Thom Yorke comparison is obvious, but the other name that came to mind, when I was listening to it, was Harry Nilsson, who is also a singer who was not fond of performing live, at all, either; and I heard elements of his style in there, especially in Sonata.

JL: He’s just got that amazing fragility, but you just feel it. Great singers have that. It’s that thing when they just bend you at the knees; and he’s a great artist, and he’s also a really, really lovely man.

MD: I get the feeling that you use voices as, almost, another instrument. Like with Mark Lanegan: he obviously has a very different style and feel to his voice than Keaton. When you’re writing these songs and putting together the tracks, is there a process of matching up the voice to the track, in your mind, as you’re doing it?

JL: I think you usually have somebody in mind that you’re working towards; not always, but you have a vague idea, even when you’re demoing stuff – let’s say you’re just doing a writing session – you’re like, “Wouldn’t it be great if…” or, “I’d love to do a track for…” or, “I heard this track by… the other day. I’d love to do something more like this,” and in the end, when you get to the point – like this record – you’ve got about thirty songs that you’ve written, you start whittling it down, and you think, “Okay, well this person’s up for doing something. Let’s give them these three ideas, and see what they think.” Sometimes you do write very specifically for somebody, because that’s the situation, i.e. when I was with Josh doing …Like Clockwork – on the last Queens of the Stone Age record – or when you’re maybe working on a movie soundtrack, and you’re going to collaborate with somebody; so, it does depend, but I think when you’re putting a record like this together, there’s a combination of having this idea of who you think – and some of the conversations you’ve been having over time – of whose going to be on the record; but there are also times where you’re just like, “I’m just doing stuff,” and then you go, “Actually, this would be great for this person.”

MD: The album is called The Road, and it’s Part. 1. Do you look at it as a concept record, or is there an overarching theme to it?

JL: Not really, no. For me, the concept was just get back to the basics of UNKLE, and what it was, for me, that I felt from the records that I’ve made, and what I wanted to continue doing, being in the situation that I was. I think the concept is maybe an ongoing thing…. I haven’t put a record out in a long time. I want The Road to be something which is continuous for a while. It’s basically this idea of – whilst this is a metaphor for life’s journey; all that kind of stuff. It’s also just about being on this road, creating, and what comes out of that journey, releasing that product, and releasing that music. That’s probably the main concept: this is the platform to release these ideas that have developed over this strange journey – this road – that one has – because you’re travelling a lot; you’re fortunate that you can meet interesting, creative people – and it’s not just the music, it’s the artwork, the videos; it’s everything that goes with it. It’s this continuous, creative journey.

MD: I wanted to ask you about the artwork, because I understand that there’s a thirty six page booklet that goes along with the physical version of the album. Obviously, I haven’t seen that, but maybe you can tell me a little bit about what’s behind that.

JL: All the records that I’ve worked on: there’s always quite a heavy artwork presence, and part of the journey of this record was “defining oneself, musically, again”…. I’ve worked with a German painter called Jonas Burgert, who I met seven years ago, and he is a very good friend, but he’s an incredible contemporary painter, and the main image that we’ve used on the album, for the front cover, is from him, and then there’s more images, of his, in the book. There are also other artists that I’ve collaborated with: John Isaacs: a British contemporary artist – I collaborated with him at a Stanley Kubrick exhibition I curated last year – David Nicholson, who’s an amazing Canadian painter; Norbert Schoerner, who is one of the first photographers that I’ve ever worked with when I started my Mo’ Wax, who’s a very well regarded photographer and video maker; Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones, who I worked with on the last record and contributed artwork to UNKLE from Never, Never Land; Doug Foster, who’s done a lot of visuals for my live shows, etc, and we’ve also done quite a lot of installation work together, over the years; I’m sure there are people that I’m going to forget. Basically, all these people that I’ve met since the last record, really, are involved.

MD: What is your background, as far your interest in art, and especially visual art…?

JL: Just growing up with music; hip hop was the catalyst, in many ways. My mother was an artist; so, I was exposed to art, around me, as a child. I grew up in Oxford; so, going to the Museum of Modern Art, and stuff like that. But I think it was really graffiti that was the beginning of my entrance into the art world; and that came from hip hop.

MD: You mentioned Norbert Schoerner – he’s done a video on the record. It’s a pretty stunning video! Was it a collaborative effort, or did you just tell him to go out and do whatever he wanted to do? How did that come about?

JL: I asked him if he wanted to do a video, and he called me back very excited, saying, “I’ve seen this kid in… Utah, who’s built this insane drone video light rig.  Check it out!” So, I checked it out, and I was like, “This is really cool,” and he’s like, “If you’re up for it, I want to go out there and make a video, using this thing,” and he’s like, “What song do you think would work?” and I thought, “The Road.” So, I sent him the track, and then he went off, and then I started getting rushes from Utah, and then… we went… back and forth on some of the ideas. It was amazing: the fact that… it just doesn’t look real; it’s strange. There’s no CGI; there’s no effects. It’s just this amazing rig, that’s been shot, I suppose, by another rig – so, there’s probably like… two drones in the sky – and the way it illuminates the environment around it, and because it’s shot in a desolate, broken part of America, it looks very strange; it looks like it’s a model, at times, but very beautiful.

MD: When you see your music connected with images like that – that you probably didn’t imagine when you were creating the music – does it make you look at the music, or think of the music, in a different way?

JL: I think it let’s your mind wander. That’s the wonder of the coming together, when you see film and music. I think it’s a really nice thing to see, because it expands that universe. I think, also, the way that the visuals that I’ve tried to curate on this record: they’re not narrative videos. We have a history of doing quite a lot of narrative videos, i.e. Rabbit in Your Head Lights, where a guy gets hit by a car, etc. This is all very psychedelic and abstract; so, I felt, with this record, that I wanted do something which would let your mind wander for a minute. We don’t have to make pop videos; it’s not about MTV. It’s a real blank canvas out there, about how you can release creative content; and that’s really exciting. I just thought, “Let’s just work with a load of really great people, that are all excited about it, and let them go and take this world and their dreams into the next place;” so, it’s really amazing to see it when it comes back.

MD: It’s been seven years since your previous record. Are you finding the musical business landscape much different in those seven years? Have things changed much?

JL: Yeah, it’s really different.

MD: How so?

JL: I think, essentially, Facebook and Instagram has in the last seven years. If you look at the change of generation in the music business: last seven years. Look at the biggest singers in the world – whether it’s Ed Sheeran or Adele or DJs the Diplos the Steve Aokis, whatever – all in the last seven years; and I think it’s equally to do with fashion, ‘celebratism’. I think that, for me, the biggest change is digital. I’ve been involved with digital since it started, but I think the last seven years is on fast forward – and I think that’s, essentially, things like Facebook and Instagram – and how that has influenced the way that records are bought, sold; how the culture is looked at, consumed, is really different; and therefore, the way that you release records, is really different. It’s been interesting. It’s really interesting; it’s frustrating; it’s bewildering. It’s a culmination of a lot of different emotions.

MD: I can imagine, especially since you have all this visual stuff that goes with the record, that you want to get across, and most people, even if they’re paying for it, they’re just downloading things, and not having anything that they can put their hands on.

JL: Yeah, I know; but what’s been great, is that the opportunity to do things, where we’ve done vinyl and we’ve done cassettes… there has been a great appetite for that; and that’s amazing, because, for me, I just love to be able to make stuff in a physical way – I love records and packaging and books, and stuff like that – so, there is a great appetite, and that’s actually been – all respect for those who have supported the record – its been a major factor in, hopefully, the record having the opportunity to make it, and, hopefully, the success of it…. I think there is a generation now looking to ‘join the dots’ of where we are now and the past, in the context of music; so, records – obviously vinyl, etc – is becoming very popular again.

MD: One last thing: this is ‘Part 1’; obviously there must be a ‘Part 2’. What’s the status of that?

JL: Ongoing. I really just want to get this record out. I’ve done a lot of recording, and I’m just working out how I want to move that forward…. The record’s coming out tomorrow; so, I’m going to see how it goes down….

MD: And you’re taking it on the road as well, right?

JL: Yeah, yeah, yeah! Yeah, yeah! I’ve done quite a lot of shows over the summer, and then I’m having a minute off, and then I’m doing a September show in London, and then we’re building back up again throughout next year.

MD: Hopefully, you can make down to this part of the world.

JL: I’d love to! I love it there! I haven’t been there for a while, but I always have a great time.

Click here to read The 13th Floor review of The Road Pt. 1