After a rollercoaster twenty-five year career as an artist, curator and tastemaker, James Lavelle returns with UNKLE’s fifth studio album: The Road part 1.
James Lavelle was one of the key players who shaped the cultural landscape of the 1990s. As the founder of Mo’ Wax Records and UNKLE, Lavelle nurtured, worked and rubbed shoulders with some of the most influential artists of the decade, including DJ Shadow, Ian Brown, Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft and Massive Attack.
Within ten years of leaving Oxford to work in a record shop, Lavelle had founded one of the most coveted music labels in the world.
As a record producer, label head and tastemaker, he absorbed the 90s as a night owl, seeking out musicians, designers, film makers and unique individuals to share ideas and collaborate with. He tapped into what was without a doubt the most celebrated and innovative era since the 1960s, and was widely regarded as the greatest A&R man of the day.
In the twenty years since UNKLE’s debut, Lavelle has been prolific. He created three studio albums with UNKLE (Never Never Land, War Stories and Where Did The Night Fall), a host of critically acclaimed film scores, and curated a series of art exhibitions through Daydreaming With… most notably, the hugely successful Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick exhibition at Somerset House.
Lavelle’s achievements as an artist were recognised in 2014 when he was asked to curate the Meltdown Festival at the Southbank. He joins a long list of musical luminaries such as Yoko Ono, David Bowie, Massive Attack, Nick Cave and Patti Smith, as Mo’ Wax and UNKLE took their rightful place in the Southbank hall of fame. His unique journey as an artist up to this point was also captured in a two hour documentary. Matthew Jones’s ‘The Man From Mo’ Wax’ hits the cinemas in 2017.
Lavelle’s Meltdown was supposed to be a celebration of his rich history as an artist. Instead, it became the catalyst for a new journey.
When UNKLE opened the Meltdown Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, Lavelle sensed something was happening. It was June 2014, Friday the 13th. Unlike everybody else that day, Lavelle couldn’t believe his luck. There he was, about to open the festival with UNKLE, surrounded by a new generation of artists and some faithful friends who wanted to collaborate.
ESKA, Keaton Henson, Liela Moss, Philip Shepherd and Mark Lanegan all performed with UNKLE that night. Little did he know that all of them would go on to collaborate with him on a new UNKLE record.
That night reignited a desire to create something fresh and innovative, music that celebrated the rich history of UNKLE, whilst at the same time looked to the future.
After the most successful Meltdown since the Festival began, Lavelle started putting the building blocks together for UNKLE’s fifth studio album: The Road pt 1.
“I hadn’t made a record in a long time, and the incarnation of UNKLE had changed in that now, it was me on my own. For that reason, I wanted to make a record that I hadn’t been able to before, going back to the roots of where I came from, with a foot in modern London”.
Lavelle set out to make a record that tapped into the multi-cultural landscape of modern London. His mission was to unite the eclectic mix of ideas, cultures and genres under the UNKLE umbrella and create something unique.
In the first UNKLE single in seven years, Lavelle teamed up with Elliott Power, Mïnk and YSEÉ for the gospel infused Cowboys or Indians.
Power’s controlled and resolute performance, and Mink’s unique interpretation of soul and contemporary RnB gave Cowboys or Indians a distinctly British and multi- cultural feel. Both artists went on to feature heavily throughout the record.
The follow up single ‘Sick Lullaby’, released in January 2017 to coincide with the DayDreaming with UNKLE exhibition at the Lazarides Gallery, saw the first of two collaborations with London folk-rock artist and poet Keaton Henson.
As opposed to the sound system and acid house inspired Cowboys or Indians, Sick Lullaby is tender and cinematic, a beautiful lullaby that empowers Henson’s delicate voice.
For the album’s title track ‘The Road’, Lavelle recruited the Mercury nominated and Lewisham raised ESKA to inject her unique blend of psychedelia and soul. Her lead vocal is undoubtedly one of the stand out moments on the record.
The Road pt 1 was starting to take shape. However, Lavelle needed to anchor this eclectic mix of modern London in UNKLE’s classic sound. For this, he looked to past collaborators. He picked up the infamous black book, made some calls and packed his bags for Los Angeles where he took residence at Pink Duck Studios.
Amongst Lavelle’s self-proclaimed ‘American Family’, he recruited War Stories producer Chris Goss, Marilyn Manson bassist Twiggy Ramirez and Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leuwson to contribute on ‘Nowhere to Run’; a track in which Lavelle takes the lead vocal.
Lavelle also met with long time UNKLE collaborator Mark Lanegan and wrote ‘Looking for the Rain’, a call to arms in our turbulent modern world.
Lavelle also found new friends and collaborators in Queens of the Stone Age drummer Jon Theodore and Beck drummer Justin Stanley, who make definitive contributions throughout the record.
After a productive trip to the States, Lavelle returned to London to add the finishing touches to what was shaping up to be another classic UNKLE record. He got back in the studio with legendary composer Wil Malone, who added strings to ‘Looking for the rain’ and the album’s epic opening track ‘Farewell’. He also teamed up with longtime collaborator Philip Shepherd, who took time out of composing material for the new Star Wars franchise to contribute strings throughout the record.
In what was proving to be one of the most joyous UNKLE records ever made, Lavelle then managed to conclude a twenty year conversation with Primal Scream’s Andrew Innes, as the pair finally got together in the studio. Innes plays lead guitar to the album’s title track ‘The Road’. Another first for Lavelle was a collaboration with Planet Funk’s Gigi Canu and Marko Baroni, who along with Duke Spirit starlet Liela Moss, contributed to ‘Sunrise (Always comes around), UNKLE’s reinterpretation of the summer anthem.
The exhibition at the Lazarides Gallery was a celebration of 25 years of UNKLE, and whilst The Road pt 1 may be their fifth studio album, it is in many ways a new beginning.
With shows booked throughout the year and The Road pt 2 already in the making, it feels that even after 25 years, the road for UNKLE has only just begun.