Three years in the making, the star-studded UNKLE album from Mo’Wax boss James Lavelle(far right) and DJ Shadow (left)will be released by Island Records on August 24.
Titled ‘Psyence Fiction’, the album features vocals from Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke and Mike D and includes contributions from Mark Hollis (ex-Talk Talk) and Metallica’s Jason Newsted. The project was pieced together in London and San Francisco over the past three years, with Shadow producing. Lavelle and Shadow formulated the idea for the project while working together in Los Angeles in 1995.
Lavelle told NME this week the album is his attempt to fuse the innovation of Massive Attack with the unifying spirit that surrounded the glory days of The Stone Roses and Oasis. “My benchmark record was always (Massive Attack’s) ‘Blue Lines’. And I wanted to make my own ‘Blue Lines’ in a way,” Lavelle explains. “I wanted to represent all the things that I grew up around but also to make a record that was contemporary.”
Speaking of the collaboration, Shadow says, “To me, the album is an extension of our relationship. When James first called me up over five-and-a-half years ago the conversation was an endless string of musical, film, book and art references, some of them common, some of them obscure. I think he realised he’d found someone who knew what he was talking about.”
When work began on the UNKLE album, Massive Attack had just returned with their second LP, ‘Protection’, Portishead and Tricky were beginning to make inroads into the charts and trip-hop was the predominant musical force. “I was looking around thinking, ‘I can’t make records like this, I’ve got to move on, even if the ideas are similar and I’m trying to work in a similar area with vocalists’,” reasons Lavelle.
While in LA in 1995, Lavelle had been greatly taken with The Verve’s ‘A Northern Soul’, which had just come out. “When I heard Richard Ashcroft sing it just really hit me in my heart. I wanted to get the same emotion on the record I was making. I just felt that the guy was speaking to me.”
Three months later, Whilst The Verve were in hiatus, Ashcroft recorded Lavelle’s track ‘Lonely Soul’ at Olympic Studios close to his Barnes home.
Shadow recalls: “I didn’t even know at that point The Verve had split up, I can’t remember if James had told me but I was like, ‘Oh, OK. Whatever’. The impact of a lot of people like Ashcroft and Thom Yorke, fortunately, came later. Not to be rude, but in a way I don’t think we would have asked Richard after the success of ‘Urban Hymns’, ‘cos it would have seen like we were grabbing the biggest name around.”
“He was very charismatic and very genuine. I started bonding with him when we talked about music. He wanted to do a Marvin Gaye-type vocal, an ‘answer back’ type thing. He was there (in the studio) for about an hour-and-a-half. He did it in one take and, even though he came back twice, it was that guide vocal we ended up using.”
According to Lavelle, ‘Lonely Soul’ became the benchmark for every other track on the album. “For someone like myself who hasn’t exactly got a rock history there was something about it that transcended the music. It was the attitude. Richard had this raw strength of character and he gave a soul to it that I hadn’t heard for ages in somebody’s voice.”
Meanwhile, Shadow had met Thom Yorke at a party he had DJ-ed at in London in the summer of 1996 and at that year’s Tibetan Freedom Festival in San Francisco. Yorke’s contribution, ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’, was recorded in an isolated studio in a forest outside San Francisco.
“That track was one of the most rewarding,” says Shadow. “After he did his vocal he ended up staying for two days tuning pianos and laying down extra bass parts. The track was built from the ground up.”
Other collaborators came and went, among them Atlantique Khanh (wife of Source label boss Philippe Ascoli), Alice Temple (formerly of Eg & Alice) and, most bizarrely, Metallica’s Jason Newsted.
“Going from Thom to Jason wasn’t actually so strange simply because there were so many strange things about this record,” Shadow laughs. “We were constantly in different time zones, we recorded in a million different studios. So it was like every day was a new adventure and every day had a different cast.”
“The exciting thing for me,” says Lavelle, “was to make a record that would contain lots of different styles and people but which had an essential theme going through it, which in this case was Shadow doing the music. To me, those vocalists are his instruments. He’s actually the voice of the record, not Richard Ashcroft or Thom Yorke.”
The constant travel, stress and the lengthy gestation period of the album however, brought a number of upsets, especially for Shadow, who found himself spending four weeks out of every five in England, away from his California home.
“You have relationships you need to maintain. You can’t be living in hotels all the time. Then there were all these problems. We didn’t have the Mike D vocal in, time was ticking and I was getting sick of it. There was a crunch point where I thought, ‘I have nothing left to give’. Even at the end of ’96 I didn’t want anything more to do with it. But, as in every case, you listen to the music and you think, ‘I’m gonna regret it forever if I don’t see this through’.”
After a final “major headache” as Lavelle describes it, caused by the demise of A&M in the UK last month, the album will now be released by Island. “I just want people to judge the LP by its music rather than by the people involved,” says Lavelle.
“I think the record transcends that. It wasn’t mathematically put together, it was made from the heart.”