Say Unkle

Mo Wax founder James Lavelle tries to explain Unkle, the sort-of band behind one of the year's most flamboyant albums.

James Lavelle, the 24-year-old founder and president of England's Mo Wax Records, has an active fantasy life, and movies are his touchstone. The promotional items for Psyence Fiction, a new CD credited to a project he's dubbed Unkle, include a mockup of the original poster from Star Wars (his favorite movie) in which Unkle participants fill the tale's leading roles; Lavelle is Darth Vader. And Lavelle admits to repeated viewings of Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, a documentary about the creative agony Francis Ford Coppola suffered while completing his most personal picture, 1979's Apocalypse Now. "I know exactly what he went through," Lavelle says. "Because now I've been through it myself."

Lavelle describes himself as the director of Psyence Fiction, an oddball compilation that includes contributions from soundscape pioneer DJ Shadow ("The Shadow Knows," April 3, 1997), Radiohead's Thom Yorke, the Verve's Richard Ashcroft, Metallica bassist Jason Newstead and Beastie Boy Mike D and features the graphics of graffiti artist Futura 2000. "I didn't write this record," Lavelle admits, "but I brought in the cast of characters. I brought in Shadow to score the movie, I brought in Futura to do the special effects. I brought all these people together and tried to inspire them to basically step out of their arena--to challenge themselves to be a bit more ambitious."

Ambitious? That's not the half of it. Psyence Fiction attempts to create an aural universe in which nearly every imaginable musical genre is reimagined the Mo Wax way. "Guns Blazing (Drums of Death Pt. 1)" is tear-the-roof-off-the-sucker hip-hop accented by Kool G Rap, an old-schooler from Queens; "Bloodstain" places singer-songwriter Alice Eg atop a bed of ambient pop; "Lonely Soul" provides moody electronic rock that Ashcroft milks for every last ounce of melancholy; "Nursery Rhyme" is a slab of guitar-heavy pandemonium that nearly swallows up Manchester cult figure Badly Drawn Boy; "Celestial Annihilation" marries a classical air to modern beats; "The Knock (Drums of Death Pt. 2)" finds Mike D going head-to-head with Shadow-meets-Portishead spy music propelled by Newstead; and "Rabbit in Your Headlights" allows Yorke to emote as flamboyantly as anything on OK Computer. Not all of the pieces work ("The Knock," for instance), and there are times when the self-importance on view is practically suffocating. But thanks to Shadow's wizardry, the disparate musical elements form an unexpectedly cohesive whole that "Outro," the concluding track, helps put into perspective. On it, a sampled voice says, "I feel that this has given me the most incredible and wonderful things that I have ever been given, and also the worst. It's a mixed bag." That's about right--but at a time when recordings surprise listeners about as often as Congress makes bipartisan decisions, that's not bad.

More predictable is Lavelle's tendency to describe Unkle in melodramatic terms. "In doing this record, I don't think there have been any relationships that have been strengthened," he says. "I think all of the relationships have been strained. I split up with my original partner [Tim Goldsworthy] during the making of the album. It wasn't all about Unkle; it was more about our relationship. We'd known each other since we were eight years old, and things had changed. But it wasn't until Psyence Fiction was done that we were able to repair things. And Shadow and I are probably sick of the sight of each other--and I don't think he'd be annoyed at me saying that. I don't mean that in a bad way, but I think we definitely need space.

"There were some tracks that were very hard to do. Sometimes the problem was that the music wasn't going the way we wanted it to, and sometimes it was other people's faults, because they needed to find themselves or they were going through their own problems. But in retrospect, those problems can give a song a buzz. It can be very painful, but if you win, it's a fucking great feeling."

Victories for Lavelle are commonplace in Britain, where he's seen as a boy genius and both DJ Shadow and Mo Wax's Money Mark ("On the Money," July 30) are major stars. In the colonies, however, Mo Wax has had difficulty busting through the glass ceiling of cult success and critical plaudits. Unkle is an effort to raise Mo Wax's stateside profile, but Lavelle isn't thrilled by the gauntlets he's having to run in order to garner attention for it.

"I was supposed to do a Rolling Stone photo shoot yesterday," he says. "And I'm told to wear certain clothes. Well, I am my own person whether you like it or not. I'm not trying to be anyone else, and I think I have a good style; I wear clothes that people in my world collect heavily and we're all inspired by. But I'm told that I have to wear the clothes they've picked out because they've been supplied by their advertisers. And I was like, 'I'm not a fucking chimpanzee. I'm not going to wear your clothes because these people pay for your magazine.' Then I left. Now, I'm not trying to have a go at Rolling Stone, but that's the state of things these days. It's all based on the Benjamins, and it's so sad.

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