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.

"In America, success is based on money, not necessarily on artistic achievement. I'm not trying to generalize. There's a very strong community that supports artistic achievement in the U.S. But it's all about the geography of the country. If we have 300,000 people who support what we do in England, it's huge, whereas that many people being behind you in America is regarded as tiny. You have the potential of selling tens of millions of records, and because that's where the focus is, I think you're missing out. People aren't developing groups the way they used to anymore. The days when the Rolling Stones became what they did, and the Beatles, are over. You're not going to get that anymore, because no one is given enough time."

The Mo Wax approach couldn't be more different. Lavelle builds careers from the ground up, employing the same method that's allowed his label to become a global player in only six years. Born to a housewife mother and a lawyer dad who drummed and played folk music on the side, Lavelle had a stable home until he was twelve, when his parents divorced. He took the separation hard, and neither pot nor booze made him feel much better. Fortunately, rap music did--and it still does. He traces the strength of his current obsessions to those of his youth. "I think there's a need to be absolutely and utterly elitist and pretentious about your music, because when you feel that way as a kid, that basically develops your passion," he says. "If I hadn't thought that everything other than hip-hop sucked when I was a fourteen-year-old, I probably wouldn't be where I am now."

A few years later, Lavelle was working at Honest Jon Records in London and writing jazz reviews for the magazine Straight No Chaser when he borrowed u1,000 to start Mo Wax. The company's products were quickly absorbed into the underground, with some efforts being championed as the hippest dance-floor fodder around and others emerging as the chill-out music of choice for the emerging trip-hop generation. The folks at A&M Records noticed, paying Lavelle a reported u350,000 to license Mo Wax products in 1995. A commercial breakthrough in England followed: The 1995 Money Mark disc Mark's Keyboard Repair cracked the British Top 40, and Endtroducing, DJ Shadow's 1996 masterwork, moved oodles of units even as it codified a sonic methodology that's been ripped off again and again in the two years since then. Lavelle is sanguine about such thievery. "It doesn't piss me off," he says. "Music's for everybody. And we all do it, don't we? If we get into something, we tend to want to do the same kind of thing."

The Unkle project was conceived shortly before A&M came into the picture. In late 1994, Lavelle, Goldsworthy and another friend, Masayuki Kudo, used the name Unkle for an EP, The Time Has Come. The following September, a number of musicians, including Shadow, gathered in Los Angeles at the Beastie Boys' studio complex to begin constructing Unkle's debut full-length, but not much got done. Recording didn't begin in earnest until August 1996, and work proceeded haltingly for several months; when Goldsworthy left in December, only two vocals (by Ashcroft and Temple) had been captured on tape. But the braintrust of Lavelle and Shadow carried on. "It was quite naive in the beginning," Lavelle notes. "I came up with the vision for everything, and then me and Shadow would have these huge conversations about music, film and all kinds of reference points--just the emotions we were trying to portray, the reactions for and against music at the time--past, present and trying to look into the future a bit. And then Shadow would try to make audio sense of these conversations. Like, 'Let's go do a hardcore track. Yeah-yeah-yeah.' Or 'We want this to sound organic. Yeah-yeah-yeah.' A lot of it stemmed from technical talk between the two of us; we'd talk about gating this or adding that, and then something would come out of it. It was conceptual in that way."

The bulk of Psyence Fiction was assembled between June 1997 and April 1998, after which the two main Unkles did their best to make sense of what they'd collected. "We'd react off each track and try to make sure that each one would fit into the experience," Lavelle says. "We weren't trying to do it just by trial and error. It was very thought-out as it went along. Once we recorded Kool G Rap, we knew that it was going to be the first track, because it was unlikely that we'd get anything heavier than that, and once we recorded Thom Yorke, we knew that it would be the last track, because we were unlikely to get anything more intense.

"We didn't want to have a direct narrative going through it, because we felt like that would alienate people. But we wanted to come up with something that would be timeless. That's the goal, anyway, and that's hard to achieve. With music changing so fast, even great beats can start to sound old after a while. But not always. De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising doesn't sound dated, Public Enemy doesn't--and if 'Tomorrow Never Knows' was recorded today, it would sound just as great as it did in the Sixties."

It'll be a decade or so before anyone knows whether Psyence Fiction deserves to be mentioned with these proud predecessors. Meanwhile, Lavelle has more pressing concerns. The tenuous situation at A&M, which has been in limbo since the label was purchased by Seagram's earlier this year, portends a tougher-than-usual road for Mo Wax in its homeland, at least for now. In this country, meanwhile, conservative radio programmers may well turn up their snouts at many of Unkle's eccentric offerings, no matter how intriguing they may be--and Lavelle isn't happy about it.

"I find that sad as fuck," he fairly spits. "Radio people don't give people on the street enough credit. They think that people are stupid, which I think is just arrogant. But I don't care. We bit off more than we could chew with this record, but in the end, we made the record we wanted to make. We fed off the chaos--and the results turned out to be far greater than any pain we went through.

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