UNKLE are back. After a three-year hiatus, the James Lavelle-helmed collective return with a new label, new home, new collaborators, new clothes label -- and a new sound.
UNKLE's third album follows the worldwide success of 1998's Psyence Fiction and 2003's Never, Never, Land and once again finds the collective drawing on rock, electronic and beat-driven music in new ways.
"I wanted it to be our Check Your Head," says Lavelle, of War Stories, a 14-track album that finds him once again uniting with producer Richard File and working with producer Chris Goss (Queens of the Stone Age, Desert Sessions, Masters of Reality) and features collaborations with Ian Astbury (The Cult), Josh Homme (Queens Of The Stone Age) and 3D (Massive Attack) plus acclaimed garage fivepiece The Duke Spirit, LA art-rockers Autolux and Clayhill's Gavin Clark.
Massive Attack's Mezzanine was another touchstone, says Lavelle, as were records from Mark Lanegan, loads of German electronic house plus "weird 1960s and 1970s Turkish psychedelic records".
"I wanted to combine the depth of an electronic record with the dynamics of a rock record. It was a totally organic, free experience. Every UNKLE record has had its amazing moments but this was the record I felt most in tune with-- the most rewarding recording experience."
It's another album of firsts for UNKLE. "We recorded about 35 songs," says Lavelle, of an intense period of creativity in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree with "desert sessions" maestro Chris Goss (QOTSA/Masters Of Reality) in winter 2005. "Every other time we've done a record, we've had, like, 10!"
"It was the first time we've gone into a studio with no demos," continues Lavelle. "The first day we got there was when we started with the record -- juggling organic songwriting on keyboards, guitars, and organs with samples etc, and loads of people dropping by. Then I wanted to go to Joshua Tree, so we packed up and went over to [recording studio] Rancho De La Luna. We hired a 16-track, nothing lavish. In fact, there's been nothing lavish about recording this album at all. One of Rancho De La Luna's live rooms is in the bathroom. No big studios! It was a life-affirming and mad experience. Waking up in the National Park -- very eerie and beautiful -- and then going to the studio to make music all day."
Back in the UK, War Stories was further refined throughout 2006 with additional input from former-Psychonauts beat-guru Pablo Clements and mixing from Chris Allen.
Fans of Psyence Fiction and Never, Never, Land will immediately recognise this as an UNKLE record, but War Stories represents another stage in the band's evolution. Although it is dark it comes from a positive place, with Lavelle bouncing back from a certain personal and creative turmoil that surrounded the aftermath of the last UNKLE project.
"Chris Goss is a real good song person," he explains. "In the past I've gone for people that are maybe sonically-oriented: he's just a great songwriter. The first day he was talking about a range of influences from Larry Levan to Broadway plays. I was, like, 'Alright, then -- he gets it'."
Significantly, it's the first UNKLE album on which Lavelle contributes vocals, to standout tracks Hold My Hand and Morning Rage. "That was really liberating. To have Josh [Homme] come in, hear it and go 'What the fuck's this? I'm playing on this..."
2007 also opens an exciting new chapter in the working life of UNKLE and James Lavelle -- someone who has already crammed countless careers into barely three decades. War Stories will be the first album on James' new label Surrender All. For the first time Lavelle will have management, record label and recording studio under one roof -- new West London base Surrender Sounds. Here, ever the able multi-tasker, he'll juggle increasingly far-flung DJ bookings, film projects (movie score work has included Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast, Danny Cannon's Goal! and an upcoming documentary on renegade King Of New York director Abel Ferrara) and remixes (recent work includes Massive Attack's 'False Flags', Depeche Mode's 'John The Revelator', Robert Plant's 'The Enchanter', Metallica's 'Frantic' and Queens Of The Stone Age's 'Burn The Witch' and 'No One Knows') while overseeing the immaculate packaging and artwork specifications for which UNKLE is justly famous.
"The feeling I have now is the feeling that I had when I first started Mo' Wax," he explains, of the label that broke dozens of acts including DJ Shadow, Air and Blackalicious, spread the word about David Axlerod and Bathing Ape's Nigo and defined a whole era. "It's totally positive. From the music to the packaging to the artwork to the videos, I am able to work with the people I want to work with."
From long-time collaborators like artists Will Bankhead and Bill Drury, photographers Warren de Prez and Nick Thornton-Jones to 3D -- who provides the amazing artwork to all War Stories releases -- to new names, Surrender Sounds is a thoroughly non-corporate "artist-friendly" HQ, somewhere "where we can all feel comfortable".
Lavelle is also overseeing his own clothing label -- called, simply, Surrender -- initially a collaboration with a friend through a dedicated Surrender shop in Singapore selling Surrender clothing, now destined for its own London retail space.
Taken all together, Lavelle sees things thus: "We'll be a boutique industry constantly putting out records, soundtracks and videos; bits and pieces with interesting packaging. And we'll always be on the look out to work with truly creative people. I don't see a lot of that around at the moment."
In a world where music has never been cheaper, with albums literally given away for a few quid in supermarkets, it's surely a stand for the better. "Everything has become so disposable now," he says. "I want to be involved in creating music and art that has a timeless quality." Summer 2007 will also see UNKLE take to the road as a band for the first time, with a typically mind-bending extravaganza that promises to be an "end-of-the-night psychedelic show".
"I've spent a lot of my time in the thick of the madness," concludes Lavelle. "But it's not just about rock 'n' roll and drugs any more. It's about the creative process and where that leads me."
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