The Face : UNKLE “Psyence Fiction” feature from 1998
Following the Mo’ Wax feature published in The Face in 1995, here is their huge article covering the release of UNKLE’s “Psyence Fiction”, with some good infos about the looong making of the LP and a bit of Mo’ Wax history.
Afternoon in Los Angeles. Meat Loaf’s house. The fridge is the size of a small car and full of fish. The living room wall is inside-out, rough brickwork stretching from floor to ceiling. There are Japanese children underfoot. Out the back there is a bat-shaped swimming pool. In the pool floats a man with an upside-down sports-visor on his head. It is DJ Shadow. “This,” he purrs, “is definitely ill.”
Shadow is recovering, both from finishing the final exams of his communications course at the University of California in his howetown of Davis, and from last night’s party over at the Beastie Boys’ place. Tonight he is due to visit the home of Mario Caldato Jr, the Beastie’s producer. Shadow might do some work there, in Mario’s recording studio. Then again, he might not. See how it goes.
James Lavelle comes up to the stairs from the basement bedroom he has commandeered. He has just spent £300 on a phonecall to Japan. The phone goes again. It is Ice-T’s manager. Lavelle doesn’t take it. He has some catching up to do with his new girlfriend. They go out to the pool, joining the oldest friend from school in Oxford, Tim Goldsworthy. Masayuki Kudo, half of Japanese hip hop producers and artists Major Force West, and father of the roaming children; a fashion stylist and singer Zoe Bedeaux; Futura 2000, the 39-year-old graffiti veteran who once played with The Clash in New York and who met Lavelle at a bicycle messenger contest in Berlin (Futura came in 82nd out of 400); and a young video-maker associate at a Money Mark gig by one of Lavelle’s record company cronies.
“Wether or not one finishes the record is not the point to me.” James Lavelle is saying. “The point is wether or not one can connect with the people that you’re around. You can connect on a business level, but can you connect on a relationship level? It’s just me trying to work out in my head how I want to take things. For me, it’s about constantly reinventing myself and the people around me to keep it going, keep it interesting. Keep it somewhere.”
So, in early September 1995, did work on the debut album by Mo’ Wax recording artists UNKLE begin in earnest. Apart from the tracks set to be recorded on the West Coast with Mario, Kudo and Money Mark, there are another eight or nine to be worked on back in London. Planned collaborators include Plaid, Peter (Baby) Ford and Photek. “We’ll finish the album by December 31,” says James Lavelle confidently.
Down by the pool set into the hills above LA, Lavelle puts a tape into a ghetto-blaster. It is “History” by The Verve. “This is dope, this tune,” he says, adjusting his sunglasses.
EARLY AFTERNOON, JUNE 22, 1998
In the open-plan kitchen/living room of his flat in Kentish Town, James Lavelle and Josh Davis – AKA DJ Shadow – are standing beside a beaten-up radio-cassette player, listening to a woman who is talking without breathing. It is Jo Whiley.
“…and that’s ‘Ghetto Superstar’ a new entry at number three this week Now it’s time to go to Mo’ Wax and UNKLE This is probably one of the most significant records definitely the most talked album this year It is the life work of James Lavelle founder of Mo’ Wax also DJ Shadow the man behind the critically-acclaimed 1996 album ‘Endtroducing…’ It’s called ‘Psyence Fiction’ and it includes vocals from a variety of artists including Mike D from the Beastie Boys Alice Temple who used top be in Eg and Alice Badly Drawn Boy whose star is about to rise Overall it’s just a swoonsome symphonic masterpiece The tracks I’m going to lay that just after 1.30 but first here featuring the voice of Richard Ashcroft it was recorded after The Verve had split up two years ago when the mood was pretty bleak that much will be in evidence… This is ‘Loney Soul’…”
It’s hot outside. Lavelle is wearing a pair of ill-lifting combat shorts and a T-shirt by Ape, his favourite Japanese clothing label; Davis has a woolly hat jammed down over his ears. They await the radio debut of “Lonely Soul” like expectant fathers. Lavelle cradles a cream-coloured, six-inch plastic doll that a friend in Tokyo gave him. This Tron-meets-imperial stormtrooper figure is an early UNKLE doll, and is meant to represent Lavelle and all his ideas and ambitions. For the final marketing push, though, it has been supplanted on the “Psyence Fiction” artwork and Hong-Kong toy-factory production lines by two other James and Josh dolls – one based on Futura 2000 sketches and that look pointy-head alien lobsters.
There are UNKLE stickers on the TV. The coffee table is stacked with magazines. Damien Hirst’s slab-like art-book I Want To Spend The Rest Of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One To One, Always, Forever Now and the American Toy Catalogue 1951-67. On the wall is a piece of graffiti art by Toshio Nakanishi, Kudo’s partner in Major Force West, and something supplier of sleeve graphics to Howie B’s Pussyfoot label. Scattered on the floor are cushions shaped like gorilla’s feet made by Ape. So far, so predictable. The rest of the toys strewn across the room belong to the other kid in the house, Lavelle’s one year-old daughter, Lyla.
Davis (intently as “Lonely Soul” fills the room): It sounds weird hearing it on the radio.
Lavelle: I’m sorry! It’s covered in dust and it’s been at the bottom of a bag for ages….
Davis: Well at least she mentioned it was recorded a couple of years ago.
Lavelle (hands in the air) (like he don’t care): Ah here we go, it’s all over now!
Davis: That’s true. No matter what anybody does, it’s out there. Well, until it’s pressed… I thought that with “Endtroducing…” Once it was in the stores, there was no way they could recall it. Are they gonna play the whole thing?
Lavelle: They have to. That was the deal.
After a three-years-plus gestation, these are the first screams of the UNKLE baby. It has been a long, winding, often dark road, one that has stretched over three continents and encompassed countless players, several distasters and some of the most respected artists in the world. Somehow, these two unremarkable-looking skatekids have defied those who viewed the entire Mo’ Wax enterprise as the indulgent plaything of twentysomething slackers who refused to grow up. Against all the odds, financial and logistical and creative, using a mixture of infectious enthusiasm (Lavelle) and prodigious musical talent (Shadow), it seems the UNKLE pair have succeeded in their implausible mission.
LONDON, THE SUMMER OF 1996
It is now over a year since The Verve split up. In that time Richard Ashcroft has made music with Bernard Butler, Oasis producer Owen Morris and Stone Roses producer John Leckie. All the intended projects have come to nothing. Even so, in August he decides to respond to James Lavelle’s offer of a collaboration, meeting Lavelle with former Verve bass player Simon Jones at a central London pub. Ashcroft is buoyant, enthusing over Lavelle’s pitch. “Yeah!” he shouts. “Let’s make a piece of history!”
A couple of weeks later, Ashcroft turns up at Milo studios in Hoxton Square, east London. “I’ve just written this thing down,” he tells them. “‘God knows you lonely soul…'” Lavelle’s response is an instinctive: “Come on!” This is probably the worst Ashcroft impression ever.
The singer does a demo of the song and leaves. At the end of September, he returnd to Milo. He takes his shoes off and records his vocals in one take. A few days later, he meets up with Shadow at Matrix studios in south-west London. Shadow has built and epic drum break round his vocal. Ashcroft does some “answer” parts and they consider attempting another full vocal. After listening back, they stick with the original, spontaneous version of “Lonely Soul”.
“I just want to make records that are classic,” Richard Ashcroft tells DJ Shadow as he leaves. “Records that stand the test of time, like Curtis Mayfield’s or Marvin Gaye’s.” It is a this point that James and Josh realise this project could be the “special kind of thing” they have been talking about since they met in 1993. They don’t know what that thing is, and it will inevitably be difficult to find. But they still believ in it. Ashcroft evidently feels the same. A few weeks later, he reforms The Verve.
James Lavelle is now 24 years old. In the two years since the recording of “Lonely Soul”, a lot of growing up has gone on. He stills talks a lot but doesn’t say much. Professionally, at least, the pressure of running a major label-affiliated record company has given him a businessman’s edge. DJ Shadow, meanwhile, is no longer the painfully shy, preppy student, but an international star, courtesy of the half-million sales of “Endtroducing…”. A year older than Lavelle, he is still The Quiet One to James’ rampant networker. The recording studio and the record shop ar his areas of expertise and interest.
“The way a lot of people get their life philosophy from religion,” he says with no trace of irony, “I get it from hop hop and funk”.
The relationship between the two is instructive. Lavelle talks it, Davis walks it. As with all his artists, Lavelle is a lightning rod for Davis’ talents, the record company boss at the centre of an international network of artists. Over the past two years, Mo’ Wax has brought the world As One and Air; tasted Top 40 success for the first time with Money Mark; kept it real with Carl Craig’s Detroit classic “Bug In The Bass Bin”; released the quadruple CD “Headz 2”; and generally gone a little way to sjhaking off the perception of Mo’ Wax as a knowingly hip repository of subcultural gimmicks and Star Wars memorabilia. To sum up: with “Psynce Fiction”, le geek, c’est chic. And not – you know how these boys-with-toys and Jedi nuts can be – a bit sad and pathetic. Swoonsome symphonic masterpiece? For once the hyperbole and babble sounds about right. “Psyence Fiction” is the whole of the Nineties stuck together. They should put in the Millenium Dome.
“Psyence Fiction” is the logical step up to the next level. Ask Lavelle and Shadow the question the latter once posed – “What Does Your Soul Look Like?” – and you’d now have an answer: a double album triumph, with string concerto, block-rocking rap, thunderous drum breaks, heavy metal hip hop, rock ballads, spot-on movie smaples and enough neat design touches to keep a generation of trainspotters delighted. Batteries are not included, but pop-up sleeve, gun-wielding UNKLE toy and limited-edition Japanese artwork are. As Mo’ Wax’s marketing pitch has it: “A billon years in the making and it’s coming to your galaxy this summer.”
JUNE 2, 1998
At an old power station-turned-recording studio in south-west London, the UNKLE album is finally being seuqenced. While James Lavelle talks on the phone to Futura 2000 about final artwork specifications, DJ Shadow tries to finalise the album’s song-order and timings. Their combat trousers are crumpled and their faces creased. They have the studio tan of men who have spent too long in windowless rooms.
“The albums,” says Davis as he sits in the control room, “starts off on a certain level, and it finishes up a bit wiser. There’s a lot of different reasons why the songs are where they are. I don’t know if you caught it, but there’s a funny little thing on the track ‘Chaos’… I don’t know, should I mention it?”
“Yeah,” nods Lavelle solemnly. “You have to listen to it cleverly.”
“OK. There’s a portion on it with lots of street sounds, symbolic chaos. And an ambulance goes by playing the Richard Ashcroft song. It’s muffled… We wanted to have moments where the characters interacted with each other, kinda like in a film. It’s an odd concept to have on a record, an awareness of other songs.”
They have both thought about all of this for a long, long time. This is not a compilation, they insist. No track has been recorded “just” as a single. It is not made for clubs, despite the cinematic-electro rush of “Celestial Annihilation” and the urgent hip hop energy of Mike D’s “The Knock (Drums Of Death Pt.2)”. It has been recorded as a 58-Minute Listening Experience.
“Basically,” says Davis, “it’s James’ vision. It’s the things we’ve always talked about, as far as what makes a record special. Visually, sonically, from interesting artwork to a good video. If UNKLE is a school of thought, I’m head of the music department. And James is the dean.”
To Lavelle, UNKLE is more like a film, complete with director, cameraman, music supervisor, art direction and special-effects team. The best example, he says eagerly, is Hearts Of Darkness, the documentary of the making of Apocalypse Now. “One moment that’s always stuck in my mind is Francis Ford Coppola sitting there going, ‘I’ve just made the biggest, most expensive Hollywood action/sex/entertainment piece of shit in the world!’ So the line has been crossed! You can’t go any further. There’s no more tricks. We just can’t do any more.”
James Lavelle has always been a dreamer, a twitching, bespectacled confusion of ideas and ambitions. He and Carl Craig, he says, often talk about buying a couple of little cabins in the American midwest, where they could fish and chat wistfully of the records they never made.
Lavelle has been talking about making a record by a group called UNKLE since he was a teenager in Oxford. His father, a lawyer and jazz drummer, opened his eyes and ears to music and “the arts”, but after his parents split up when he was 12, Lavelle’s tastes shifted. He bought a copy of Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show”. Then, when he was 14, his mother gave him his year’s pocket-money in one go. He bought a pair of turntables, his cultured middle-class existence was invaded by hip hop, and all the tracksuits, trainers, graffiti-art and spliff that came with it.
The dream went on changing. Lavelle and his friend Tim Goldsworthy planned a production outfit called UNKLE and a group called Belmondo. Then Lavelle started his own club, called Mo’ Wax Please. Age 16, he did two weeks work experience at Talkin’ Loud. But because he liked the hip hop lifestyle, the whole culture of self-made young men who where into street-art as much cool clothes and “dope” music, he stopped wanting to be Gilles Peterson and started wanting to be Mike D. To do more than “just” run a label and the odd bit of DJing.
He quit is B-Tech in business studies to work full-time in a west London record shop. He started writing a column in Straight No Chaser, rhapsodising over the Japanese hip hop and American rare groove coming into the shop. The shop manager lent him £1,000 to start his own label. A friend at Acid Jazz taught him how to run a business; his love of Talkin’ Loud and Def Jam, Warp and Massive Attack, graffiti art and Star Wars taught him the importance of packaging, ” about the merchandising and the lifestyle”.
Lavelle claims he was the first person to secure a Portishead remix, of Federation’s “Rusty James”, but couldn’t afford to give them a deal. He says that the day he was due to press up copies of a slow, doom-laden track called “Aftermath” by Self Preservation Productions, the artist split for a major label. His name was Tricky. Determined to never lose acts of such calibre again, Lavelle signed Mo’ Wax over to A&M in the spring of 1995 for just under £350,000. James Lavelle was 21 at the time.
Solvent at last, he and Goldsworthy could start fulfilling their bedroom daydreams. But after relocating to LA the cracks in their partnership widened. Lavelle loved “A Northen Soul” by The Verve; all Goldsworthy wanted to pursue the Mo’ Wax-patented hip hop instrumentals exemplified by UNKLE’s “Berry Meditation” single – recorded in LA in September ’95.
“People,” says Lavelle, meaning Goldsworthy, “didn’t think it was worthwile contacting people like Thom or Richard. Approach people: that’s what I do better than anyone else. That was the only way I could better than anyone else. That was the only way I could ever start a record company. Nobody was prepared to give me anything so I had to ask. That’s what my role in this community was about. That, to a certain extent, is why I’ve got a bigger reputation than most people get running a record label.”
If James Lavelle likes someone’s work, whether it’s Tokyo’s DJ Krush or Paris’ La Funk Mob, he just calls them up and asks if they want to do something. That’s what he did with Josh Davis five years ago. The first night they spoke, recalls Davis, they had a two-hour conversation “about sci-fi movies, hip hop, old school video games, everything“.
While Lavelle was successfully pitching the UNKLE project to Ashcroft, Goldsworthy was already on his way to doing what he does now, working with David Holmes on remixes – from Page & Plant’s “So High” to Red Snapper’s “Bogey Man” – and soundtracks. He has recently returned to Los Angeles, working with Holmes on the score for Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s thriller Out Of Sight.
“And me and Tim are better friends than we’ve been in years,” says Lavelle loudly, as if keen to prove that is has not, after all, lost touch with his roots.
San Francisco. A car winds up through the moutains outside town, deer bolting across the road as it approaches as “recording environment” known as The Site. Thom Yorke is on the back seat, scribbling down lyrics. He has a 48 hours free-time in the midst of Radiohead’s first American tour to promote “OK Computer” and, after meeting James Lavelle in New York earlier that month at the Tibetan Freedom Concert, has decided to devote his days off to UNKLE.
As they drive, California native DJ Shadow is describing the local flora and fauna.
“What’s that really sweet smell?” asks Yorke.
“Oh that’s Baby’s Breath,” replies Shadow. “It’s a flower with little white puffs.”
Up at the studio, Yorke sings of being “a rabbit in your headlights” and “sweet baby’s breath…”. (he later decides to remove the local reference). “This,” says Shadow to Lavelle, “is where the heart and soul of the record begins.”
A photographic studio in Roppongi, Tokyo. This is the beginning but it’s also the end. Lavelle and Davis are in Japan to start promoting their “lifework”. Following a succession of interviews, Josh is feeling drained. The photo-shoots alone have been going on for eight hours. Even so, there is always music. They have talked around the subject incessantly, moving from Miami Bass to rare groove via meditations on endless ancient hip hop obscurities. They have listened to Money Mark, Tubular Bells, Judy Collins and rhapsodised over the new Beastie Boys album…
Two months previously, Shadow and Lavelle were holed up at The Plant studios in San Francisco waiting for the arrival of Mike D. The Beastie Boy has a long-standing commitment to James Lavelle – he sees Mo’ Wax at the European equivalent of Grand Royal – and to the UNKLE album itself – he was due to record a track during the abortive LA sessions in September ’95. But he’s been working on the follow-up to “Ill Communication” for as long as Lavelle and Davis have been making “Psyence Fiction”. DJ Shadow has sent Mike D a beat, a guitar sample and a theme. The track will be called “Drums Of Death”, in homage to New York rapper K-Solo’s 1990 track of the same name. It will be a key “party moment” on the album. He is supposed to have been recording it at home.
A DAT arrives by courier. Davis slots it into a spare machine and the studio’s mammoth speakers begin to throb with a familiar, adenoidal rap. “I got a little story to tell, with DJ Shadow and James Lavelle, it starts right now in history, and I am known as the rebel Mike D…”
In Tokyo, the photo shoot drags on. The ever-twitchy Lavelle is obsessed with whether he is wearing the right Ape T-shirt while a “tired and slightly emotional” Davis finally rouses himself from his normal placid amiability to ask Lavelle and the Mo’ Wax entourage if he can just keep on the faded “Psyence Fiction” T-shirt he arrived in. This seemingly minor glitch comes on top of an earlier disagreement. The photographer, a friend of Lavelle’s, had brought along two replica guns. Davis refused to pose with them. Pointing to a picture of A Tribe Called Quest on the cover of a Japanese magazine, he said: “The Quest would never pose with this guns. They don’t need to. No one would ask them to either.”
This is the gulf between the men from UNKLE, and the bond. Lavelle is the boy about town, networking with the photographers, fashion designers, DJs and film-makers associated with Tokyo-based Major Force outfit, discussing packaging specifications for the lavish Japanese version of “Psyence Fiction”; visiting a hip hop club in Harajuku which boasts “a cool Star Wars lift”. Davis, though, is content to shop, sleep and hang with his half-Japanese, half-Swedish girlfriend. I’m addicted to music like other people are to sex,” he says. “I get real excited when I go into a record shop, but get crabby if I come out empty-handed.” Yesterday he spent £500 on eight records. An average day’s outlay.
EARLY AFTERNOON, JUNE 22, 1998
At James Lavelle’s flat in Kentish Town, “Lonely Soul” is still on the radio. It should be. It’s nine minutes long. But then…
Davis is staring at the radio. Lavelle has hands on his head. Their nine minute epic has been edited by the Radio One engineers.
Davis (aghast): They cut Three minutes out!
Lavelle: Oooooooh, man… I don’t believe it!
The phone rings. It’s Ian Brown, wondering if he’s missed anything on the radio (Lavelle’s and Brown’s girlfriend are good friends. Lavelle asked Brown to be on the album, but he refused. This annoyed Lavelle, mainly because Brown phoned Lavelle really late at night to discuss it. He then turned him down without having heard any of UNKLE’s music). Suddenly “Lonely Soul” lurches again, cutting from the symphonic break straight back into Ashcroft’s vocals.
“I DON’T FUCKING BELIEVE THAT!” yells Lavelle. “I’m gonna write a letter to Radio One.”
“It’s a different world,” sighs Davis, getting up to go to the fridge. They sit in silence as “Lonely Soul” limps to a close. Finally, James Lavelle shakes his head and gets back on the phone, organising some sound-snippets for the UNKLE website and checking up on his DJ slot at the forthcoming Beasties’ aftershow in Brixton.
Slowly and calmly, the way he does most things, Josh Davis returns to his chair.
“It just seems not too many people are shooting for the moon,” he muses. “But it’s okay to try for some epic shit. It’s okay to think about music, but also to use your heart. And it’s okay to speak like this and not be called artrock tosser.”