UNKLE : The appliance of Psyence
Another one from the archives : NME’s feature for the release of Psyence Fiction, back in 1998
This article was originally published in the 29 August 1998 of NME. A big thank you to @thedjshadowcollection for providing the scans!
Parting the Red Sea? Putting a man on the moon? Keeping clean at Gasto? Pah! Dead easy! Creating the record of the year, the mighty UNKLE album? Nothing short of a miracle.
I feel that this has given the most incredible and wonderful thing that I have ever been given, ans also the worst… I have been taken absolutely to the depths of extreme terror by this. I’ve had my whole soul undermined by it. On the other hand, in one sense my experience has been about finding… joy.”
Thanks God Francis Ford Coppola never tried making records. The above quote, from Hearts of Darkness – The Making Of Apocalypse Now comprise the last words spoken on “Psyence Fiction”, the “billion-years-in-the-making”, feverishly-awaited new album from UNKLE, aka DJ Shadow and Mo’ Wax supremo James Lavelle. And by all accounts, it’s barely an exaggeration of the three years of trauma, discord and logistical nightmares that went into making what looks certain to be one of the albums of the year.
“Putting Live AId together would probably have been easier,” commented one player in this epic drama, referring to Lavelle & Shadow’s uncompromising ambition to apparently represent all areas of the music they love from past, present and, dammit, the future. Not just in theory, but in person. They planned to work with an ambitious, improbabl eclectic group of collaborators including such stellar luminaries as Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft and Mike D, alongside old heroes like Kool G Rap and Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, plus newer figures like Badly Drawn Boy and Alice Temple (ex of Eg And Alice). And if a job’s worth doing…
“People have misunderstood what that whole Apocalypse Now was about,” points out James Lavelle. “It’s not that we’ve made the musical equivalent of Apocalypse Now – that’s like saying you’re trying to write Lord Of The Fucking Rings – it’s just that it felt like the making of that film. The logisitics of it all, the relationship splitting up, and the abuse, going from being into drugs and then going into some other fucking lifestyle, you know, then made times with girlfriends coming and going and having kids, moving arounf the world, record companies falling apart and managers getting involved and bands blowing up, and the stress of trying to see your vision throught o reality when the whole world seemed to be conspiring against you.”
You might sense from the above that there are myriad stories within the story of this record’s evolution. Trying to fill the gaps in such tales, though, would probably take as long as this record did, not least because there are clearly personal, legal and creative eggshells to be trod over at almost every turn.
It’s worth a try, though. because it partly explains and illuminates a record the like of which you will not hear again this decade. A record which begins with thundering beats and the older-than-old-skool hip-hop assault of Koll G Rap, then mutates into the post tr*p-h*p shoulder of the Alice Temple collaboration, “Bloodstain”, through orchestral and techno breaks, to the startling primal holler of Richard Ashcroft’s “Lonely Soul”, loses the plot with bonkers kitsch and Badly Drawn Boy’s hardcore destruction of “Nursery Rhyme”, sets off Mike D’s nasal goofing against Atlantique Kahnh’s sultry croon, then comes down to earth with the sublime Thom Yorke alienation od “Rabbit In Your Headlights”. And if that sounds like something between grand folly and an eclectism meltdown, you should have been there during its creation.
What do we know is that recording for the debut UNKLE album began in September 1995. At Mat time UNKLE consisted of Lavelle, his childhood friend and seemingly inseparable sidekick Tim Goldsworthy. and Masayuki Kudo of Major Force West. James was confident the album, collaborators and all (he already had the main players in mind), would be finished before the year’s end. How wrong he was.
Initial recordings at Meat Loaf’s old house in LA, with the likes of the Beasties and brat pack suspects like Donovan Leach and Amanda de Cadenet “hanging out”, struggled to bear significant fruit. Meanwhile, Mo’Wax’s American wunderkind DJ Shadow, who James asked to come in as producer to work on a couple of tracks, was decidedly unconvinced about the project.
“I left after that experience feeling like, ‘I don’t want to be any part of this’,” he recalls. “It seemed then as if no-one was grabbing the reins. There were all these people coming in and out and having a laugh and doing this and that, and I got fucked off with it to the point that eventually I just locked the studio door and wouldn’t let anyone in. Every now and then I would see the top of someone’s head peering over looking concerned and I would be like, “No, go away!”. I wasn’t sure who was supposed to be running the show, so I got on with stuff but I wasn’t really sure anything would come of it.”
Meanwhile, the relationship between James and Tim was tearing at the seams. Tim puts his side of the story…
“James had a vision for this record, and it soon became clear that I wasn’t a part of it. I guess the creative friction started when Mo’ Wax took off and I would be working for a week at a time with Kudo, and then he comes in and says, ‘Hmmm, it’s not quite right…’ There’s a couple of albums of stuff which we scrapped because he decided it wasn’t what he wanted. I was doing the programming, then he brought Shadow in, who’s a genius programmer, and I kind of felt redundant.
“I also didn’t like the idea of depending on people for whole tunes, just putting down a backing track and bringing people like Richard Ashcroft or Thom Yorke in for the rest – I think that sucks to be honest.
“Oddly Enough, we wen out a couple of times when our relationship was at its worst, and came to a more amicable conclusion. Which was for me to go, because he explained what he wanted, and I didn’t want to be part of it.”
James, as you might expect, takes a more circumspect view.
“We’d grown up together since he was eight years old. We saw each other everyday for a long time. We did drugs together, we met girls through each other, and we got into music through each other. But then Mo’ Wax blew up and I was working on that and I wasn’t really focused enough to push UNKLE at the time. Then I guess personal shit got involved, as i split up with one girl, he went on with another girl, and he went off with that group of friends, whereas I met my long-term girlfriend, and went off with her group of friends – that’s life. It wasn’t a musical argument. It was more of a personal thing.”
Make of all that what you will, but once again, UNKLE seemed finished before their work had really begun.
“That was another time I thought we couldn’t carry on. I thought, ‘I need Tim, I love him, I dunno what to do, what if he does a better record than we do?! Maybe I’ve let him go!’ But then Josh (Davis, aka DJ Shadow) just pulled me in, we had a common view on how we were going to do this thing and we went for it.”
If only it were that simple. Shadow, having just written “Endtroducing…..” without any outside influence, was still unsure about whether to commit himself to this completely contrasting project.
“While people were playing video games and smoking and hanging out in the other room I just locked myself in with a sampler, and that’s where the demo for “Lonely Soul” was done, the Alice Temple track and “Unreal”. But again, I left thinking, ‘I’m never going to do that again’. This time for sure.
“But by the time May ’97 came around I listened to the tapes and I thought, ‘This is too good to turn my back on’. And by this time James had decide he wanted me to do the whole thing, which appealed to me because then I knew I could just get on with it. So to do justice to those three demos the rest of the record came about, from May ’97 to June this year.”
Hoorah. And collaborations, it seemed, were just what the doctor ordered for a man in danger of dropping out civilised society.
“I though it would be a problem,” says Josh, “and that’s exactly why I wanted to do it. For ‘Endtroducing…..’ I was alone in a studio smaller than that bathroom (points to, erm, a small bathroom), day after day you start feeling like the studio messiah and it’s like a film where someone goes mad and sets up his own little religion in there, deluding yourself that all the decisions you’re making are the right ones. ‘Endtroducing…..’ I had to do that way ‘cos it was a personal statement. But this one I wanted to learn from a real mixer. I didn’t really know how to produce normally. I didn’t know how other people made records.” James’ Mo’ Wax sidekick Steve Finan recalls the day when he entered the Shadow inner sanctum.
“When I saw the studio where he made ‘Endtroducing…..’, I nearly had a fucking heart attack. You would not believe this place, it’s like some cupboard that a kid would get locked in for punishment in the workhouse or something, which kind of reflects his approach to his music – kind of intense.”
“The whole thing was a learning experience for everyone,” says James. “It was always going to be hard for Shadow to get used to not always doing his own thing. But then Steve would say to me, ‘So you want to make an album with songs?’ And I said, ‘Tell me what a song is…’ See, I come from a dance music background, and I deal with beats, with sounds and samples. But I didn’t know how to write a song. how to deal with lyrics and singers and structures like that. I had to learn that as well as finding out what this record was trying to say…”.
More observant readers will notice that Lavelle’s name is not actually included on the writing credits for any of the songs on ‘Psyence Fiction’. So, you may ask, what exactly is his role?
“I wanted to make a record where I was personally involved, lived through it, came up with the idea and developed the whole hing from scratch.
“Sure, I didn’t write the record. I brought in Shadow, because it was my concept, my thing and I wanted it to be the best it could be, because in five years’ time people aren’t going to remember the review or the day it came out, they’ll remember the music. People are going to say, ‘Oh he’s so egotistical because he’s done nothing’, but in a way I’ve shattered any ego thing by letting everyone have their creative freedom in it.”
Hmmm. The role of ‘Executive Producer’ has most often been associated recently with the mighty ego of Sean ‘P*f*y’ Combs. Surely the two could not possibly be related? “It’s nothing to do with any ego vehicle. Believe me, you had to leave your fucking ego at the door of that studio three years ago to make this record. It’s a conceptual record, and a lot of people will find that pretentious, and ask, ‘What the fuck did James do?’ and, ‘This isn’t a band’, and, ‘Who the fuck do they think they are getting all these people?’ and, ‘It’s only good ‘cos of Thom and Richard’. I’m just waiting for all that crap to be thrown at us.”
With a label and an album to support, though, you might be forgiven for thinking our James is something of a control freak… “I have a very definite feeling of how things should be but I’ll never be, ‘It’s my way or the highway’. You’ve got to have that confidence in people to let go and trust their way sometimes or there’s no point.
“I’ve surrounded myself with people who are great at what they do, and sometimes they need challenging or channelling but you can’t take over because that’s why they come to you – to have their freedom. I don’t want a bunch of fucking Yes men around me, I want them to give me as much as I give them.
“We agreed on who should be on the record,” reckons Shadow. “Except I had to put my foot down over Kool G Rap, because James was saying things like. ‘Mike D represents the hip-hop side of the record’. and I was like, ‘Well he doesn’t really to me…’ I wanted someone I grew up on, so I insisted on having Kool G Rap on the record. And I think he’ll admit I was right”
It’s not a case of control with James,” reckons a colleague. “He Just lives the whole music lifestyle. He’s so full of ideas that he can’t help making music all day, then he’s out clubbing ’til six in the morning, and then he’s got a girlfriend and a kid who he totally loves at the same time. He’s just someone who wants to have it all, do it all and be a part of everything.”
The words “frustrated artist” spring to mind…
“I’m sure he’d admit there’s an element of that,” says Shadow. “But his input is artistic anyway, in a way. And I can certainly tell you I’m a frustrated record label boss. I’ve been trying to set up a label for seven years!” It’s easy to be cynical about a man like James Lavelle. But the truth is, when you learn of the trials and tribulations UNKLE went through to make this record, you have to conclude that only men as determined and uncompromising as he and Shadow could have pulled it off with their sanity in tact. And for that alone they are worthy of enough respect.
The scene : a typical Josh Vs James discussion on work in progress, as recounted by Mr Lavelle…
Shadow: “But you don’t fucking know! I haven’t finished! What the fuck right have you to say…?”
Lavelle: “But I don’t want it to go that way.”
Shadow: “Well. I don’t want to play it to you any more.”
Lavelle: “But I’ve got to hear it! It’s my fucking album!”
Shadow: “But you’re just not giving me the space!”
Lavelle: “But once it’s finished, Josh, I haven’t got any control over what it is!”
Shadow: “Yeah, well you either get me in to do the music or you fucking don’t”
Lavelle: “But wait a minute… it’s my thing as well as yours, we agreed…”
Shadow: “Yeah, well you know, alright… fine, fuck’s sake… play it…”
Lavelle: “Josh, it’s brilliant!”
Lavelle: “Josh, I don’t like it.”
Shadow: “Oh right, now you fucking tell me!”
So there you have It. The white heat of modern musical creation in full… If only there were a Troggs-style tape of it all…
“The screaming fits would happen when I wanted to hear stuff and he wasn’t finished,” recalls James, “so eventually I’d agree to waiting to a certain point In its creation, and through that we’d learn to discuss things without having a fight…”
Crazy scenes. Once James and Josh finally developed some kind of workable relationship, though. there were the collaborators to deal with… which is whore the plot thickens to the point where we can only speculate as to the individuals involved. By all accounts, the two biggest British names, Thomn Yorke and Richard Ashcroft, posed relatively little problems. Ashcroft was in high spirits, despite The Verve having split and, contrary to what the lyrics to “Lonely Soul” might suggest (“I’m gonna die in a place that don’t know my name”, “I believe there’s a time when the cord of life can be cut”, “the sun has got his ha…” no, that’s wrong), enthusing about the idea of “making a piece of history”. He did the vocals in one take. Thom Yorke, after a year-and-a-half of trying, was finally pulled into a studio in San Francisco in the middle of Radiohead’s 1997 American tour. Legend has it he wrote the stark lyrics to “Rabbit In Your Headlights” in the car on the way there. Such professionalism.
Reading between the lines, though, it seems Alice Temple’s “Bloodstain” and Atlantique Knanh’s “Chaos” were more problematic.
It may or may not be one of these Steve Finan is referring to when he recounts the following stalemate in creative negotiations.
“Someone new was in the studio and no-one could agree on the way it should go. The person who was delivering the vocal and the lyrics wanted to just be left alone in the studio. But if you left them on their own it wouldn’t have got done. You had to hassle them but you also had to massage them or it would never have happened.
“Meanwhile, Josh and James were both phoning me getting increasingly worried and it was a deadlock, because each person was determined on their own thing. It got to the point where I had James on one line saying, ‘I’m gonna fucking kill Josh’ and Josh on the other line saying, ‘I’m gonna fucking kill the pair of them’, and I’m going, ‘Er, right, have you tried…’ and they’re like, ‘Not I’m not fucking trying that!”
“Jim Abbess, the engineer, was actually the one who pulled that through. which is a testament to his skills in these situations.”
“I was really nervous going into that studio environment,” admits Alice. “They’d given me a beat and a backing track, and I’m not really used to writing songs like that. I thought what I’d done was so crap. and I didn’t know Josh, so I didn’t know whether it was what they wanted. But we gritted our teeth and when we eventually got a finished version I was really dead chuffed with it”
A similar story surrounds Badly Drawn Boy’s contribution, “Nursery Rhyme”.
“I heard the Thom Yorke track and thought. ‘Fuck me, how do I follow that?’ I really don’t do ‘mood’ music very well, so I wanted to do something ‘In yer face’. Trouble was James sent me three instrumental tracks and none of them felt right. But then he sent “Nursery Rhyme” and I immediately went for it. They liked the lyrical idea (from the perspective of a baby in a womb, fact fans!) ‘cos I think that’s how they saw the album – close to being aborted!
“I was mega intimidated in the studio because it was such a big project, totally under the microscope. They initially wanted me for three tracks, and ‘Nursery Rhyme’ as a single. But the other two ended up as instrumentals. I’m dead proud to be on the record in general, though. James had the vision to get an unknown like me on it, and it was worth the trouble because I think it’s an album that people will still listen to in 30 years’ time.”
“The obvious thing to say is, ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’,” says James. “But that’s what this record was all about. The trouble comes because everybody thought they could fucking do it on their own. Nobody thought they needed anybody else.”
“Yeah,” grins Steve. “There was quite a few ‘Leave me to it’ moments, and then it’d be, ‘No, fuck you, because I know what’ll happen – three months down the line you’ll be crawling back to me saying, ‘What was it we were trying to do again?'”
James: “When you go through something like this you either kill each other or you survive and your relationship gets stronger. I think that’s the same with any band. It’s like The Verve – they’ll get back together! ‘Course they fucking will. They’ve been in the same tourbus and the same studio for a year-and-a-half – try being in the same place as your girlfriend for a year-and-a-half! But ultimately what you have in common, and what you’ve been through is more important than what comes between you.”
Easy to say in hindsight. But at the time, each day seemed to bring a new problem…
Steve: “Like for example, someone who you’re really intimidated by because they’re so brilliant does something and fucks off and says, ‘Right, that’s it’ and you think, ‘We really want to ask them to do something more’. How do you deal with that situation? How do I tell Elvis he’s sung two burn notes?”
What can he be referring to? The three years it took until Mike D finally delivered the DAT for “The Knock”, the last track to be completed? Mr Yorke’s fragile muse? Henry, the mild-mannered janitor? Who knows?
Meanwhile, engineer Jim Abbiss was brought in at the end of ’97 and was impressed and frustrated in equal measure at the unorthodox creative processes involved.
“Everything is sampled in Josh’s music. He’s got the most unique and brilliant way of cutting up sounds from some old seven-inches from 1974 or somewhere. But making that all sound like one record rather than a variety of scratchy vinyl is a bit of a headache. Then on top of that people were supposed to come in and write their own lyrics and vocal melodies on top. That caused problems and frustrations for some writers, ‘cos they’re just not used to working like that.”
French chanteuse Atlantique Khanh had a more unique problem, since English was not her first language, so she had to learn to write a song in it over a period of two years.
Then once the song was finished, original collaborator Mark Hollis, ex of Talk Talk, decided he didn’t like his part of the collaboration and wanted his name taken off the credits.
“I don’t know what happened,” says Atlantique. “I wrote the song, James and Josh liked it because ‘Chaos’ fitted the idea for the album, and Mark liked it and wanted to work on it.”
Whatever, he subsequently decided he liked it after all, and wanted his name put back on. Then he changed his mind again and decided he didn’t want the song on the record at all. A by now hair-tearing Lavelle eventually persuaded him to let them record the track without his contribution. These rock “eccentrics”, eh? But there is a happy ending…
“Since I learnt to sing and write in English,” says Atlantique, “I like it much better than French, so I will sing in English from now on.”
Good to know you’ve done your bit for international cultural understanding. Less harmonious, though, were relations with various management, record companies and “interested” parties when they got involved on behalf of their artists, wondenng just what this mysterious, amorphous record full of collaborations was going to consist of. Would they get their 20 per cent? Would their people be represented properly? Would it take attention away from their pursuit of global domination?
James: “All these people are trying to get involved, and you’re trying to explain what you’re trying to do to all these management and record companies. But it reached the point where me and Josh were saying, ‘Who the fuck are all these people? These artists are on our record, who the fuck are these idiots? What right have they to say anything about it, they’re not on the record’.”
Steve: “And they say, ‘We don’t fucking care who you are. These are our artists and we have to know everything that’s going on. And if you don’t tell us, we’ll stop the record happening’.”
James: “But we didn’t know when it was going to come out, how big, what colour, or how it related to anything else they were doing.”
The fact that Mo’ Wax is licensed through A&M, which
has since wound down its operations, and that PolyGram was evidently expressing severe concern over the ballooning budget and ever distant release date, hardly relieved the stress.
At least a track carne out of rt. though. Midway through “Psyence Fiction”, there’s a strange sample of an advert for a game called Ballbuster – “Try to bust your opponent’s balls!… Fun for children and for adults it’s exciting!” The fact that this sample comes after “Lonely Soul” and before Badly Drawn Boy’s song, and that the two share management may or may not suggest whose people were attempting to “Get Ahead In The Lucrative Field Of Artist Management” as the title has it.
Evidently the UNKLE project was seen by some as a potential distraction from the rapid rise of these two’s careers. “Lonely Soul” and “Nursery Rhyme” were both planned as singles until management/record company put the block on it. Also BDB’s contribution was going to be three tracks, but two of those ended up as instrumentals.
“That track was a reflection of how bonkers we were getting,” admits James. “There were times when I looked at Josh and he looked at me and we said ‘Fuck it, I give up… It’s not worth the grief’.”
Steve: “Especially when it started taking a lot of time, you know ‘cos that’s when it fucks with all your home life. You’d be away from home for long periods ans it gets really fucking stressful at home and you’re like, ‘What is the fucking point of this shit?'”
James: “But then you realise if it doesn’t happen, we lose. Nobody else is going to lose. This isn’t their thing.”
You join us at the New York launch party for “Psyence Fiction”. Free exotic cocktails are being served by attractive bar staff to the cognoscenti and dancerati as the album booms from the speakers. James and Josh, with thew low-slung combats and skate gait, look decidedly out of place. Which makes you wonder, in the wake of all the hype, and the impeccably cool credentials plastered an over this record, are UNKLE about to become the toast of the chattering classes?
“Every two years everyone tells me I’m the new big thing,” says Shadow, at which point I just don’t do anything. I can’t do corny shit for MTV, I can’t be a star – I can’t ride in limos. So I just hide until they forget about me.”
“I don’t expect it to be a huge commercial record.” shrugs James. “I don’t think it’s going to be a big record like the Beastie Boys’. But then I think it’s a lot more dangerous than the Beastie Boys record, to be honest.”
Tim Goldsworthy is, somewhat predictably, not entirely impressed.
“It doesn’t sound like there’s much excitement going on. It’s a bit too clinical for me. A bit of a chin-scratcher, and a bit of a boys’ bedroom record. I prefer something to get pissed and throw yourself around the room to. tt’s well put together. but I don’t think it’s as complete and flowing as ‘Endtroducing…..’. I think it sounds a bit too much like a compilation.”
Cheers, mate. Less cynical souls, though, will surety find that “Psyence Fiction” has some truly great moments. Thom Yorke’s “Rabbit In Your Headlights” has a beautifully haunting midnight austerity, and Alice Temple’s “Bloodstain” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Massive Attack album. Meanwhile, the kind of gleeful psychosis that Kool G Rap and Badly Drawn Boy provide makes for a tidy head-spinning, schizophrenic listen.
As for our Richard, throwing the fish out of his usual trad-rock waters is an experiment unlikely to be repeated or bettered. Sure, some of “Psyence Fiction” is overlong and overambitious, but without that madly unrealistic approach, its best moments wouldn’t sound quite so unique.
“The goalposts were pretty fucking high for this record,” admits James. “I wanted to give the same feeling from this as I did a a kid listening to Massive Attack’s ‘Blue Lines’ or ‘The Stone Roses’. I’m not trying to say this album is that, but those records were the bench mark. We tried to go for gold. People talk about ‘classic’ but ‘classic’ to me means you invent something that is new but also timeless.”
All’s well that ends well, then?
“You look at all those bands throughout history like Fleetwood Mac and The Beatles, there’s always so many stories behind the recording process and the people involved. But I love reading about those processes and it’s always a paert of the really great rcords. You don’t get it without going through it.”
And let there be no doubt, UNKLE have gone through it. Whether we’ll ever hear the whole story remains to be seen. But until we find the unexpurgated truth, “Psyence Fiction” is more than enough.
Words : Johnny Cigarettes