When we speak to James Lavelle, his new UNKLE album The Road: Part 2 (Lost Highway) has been out for just over a week and he’s getting prepared for its live premiere at the Southbank Centre, London. He’s looking forward to bringing it all back to where it began for him by DJing with Milo, originator of the The Wild Bunch collective, one of the people James says inspired him to start DJing back in his teenage years. Members of The Wild Bunch went on to start Soul II Soul and Massive Attack, so that group was a basis for a lot of the things that Lavelle has been involved with in his career. Shy One will also be DJing. ‘It’s going to be an interesting joining of the dots.’
He’s hoping to take the show on the road with gigs in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North of England, as well as abroad. But for the moment his focus is on getting the Southbank Centre show where it needs to be, and to celebrate the culmination of what was two years work in bringing the album together. ‘I’m trying to split it into sections, do something a bit different. If you imagine a club set and then an after hour set within the venue, it’s slightly different from what I’ve done before.’
Lost Highway is the second part of the trilogy Lavelle started in 2017 with The Road: Part 1. I’m thinking about why he would lay it all out from the start, the plan of dividing it into three parts? I ask him, why put that pressure on himself?
It was something I’ve wanted to do for a while, as an idea. I didn’t think of it that way, in fact in a weird way it has decreased a certain amount of pressure, mentally. In a sense of splitting things up and having time to invest in one thing, this main idea. But actually then doing the second record, the pressure definitely did go on. You’re going between records that you’ve worked on that you’ve started a while ago, bringing in new things and trying to make sense of it all. But I think that’s generally the daily grind of it all anyway, of making records. I just wanted to do something that there was a bit more of a story to. I like the idea of doing something that’s over a trilogy in the same way that I like films that have done that. And growing up reading books like The Odyssey and people like Joseph Campbell and stuff like that.
What does The Road, as an idea, mean to you?
I think it’s two things for me, it’s sort of the creative journey that one leads. And along this road, you meet people and you collaborate with them and you do things in different ways. Sometimes it might be for a film, sometimes it might be for an exhibition, sometimes it’s just making records, making music for yourself. In a lot of ways, it’s creating a diary. Also, it’s a sort of metaphor for life’s journey. And so the way I’ve broken the record up, the first one is sort of leaving home, the second record is more going off on your journey, going off on your different tangents of experience and then the Freudian last part of coming back home.
With a lot of your work and throughout the new album, you reference previous work by yourself and others, either as full-blown covers, in the spoken word parts or in little audio clues.
I always like when in hip-hop records especially [when they] skip narratives, within the records, these things would join tracks and give space for tracks. It works in being able to ambiguously express something vocally but also to give a narrative between things, especially on a record like The Road: Part 2, where it’s very eclectic. How do you go from one track to another without it being too jarring?
Is it a struggle to find cohesion, working on a project for such a long time and all of the different collaborators involved?
Only in the sense that you go from certain tracks to other tracks. Generally, a lot of records tend to be sonically in one place and you explore that place and that’s what the record becomes. You might make a more lo-fi record, or electronic record or a more heavier record or a stadium record. Depending on what your objective is, the record tends to sit within a certain sound. This record doesn’t, so it’s trying to find a way that you can go from americana to hip-hop to house. I think you get the cohesion because you have a certain style and a certain kind of emotional style that one works within, but that was my objective. I was thinking more in the way of how I would do a radio show or an eclectic DJ mix, or how you listen to records when you’re in a car. There is a context to why the record is eclectic, and the way it is, and putting that in place, people seem to understand it in a different way.
So, with Part Three, the theme is going to be ‘coming home’?
I found myself in the last few years, going back and listening and referencing, going back to the beginning a little bit. In the sense of reflecting on those times, and those things that are the place where you were at mentally when you first started. For me, and a lot of my friends, we desperately tried to get away from where we grew up. We grew up outside of London. And then you go to London, and you have that journey within the different worlds. A lot of it being very sort of city, very club, very nocturnal, very urban. Then you find yourself moving back in to somewhere more country and akin to where you grew up. And I think it is that kind of Freudian thing, how you eventually come back to where you started. I don’t want to go and make Psyence Fiction or The Time Has Come, it’s not about that. It’s certain emotional things, sonic references that, I think for me, I went away from for a long time that I’m coming back to a lot more in the last few years.
What’s your take on streaming and how instant things are at the moment? Is some of the magic or the joy of discovery being lost?
For me, it’s not that. I don’t think the magic of discovery is lost. It was a different process back in the day. It could take you two or three years to find a record, and there was a joy in that experience. That had a very social experience within it. It became that journey with your contemporaries, trying to find things. Pre-internet, it’s your way of culturally connecting with people through, in my world, collecting. Whether it was records, or clothes or toys. I think that with digital, the idea that I can access music quickly, in the sense of ‘I hear something, I Shazam something’, you can follow up on things quicker in a sense. It can be brilliant if you’re trying to find an Israeli marching band record, or a Turkish psychedelic record or whatever.
I think, culturally, streaming is also something that depends on your age. How you engage with music and art. When you’re 16 and music is just free to most people, you don’t really consider it. Your mum and dad might be paying for your Spotify account, or whatever and music is essentially this free thing. That becomes a very different debate. And I think that it’s tough in the sense that if physicality didn’t exist for certain kinds of artists, I don’t know how you’d make records, which would mean a great deal of beautiful music not being made.
Streaming is interesting. For instance, music streaming, for the major record companies, if you are Drake or Rianna or I don’t know… Fishermen’s Friends, whatever it may be, it’s fantastic. They just clean it up. The investment is different and they can make huge amounts of money and they’re all back in the game. The only thing that I find, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, is that it doesn’t work in the same way that a streaming platform like Netflix works. Let’s say UNKLE is a film, and I make it, I can go sell it to Netflix, recoup my money. Netflix or Hulu or whatever can just say ‘we’ll spend X amount of money and make your movie or your TV show’, right? So, they are investing in you. Apple doesn’t do that, for me or any sort of alternative artist. So actually it depends on the way streaming works. I’ve just worked with Alfonso Cuarón. Netflix doing Roma, what fucking result. You get this very alternative, beautiful, independent art. A piece of cinema, paid for, supported, marketed, and then it becomes a great success. Everybody wins in that situation.
I think when you’re independent and you get in the top 40 or whatever, which for me on a personal level is quite an achievement when you think of thousands of records coming out a week, you don’t really see anything back for it. Whereas 10 or 15 years ago, if you had that, then you had an economic living out of your records. We are engaged in a computer digital era, and yes, we have to move forward in those ways. I just think music always seems to be this sort of strange place in the way that it never balances out appropriately.
That starts from the bottom, it’s from the grassroots all the way up.
Yeah, there is a culture from the grassroots up. I look back at my Mo’ Wax days, I never made a penny. Some people have done very well and that’s brilliant, but there has always been, from the grassroots of it, this sort of slightly dodgy way of how money works. All the record execs move around and make millions of pounds, some of the artists do well, but a lot of them come and go.
Spotify, they’ll invest in Billie Eilish or somebody. But so does everybody else. I’m not having a dig at her as a musician, she’s great. But it’s not like the investment goes into the alternative side of the music business. Where are we without that world? Then the commercial world doesn’t exist, because there’s no juxtaposition.
Have you any production work or remixes coming up?
Yeah, there are going to be remixes of some of the tracks coming. And I just worked on the visual piece to accompany the film which is going to be coming out soon. I’m sort of going to have to catch my breath a minute before I get back into Part Three and see what else is on the horizon, really. I really just want to tour. I’ve got a Psyence Fiction reissue and other stuff that’s more back catalogue orientated as well.
The Road: Part 2 (Lost Highway) is out now on James Lavelle’s Songs For The Def label