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Interview: UNKLE

With a rich and varied past secured behind them, the ever-evolving UNKLE enter yet a new era. Now headed by original member James Lavelle and frequent collaborator Pablo Clements, the much celebrated band drop their fifth full length under the UNKLE banner. Opting for collaborations with relative unknowns such as The Black Angels and Katrina Ford instead of the big names of the late 90s and early 00s, the band have delivered a standout record with their latest album, Where Did The Night Fall. Drifting between rock and alternative dance, the album sees all the drama and moodiness of previous UNKLE records but this time strewn together with a seductive and psychedelic electronic groove. Reinvigorating to fans of old and sure to turn on a new generation onto their sound, this album is an intelligent and exciting start to UNKLE’s latest incarnation.

Juno Plus met up with James and Pablo at a roof-top cafe in Kings Cross to get the story behind the album…

Tell us us a bit about where the album name comes from?

James – For me, with the title, it was more about letting go of certain parts of the past really. On the other side, it had a kind of romantic feel to it. It’s hard to explain because the title is really only from my perspective, on a personal level. But there is a certain feel of trying to grow and all the changes that we’ve had being at similar ages and family and all these things. The night time always had this massive allure to it, this environment that you spend most of your time in and part of that is about letting go of that to a degree. And in a weird way, it is a metaphor, on a personal level, for things like spending your life as a DJ and all of the things involved with that or seeing your life through your kids’ eyes. Both me and Pablo have got children and I think you just start seeing the world in a different way. But I tend to be a little bit darker than he does (laughs). I also think that we come from that world, and being the nocturnal creatures of the night and I think there is certain romanticism and I think it had a really nice flow to it.

Pablo – I think the title was around before a lot the music and it kind of helped us make the music as well in a weird way.

James – Me and Pablo come from a really similar place and that’s a really British DJ world of the late 80s of electro and hip hop through to the sort of records that we ended up collecting which was a mass array of groove based records. So Where Did the Night Fall, I think it summed us up in a concept. People like to give things boxes, and the last three albums have been given a box as a style and we just thought; let’s do what we do, and coming from that place, the title gave us a little bit of a thing of how do we take what we’ve grown up with and where we’ve lived and bring it in to this new place where we’re at. Saying that, we still stay up all night…

Pablo – And we make the music all the way through the night.

You talk about leaving things behind; the whole thing seems like a new era for UNKLE as a whole. What expectations do you have for this new era?

Pablo – To work faster (both laugh). I think we’re just on a role now. To be honest, we are always about changing every single time. Obviously UNKLE has a sound and you can still get it, but how many ways can you make a 4/4 beat sound different? Every UNKLE record, or everything we do even if it’s a remix or anything, we come at it from a different angle, influenced by something different. I’d like to think that I would be able to give you the answer to the question for the next two hours but I haven’t got a clue.

James – I think there’s such an array of different people involved, with essentially me and Pablo at the helm of the ship I suppose and part of our relationship has always been interest in music, both old and contemporary, and you’re trying to put those influences into what you do and move forward. I think there is a sound, it’s hard to explain, but when you’re in the studio there will be times when we can all veer off into certain other places and we kind of all turn round and say – ‘this doesn’t sound like an UNKLE record.’  For those that don’t know, Pablo’s actually worked on the last two albums. He programmed on Never Never Land and helped finish War Stories so has always been involved. But we think you just want to evolve really. There are influences that we have that are going to consistently go through the records but that again comes through this DJ perspective. Our albums are like mix tapes in the way they are put together. They have a sort of intro, they take you up, and at the end you’ve got your last song at the end of the night. That’s probably the strongest link that runs through all the albums.

Pablo –It’s always got a beginning, middle and an end.

James – We never like just a selection of tracks, even though this record was much more like that, but the way we put it together and the way we visualise what we’re trying to do over the period when we’re trying to put a record together, the DJ element definitely creeps in. And I think that’s really why it’s part of that history. I mean, growing up with Mo Wax and all of those places. As much as you can take in all these influences and then try and interpret them in your own way, I don’t think we’ll ever make a literal krautrock album, or a literal hip-hop album, or literal anything really.

Pablo– There’s so many bands doing that at the moment I find. That’s the problem with a lot of them, it’s like, that sounds exactly like Neu. I’d rather listen to Neu. We take bits of that and bits of that and pretty much put polar opposites together and it works.

“Our albums are like mix tapes in the way they are put together. They have a sort of intro, they take you up, and at the end you’ve got your last song at the end of the night. That’s probably the strongest link that runs through all the albums”

James – It’s funny because I listened to the new Chemical Brothers single and I fucking love it – it’s amazing and I just thought, fuck – it sounds like Chemical Brothers. I think we do sound like UNKLE but it’s like sometimes, imagine if we were the best dance band in the world, but it just doesn’t, to be honest, we just have too many ideas coming at us.

Pablo– I mean we all come from that. That’s one thing I learned. It was all about buying the most obscure records. You couldn’t sample a drum that someone else had. We’ve still got the same mentality in a weird way, because we’ve grown up with it.

Do you think that because UNKLE is such an established name and act that it gives you more freedom for the changes and adaptations?

James – Sometimes. I mean, it’s always quite a polarised view, especially with fans. People always want you to make your last record. But I don’t know if that’s dissimilar to a lot of bands and at the end of the day. We’re not AC/DC. I don’t mean literally the size of them but if they suddenly came out with a Chemical Brothers produced AC/DC record – you wouldn’t want to hear it. You just want it to be a certain kind of album.

Pablo – We’re inspired by bands like Portishead and Radiohead and all those people. On pretty much every record, they have a sound – its obviously still a Radiohead record, but they change every time. That’s what it’s all about really.

JamesWar Stories was a really pivotal point because that record allowed UNKLE to change after a very long stagnated period of DJ Shadow and people not letting go of that on a fan level. And through that whole period we worked on so many different things from soundtracks stuff through to remixes where one remix might be techno influenced and the next would be ambient or classical or whatever. You had this array of things and people are a lot more open to things being different now. For me, that was a really conscious thing to try and do that, but you don’t know if that will work or not.

Pablo, what was your agenda when you joined UNKLE? What did you want to bring to the outfit?

Pablo – I’ve always been around but it wasn’t just my point of view. I think we thought that firstly, we need to make the songs a lot better. I wanted to make it little bit more of a groovier record. That was first initial thing. There’s so much good music around that I like, e.g. Caribou and Ulrich Schnauss and lots of things that are quite moody records in their own way, but still a lot more groove based records and I felt that this record needed to be a bit freer. It has a kind of D.I.Y feel to it which is a good thing I think. I really like that. We tried to get away a little bit from it being super dark too. Even though it’s moody, and I’m sure some people will think it’s dark, it’s not as dark as some of the stuff we’ve done before. I heard a quote from Brian Eno the other day – ‘a terrifying piece of music will only terrify for the first time’. Every other time you listen to it after that it gets less terrifying. I agree with that!

James – I never really think our records are that dark. Never Never Land was not really that dark. I mean Nine Inch Nails are dark, Marilyn Manson is dark. There are much heavier bands out there. I think Metalica are darker you know.

Pablo – Yeah I know, but over especially the last few years, your mainstream, cool acts, your things like LCD Soundsystem are very light and pretty much pop.

James – Ours is more journey based as well isn’t it? Some people take it more as, that kind of melancholic, melody lines, like Radiohead or whatever, it’s mood based – it tends to be more, well hopefully, more cerebral.

James Griffith was heavily involved in the writing process of this album. How was that?

Pablo – He’s great. You know me and James kind of come up with mad little ideas and you can always hit the wall. He’s probably not the best person to start a record but he’s brilliant at helping with structures.

James – He’s coming from more of a singer/songwriter view.

Was that a conscious thing to get him involved?

Pablo – It just happened really.

James – It’s another relationship. It’s like how you pick up friends along the way I suppose.

Pablo – I think that we knew that we needed it.

James – We always had other people that would come in and serve that role for a certain period of time. But they always had their own thing, their own worlds. Whereas with James, it was more about helping us to move forward and be as productive as we needed to be.

Pablo – From writing songs, he’s grown with us as much as we’ve grown with him

James – He really got what we’re about and he’s got a great sense of melody. And he’s very quick at interpreting things. There are times when you want to have someone else to come in and do other elements because they are more efficient at what they do when you’re finishing things, i.e. a string arrangement or something. But with him, I think it was an opportunity where there was quite an open door, he was quite an open book coming in. He doesn’t have any baggage. Also because of the fact that he’s from America, he has a different mindset. Americans are very hard working, I have to say.

Pablo – It just felt easy. He would be sat at the back of a bus and he’d be strumming guitar. He doesn’t even class himself as a guitarist but he’s better than any bloody guitarist that I’ve worked with. He’s great!!

James – James has been very involved. He completely immersed himself in the project, he moved over from America. James just became one of us. The pieces of the puzzle just fit really well. We have built this community of people that we work with and have worked with, some people for a long period of time, some more recently. It’s like – how do you choose who your friends are? Well, it just kind if happens and it’s the same with creative relationships – they just happen.

Pablo – And also, he cared about it which is great. Having people coming into the studio and playing a guitar part and do these bits – you can only do a certain amount with that time and then you are left with trying to work out how to piece that all together. He would take it all, I mean he was a hard worker. He’d still be banging his head ‘why can’t I get this right?’ and you trust his opinion and that is a great thing.

You have worked with other people via the internet for the first time on this project. How have you found that process?

Pablo – Well, we did it on End Titles, but only a little bit.

James – Its benefit is that people have more time. Its non- benefit, for me, is that I don’t get to experience the studio experience of collaborating in that way which I really feed off.

Pablo – We just did a track with a guy over the last few weeks and I tell you what, that guy didn’t leave his living room for seven days. It’s like having your live room on the other side of the world.

James – Sometimes you don’t have as much control over the initial process.

Pablo – Yeah, and what we did in seven days, we could have probably done in a day in the studio.

“You always think each record will be easier but each project always has a habit of something rearing its head that’s uncontrollable. But I don’t think making art is supposed to be a particularly easy thing”

James – But saying that, a lot of the times you ended up recording with people in collaborations, those people are time limited. Thom Yorke, for example, had a day in between touring so that song was done in a day. A lot of those songs over that period of time were because people had their own schedules. As opposed by recording over the internet which firstly, allowed us to take more risks because we can work with more people and if things didn’t work out it wasn’t like you were in the studio. Your time wasn’t so invested so it allowed more things to go on and also as far as the recording process it allowed people to go back and check things and come back and more involvement in that way than spending two or three days knowing you have to get that track finished which is what has always really happened before. Also, one of the biggest factors for that, is that the record industry has changed so much in terms of what people need to do to be in a band. Most people are constantly touring or constantly making records, whereas when I first started, people would take a lot longer to make records and people had more time. We tried to record a lot of stuff over the summer last year and it was a nightmare because everyone was on fucking tour. And the only way we could fit things around was by doing it on the internet. I mean, people would say well I’m touring America, but we’ve got to get a flight to the UK or you’ve got to come to America. And also, cost wise -it would be a very expensive process having to do that. Economically, we’ve had to make the record in a different way to what we did before. Every record has economically changed in terms of time, money etc because the industry has changed so much and we’re not Coldplay or Kings of Leon.

Pablo – The experience you get with working with a person across the net like that where you come up with an idea and speak to them just via email can be pretty amazing. I remember when “Caged Bird” came back the first time – it was like, oh my god, she’s amazing. Black Angels, “Natural Selection” was definitely the one where it came back and we were like, what the hell is that and the more and more we listened to it we thought that is genius.

James – You also don’t get those awkward moments when something’s really not going well in the studio and you all have to pretend it’s great. (Both laugh)

How difficult was it to whittle down the sheer volume of tracks you had prepared to the ones that make this record?

James – You always have about six or seven that everybody agrees on that everybody just knows are standout songs and then with this, we whittled 30 down to about 18 so you have about 10 that you dispute. Half of those are on the record. There were about four songs that didn’t make the record for various different reasons. The first reason was that it was too long so we had to cut some stuff out. The second reason was that a couple of them just didn’t cut it, we didn’t have time and the third was that there were a couple of tracks that we just disputed so we decided to leave them. But really, the whole process was generally very focused and experienced – just really good as a whole really. It was that right at the end; we just worked on too many tracks. Then again it’s a better thing to have too many than too little which was always more the problem in the past. There’s not too many extra tracks floating around from the last three records. You always think each record will be easier but each project always has a habit of something rearing its head that’s uncontrollable. But I don’t think making art is supposed to be a particularly easy thing.

Interview: Tom Jones