A real pain

Mo Wax founder James Lavelle tries to explain UNKLE, the sort-of band behind one of the year's most flamboyant albums

"In America, success is based on money, not necessarily on artistic achievement. I'm not trying to generalize. There's a very strong community that supports artistic achievement in the U.S. But it's all about the geography of the country. If we have 300,000 people who support what we do in England, it's huge, whereas that many people being behind you in America is regarded as tiny. You have the potential of selling tens of millions of records, and because that's where the focus is, I think you're missing out. People aren't developing groups the way they used to anymore. The days when the Rolling Stones became what they did, and the Beatles, are over. You're not going to get that anymore, because no one is given enough time."

The Mo Wax approach couldn't be more different. Lavelle builds careers from the ground up, employing the same method that's allowed his label to become a global player in only six years. Born to a housewife mother and a lawyer dad who drummed and played folk music on the side, Lavelle had a stable home until he was 12, when his parents divorced. He took the separation hard, and neither pot nor booze made him feel much better. Fortunately, rap music did--and it still does. He traces the strength of his current obsessions to those of his youth. "I think there's a need to be absolutely and utterly elitist and pretentious about your music, because when you feel that way as a kid, that basically develops your passion," he says. "If I hadn't thought that everything other than hip-hop sucked when I was a 14-year-old, I probably wouldn't be where I am now."

A few years later, Lavelle was working at Honest Jon Records in London and writing jazz reviews for the magazine Straight No Chaser when he borrowed 1,000 pounds to start Mo Wax. The company's products were quickly absorbed into the underground, with some efforts being championed as the hippest dance-floor fodder around and others emerging as the chill-out music of choice for the emerging trip-hop generation. The folks at A&M Records noticed, paying Lavelle a reported 350,000 pounds to license Mo Wax products in 1995. A commercial breakthrough in England followed: The 1995 Money Mark disc Mark's Keyboard Repair cracked the British Top 40, and Endtroducing, DJ Shadow's 1996 masterwork, moved oodles of units even as it codified a sonic methodology that's been ripped off again and again in the two years since then. Lavelle is sanguine about such thievery. "It doesn't piss me off," he says. "Music's for everybody. And we all do it, don't we? If we get into something, we tend to want to do the same kind of thing."

The UNKLE project was conceived shortly before A&M came into the picture. In late 1994, Lavelle, Goldsworthy and another friend, Masayuki Kudo, used the name UNKLE for an EP, The Time Has Come. The following September, a number of musicians, including Shadow, gathered in Los Angeles at the Beastie Boys' studio complex to begin constructing UNKLE's debut full-length, but not much got done. Recording didn't begin in earnest until August 1996, and work proceeded haltingly for several months; when Goldsworthy left in December, only two vocals (by Ashcroft and Temple) had been captured on tape.

But the braintrust of Lavelle and Shadow carried on. "It was quite naive in the beginning," Lavelle notes. "I came up with the vision for everything, and then me and Shadow would have these huge conversations about music, film, and all kinds of reference points, just the emotions we were trying to portray, the reactions for and against music at the time--past, present and trying to look into the future a bit. And then Shadow would try to make audio sense of these conversations. Like, 'Let's go do a hardcore track. Yeah, yeah, yeah.' Or, 'We want this to sound organic. Yeah, yeah, yeah.' A lot of it stemmed from technical talk between the two of us; we'd talk about gating this or adding that, and then something would come out of it. It was conceptual in that way."

The bulk of Psyence Fiction was assembled between June 1997 and April 1998, after which the two main men from UNKLE did their best to make sense of what they'd collected. "We'd react off each track and try to make sure that each one would fit into the experience," Lavelle says. "We weren't trying to do it just by trial and error. It was very thought-out as it went along. Once we recorded Kool G Rap, we knew that it was going to be the first track, because it was unlikely that we'd get anything heavier than that, and once we recorded Thom Yorke, we knew that it would be the last track, because we were unlikely to get anything more intense.

"We didn't want to have a direct narrative going through it, because we felt like that would alienate people. But we wanted to come up with something that would be timeless. That's the goal, anyway, and that's hard to achieve. With music changing so fast, even great beats can start to sound old after a while. But not always. De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising doesn't sound dated, Public Enemy doesn't--and if 'Tomorrow Never Knows' was recorded today, it would sound just as great as it did in the Sixties."

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