NEVER, NEVER, LAND
Four years have passed since Unkle's debut album 'Psyence Fiction', one of the nineties more controversial releases. Full of ambition and vision, self indulgent but ahead of its time, who else but James Lavelle could attract such a stellar cast that included producer DJ Shadow, Richard Ashcroft - at the height of the Verve's fame - and Mike D of the Beastie Boys. The album's highlights featured Thom Yorke's haunting 'Rabbit In Your Headlights' and, a then unknown, Badly Drawn Boy's carthartic 'Nursery Rhyme'. Wil Malone's strings and Futura 2000's artwork iced the cake which was eagerly eaten by 400,000 worldwide.
But that was then and this is now and now is very different. Following the release of 'Psyence Fiction' Shadow returned to the States to work with Quannum and on 'The Private Press' (with Lavelle as A&R) within the realms of underground hip hop. Lavelle is the constant in Unkle and he's forged a new production partnership with long term friend Richard File. Lavelle said of File in Jockey Slut 2002: "Richard loves music, he's open-minded, he's brilliant technically, he's an absolute lunatic, he's a star, he's my best friend."
James has often stressed that his seminal label Mo' Wax - currently on hiatus - always thrived on social interaction and friendships whether they develop from chance meetings in Fabric, around the Rough Trade/Slam City Skates axis or, as was the case with File, an introduction from a like-minded friend. "It's all about meeting people my own age and creating an identity," says Lavelle, "Rich fitted into this group."
They met in Brighton in 1994. At that time Richard was at college but was more drawn to the bleeding-edge drum'n'bass scene than media studies. He was Djing on pirates with Ed Rush where he met engineer Ils. Following the hook-up with James Richard and Ils released singles on the Mo' Wax offshoot Excursions. "We clicked," says James and they began hanging out together. Richard would join James on his Djing jaunts. Driving back from a gig one night in 1998 James heard Richard singing along to the radio. He had been looking for a central character to front 'Psyence Fiction' and believed he was sat right next to him. "It sounds cheesy but when you see something in someone you think, 'I know they can do that'". Richard decided to learn to use equipment to programme beats and armed with an acoustic guitar and a fetching falsetto set to work on his own songs for the second Unkle album. In 2000 they moved into an Old Street flat together. It proved a very hedonistic time, a lost weekend, that actually proved quite fruitful. James was excited about the subterrain house and breaks emanating from Fabric where he held a residency on Fridays. Sometimes the subsequent parties carried on until Tuesdays.
They set up a studio in the flat, played and worked hard messing around with ideas day in, night out. Doing remixes and bootlegs to play out they created Unkle Sounds. Each appearance was heralded by 'Get Ready' the Rare Earth track: Get ready for here they come!
In the same year they cut their teeth in the studio producing teenage band South for Mo' Wax and recording a brooding, sinister soundtrack to Jonathan Glaser's 'Sexy Beast'. This time no one could accuse Unkle of hype, it was just two mates with a shared vision. "It felt like us against the world in this period," James recalls, "Fuck it, we'll do what we want!"
Confident with their songs they went into the studio to begin work on the second Unkle album 'Never, Never, Land'. In another twist of fate songwriter Ant Genn approached James at a party, initially to talk about David Axelrod, but then to offer his expertise in production and songwriting. Genn has worked rich, heart bursting melodies into the resultant songs. He also introduced a wealth of musicians to the sessions all of whom - like Lavelle and File - are steeped in London club and band culture. The Unkle gang complete they began working on demo's. The first fruits from the album were heard on September 11th 2002 when Channel 4 broadcast an anti-war short created by Lavelle, Massive Attack's 3D and animation team Shynola. James: "Its imagery is reflective (of September 11th) Aeroplanes drop creatures into an environment which destroys. It reflects globalisation, relationships, the way we treat each other." ‘Eye for An Eye’ received its world premiere at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival's renowned showcase ‘Mirrorball’ and consequently won the prestigious McLaren Award for new British animation, named after the innovative, Scots animator Norman McLaren.
'Never, Never, Land' is a clash of high and low emotions," reveals Richard, "It's a beautiful record". The subject of Richard's songs is reflective of both their personalities, of their time together in that Old Street flat, of life in London going through the best and worst of times. James again cements that there is a massive social influence, that it is about mates, about living in London, discovering new people and buzzing off them.
Ian Brown - whose 'Be There' with Unkle in 1998 went top ten - returns on 'Reign' with Mani tending to bass, the first time the duo have worked together since the Stone Roses split. Mani also contributes the bottom-end to 'In a State'. Long term friend and inspiration 3D contributes to 'Invasion', Jarvis Cocker and Brian Eno duel with synths on 'I Need Something Stronger', Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age contributes a schizoid vocal over a bassquake on 'Safe In Mind' and Joel of South's pretty Beatles-esque ballad 'Glow' is the penultimate track.
Richard File makes his presence felt immediately in the beats but vocally on 'In A State', his lost boy falsetto affecting over his acoustic concluding with 140 tracks of vocal orchestrated by 10cc's Graham Gouldman's who mastered the effect on 'I’m Not In Love'. Richard can also be heard on the jittery synth display and choral beauty of 'Panic Attack' and paranoid ballads 'What Are You To Me?' and magnificent closer 'Inside'. Admitting to applying dance techniques to make non dance music 'Never Never Land' pulses with clubby nuances and retains a hip hop aesthetic. Notable samples include Black Sabbath-era Ozzy Osbourne on the opening track 'Back and Forth' and Norman Whitfield of the Undisputed Truth on 'Eye for An Eye'. The album is rich in atmosphere, a lush cinematic experience in sensurround sound. If 'Psyence Fiction' sounded like a compilation, 'Never, Never, Land' is a total trip. And it's been quite a ride for the men from Unkle.
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