High Contrast
Article by Justin Kleinfeld
Originally appeared in Remix (2007)

Using $20 thrift-store keyboards and coveted gear rarities, UNKLE and producer Chris Goss construct the dirty, dusty War Stories in bustling London and the quiet desert town of Joshua Tree

Since first bursting on the scene in the early 1990s, James Lavelle has remained one of the coolest and most important names in the electronic music genre. It was his visionary mind that established the now-defunct Mo' Wax label and provided an early outlet for artists including DJ Shadow, Air, Money Mark, DJ Krush and his own UNKLE project. Thanks to a bevy of hot underground releases and excellent artwork from famous graffiti artist Futura 2000, each Mo' Wax release became a true collector's item. The label's crowning achievement, however, was the release of DJ Shadow's timeless Endtroducing... and Lavelle's first proper UNKLE artist album, 1998's Psyence Fiction. Produced in tandem with DJ Shadow, Psyence Fiction perfectly fused the worlds of rock and electronic music and featured guests including Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft, Jason Newsted, Mike D, Kool G.Rap and Badly Drawn Boy. In 2003, Lavelle dropped DJ Shadow and recruited breakbeat/drum 'n' bass artist Richard File for the production of UNKLE's 2004 album, Never, Never, Land (on the Global Underground label). With DJ Shadow out of the mix, Never, Never, Land was considerably darker and more breakbeat driven but wasn't received quite as well as its predecessor. In 2006, Lavelle and File recruited renowned Queens Of The Stone Age producer Chris Goss to help them reimagine the UNKLE sound. After a year of working in multiple studios, UNKLE is back with War Stories (Surrender All, 2007), its most abrasive and rock-leaning album to date.

As with past UNKLE releases, War Stories derives much of its vibe from collaborations. There are a host of guest vocalists who appear on the album, including Ian Astbury (The Cult), Josh Homme (Queens Of The Stone Age), The Duke Spirit, 3D (Massive Attack), Autolux and Gavin Clark (from UK band Clayhill). James Lavelle also makes his vocal debut on the album, singing on 'Hold My Hand', as well as dueting with Richard File on 'Morning Rage'. Contributing musicians include Nine Inch Nails' Jeordie White (aka Twiggy Ramirez, bass), Psychonauts' Pablo Clements (synth), Nada Surf's Matthew Caws (guitar), Eagles of Death Metal's David Catching (guitar) and producer Chris Goss, who plays guitar, synth, organ and bass.


When it came time to visit some ideas for War Stories, Lavelle knew that he wanted to create something that united both the rock- and club-music genres but that also sounded different from anything in his past. He acknowledges that most people have preconceived notions about what UNKLE is all about but compares his new direction to the release of Massive Attack's 1998 album Mezzanine. "You know all these people thought they knew about Massive Attack because of Blue Lines and Protection, and then all of a sudden they shock everyone with Mezzanine," Lavelle says. "It’s similar in a sense because our records sort of came out of the hip-hop culture, and now with the third record, I wanted to change the perception of what it was about. All of the artwork and everything else involved was a very conscious change. I want to open a different audience to what we are doing."

Another source of inspiration for Lavelle was Goss and his work with Queens Of The Stone Age. Bringing Goss onboard for the project proved easy, as the producer was already a fan of DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..., Lavelle and Mo' Wax. "I looked back at, like, 10 years ago as being a big changing point for music", Goss reflects. "You had a bunch of really unbelievable albums like Endtroducing..., Björk's Homogenic, Radiohead's OK Computer and Psyence Fiction all coming out around the same time. Electronic music was around since the '70s, and I was always a fan of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder's stuff, but then there was this new existentialist take on it with UNKLE and DJ Shadow leading the way. At the time I was working on a solo record with Ian Astbury, and Psyence Fiction was one of the records we would refer to. To me, it was part of a period that I look back on that really struck me."

Before Goss and Lavelle knew if they could successfully produce a full UNKLE artist album, they needed to run a test track to see what was possible. This test came in the way of first single 'Burn My Shadow' (featuring Astbury). "We made this track the first time we were in the room together", Goss says. "The opening guitar is literally a $10 nylon string guitar from the thrift store that Ian was strumming. It just was a true, quick collaboration that ended up pretty stunning, and we now knew that we just needed to do this 10 more times to make an album."


For the recording of War Stories, time was split between Lavelle's London studio and Goss' studio in Joshua Tree, Calif. Production commenced at Goss' studio, and Lavelle didn't bring any songs or ideas with him from the start. "We wanted to be free to write and go with the flow," Lavelle says. "The challenge of working with UNKLE was that they are from DJ and programmed music, and I am from the old-school and taping rock bands," Goss explains. "Though, I think we hit it off well because James had never seen records constructed with real pieces of gear, with old amplifiers and keyboards from the thrift store."

Typically, Lavelle would have a synth part that he liked, and he would explain to Goss and File exactly what sort of ultimate vision he had for the piece. Goss then hammered out some ideas, and they all went back and forth until there was a song. "The working process was interesting because I'm probably a songwriter-producer, but for James, he knows rhythmic music so well and probably better than anyone else I've ever worked with in terms of his knowledge of dance, R&B and rarities," Goss says. "He's 10 years younger, and I was a DJ spinning records back in 1980. I knew my dance history, and I finally found someone I was making a record with that I could refer to tracks from BT Express, the Olympic Runners or really early funk bands from the '70s. James knew those references for rhythm, and when I saw how much soul background he had, but not combined with a songwriting background, I found it fascinating."

Richard File's key contribution came from his songwriting and Pro Tools skills. It was commonplace to find File sitting in a corner of the studio with his guitar, strumming out ideas that would often be the start of tracks. "It was amazing to see this jungle/drum 'n' bass kid start to become a writer with a voice and start singing," Goss says. "His arrangement capabilities were stunning. He would lay out an arrangement and take over the computer to put together a rough layout of the changes of the song. I had a preconceived notion of what my arrangement would have been, and I'll never forget the very first session when we were doing 'Burn My Shadow' because each step of the song was exactly the way I would have done it. It was freaky, as if my doppelgänger was sitting at the computer!"

"I took a liking to isolating most of the effects in Pro Tools", File chimes in. "I always concentrated on making sure that Chris and James were prepared from the start so we'd have the best possible takes." Like with any band dynamic, File and Lavelle experienced growing pains working together, but it got easier over time. "Our relationship is sorta like older and younger brother," Lavelle says about File. "We have our ups and downs, and there's a lot of tension, but there are also a lot of similar views on what we want to do. For me, the most important thing is that we were much more skilled in what we were trying to achieve. It takes time to get to that point. We are much more in control of our own destiny these days."

"We can argue about shit musically and know we aren’t going to fall out about it," File adds. "When you are cooped up in the studio for 15 hours a day, you are going to have fights but then move on. However, I would definitely say we were a lot more experienced coming into this record and had a much bigger vision of what was possible. We wanted to take it beyond where we got the last time. Certainly James' singing was a major step forward, and I was really proud of that. I think being in L.A. and in a new and exciting situation allowed James to let go and help write some great songs."


Goss considers himself more an arranger/songwriter as opposed to a straight-up technical producer, so he always works with engineer Edmund Monsef, whom Goss claims to be "the best of the old-school and the new."

"He's so fast and can change direction and get sounds up so quickly," Goss says. "He's running back
and forth changing mics, and then we decide to work on something else and within 45 seconds, Edmund can reset everything. It's a great setup."

Goss prefers using vintage gear and junk rather than slick, expensive new analog-modeled and digital gear. He's also a music pack rat and goes back to ideas he might have had 12 years earlier. "There's always a song junkyard for me and pieces of music that I've wanted to sample for years but just save for the right time," he says. "I have about 25 ideas ready to go at every stage. I hum things into a recorder all the time. I wake up in the middle of the night and have to record something into the cassette recorder. I'm just finding the Duke Spirit's album, and I’m already itching to get my minirecorder out to find out what's next because when I get done with a production, I go back to songwriting mode."

Goss' secret production weapon is his collection of small amplifiers. He views the sounds inside the Pro Tools box as too readily available and suggests playing a keyboard or guitar through an amplifier for some really wild sounds. "If you play a Minimoog or other synthesizer through an amp, you are going to get the warmth and the grace of the tube and the speaker, adding to the sound and overtone of that piece of gear," Goss says. Another technique is using "the dirt" from old instruments to add a grimy element to the sound. He's famous for recording old keyboards from thrift stores, including $20 Casios, and if it has an output, he'll even take the headphone out and put it through an amplifier and a Maestro Fuzz-Tone pedal - nothing's off limits. "Just use crap and don't be afraid to plug crap in and mic it," Goss says. "The mic hears things differently than the human ear. Feed as much dirt into Pro Tools as possible, almost out of spite. We are stuck with this goddamn digital thing now, and it's so clean and efficient that you need to treat it like a whore. To make up for the clarity, quietness and lack of tape compression and the warmth that digital has taken away, you need to go extra fucked up and dirty in Pro Tools."

Aside from the dirt applied to War Stories, the other new agenda Goss brought to the table was pushing Lavelle to sing for the first time, on 'Hold My Hand' and 'Morning Rage'. "Chris was like, 'James, it's about time you sing on your own fucking record,'" Lavelle recalls. With Lavelle lying down on the couch in the desert studio, Goss handed him a Shure SM57 microphone and asked him to sing on the fly. Goss gave a nod over to Edmund Monsef to turn up the reverb and add some echo so that Lavelle felt comfortable with his voice. As it turns out, many of the words were made up on the spot, and most of 'Hold My Hand' was completed in one take. "It's looked back at really fondly, and I got a kick out of it," Goss says. "It's one of those situations in the studio, where when someone sings for the first time it might be a nightmare, but it worked out fine."

"I didn’t have the confidence at first," Lavelle adds. "It was slightly intimidating but liberating at the same time."


War Stories is the culmination of a major growing period for James Lavelle, and it marks the first release on his new label, Surrender All. The label will present Lavelle with a creative outlet for his own music and related projects but not other artists. "When you work with other artists, it's a huge responsibility, and what happened with [the demise of] Mo' Wax was really depressing," Lavelle confesses. "You feel like you’ve let so many people down. So many people have expectations and depend on you to be involved in their lives. You have to be aware of that responsibility. At the time, I was really young, and I don’t think you understand those things in the right way when you are young."

But Lavelle is looking ahead to a whole new creative brand with Surrender All. A good example is the cover art for War Stories. Much of the art was created by Massive Attack's 3D, and plans are in the work for gallery presentation of the artwork. And as he did in the past, Lavelle will also be commissioning a set of UNKLE toys based around the theme of the new album.

Created with a rock-based electronic aesthetic, War Stories also marks the first UNKLE album fit for a world tour. While Lavelle and File did tour the world in support of Never, Never, Land with a DJ set under the UNKLE Soundsystem moniker, the new album will bring a full multimedia rock show in the coming months. "The whole DJ tour was a fucking joke, and I swore I would never do it again," Lavelle says. "With UNKLE, I think it does worse than good when you do DJ gigs like that. We are putting together a show, which is very visually based with a live band and some of the collaborators. I like what Nine Inch Nails and Pink Floyd do. It’s a visual-audio experience with power.