UNKLE: “There’s a lot of tension on the streets – we need clubbing to release that”
UNKLE’s has spoken to NME about the importance of clubbing to post-COVID society, and how it shaped his new all-star mixtape ‘Rōnin I’.
‘Rōnin I’ was released yesterday (March 26), featuring COVID-era remixes of recent tracks featuring guest appearances by Michael Kiwanuka, The Big Pink, Miink, Editors‘ Tom Smith, The Duke Spirit‘s Liela Moss, Callum Finn and Dhani Harrison.
James Lavelle’s first release since 2019’s ‘The Road: Part II (Lost Highway)’ – itself considered a mixtape of material recorded around 2017’s ‘The Road: Part I’ – the 11-track album includes the two new singles, ‘If We Don’t Make It’ and ‘Do Yourself Some Good’, inspired by Lavelle’s lockdown radio shows revisiting the feel of his iconic 1990s club That’s How It Is.
“It was really where Mo’Wax and everything came out of,” said Lavelle, who founded the label in 1992. “It was this amazing night where you’d have everything from ESG to James Brown, John Coltrane and then contemporary records being played for the first time. [The shows] put me in a bit more of a Mo’Wax head space so I wanted to experiment a little bit in that place, but hopefully in a contemporary way.”
We caught up with Lavelle to talk about why clubbing matters, his next move, and a surreal encounter with some Beatles and Disney magic through working with Dhani Harrison.
‘Rōnin I’ feels like a mixture of claustrophobia and release. Was it designed to be appropriate for lockdown?
Lavelle: “You get this light out of the darkness in club music. It was important, looking at the songs, that some of the lyrics and what they meant could be put into a different context. I like the idea that, as a journey, the records are still lyrically trying to communicate things that I feel are quite appropriate right now, even though a lot of songs were recorded before COVID. Before COVID there was still this sense of a lot of uncertainty and unrest and political extremes. You do feel like there’s BC and AC, Before COVID and After COVID. Before COVID felt so narcissistically over the top and a very greedy period of time, so a lot of the songs had connection with those feelings. Yet when you put them into a different context with COVID, there was still this feeling of that sort of sentiment being important now.”
Was ‘If We Don’t Make It’, written in lockdown, a message of strength for getting through?
“Yeah. ‘Do Yourself Some Good’ and ‘If We Don’t Make It’ really resonated as trying to have something powerful and optimistic, but also the way they’re done is hopefully slightly uplifting as well. I’ve being listening to a lot of heavy music during lockdown and there was a feeling that we wanted to have a bit of a release and use it as a way to have an escape from it.”
Are you worried about the future of clubbing post-COVID?
“Yeah. It’s the last thing on the list. The government seems to focus on what’s always considered to be the highbrow end of the arts and culture. They don’t seem to see it as a whole, that it all complements each other. It’s such an important part of our social lives. It was the way that you got to communicate and discover things and meet people who were into similar things. Yes, we have social media and people want to communicate in those ways, but it’s not the same and I think people are really feeling that now.
“You can see the need for that type of interaction. There’s a lot of tension on the streets and there’s a lot of youth tension. Not being able to have those releases and those places to go… it’s really worrying because we’re still in such uncharted territory. I think people are going to explode when it finally happens. It’s gonna be like the summer of love or Spinal Tap turning it up to eleven.”
How was it to work with Michael Kiwanuka?
“That was a really amazing day we spent together in West Hampstead in the studio. I hadn’t worked with him before and he’s a really amazingly talented man and really beautiful guy.”
What’s your connection to Dhani Harrison?
“I met Dhani probably about 10 years ago. He was an UNKLE fan and I think we first met in Australia on tour and became friends and talked about working together. Doing that track [‘Days And Nights / Reprise’] kind of tops them all in the sense of the mad environment. I recorded that at [Harrison’s home] Friar Park. The palace of Disneyland is based on that house. It was owned by a famous writer or somebody [actually eccentric lawyer Sir Frank Crisp] and he built all these lakes there. It was where Walt Disney stayed, and that’s what he based his palace on. It’s got this mad fake Swiss mountain.
“It was just insane to be in what was his father’s studio and on the wall is every guitar that George Harrison ever played on every Beatles record. And his first Mellotron that was given to him and the first Moog that was given to him. It was just the most unreal gear, the history in provenance. On that track we got to choose one of the guitars to play on the record. So, on that track is the only guitar that John Lennon and George Harrison both played.”
What have been your favourite UNKLE collaborations?
“When you first start, being in a room with Richard [Ashcroft] and doing ‘A Lonely Soul’ at that moment in time, or being in Marin County [California] in a studio looking out over a valley with Thom Yorke doing one take of ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’. Those are pretty extraordinary moments. We were so young doing these things and everything was exploding around you with ‘Urban Hymns’ and ‘OK Computer’.”
Do you have any dream collaborators you’ve yet to pin down?
“There’s a lot of new people that I’m really keen to work with. There’s a lot of really great records coming out from all over the place, and a lot of really interesting artists over the last few years. It’s quite across the genres – I like bands the IDLES, I like Fontaines D.C., I like new artists that are coming through from Arlo Parks to Inflo and SAULT.”
This is the first of two ‘Rōnin’ mixtapes. What can we expect from the second?
“The second one I’ve done with Miink, who I worked with on the last couple of records. He’s a really amazing multi-talented vocalist, instrumentalist and producer from West London. That’s a bit more post-club. There’s an exhibition that I did at Saatchi a couple of years ago called Beyond The Road, which I’m looking to hopefully do some more of over the summer. Next year at some point I need to do a sort of ‘best of UNKLE’ collection, that’s slightly on my agenda.”
‘Rōnin I’ by UNKLE is out now.