Since its 1992 inception, UNKLE has been the primary musical outlet of James Lavelle. The co-founder of Mo' Wax, one of the most consequential English independent labels of the '90s, Lavelle has been joined by a carousel of primary collaborators and an ever-changing array of guest contributors who have helped him indulge in styles ranging from sample-based hip-hop to downcast stoner rock. The Top Five U.K. hit Psyence Fiction (1998), the debut UNKLE album, was shaped by temporary partner DJ Shadow, but its diversions pointed the way toward the progressively band-oriented albums that have followed through the late 2010s. Co-piloted by the likes of Richard File and Pablo Clements, and involving recurring roles for subterranean rockers such as Josh Homme, Chris Goss, and Mark Lanegan, sprawling albums such as Never, Never Land (2003) and Where Did the Night Fall (2010) have ensured that Lavelle won't be known simply as a trip-hop catalyst. After a seven-year break from recording albums, Lavelle and company returned in bleak, cinematic style with the related The Road: Part I (2017) and The Road: Part II (Lost Highway) (2019).
Childhood friends James Lavelle and Tim Goldsworthy co-founded Mo' Wax in 1992 and established the label with releases by the likes of Repurcussions, Palm Skin Productions, and DJ Shadow. When Mo' Wax launched, Lavelle was still a teenager, motivated by U.S. underground movements such as hip-hop and electro, as well as U.K. scenes and developments including rare groove, acid house, Sheffield bleep, and acid jazz, the latter of which he had covered as a columnist for Straight No Chaser magazine. After Lavelle and Goldsworthy remixed tracks by United Future Organization and Mondo Grosso under the guise Men from U.N.K.L.E., they added Kudo of Major Force, Skylab, and Love T.K.O. The trio made their Mo' Wax debut as UNKLE in 1994 with The Time Has Come EP, featuring "If You Find Earth Boring" — a leisurely 14-minute suite of sample-based instrumental hip-hop — and remixes from Portishead, Howie B, and Plaid. Despite the rapidly increasing popularity of Mo' Wax, including a partial-ownership deal with A&M and a Top 20 U.K. hit with DJ Shadow's Endtroducing....., UNKLE released the Money Mark-assisted Berry Meditation EP and were among the most sought-after remixers of the era with clients including Radiohead, Massive Attack, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Beck, and Tortoise.
Goldsworthy and Kudo had remained more heavily involved in nuts-and-bolts production, while Lavelle engaged in the conceptual, organizational, and A&R end, crafting beats, laying out vague sketches, and using his connections for extra assistance. The first two, however, were effectively replaced by DJ Shadow for Psyence Fiction, UNKLE's 1998 debut album. It set a standard for all future UNKLE albums with its stylistic diversions and unlikely assortment of guests, this time involving Radiohead's Thom Yorke, the Verve's Richard Ashcroft, Talk Talk's Mark Hollis, and Metallica's Jason Newstead, plus legendary hardcore rapper Kool G Rap. The album reached number four in the U.K., topped the independent chart, and in the U.S. almost managed to crack the upper half of the Billboard 200. Shadow subsequently left to concentrate on his own work.
Amid much work as a DJ, Lavelle recruited Richard File, a singer, songwriter, and producer who had participated in an UNKLE remix and contributed to Mo' Wax releases under the aliases Forme and DJ Aura (alternately Aura). File figured prominently in Never, Never, Land, UNKLE's second album, released in 2003. More expansive and less rooted in hip-hop, its samples were derived more frequently from films and well-known hard rock and post-punk recordings than from obscure jazz, soul, and funk sources, and emphasized File's songwriting. Graham Gouldman, Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, and Massive Attack's 3D comprised a fraction of the guest list. The set reached number 24 in the U.K. and the Top Ten of Billboard's dance/electronic chart in the U.S. Lavelle and File returned four years later with War Stories, including previous and new associates such as Alice Temple, the Cult's Ian Astbury, Masters of Reality's Chris Goss, and Homme, the latter two of whom factored in the album's stoner rock/alternate metal edge.
File departed and was replaced with yet another longtime Mo' Wax associate, Pablo Clements — a writer and producer known for his work as part of Psychonauts. A pair of odds 'n' ends collections, More Stories and End Titles...Stories for Film, both released in 2008, contained old and new material, including music from UNKLE's soundtrack to the documentary Odyssey in Rome. Where Did the Night Fall, the fourth proper UNKLE album, arrived in 2010 with a band-oriented approach assisted by three-fifths of Lake Trout (aka Big in Japan), the Black Angels, Nick Cave, and Mark Lanegan. UNKLE didn't release another album for seven years, but the interim was filled with live performances and numerous smaller-scale projects including soundtrack contributions, plus Lavelle's production of Queens of Stone Age's "...Like Clockwork" and "curation" of the 2014 Meltdown Festival, which featured an UNKLE set. A documentary on Lavelle, The Man from Mo' Wax, was released in 2016. UNKLE soon returned with The Road: Part I and The Road: Part II (Lost Highway), labyrinthine and frequently grim albums released in 2017 and 2019, respectively. An extensive roster of figures both old and new to UNKLE recordings, including Lanegan and Goss, as well as Mick Jones and Eska, made contributions. ~ Andy Kellman & John Bush