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Men From UNKLE Attract Lots of Attention

Pop Beat: DJ Shadow and James Lavelle didn't let the fact that they aren't musicians keep them from making 'Psyence Fiction.'

October 10, 1998|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Neither of them is a musician. Neither is a songwriter or composer. Neither is a singer. Yet they've made what in some key music circles is one of the most-discussed albums of the year.

Before you say Milli Vanilli, don't worry. If these two get a Grammy, they won't have to give it back.

UNKLE, as the duo is called, is the collaboration of samples whiz DJ Shadow, whose "Endtroducing . . . " was one of the most acclaimed albums of 1996, and James Lavelle, founder and owner of Mo'Wax, a London label that's been at the forefront of electronic dance and art music for six years.

And the album, "Psyence Fiction," is a legitimate artistic endeavor.

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If there's any doubt, just look at the musicians who appear on the recently released collection: Mike D of the Beastie Boys, Richard Ashcroft of the Verve, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Jason Newstead of Metallica, among others. It's an impressive concoction running from hard-core hip-hop featuring rapper Kool Rap G to the metal-rap mix of "The Knock" to the yearning soundscapes built around Ashcroft and Yorke.

The album's unifying force is the consistent vision that springs from Lavelle and Shadow's drive to re-inject passion, personality and emotion into a form they believe had grown cold and mechanical.

Lavelle sees UNKLE as something more than a music project. He brought in artist Futura 2000 to provide the visual and graphic look for the packaging, from which Lavelle--a collector of "Star Wars" toys and other sci-fi movie-related products--spun off his own line of action figures.

But music is always the foundation, and for that he needed the right collaborator.

"I couldn't have attained the musical standard and sound I wanted without Josh," he says, sitting with his UNKLE partner, whose real name is Josh Davis, in a West Hollywood hotel room. "What was in my head, I couldn't do it without him. I have a huge ego about it, but I left it behind."

Lavelle had tried to do it without Davis, first teaming with former school friend Tim Goldsworthy in 1994 for a single, "The Time Has Come." The following summer the two set up shop in L.A. but accomplished little. Davis, having released his album through Mo'Wax, joined later that year, with Goldsworthy exiting soon after, and in 1997 it really began to roll as the new duo clicked in their assigned duties.

"James recruited the vocalists and Jim Abbis, who did most of the mixing," says Davis, a native of Davis, Calif. "When it came to actual music-making, that was all my role. The sampling and sequencing I did at home. But the record couldn't have been made without either one of us. It's not something I would have made on my own."

The two actually make an unlikely team. In the hotel room, the skinny, cropped-haired Lavelle, 24, is chatty, engaging and animated behind his thick glasses, eager to discuss music, art and films in his working-class English accent.

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Davis, 26, on the other hand, looks as if he'd rather be somewhere else, staring out the window and speaking quietly and carefully--when he speaks at all.

But they share a passion for new explorations in music--though, again, the way the passion is manifested is different. Lavelle is passionate in his arguments for redefining the notion of what music can be.

"It's like the argument of Warhol versus Picasso," he says. "When Warhol did the Brillo boxes, a lot of people claimed it wasn't art. But it's just a different approach."

And so it is with the musical field the duo is in. Davis, though, seems weary of arguing the point. The music, he believes, should simply speak for itself.

"It either gets over-intellectualized or under-intellectualized," Davis says. "There's no real way to prove to anyone that this is as valid as other music. But I used to like to say that a sampler is my generation's electric guitar. When I first got a sampler, I wanted to imitate my heroes the same way others playing guitar imitated Clapton or Hendrix."

Lavelle points to UNKLE itself as proof of the vitality and reach of the new sounds. "People look at it as very thought-out, with all the guests and the different styles, but it wasn't," he says. "It was very naive. The people who participated believe in this as musicians and artists, and that's why I wanted them on the record."

Says Davis: "If only having the vocalists makes it more accessible to some, I don't have any problem with that. But I worked on it like I would my own record. And I couldn't do two records like 'Endtroducing . . . ' back to back, so I wanted to work with others, let different elements come in."

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