UNKLE's James Lavelle, 36, is the master collaborator, who has recorded songs with Ian Brown, Thom Yorke, Josh Homme and Jarvis Cocker for his musical outfit. So it is no surprise that he is about to stage his first major pop-up music and art show, at London's Haunch of Venison gallery.
Daydreaming with... James Lavelle is a three-day, festival-like event, in partnership with The Independent, in which artists from the fields of music, art, film, fashion and design have created new artwork inspired by UNKLE's atmospheric electronic and rock music.
A highlight will be UNKLE's new musical collaboration with Nick Cave, which will be played at the gallery, along with a new short film by Jonathan Glazer, who directed Sexy Beast, and a new light installation by the Turner Prize nominee Nathan Coley. The exhibition will also showcase some retrospective pieces from long-term UNKLE collaborators including Robert Del Naja (Massive Attack's 3D) and Futura.
But a down-to-earth Lavelle, who is sitting on a bench in the open-plan downstairs gallery space ahead of the show, is blown away by his latest challenge. "I will be honest with you. Sometimes I feel that I am out of my depth. It's like I have these crazy ideas and suddenly this gallery and all these amazing people have said yes to me. It's a bit like making records, too. The collaborative link seems to be that everybody seems to connect emotionally. Strangely, there's a melancholic and cinematic darkness to the work, whether the artist is from my own community or just somebody I've met while developing this show, over the last three years."
Lavelle has just released UNKLE's fourth studio album, Where Did the Night Fall, with his UNKLE partner Pablo Clements. It features collaborations with Mark Lanegan, formerly of Queens of the Stone Age and Screaming Trees, as well as more leftfield and up-and-coming acts, including the psychedelic California band Sleepy Sun, Katrina Ford of the cabaret-punk trio Celebration, Los Angeles art-noise-pop band Autolux and the Texas-based drone rockers The Black Angels. The anthemic "The Answer", featuring the Baltimore band Big in Japan, will be released as a single next month; John Hillcoat, director of The Road, made the video, which features Ray Winstone talking about being struck by lightning.
But now Lavelle has moved out of his comfort zone to embrace the art world, in a move that brings him and his collaborators to an established gallery space owned by Christie's. "I've always been obsessed with the combination of packaging, design and the image together with the sonic and how those things interact. To be able to go into a gallery and try to piece that puzzle together, in a different environment, is for me about learning and growing," says Lavelle. "The idea is to be able to take yourself on a journey through different experiences in the exhibition, which is the same idea with our music."
Lavelle's life has been eventful, if not turbulent, since he established himself as a DJ at the age of 19. He started Mo'Wax Records in 1993, which propelled Air and DJ Shadow into the mainstream. The same year, he formed UNKLE with an old school pal, Tim Goldsworthy, and they were joined by Kudo from the Japanese hip-hop band Major Force. At 21 years old, Lavelle was the youngest record label boss at A&M Records, after it offered Mo'Wax a licensing deal, with UNKLE under the same umbrella.
By 1998, with Goldsworthy and Kudo out of the picture, Lavelle, now working with DJ Shadow, released UNKLE's debut album, Psyence Fiction, which reached number 4 in the UK album charts. It featured collaborations with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Metallica's Jason Newsted and The Verve's Richard Ashcroft. A new joint deal was then struck between Mo'Wax and XL Recordings; a few years later, Mo'Wax returned to Universal's Island records and Lavelle quit as the label's boss.
Lavelle continued to DJ all over the world, joined forces with his now long-term collaborator Richard File and released an electronic DJ mix set, Do Androids Dream of Electric Beats?, under the name UNKLEsounds. Two years later in 2003, after releasing the second UNKLE album, Never, Never, Land, UNKLE were dropped by Universal, despite having had Top 40 albums and two Top 20 singles. Lavelle then set up a new record label, Surrender All, and set out on a path of self-sufficiency. He describes his troubles as "heartbreaking" but seems to have worked things out.
UNKLE's 2007 album, War Stories, which fused techno and rock, was darker than previous albums, as he tried to deal with the aftermath of having had the rug being pulled from beneath his feet. More change happened when File departed UNKLE in 2008, making room for Lavelle's old friend Pablo Clements of The Psychonauts to join him in UNKLE.
Highlights on the latest UNKLE album, Where Did the Night Fall, which was released in May, include howling vocals from Sleepy Sun's frontwoman Rachel Williams on the album's first single, "Follow Me Down". It is complemented by a video starring the supermodel Liberty Ross – writhing semi-naked around on the floor – and directed by the long-term UNKLE collaborators Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones, who did the visuals for the Alexander McQueen Spring/ Summer 2008 show. Gavin Clark, another long-term UNKLE collaborator whose music regularly features in Shane Meadows's films, collaborated on the album tracks "The Healing" and the euphoric electronic hymn "Falling Stars". Lavelle adds vocals to the song "Ablivion" on the album, which largely took a year to record and complete. "The latest record has been described as psych-hop. It makes us laugh! We were originally seen as coming out of trip-hop, a term which we all loathe," says Lavelle. "Our music draws on such an eclectic mix of genres, it is hard to classify it."
But with plenty of extra material left over, UNKLE is now recording another album. "Collaborating is not easy," says Lavelle. "You are constantly trying to make everybody happy and make yourself happy. People can be artistically temperamental, including myself. You end up feeling like a parent using reverse psychology. You want to do it your way. But if you tell them it's your way, then they are never going to do it. You have to make that person believe they have come up with that idea. But I thrive on being able to work with other people. I'm not very good at being on my own. The difficulty I had with this last album was that half the time we weren't in the studio with people, which hadn't been the case before. It's a bit like rolling a dice – what is going to come in this time."
Lavelle has also scored the music for films including Sexy Beast and Danny Cannon's football film Goal!, as well as Alex Grazioli's documentary about Abel Ferrara, Odyssey in Rome, which will screen at the Prince Charles Cinema as part of the exhibition on Tuesday 31 August, along with a selection of UNKLE music videos.
For now, Lavelle, who lives in north London with a large collection of street art from the 1980s and 1990s, is at the centre of a new environment. Despite having curated shows before – including War Paint at London's Lazarides Gallery in 2008, which featured Robert Del Naja's artwork from UNKLE's War Stories album – he has never been given free rein to do what he likes with so big a show. "They have a blank canvas," he says of his collaborators. "Everybody has come back with exactly what I'd hoped for."
'Independent' readers can download three tracks by UNKLE, including an exclusive 'Independent' track and two preview tracks from their latest album, 'Where Did the Night Fall': "Natural Selection", "Follow Me Down" and "Heavy Drug" (exclusive track for 'The Independent').
Follow Me Down
Daydreaming with... James Lavelle, Haunch of Venison, London W1, 27 to 30 August. 'Where Did the Night Fall' is out now on All Surrender (020 7495 5050; Daydreamingwith.com)