Remembering Psyence Fiction

22 years ago today on August 24 1998, UNKLE’s debut album Psyence Fiction was released. Here’s a look back at one of the most important albums in James Lavelle’s career.

Psyence Fiction (1998)

In 1992 James Lavelle started Mo’ Wax records. It was initially an Acid Jazz style label similar to music being released by Gilles Peterson, but Lavelle soon found his own sound, and by 1994 he had brought together the ingredients for his next project: UNKLE.

Since 1992 James Lavelle and Tim Goldsworthy had been creating remixes under the name Men From U.N.K.L.E., a nod to the television program The Men From U.N.C.L.E. from the 1960’s. But it wasn’t until a chance encounter with two of his heroes that Lavelle pushed UNKLE to release something of their own.

While running Mo’ Wax, James Lavelle was also working in the record store Honest Jon’s where one day he met Nakanishi Toshio and Masayuki Kudo of the Japanese Hip Hop production group Major Force. Lavelle was already a huge fan of their work and so he invited them to set up a studio with Mo’ Wax, and Major Force West was born.

Mo Wax Vs. Major Force : Time Has Come was one of a handful of records released by Mo’ Wax and Major Force West in 1994, but it’s notable for including Time Has Come, a song credited to Lavelle, Goldsworthy, Kudo, and Toshio. This was followed by The Times Has Come EP later in the year which featured a new remix of the track by UNKLE, alongside remixes by Portishead, Howie B, and Plaid.

The Time Has Come EP entered the UK Albums Chart in 1995, while the earlier Mo Wax Vs. Major Force version just missed out on the Top 100 Singles Chart. This chart success meant that plans for an album by UNKLE began taking shape, and in September 1995 a recording session was organised in LA featuring James Lavelle, Tim Goldsworthy, Masayuki Kudo, and DJ Shadow.

Shadow had first released In Flux on Mo’ Wax in 1993, and at the start of 1995 his What Does Your Soul Look Like EP spent two weeks on the Top 100 Singles Chart peaking at #59. DJ Shadow was undoubtedly the star of Mo’ Wax at this point and in 1995 he was finishing his debut album which would release in 1996.

The UNKLE sessions in LA were hosted at the home studio of Mario C, best known at the time as the producer of Beastie Boys, and the sessions were also joined by another Beastie Boys collaborator, Money Mark, who had just released his debut album on Mo’ Wax.

Money Mark, Tim Goldsworthy, and Masayuki Kudo recorded several tracks with Mario C, while DJ Shadow also recorded some demos with the singer Zoe Bedeaux. But while an albums worth of music was recorded, when they arrived back in the UK James Lavelle decided he wasn’t satisfied and the planned 1996 album release was scrapped. Only Berry Meditation saw a release at the time, while some other tracks from the sessions later appeared on Mo’ Wax compilations.

1996 saw DJ Shadow’s debut album arrive, and Endtroducing..… was a hit, reaching #17 on the UK Albums Charts. Understandably, James Lavelle asked Shadow to produce the next UNKLE release, with sessions starting immediately.

The first of these new sessions were with Richard Ashcroft, and a demo of Lonely Soul was recorded, followed soon by Alice Temple’s demo for Bloodstain. These new songs set a tone for UNKLE, showing that the project was moving away from the previous Trip Hop like sounds of The Times Has Come and Berry Meditation, and becoming something else entirely with the use of guest vocalists. With the new direction in mind, Tim Goldsworthy and Masayuki Kudo left the project and UNKLE was now James Lavelle and DJ Shadow.

The album which would eventually be called Psyence Fiction took years to put together, as James Lavelle gathered guest artists and contributed ideas and samples while DJ Shadow also spent years in studios around the world programming on his MPC.

In June 1998 NME announced that Psyence Fiction would finally be released on August 24 of that year, but the album was released early in Japan on August 21 where it featured two bonus instrumental tracks and exclusive artwork designed by Sk8thing and Nigo from BAPE.

On August 23 fans lined up at HMV on Oxford Street as James Lavelle and DJ Shadow performed DJ sets, Futura2000 painted, and at midnight Psyence Fiction went on sale. Both Lavelle and Shadow spent hours signing records, and the album entered the UK Charts, peaking at #4.

James Lavelle and DJ Shadow at HMV Psyence Fiction launch

In September a short tour began in the USA with DJ Shadow performing sets in record stores, followed by Lavelle and Shadow signing copies of Psyence Fiction. But the album didn’t chart in America and even in the UK the project was mocked by members of the press who felt it was over blown and hadn’t lived up to the hype.

While not all of the reviews were negative, and the album obviously had it’s fans, the drama over its release has followed Psyence Fiction through to today, and featured heavily in the 2016 documentary The Man From Mo’ Wax which followed James Lavelle’s career.

Psyence Fiction was the last time James Lavelle and DJ Shadow recorded together, with Shadow returning to his solo career, and Lavelle recording future UNKLE albums with other producers and guests. But while they may not be in the studio together anymore, the legacy of Psyence Fiction has remained an important part of both of their careers, with Shadow and Lavelle continuing to feature songs from their UNKLE collaboration in live performances.

Now, with music at our fingertips thanks to services such as YouTube and Spotify, it is reassuring to find Psyence Fiction is still available not just to us, but to everyone who might happen to discover it. Whether they find UNKLE through DJ Shadow’s collaborations with Run The Jewels and Nas, or James Lavelle’s work with Nigo or the Kubrick estate, there will always be someone out their discovering Psyence Fiction for the first time. Happy Birthday Psyence Fiction.

This article is a highly abridged look at the history of UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction album. For an in depth look at the creation of UNKLE’s debut and James Lavelle’s early years see my book Making Psycene Fiction.

An Australian writer with a passion for research. In 2020 he published Making Psyence Fiction, a book on the creation of UNKLE’s debut album. www.jamesgaunt.com

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