As UNE, BBC Radio DJ Mark Radcliffe and beats-obsessed boffin Paul Langley pay homage to the war memorials of the former Yugoslavia with their third album, ‘Spomenik’

“I don’t know if frightening is the right word, but they’re certainly sinister,” says Mark Radcliffe, with a thoughtful frown. “They’re like altars to some strange cult that’s died out. Some of them were almost like churches or cathedrals – they had concrete stools placed around them, where children were herded to hear lectures about how great the future was going to be.”

He’s talking about “spomeniks” (“monuments” in Serbo-Croat), hundreds of striking concrete sculptures dotted around the countries that once formed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and that provided the inspiration and title for the new album by UNE, the duo comprising Radcliffe and his musical collaborator, Paul Langley. 

Built in the aftermath of the Second World War right up until the 1990s, spomeniks embody the traumatic geopolitics of these complex Balkan states, commemorating anti-fascist battles and massacres on the exact spots where they occurred. Radcliffe has clearly immersed himself in their legacy.

“They’re almost like the war memorials you’ll find in every town in the UK,” he continues. “The difference is, they’re often on a huge scale and with this bizarre state-encouraged dedication to abstract expressionism. It’s just an extraordinary idea. And, of course, they were built by people trying to distance themselves from the imagery of totalitarianism. It was a definite move away from that, pointing to a brave new beginning. As far as I know, there’s been nothing else like them anywhere in the world.”

Since swapping his life as the producer of 1980s John Peel sessions for the comparative glamour of on-air presenting, Radcliffe has been a mainstay of BBC national radio. His 1990s rise as one half of Mark and Lard – alongside the genial former Fall bassist, Marc Riley – encompassed a glorious stint on the Radio 1 “graveyard shift” and a spell as tabloid-baffling breakfast show successor to Chris Evans. It was followed by seven years of surreal majesty (“frogging with Scroff Crudle”) on the station’s afternoon slot. 

Since 2007, he has cultivated an award-winning partnership with fellow Lancashire polymath Stuart Maconie, first on Radio 2 (where he still presents ‘The Folk Show’), then at BBC Radio 6 Music. Throughout the decades, his on-air shenanigans have combined Python-esque hilarity with an infectious love of the musically offbeat. I am, it’s fair to say, something of a fan.

It was during a working day at 6 Music that Radcliffe’s interest in the spomeniks was sparked.

“Stuart Maconie and Elizabeth Alker were talking about them,” he recalls. “So in my usual way, I said to Paul, ‘I’m thinking about this’. I’ll often give him an idea and say, ‘How does that make you feel, musically?’. And we set off on our normal modus operandi, which is to work entirely separately. I got my old Yamaha DJX out and started writing. That’s right, isn’t it, Paul?”

“That’s exactly how it began,” nods Paul Langley, who’s been listening patiently. “Lockdown was quite liberating for me – I had loads of free time and I could just lose myself in the evenings instead of going to the pub and moaning endlessly about Manchester City. I could swim about in my own creativity. And it happened so quickly. ‘Spomenik’ was done and dusted within weeks.”

The album itself is full of icy, brutalist electronica, with sparse, direct lyrics and a pervading sense of minimalist bleakness. They seem thrilled with my verdict.

“When I first started reading up on the spomeniks, the first thing I heard was an 808 drum machine,” explains Langley. “It’s like the ‘Angel Of The North’ – I don’t look at it from a distance. I stand beneath it and take in its vastness. And that triggers loads of things. When I see birds going past, I hear hi-hat patterns. I’m a bit mental, really. I can almost see it. I could see the patterns in the spomeniks too.”

“Weird, innit?” smiles Radcliffe, with clear admiration. “Until now, I didn’t realise it was such a literal thing.”

It’s virtually synaesthesia. Surely there aren’t many composers whose brains forge such a strong link between the visual and the musical…

“We wrote a song called ‘Komorebi’ for the first album, ‘Lost’,” continues Langley. “Mark was talking about sunlight coming through the leaves of trees and I could see the hi-hat pattern. I was walking through Knutsford, and I could see it! I said, ‘That’s the pattern I’m after. I can see the claps!’. And my dog was looking at me as if I was mad.”

While the pair have the easy-going, piss-taking rapport of lifelong friends, they actually only met in 2014 when Radcliffe became a welcome new face in Langley’s favourite Cheshire pub.

“We just bonded over shouting at the TV, watching Manchester City,” recalls Langley.

“Yeah,” smiles Radcliffe. “I moved to Knutsford and asked someone, ‘Is there a pub that’s Man City rather than United and where you can take dogs?’, and it was the Builder’s Arms. Later, I bumped into Paul walking across the park and we recognised each other. It just grew from there. We probably speak most days, don’t we, Paul?” 

“Absolutely. My wife says, ‘Have you finished talking to your other wife?’.”

“But when Paul said he made music, my heart sank,” admits Radcliffe. “Because I love him, he’s a great mate, and I thought he wasn’t the kind of bloke who’d do anything meaningful, musically. You know, ‘God… is this going to ruin a beautiful friendship?’. But when he started playing me these tracks, my first reaction was, ‘Are you sure this is you?’. He was someone I’d least suspected of having hidden depths. I’d always assumed he had hidden shallows!”

“I hide my creativity beneath a veil of stupidity,” deadpans Langley.

“Yeah, it’s really well hidden. To the point of invisibility. But when I listen to the things he’s done, I can hear the hours of work that have gone into them. He’s brilliant at what he does.”

Radcliffe’s career, I tell them, is something I know about in probably too much detail. Langley is more mysterious. Is he, I ask, the same Paul Langley who belonged to an outfit called Rack-It!, whose 1995 ‘Have You Had It’ EP leads with a 13-minute Balearic-flavoured track titled ‘Sex On Acid’?

“Yep,” he nods. “My brother was a DJ at The Haçienda. I was messing around with some keyboards when Rob Gretton walked past. I said, ‘Rob! I’ve done this…”, and he went, ‘Yeah, s’alright’. Meaning it was a bag of shite.

“But I convinced him me and my mate could make a record. Then Martyn Walsh from the Inspiral Carpets said, ‘You want to make something people will detest immediately’. So we did and they liked it! That was ‘Sex On Acid’. What was that all about? I’ve never taken a drug in my life, apart from paracetamol.”

I tell him I’ve also found someone on Twitter called Simon Smedley waxing lyrical about Oldham bands – “An old school pal of mine called Paul Langley was in a good band in the 80s, but I can’t remember their name”.

Langley looks agog. 

“That was a band called Out Of The Blue,” he admits. “Actually, we were alright. We did a single at [Peter Hook’s studio] Suite 16. Oh, and we hired out – god, this is embarrassing – Middleton Arndale Centre. We did a rooftop gig for a video. To two people. It was pure comedy. We were all dressed in white, and I had a Korg M1 which cost £1,500 and I was only earning £27.50 a week on a YTS scheme. You could hear the camera crew laughing, thinking it was a big joke, but for us it was deadly serious. I think the singer went off crying.”

“Why haven’t I heard this before?” chuckles a delighted Radcliffe, while Langley is still visibly cringing at the memory. So where, I wonder, did their respective electronic music obsessions begin?

“It’s a boring answer, but it was Kraftwerk,” says Radcliffe. “I liked the primitive rhythms of ‘Trans-Europe Express’. I loved ‘Europe Endless’ – it’s perfect in every way. And I just loved the idea of them. They were Gilbert & Gilbert and George & George. Playing with the concept of what a pop group could be – these four austere-looking blokes. In suits. I found that fascinating. A band didn’t have to be Led Zeppelin. It could also be four people who looked as if they worked in the control room of a nuclear power station.

“And when punk happened, I liked some of the edgy electronica that was around then – Robert Rental, The Normal and DAF. I loved that grinding, industrial sound.”

“Gary Numan for me,” says Langley. “I saw him in 1979 when my mum got me a ticket for my 11th birthday. My first ever concert. You wouldn’t do it now, but she stuck me on the number 24 from Oldham to Manchester and told me what bus to catch from the city centre to The Apollo.

“I remember all these guys wearing make-up, getting me to the front saying, ‘Get this lad on your shoulders!’. And when Gary Numan came on, it was the best thing ever. And I’m also a kid from the Afrika Bambaataa days – all that early hip hop. ‘Planet Rock’ and ‘Looking For The Perfect Beat’ are two of my favourite records. They switched me onto electronica.”

Beneath the bonhomie and self-deprecation, Radcliffe and Langley take their music seriously. But still… they are funny. They talk of a mothballed concept album about 1960s’ cartoon series ‘Bleep And Booster’ and fondly recall a recent UNE gig where the 27 audience members were all given free Scotch eggs. 

Radcliffe, to boot, has previous form in spoof outfits. His and Marc Riley’s 1990s outfit The Shirehorses mercilessly sent up the bands du jour (see Dick Cave And The Bad Cheese), and their afternoon show character Fat Harry White was a glorious pastiche of 1970s soul superstars. Is there a danger, I wonder, of people assuming UNE’s records are similarly tongue-in-cheek? Because they’re really not.

“Two things in answer to that,” says Radcliffe, thoughtfully. “We did our first UNE gig at the Loopallu festival in Scotland, and I didn’t say anything on stage because, with all the electronic acts I’d seen, no one ever did. But then I thought, ‘Hang on, the people who come expect me to talk a bit’, so now I try to have a laugh with the audience and humanise everything.

“But I sometimes think people find it hard to remove me from that DJ box – it’s too much of a leap to take me seriously as a musical artist. Even radio show hosts I know are still a bit nervous of being told, ‘You’re only playing Mark Radcliffe because he’s your mate’, so I’m not that sure UNE always get judged on the value of the music.

“Or perhaps we are, and they really just do think it’s shit, which is fine. But that’s the double answer. I’ve learned to present UNE in a lighter way when we do gigs. I think people now know what UNE are, which makes them a bit more comfortable than me trying to be alien and distant.”

‘Spomenik’ is released on the boutique Spun Out Of Control label. While Radcliffe waxes lyrical about the cottage-industry nature of their set-up (“It’s back to the days of punk, and that’s brilliant”), Langley gets endearingly excited about being featured in Electronic Sound. He reaches for what appears to be a substantial collection of back issues stored somewhat precariously above his webcam.

“When we appeared in Issue 61, we got sent a copy and it was like, ‘This magazine is for me’,” he enthuses. “When it comes, my wife opens it and smells it. It’s beautiful! I’ve got them all lined up. Spun Out Of Control and Electronic Sound complement each other so well. A match made in heaven.”

I’m delighted for them both, and Radcliffe in particular. In 2018, he was diagnosed with head and neck cancer, enduring lengthy treatment. On receiving the all-clear, he edged away from the folk rock bands he’d previously been helming and threw in his lot with Langley. The first UNE album, ‘Lost’, was released in 2019. The second, ‘Deux’, is barely weeks old, with ‘Spomenik’ a remarkably swift follow-up. Was illness an epiphany that ignited his restless creativity?

“It made me want to do something new,” he nods. “Not to go back to Galleon Blast or The Family Mahone… all those folk rock bands. My voice was very fragile, and those bands were raucous and demanding. So, yeah. It was, ‘I’ve not died, now let’s do some things I haven’t done before’.”

At this, he holds his phone up to the camera.

“This is the next album,” he says, showing me two abstract, monochrome figures spinning at incredible speed. “They’re whirling dervishes. The album is all about things that revolve. So there’s a track from the point of view of a tornado, apologising for the destruction it causes. And there’s one about windmills, based on ‘Don Quixote’.”

The other half of UNE leaps up to attend to some off-camera gizmo and we’re suddenly surrounded by crisp beats and a squelching bassline. I’m getting a sneak preview.

“That’s the tornado,” exclaims Paul Langley. “It’s going to be so apologetic. Apologetic tornados! And again, when I think about it, I can hear it – tsh tsh tsh – that tempo. I knew straight away it was 123 bpm.”

“I’m sure I produced a John Peel session by The Apologetic Tornadoes in 1984,” quips Mark Radcliffe, and our three Zoom windows explode into laughter. That’s happened a lot during the hour we’ve spent together, but don’t be fooled. These are men who take their creativity seriously. And ‘Spomenik’ – sorry about this – is an enduring monument to their commitment.

‘Spomenik’ is out now on Spun Out Of Control

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