Exclusive interview : James Lavelle talks Mo’ Wax, UNKLE, streetwear and more…

Posted on June 13, 2013 by

Last month I collected your questions for the Q&A with James Lavelle and sent them to the management. After a bit of wait, I got an email asking to do it as a phone call. So I picked up the phone and chatted a bit with the Man from UNKLE.

James Lavelle in the Mo' Wax archives

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While you are reading this, why not give a listen to James Lavelle’s “Best of Mo’ Wax” Kickstarter exclusive mix ?

We all know that you came very close to signing Portishead at Mo’ Wax, but were there any other artists we would be surprised at that you nearly signed?

There were so many acts that came through the door that we tried to, I mean, things that come to mind would be, hmm there was Playgroup, there was Felix Da Housecat, Company Flow, Organized Konfusion, Mo’ Wax nearly was gonna be doing Def Jam in the UK for a while, so there was quite a lot of things. Endless bands you know… Air, was gonna be on Mo’ Wax… we put their first single out.
But you know there were so many meetings and so many bands, especially in the early days, there was a lot of talks about signing UK rappers. Yeah there’s so many things that didn’t get signed because you’re always looking at so many different bands, and so many different meetings with so many different managers.

How come the UNKLE/Belmondo project has been abandoned?

Well, the Belmondo idea was, UNKLE started as a production, really it started as a logo, for the idea that it was kind of my production logo, like a Hip-Hop band, and then when me and Tim Goldsworthy started making records, we first started remixing so we thought we’d do it under the name of UNKLE. The idea was we were then to make a record as a band called Belmondo but UNKLE became popular so we continued with that name, and then Tim moved on and he went to set up DFA records. But we were so young, the idea of Belmondo was when we were like 16 years old.

Why did you choose the name Belmondo?

That was Tim’s idea, he was a big fan of Belmondo, the actor.

Do these tracks still exist somewhere?

No, we never made any track, it was hypothetical, it was just a name, I’m amazed that you know because it was never something that ever… Just like a kid kind of talking about “Oh yeah we do Belmondo, we do UNKLE, blah blah blah”… It never happened.

What’s the story behind the unreleased Mo’ Wax tracks like Black Lodge’s Hotline or Digital Dubz’s You Know We Roll?

There were a lot of things that’s just got unreleased, there were so much going on. Sometimes things just got promo-ed, or demos got out but we never… that didn’t just happened. It’s just sometimes the way it works in record labels.

Does the orange version of the Federation 10″ vinyl exist or is it just a myth?

I think it’s a myth (laugh). I can’t remember anything in orange vinyl for Federation so I think it’s just a myth.

Will the old Mo’ Wax catalogue ever be re-released?

No, not all of it because unfortunately a lot of the records were licensed which means that they weren’t owned forever. So we’re trying to look at maybe doing some retrospective releases next year, we’re trying to look at doing a Mo’ Wax compilation. There are some stuffs that exist when with Universal, there’s some stuff that exist when I was with XL, but a lot of it is no longer sort of owned by anybody other than the artists.

Any chance for a Mo’ Wax resurrection?

Well, next year we’re gonna be doing, hopefully, the idea is that there’s a book coming out, some re-releases and I think that it may be possible. I’m just sort of taking things slowly and see what happens.

Can you tell us more about that book?

It’s 21 years, it’s a book that will cover both the releases of the music and the art side of the label but also the culture as far as people that were involved, interviews with a lot of the people that were involved. The thing that was interesting about Mo’ Wax is also about who came to the office because the office was like a hub of people that were constantly coming through the doors, and it was not necessarily “he just released that records” or “people he was DJing with”, “the one on your label” so it’s not just about just the artists on the label but all of the culture and the people that were around the label.

What was slated to appear on Headz 3? Likelihood that the label will be resurrected and a Headz 3 would see the light of day?

God, Headz 3, at that time there were quite a lot of stuff from… god, I’m trying to think… There was Massive Attack, there was Prodigy and Underworld that had done something for it, a lot of the artists from the record label proposed for it, I think there was some new Beastie Boys stuff that was gonna be on it. God, it’s hard to remember because unfortunately it didn’t happen, I was compiling so many things at the time… I wanted to do some kind of super project. I remember Eye For An Eye, UNKLE was gonna be one of the lead tracks for Headz 3.
And it was gonna be a kind of Headz 3D so the whole packaging was gonna be 3D packaging.
So kind of similar to Headz 2 really but with more of the artists that were happening at the time. So there would have been Drum & Bass tracks, there would have been Techno tracks, there would have been the artists on the label.
But I do remember having this crazy Liam Hawlett track, which was pretty mad at the time because The Prodigy was such a huge band…

The promo mix for the Nowhere / Bape 3rd anniversary has the cat number MWIN006. Why “IN”?

No idea! It may have something to do with Japan.

Does 006 mean that there were previous releases?

We did do a lot of releases in Japan, so it may have had to do with the way the catalog numbers work.

What Mo’ Wax release(s) are you most proud of, and why?

It’s hard isn’t it, everything has its own thing, Endtroducing of course has to be the record that changed everything for me, the first Headz record… Being able to put out records like David Axelrod and Liquid Liquid because it was a heroe thing for me, they were the bands and artists that influenced me. Working with Grand Royal was amazing because I got to work with Mike D and again it was such a great experience. The Major Force compilation was particularly important for me because that was the label that had really inspired me to start.

Is there any chance that we can hear The Prunes Headz Headz Headz?

Yeah that was a track for a flyer. If I can find it, I’m now going through the DATs, yes, somehow I’m sure it will lie somewhere. In the next 6 months I’m going through all of the DATs and back catalogu but it’s a crazy experience because none of it is digital, it’s a very laborious process. It was made as a promo 7” and I have a feeling, hopefully it’s in the archives.

Any plans for an anniversary Psyence Fiction Deluxe? If this did happen, what gems/demos from the vaults are left to release?

I’ll be working hopefully on a special edition the next year and hopefully that will contain some unreleased demos and as much material that we can find. Right now we’re going through it all because most of the stuff was released on the record.

Are there gonna be special remixes that didn’t come out?

I’m not sure about special remixes that didn’t come out, I think it’s more about the remixes that only came out maybe in Japan, or only came out in America… you know, but I’ll probably also look at doing maybe some new mixes as well.

Could you provide more information about the DFA-style Punk Funk UNKLE tracks you mentioned in an old interview? Who was involved and were many tunes made? Any chance they’d be released?

I can’t remember (laugh). Punk funk stuff that we’d be doing? Wow… I don’t know if that may have been slightly misquoted or something, because when we were doing Never Never Land it was really much more working with electronic music. There was the track No Pain No Gain, but that’s now on the internet I think now, which is a kind of rockier track. But again, I’m going back and listening to demos but I don’t really recall listening to stuff like… we sort of went the other way than DFA went really when we did Never Never Land.

Any more information on the Fleetwood Mac cover Unkle did?

It never happened. We wanted to do it with Badly Drawn Boy, the idea was gonna be a cover version of Dreams but we didn’t do it in the end.

What happened with the rainbow picture discs (featuring the UNKLE Futura logo in colourful concentric patterns)? What songs were meant to be on them?

Erm… there was no rainbow picture disc…

There were some pictures of such an artwork floating around the internet.

There was the picture disc that came out with the Kubrick toys, which came out in Japan, that had a demo of Eye For An Eye on it, but there’s no other colourful picture disc that I can remember from UNKLE.

DJ Shadow recently said in a Q&A on Facebook that you might work together again. Can you confirm this is also your wish? Can we expect Shadow to be the main collaborator on the next UNKLE album?

We’re talking about the deluxe, and just getting back together, working on things like that… We’ll see what happens. But I definitely think it would be nice for us to work together again in some way.

But that may not be working on the next UNKLE album?

Yeah, we haven’t really talked about that right now. We’ve just been talking about Psyence Fiction and what we will do with that. We’re getting together soon, so we’ll see what happens with the conversation.

What’s up with Surrender All? Is it over? You said at the beginning that you’d sign some fresh talents…

Yeah when I started that was the intention but unfortunately the way things worked out it didn’t… you know we spent so much time touring and working on UNKLE… And Surrender All is now finished, yes.

Are you guys still doing the mixes for Antonio Berardi’s runway shows? If so, is there any chance that those mixes could be made available to listen to?

Yes, maybe, maybe. Right now I am just trying to deal with all the Mo’ Wax stuff at the moment

In the credits for Erebus, it says that the music is courtesy of Songs For The Def Ltd. Is that your new label? And if so, do you plan to release any music through it?

At the moment it’s more like my kind of production company, for when I do business. But we’ll see, at the moment I’m just working on the retrospective stuff. We’ll see but I’m sort of half and half about releasing new music, other people’s music so we’ll see what happens. But at the moment, it’s like if I do a new song for a movie or whatever because I’m on my own copyright, it’s Songs For The Def, it’s like a company name.

Talking about that, the music you’ve been doing for ads, short films, and exhibitions has been amazing. Is there any chance that they could be released?

Yeah, soon there will be stuff coming out. I’ve just done an installation with an artist called Haroon [Mirza]. He’s a sound artist, he’s with Lisson here in London. He just did some releases on Vinyl Factory.

Do you miss doing a regular magazine column?

No! (laugh)

Any plans to work with Futura again or Kai and Sunny?

I’ve been working with Kai and Sunny because we’ve been doing an exhibition with them. And yeah I’d like to work with Futura again. I hope that when we’ll do all the Mo’ Wax stuff next year there will be an opportunity for us to work together on something, to celebrate, to do a exhibition and all this kind of thing. We are all starting to get into contact.

Futura recently said that he’d like to be involved with the Urban Archaeology, call him!

He’s so much part of the book, of course we want him involved. I saw him last year, we were gonna work together on a show that I did in Hong Kong, but in the end he had to change his plans, so hopefully I’m sure that we’ll be doing stuff together next year.

When Mo’ Wax closed, and with your career moving towards being a full time artist & DJ rather than label boss, why the huge change in musical direction? You have stated many times before that hip-hop was a big influence to you.

Because when I started DJing at Fabric, there was a huge musical shift. That sound kind of become saturated and Hip-Hop had become very commercial or had become very very sort of male and sort of underground boys. I just like DJing in clubs so people dance, and the music changed, you know. Electronic music, House music, Techno.. the influence became stronger in the club environment.

So it’s just that what you found in Hip-Hop was not attractive anymore?

As a DJ it wasn’t attractive. As somebody that listens to records, I’ve always bought Hip-hop records but it suddenly became very radio dominated and to me it was like playing pop music in a club. And also, I think it’s music that moves on, your tastes move on, what was influencial for me in London, your social environment, what your friends are into, all that stuff change. And now it’s interesting how you can listen back, and you go “wow that record sounds so great”. But you get bored you know, you wanna move on, you wanna do new things, it’s always to me about contemporary music.

What do you think of Richard File’s We Fell to Earth project? Do they still get on? Any future collabs?

Yeah I thought it was cool! We get on and as far as future collaboration, it’s not something we’ve talked about recently, no.

Not enough credit is given to you for your amazing eye for highly visual styling/ clothing over the years especially in the early days of UNKLE. You pretty much brought Bape to the West and in my eyes I always thought you best defined the brand both aesthetically and referentially, and certainly brought a lot of Unkle fans to love the brand. Why did you stop wearing it? Did the brand lose its referential appeal and cultural significance when it reached a mass audience?

Because, i got replaced, I kind of got replaced you know. I had a relationship with them and then they went with Pharrell. They kind of dropped me.

I would love to hear your thoughts on clothing brands and fashion in general.

I think it’s very different because everything is available on the internet, all the informations. So the part of what was interesting about doing and wearing certain things was individuality, finding, discovering new things. Also for me, you know, you get older, your tastes change, so what you wanna wear is different. A Bathing Ape became so saturated, it became so Hip-Hop, it became so like Kanye and Pharrell and all that, it didn’t interest me. I don’t want to walk down the street and look like every kid that walks down the street.
On a street level I really like Supreme, I think they’re great and they‘ve continued to retain the core of their identity and I always represent Supreme. I really respect Stussy because they started it, and they again retain their very own identity. But really I’d be more interested in wearing clothes from Undercover or Comme Des Garçons or Rick Owens….
My daughter is 16, she wears my old clothes and I don’t know if she wants me walking around trying to look the same as her. (laugh)

After all those years, what does Mo’ Wax represent to you? I mean, what’s your view on the whole thing and its influence on modern music, street wear etc…?

I’m just proud that I got to create and be involved in, and do the things that I did, meet the people I did. If that’s the way that some people actually feel then that’s an amazing thing that I contributed to culture in some way. I think that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do and I’m very proud to be able to hopefully give people inspiration and joy.

As an outro, please feel free to tell anything you want to the fans, to share your thoughts, or to share a fun/interesting old story we don’t know, whatever…

Ah ah it was so long ago! You have to remember that what was wonderful really at the heights of Mo’ Wax, was that it was more a band, it was more about discovery, so it was more like a culture of like minded people. What I find funny is that when you start it’s all so basic. You have DJ Shadow and Futura sleeping on your couch in your tiny shit flat because you’ve just started moving to London. Everything was so kind of raw. The nights where you meet people… like I remember the first night I met Richard File and he came into the nightclub, and it looked like there was a wall by the DJ booth so he let his hands on the wall but it wasn’t, it was like a curtain so he just felt through and the records went everywhere.
Just personal, just always meeting people, crazy stuff like when I first went to America, I got off the airplane, I went to LA, and the first band I met was a band called The Pharcyde, and they were making a record called Bizarre Ride, and it was the first time I’ve ever seen everybody wear their jeans lowdown and I wanted to copy their style. All those kind of things! Going to New York for the first time, to sign Repercussions for their first record, and the first record you hear is Eric B For President as you’re going over the Brooklyn bridge, it’s like… You know all that silly, silly, silly things… Meeting Will Bankhead for the first time in a Slam City Skates, and that connection. Meeting Mike D, Rocksteady Jam in the park in New York… You know it’s endless crazy stuff!
The label stopped in a way, I think that it’s good it stopped and it never really became… shit! (laugh)
So you know I think the legacy is pure, and it didn’t just become a huge commercial record company in the end.

Do you miss any of that?

Of course. But you can’t replace that time, that was then. Of course I miss so many of the wonderful people and the wonderful… You’ know having that environment and what happens… but life moves on, time moves on.

And your daughter starts wearing your clothes right?

Ah ah ah yeah some of them. (laugh)

Thank you for your time James!

A big thank you to Sophie for the massive help.


5 thoughts on “Exclusive interview : James Lavelle talks Mo’ Wax, UNKLE, streetwear and more…

  • craig says:

    great, just great…. really nice to read an article about james and mowax, thanks for asking about the belmondo project for me i never did find out about in all these years….always so many more questions to ask though as you say, perhaps you will get another opportunity at the exhibition
    craig (stupidfish)

  • JDM2020 says:

    I’d really love to see an UNKLE special edition that collects all the early EPs, stuff on Toy Factory, the Japanese/Australian extra tracks, soundtrack stuff along the lines of the Self Defence box set. James, can you make this happen?

  • Nathan says:

    Just wanted to say to James, you changed my life with Mo Wax. I was always into hip hop from a young age but was always more into the beats than the rhymes. Then in the early 90’s when my best mate played me a Mo Wax record at his house – man it blew me away. I also remember trying to style ourselves on you ha trying to locate a Very Ape/Bathing Ape Tshirt back then because we had seen you and one of the Beasties wearing one was an impossible task as the internet was so new and the label was so underground ! Mo Wax for me was just all about my tastes rolled into one – hip hop, art, star wars, fashion etc and it was so amazing and refreshing discovering it all those years ago. So excited about next year for the exhibition etc ! About time we had some Mo Wax logo tshirts out too as Ive still got the navy mo wax recordings tshirt with the stripes across the chest that now has about 100 holes in it !! Thanks for the music James!

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