Paul Bradshaw talked to James Lavelle for Jocks&Nerds
The 9th issue of Jocks&Nerds features an interesting Mo’ Wax feature by Paul Bradshaw, the guy behind the now defunct Straight No Chaser magazine where James Lavelle used to have a column called Mo’ Wax Please… Here is the interview in its entirety, enjoy!
I hadn’t seen James Lavelle since 1998, at Straight No Chaser magazine’s 10th anniversary Great Day in Hoxton photo shoot. He worked for me at the magazine in the early 1990s, and an interview felt like a positive opportunity to renew a lapsed friendship and see whether he remains as animated and driven as he was back then.
We meet to discuss his plans for a 21st anniversary retrospective of one of the most important record labels of the 1990s, Mo’Wax, which Lavelle founded in 1992. The fedora-sporting man from UNKLE arrives at his manager’s Camden HQ a touch late, apologetic and inevitably juggling a dozen commitments. He is fresh from a mentoring session in Thailand where he shared a platform with other international DJs and Lady Gaga’s producer, White Shadow. It seems like business as usual. We make our initial greetings and it feels good. He grabs a fresh T-shirt and heads off to the photo shoot, promising to be back promptly.
Thinking back to that day in Hoxton in 1998, I recall being really glad that he’d shown up for the shoot. He was family. My first encounter with Lavelle was at the Straight No Chaser office in Coronet Street at the back of Hoxton Square. It was the early 1990s and the radical Talkin’ Loud And Saying Something session, put together by Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge at Dingwalls, had just finished. Lavelle was 17 and commuting between Oxford and London. He had worked at the Bluebird Record store in Paddington and was working at another, Honest Jon’s, in Portobello Rd, and he arrived at Chaser with the intention of hustling a column. His final salvo at the end of our conversation was, “You need me!” I asked Swifty — Chaser‘s art director — what he reckoned, and his response was immediate. “Get him in.”
The Chaser column was titled ‘Mo’Wax Please’ and it was to provide James ‘The Holygoof’ Lavelle with a calling card that would help carry his Mo’Wax vision worldwide. The 1990s were hectic — an endless cycle of clubbing and unfettered creativity. Swifty moved into his own space on the first floor in Coronet Street and it was there that the initial visual trajectory of Mo’Wax records was conceived. It was down to late nights, a lot of weed and crazy energy. Lavelle was totally stoked on Star Wars, kung fu, New York subway graffiti, hip hop and all things Japanese. Add Swifty’s collection of toys as another source of inspiration and you get UNKLE.
The momentum attained by Mo’Wax was rapid and it evolved within a scene around club and radio DJ Gilles Peterson — who was doing Talkin’ Loud records — and Straight No Chaser. Over a four-year period Lavelle cajoled a host of fresh, dynamic, genre-busting artists to the label — Repercussions, Raw Stylus, RPM, Palm Skin Productions, La Funk Mob, Attica Blues, DJ Takemura, DJ Shadow, DJ Krush, Luke Vibert, Money Mark, Andrea Parker, Dr Octagon, Air, Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra. It was impressive. What Mo’Wax offered was more than music; it offered a lifestyle. But to build on that it required infrastructure, management and a deal with a major record company. In 1996 Lavelle signed a deal with A&M Records, and during an interview with Cynthia Rose for the book Trade Secrets he declared: “From a record company, here’s what I need: support, faith, money, and distribution. But we also don’t even go through A&M. We’re independently distributed. We have our own rules and regulations, so we’re unique there. We can basically do whatever we want.”
The future looked good. That same year Rolling Stone Magazine shunned the pioneering efforts of Bristol’s Smith 8c, Mighty, Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack and introduced Mo’Wax to its US readers as the label that gave birth to trip hop — a genre that replaced “rapping with a head-tripping spaciness, creating a sound in which hip hop, experimental rock, jazz, ambient and techno vibrantly co-exist”. The record that cystallised the Mo’Wax vision was released in 1993. It was a 12″ single by DJ Shadow, aka Josh Davis, called ‘In/Flux’. Josh had initially captured Lavelle’s attention with his ‘Shadow’s Legitimate Mix’ remix of a Zimbabwe Legit 12″, ‘Doin’ Damage in My Native Language’. Lavelle flew to the States to meet him and one of the most important Mo’Wax relationships took off.
Prior to one European tour, I can vividly recall DJ Shadow — who was still a student at the time — and his Tokyo-based Mo’Wax label mate, DJ Krush, mesmerising a packed house in the Blue Note club in Hoxton with a serious display of turntablism. The sound had definitely arrived and, following two years of painstaking work in his San Francisco studio, DJ Shadow’s skillfully crafted Endtroducing album finally dropped to universal critical acclaim. Shadow’s commitment to crate digging and the Akai MPC60 sampler paid off. Voted one of best albums of the year, Shadow’s offering has proved a landmark in instrumental hip hop and sold over a million copies.
Life was about change. Shit happens. People move on. By the time of that Great Day in Hoxton photo shoot, Lavelle had moved on from the Chaser family and started one of his own. The combination of his personal relationships, and a constant search for like-minded collaborators of his own generation, saw Lavelle morph from our jazz-orientated world to another parallel dimension on the London club scene. It was his girlfriend of the time and the mother of his daughter, Janet Fischgrund, who introduced Lavelle to the London fashion and Brit Art scenes.
“Janet was a massive catalyst,” says Lavelle. “She discovered Alexander McQueen. I would consider her fundamentally one of the most important people in Mo’Wax. Mo’Wax could have just been this cool thing, just very musically driven, but suddenly it was like you’re dealing with the birth of that generation of London’s art scene. You’re dealing with Damien Hirst, you’re meeting all these people… you met all the best photographers, all the best designers. Lee McQueen, he was just a mate. It was just a mass of information and for me that’s just grown.”
Lavelle hasn’t flinched from incorporating a visual dimension into his activities at all levels. The Psyence Fiction tour with The Scratch Perverts introduced complex projected backdrops that have since become the norm for large-scale DJ sets. He regularly joins forces with image-makers Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones — best known for their fashion imagery and work with the likes of Bjork, Massive Attack and Alexander McQueen. Over the last year he has been working on a project with Stanley Kubrick’s wife and is enthused about another venture with conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth.
In theory the deal with A&M was to take the whole Mo’Wax experience to another level, and it made sense that UNKLE would be the Mo’Wax Starship Enterprise. UNKLE as an actual recording project surfaced in 1994 via the ‘The Time Has Come’ EP. The cover introduced graffiti artist Futura 2000’s `pointmen’ to the world at large and the liner notes proclaimed it “a tribute to Sun Ra and all things fucked up”. Based on the success of Entroducing, A&M entrusted the production duties for UNKLE’s debut LP to DJ Shadow, and it was something he took very seriously. Lavelle, on the other hand, was intent on creating his homage to Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. The end result was three turbulent years in the studio and UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction — a sample-rich album that featured the cream of the UK indie rock scene and provided the essential pot-club listening experience for the discerning college kids of that generation.
However, behind the scenes Mo’Wax was caught up in a major record company meltdown — the dissolution of A&M records — and the hammer blow came when the exec who had signed Mo’Wax to A&M called Lavelle into his office, put UNKLE’s ‘Lonely Soul’ on the stereo and told him he was resigning. Mo’Wax was about to be become history.
“I think there was a moment when the success was massive,” reflects Lavelle. “But the money wasn’t what people would like to believe. I didn’t walk out with millions of pounds. I walked out with a couple of hundred grand. It was a lot of money when you’re 21 years old. I’ll always remember the deal breaker with A&M was a Basquiat, a drawing, and it said, “Cowards will get rid of you, the sky is the limit.” That will always resonate. I had to sell it when things were falling apart. How apt is that? I got the painting for a minute but what did I sell my soul for to get it? And now I’m having to sell it? I think it was quite funny in a weird way. I’ve had an amazing journey but in certain ways you make your own bed…”
He might have sold the Basquiat but he seems to have collected and saved pretty much everything else. Seeing him in his lock-up on the Kickstarter video to raise finance for the forthcoming anniversary exhibition surrounded by the vinyl, flyers, artworks, trainers, toys, etc he’s amassed over the years was mind blowing. The video clearly worked as he received 457 backers and crowd-funding of £33,828 to fund the Mo’Wax retrospective.
“Doing the book now is wonderful but I kind of just threw everything in a room and locked the door. And now I’ve opened the door and it’s like Pandora’s Box,” declares Lavelle. “I’m finding pictures of my daughter when she was a baby as well as everyone I’ve ever hung out with. There’s every termination notice, every legal letter, every love letter… it’s just like, ‘Wow.”
He admits that going through the archive in order to create what will be a serious book and exhibition is also akin to going through a stress-inducing form of therapy. Doing Mo’Wax and UNKLE has been a rollercoaster ride that has had highs and lows. After re-reading one interview he’d done in The Face magazine, he says: “It wasn’t an easy ride. I was only 21 when I did that and they already had the knives out.”
One is confronted with the seemingly premature task of processing the achievements and life lessons of someone who is still in their prime. Lavelle is 40 next year and such a venture begs the question: “Where do you go when you’ve already done all this?”
“On one level it’s a beautiful thing,” says Lavelle. “You’re looking at all the work you’ve done and the way the music industry has changed and you think, ‘Wow, it’s just incredibly artistic.’ There’s another side that’s just, “Fuck me, it’s mental, the amount of stuff that we did in such a short period of time.’ And there’s another side that I can’t believe I just walked away. I’d just had enough. The world changed, the industry changed.”
I’d given a lot of thought to this meeting beforehand, and the period post Psyence Fiction — post Mo’Wax — was something of a mystery. I wanted to understand the journey that Lavelle and UNKLE had taken. Psyence Fiction was UNKLE’s first success story but there were some hard lessons when it came to royalties. From a collaborative point of view it was an incredible success. Lavelle has never been afraid of pursuing an idea, no matter how impossible it seemed, and having the dons of the UK indie scene — Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke and Ian Brown — in the mix with DJ Shadow was a coup indeed. Lavelle is not a musician, he’s a child of the sampling generation, and while he maintains that the album could not have been made without him, right down to the string arrangement on the nine-minute epic of ‘Lonely Soul’, he walked away without any rights to the music.
After that experience, it’s hardly surprising that writing became much more crucial. Not surprisingly, it’s the emotional charge that he gets from Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ that sets the bar when it comes to his own songwriting.
“I came from the power of a beat originally, so I had to learn what a really good song is. I had to learn what lyrics really mean, what the power of a song is,” Lavelle explains. But all those words on scraps of paper tended to reflect his more melancholic side and as result “I’ve always had to express myself through other people. ‘Lonely Soul’ or ‘Rabbit in Your Headlights’, to me each song is an extension of how I feel as well as being their thing”.
In the wake of Psyence Fiction there was one more album on Mo’Wax — it was appropriately called Never, Never, Land. That album landed in 2003, created with Rich File. As Lavelle says, “We were joined at the hip,” and the image of these two 30-odd year olds sharing a 5,000 square foot loft in Shoreditch where they quite often communicated by mobile phone is beyond hedonistic… “I’d go to Fabric on Friday and come back on Wednesday!”
Lavelle is obsessed with the collision of music, fashion and art. On the Japan front, he forged links with Nigo at A Bathing Ape and released their compilation A Bathing Ape Vs Mo’Wax. Coinciding with the release of Psyence Fiction, he launched Mo’Wax Arts, which was devoted to translating Futura 2000’s concepts and images into merchandise, toys and fashion. In 2005 he set up his own clothing line called Surrender, and maintains that “Surrender was conceived with a similar aesthetic to Mo’Wax, but instead of signing bands it dealt with just one band — UNKLE”.
“Surrender was great for me. It’s been intense. In five years, we did three albums — War Stories, End Titles… Stories for Film and Where Did the Night Fall— and about 150 tracks. It was an independent machine that allowed me to do what I’ve done with UNKLE in a very independent and boutique way that wouldn’t work in a major system. I think things go in cycles and you have a seven-year period of glory. When I look back at Mo’Wax it probably had about
a seven-year great period. And actually when you look at most great bands there also tends to be about seven years of ultimate creativity. And if you keep it going then who knows, you might end up like The Rolling Stones.”
Listening to UNKLE albums, one is struck by the progression from a hip hop aesthetic through breakbeat-meets-house to electronica to rock. He’s worked with all kinds of singers — Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, Mark Lanegan, formerly of Screaming Trees, psychedelic rockers Sleepy Sun and The Black Angels — and been mesmerised by the empathic studio skills of producer Chris Goss, who it seems got Lavelle to dig a lot deeper into himself. Though he maintains it’s all been brilliant, the combination of being on the road with UNKLE as well as working on new music, remixes and soundtracks in the studio — while directing the whole show — has inevitably taken its toll.
Over the years, Mo’Wax has recruited a host of seriously creative and often quite difficult people. Those people have gone on to provide the British music industry with a fierce injection of talent. Mo’Wax co-founder Tim Goldsworthy set up DFA records, Attica Blues’ Tony Nwachukwu provided the initial Adele tip-off to Nick Huggett, who signed her alongside M.I.A. and Dizzee Rascal, UNKLE producer Damian Taylor was Bjork’s right hand man, to name just a few. Lavelle clearly treasures those individual friendships and working relationships, but he also feels the accumulated weight of two decades of daily politics.
The collaborative nature of UNKLE is problematic as it generates both positive and negative energy. “It’s not a band. It’s more like a film, with actors, and you want the best cameraman,” maintains Lavelle. “I don’t think I could ever build a house on my own. I’d always rather have the best carpenter and the best painter. I like that experience because it inspires the process. But inevitably what also happens is that people come in and they want to kind of do it their way, they want to put their mark on things. And what happened with UNKLE is that in the latter part I just felt it facilitated everybody else’s needs rather than my own.”
Lavelle says that he’s gone back to basics in the belief that the last two years haven’t been particularly productive. Earlier this year he posted ‘Living In Your Headphones Part 1. A Night’s Interlude’, a two-and-a-half-hour continuous mix on Soundcloud, that includes numerous exclusives, edits and remixes along with a bunch of fresh new tunes. It’s basically a DJ set. He still loves to play out and says there’s nothing better. The persona he’s created through Mo’Wax and UNKLE has guaranteed him a place in the upper echelons of a global DJ fraternity, and at one point in his DJ life he had a residency at 10 of the biggest clubs in the world — including Fabric, Zouk and Womb.
“In the summer I played at the Secret Garden Party festival. I got there and there was about 200 people and I was, like, ‘OK, this is going to be one of those gigs where it’s all right. I’m just gonna play.” Being a little rusty, he was a touch nervous about his mixing skills and decided, literally, to keep his head down and get on with it. “When I looked up there were a thousand people just going mental. And it was just that energy when people are like, “Aaaahhh’. I absolutely love that feeling you get. That unity, that moment…
“I’m still really hungry. I’ve never lost that hunger to discover new things. I think my twenties were an incredibly amazing and wondrous period. My thirties have been interesting but have been slightly more insular on a personal level. And now I’m 40 next year, I’m feeling pretty buzzed about a whole new journey and where it’s going to go.”
Without doubt, Lavelle loves the hedonism that fuels the club and music scene, but with that come plusses and minuses. Creativity comes with ego, insecurity, fear and a lot of trial and error. Right now, he feels like it’s the first time since he started out that he’s got a blank canvas to work on, and although he’s excited he also finds it completely nerve-wracking. That said, the 21st anniversary is a serious, large-scale major project that could offer a little conceptual breathing space
while gathering global momentum during 2014.
“What I want to do is celebrate in a positive way,” says Lavelle. “The Mo’Wax book is: ‘Here you go; celebrate it.’ God, the amount of people who have come in and out of those doors during that time… everybody that was involved; they’ve been involved in something beautiful. I take pride in that and part of that is living it. You either live it or you don’t live it. That’s one of the things that’s hardest to teach kids. ‘Cause the kids now go: ‘I want to be famous.’ Famous for what?
“I didn’t want to be famous. I just wanted to achieve something. You know… you just wanted to see your name go by.”
Words Paul Bradshaw Portrait Kevin Davies Photographs Adrian JW Darby