We speak to James Lavelle, co-founder of one of the most influential labels in British music, Mo' Wax to find out where it all started, influences, collaborations, producing great tracks in a digital age, and what the future has in store for UNKLE.
When people ask you to describe yourself, what do you say to them?
Wow, hard question. I’m a dreamer, I think that’s the main thing and I can be quite intense.
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a sampler and a collagist. I sort of try to put things together and I like to collaborate. I believe myself to be an individualist and strive for individuality. I like working with people with emotion and work that is grounded in a certain kind of emotion.
I’m interested in going back to the start of your story. I guess it’s been quite well publicised, but it’s good for us to touch upon. With the old Goodhood shop being based where Straight No Chaser used to be etc, we’re thinking more pre-internet, how did you get into what you have been involved in?
Through friends, through seeing stuff on T.V and reading magazines so it was like The Face, ID, Soul Underground and then you’d have things that spread. Getting hold of a tape when you’re a kid at school or from an older brother or sister that had found something and given it to your mate who was a younger brother and you suddenly had De La Soul or N.W.A, or whatever it was. You’d also go to record shops almost every day to see the latest records coming in. Really it was word of mouth and youth culture, seeing pictures of American break-dancers and growing up with movies like BMX Bandits and Wild Style, Electric Boogaloo: Breakin’. You know you just get these fragments of American culture and then start seeing it when you walk down the street through what kids were wearing; you try and find out where they got them from.
So obviously Straight No Chaser gave rise to the column Mo’Wax Please and it spawned the record label. What was that experience like? Was that your first sort of proper job in London?
No no, I started working in a record shop called Bluebird Records when I was 14/15 and I worked there for 2 years and that was one of the best record stores in London at the time. So I met everybody through there from Pete Tong to Gilles Peterson, Michael Koppelman, and Tim Simenon. Then I got a job at Honest Jon’s where I met a journalist who was a frequent visitor to the store, Cynthia Rose who was American. She sort of broke Soul II Soul and a lot of that culture, English town system culture into the media. She basically suggested I should speak to Paul Bradshaw and try and do something with him. She was sort of a fan and liked what I was trying to do at the shop so I wrote him a letter and went in to meet him for a chat. I’d said I wanted to do a column and something that was a bit more eclectic and contemporary. I wanted to talk about what was really going on in the underground side of the music that was happening at that time which was Acid Jazz and Talkin’ Loud and a lot of Japanese stuff and also the whole thing that was going on with the Groove Academy in New York, DJ Smash. I just wanted to give a bit of focus for that and that was how the column started. I was also revealing records and tapes; things that I liked and that my friends had given me and things that just weren’t getting exposure anywhere else.
The Blue Note was based down here on Coronet Street; did you ever go there?
I started at The Blue Note! I had one of the first ever club nights there. I think I even DJ’d the first opening night.
I had a club there called ‘Dusted’ which ran for a few years. We had Metal Head and Athletico, so that was the heyday of The Bluenote when it was just amazing DJs. You’d be going to The Bluenote on a Saturday and then you’d have Bar Rumba with me and Giles Peterson on a Monday, you’d have Speed on a Tuesday at the Milk Bar and that was to me, the height of eclectic, brilliant clubbing in London in the 90s. And then after that I started Fabric.
You’ve been known for collaborating with lots of people, how have you found working with such diverse personalities?
It can be really great, it can be really hard, interesting as well you know you’re always dealing with different sorts of emotions and disciplines. Every sort of thing has its own journey but you’re also always in control of every part so you’ve got to try to navigate and get the best out of the situation that you can. So sometimes it comes together in a really amazing way and other times I can be doing a remix and it’s like banging a round peg into a square hole.
So when you do remixes are you always really into the music that you’re remixing?
Yeah generally. There are a couple of times when you’ve done something and you’re like ‘uh’ you know and some things I’d rather I hadn’t done. The main thing is some of the stuff is very reactionary to the environment at the time and so you might go off on tangents because you’re DJing in a certain way or you’re trying to change and do different things so yeah it’s a great way of trying out ideas, putting a song you really like in a different context or working with people that maybe you wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to.
That’s wicked. So I’m just interested in perhaps the difference between Mo’Wax and UNKLE? And what your vision for UNKLE was when you started it?
I wanted to make a record that had influences from the environment around me. It was sort of my reaction to records like Blue Lines and Beastie Boys and suddenly having a whole new wave of influences from people like Radiohead and The Verve and trying to create something that was quite unique and international that would spread predominantly between the UK and America. It was a production scenario, not a band in a traditional way. The focus was much more on a visual experience within the artwork, videos, and presentation. I wanted to kind of create my own sort of universe like Star Wars really.
What were your influences when doing UNKLE then? You mention Star Wars but was there anything else?
I mean making a record, everything you’d ever grown up with until you were 21 goes into it. It’s your first record so your whole life influences it up to that point.
You’ve mentioned the importance of everything being a visual experience. Perhaps you could say Mo’Wax was more urban and then, in a sense, UNKLE had quite a high aesthetic to it. Would you agree with that?
The initial part was more of a 12-inch club way of putting records out. With DJ culture being a big influence there seemed to be a larger focus on the production of more tracks. When you get to a point like UNKLE you start to want to go beyond that, you want the environment to be bigger. We also never wanted to be that underground that we didn’t sell records, we wanted to sell as many records as we could! It’s about having the opportunity to widen your creative world. I didn’t want to make an instrumental record; I wanted to work with my heroes and with people I was hanging out with. It just came together in that way, you know when it started it was a different record, and there were lots of things that didn’t end up happening on the record and collaborations that didn’t happen. It became more of a rock-orientated sound in certain ways but then it was also very sample based and breaks based. At the time things were very funk led with the sampling so we wanted to do something a bit different.
“I’m a sampler and a collagist. I sort of try to put things together and I like to collaborate.”
I read somewhere that your partner introduced you to the young British art scene, do you think that signified a change in the art direction of Mo’Wax and UNKLE?
The thing with Janet is she was really really clued up and involved with fashion. She discovered and worked with Lee McQueen his whole career and worked with people that were around that scene like stylists like Katy England. I was definitely exposed to places I wasn’t aware of or wouldn’t have necessarily known, had those doors not been opened through her. And that’s really when London really sort of came together, with Noel and McQueen and me and Janet and Goldie and everybody hanging out.
You mention clothing designers, what part does clothing and the culture behind certain brands play in what you do?
It’s about identity isn’t it and for me it’s about trying to have your own identity and style. I’m very aesthetically and visually based so I find things interesting, how they’ve been made.
Going back to one of the first things you said about being a dreamer, it’s one thing having a dream and another thing putting it together. I mean as a young creative company, we’re often faced with limitations that can limit the dream for example with costs; did you ever find cost prohibitive?
Yeah my whole career! And I mean, sure there always will be because you’re always wanting to do bigger things. But now it’s very different, I don’t exist in the environment where I had the support and financial backing that I did 10/15 years ago. So I work within much more basic sorts of environments and try to make the best out of things. The music industry has changed dramatically, as well as the way you sell records and I don’t have 35 people working for me, so it’s expected!
You’ve worked across lots of disciplines and you’ve mentioned the media changing, how do you think the Internet has affected your output?
In one way it’s great, it has allowed us to reach other countries that have embraced us incredibly strongly that probably wouldn’t have happened before, like Russia and Asia. On the other hand, it has totally devalued music. There’s a real yin-yang dichotomy situation because it really helps on certain levels but unfortunately with music, it has given it a cheap feel. The day that a song was worth 79p - that changed the collective psyche on how we look at music. Most of us all use music in that way now, we’re all guilty of that but it has definitely changed the way that I have listened to and consumed music in the last 7/8 years. I mean I don’t buy as much music anymore. I buy downloads, some CDs and the odd piece of vinyl but not in the way that I did 10 years ago.
Following on from that, you’ve been involved in producing some pretty iconic record covers. Is there anything you’re excited about visually to do with the music industry these days?
Yeah always! It’s always exciting to see and hear new records and see the interesting things coming out whether it’s something coming out from The Vinyl Factory to hearing a new big artist like Queens of the Stone Age’s album or a new record from SBTRKT. There’s always endless new music you’re listening to.
When approaching a new idea, obviously you’ve previously operated at such a high level; do you go to the idea with an understanding of costs?
No no you have an idea and then it’s usually dissected and worked into the best possible way that you could achieve that situation.
Talking about Queens of the Stone Age, you wrote and co-produced ‘…Like Clockwork’. How did that come about?
It was originally for a film that Josh Homme and I were doing together and there was going to be an UNKLE track. Then the film didn’t happen but we had the track and decided to use it as the title track of the album so yeah that’s how it happened!
Do you feel like you’ve mastered certain things over the years?
No, not yet.
Work in progress?
Yeah still a work in progress.
What have you been most proud of that you’ve put out?
That’s so hard because there are so many things that I love, from one off records, to big albums like Endtroducing… and key moments like Psyence Fiction.
With Psyence Fiction, is there anything you think sort of marries the ideas of art, visuals, music, and concepts perfectly? Anything that does it better than something else for instance in terms of your output? I mean as you’ve developed, the music has become more complex in terms of identity and the layers of visuals present within works. I was wondering whether you felt anything you’ve done has really married those ideas together?
War Stories as a record and the artwork I thought was really strong and I was really pleased how that came out. It’s hard because I never think anything is good enough.
Do you think that’s just part of a creative person’s mind-set?
Yeah maybe. Probably. You’re always striving to do the next thing and looking at how you can do it better.
I guess that’s kind of a driving force. Thinking of Where Did the Night Fall and the visual identity of that, what was the inspiration for that?
I wanted to do something that was really different from the albums before which had derived from a street art world and certain kind of illustrative mind-set. It had quite a dark feminine quality to it as opposed to a ‘boys with toys’.
Is that in reaction to some of the stuff you have done in the past?
Yeah, I also really wanted to work with Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones on a record rather than just some photos.
One last question for you James, what are you listening to right now?
At this moment in time I’m listening to a remix I’m working on with Chrissie Hyde.
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