James Lavelle has always been a trailblazer. As the founder of Mo’ Wax records in 1992 at the age of 18, he bucked any notions of convention, at a time when a risk-averse music industry was becoming increasingly stagnant.
Mo’ Wax stood apart from the crowd, pioneering turntablism and alternative hip-hop long before the mainstream was paying attention. An early champion of DJ Shadow, Lavelle oversaw the release of 'Endtroducing' in 1996, leading to a creative partnership that would, for better or worse, come to define their respective careers for years to come.
With the release of 'Psyence Fiction' in 1998, Lavelle’s musical outfit UNKLE cemented their reputation as one two of the most distinctive voices in electronic music. Boasting collaborations with likes of Thom Yorke, Ian Brown and Richard Ashcroft, it stands as one of the defining electronic records of the 1990s and a snapshot of a cultural era long-since passed.
After all, by Lavelle’s own admission, Mo’ Wax wasn’t just a record label. Co- founded with fellow producer Tim Goldsworthy, Mo’ Wax became a breeding ground for a collaborative culture all of its own - one defined by graphic design, commercial tie-ins, toys and thumping tunes that continue to stand the test of time.
Today Lavelle remains nothing short of an industry polymath. New documentary, The Man From Mo’ Wax, attempts to unpick his career, chronicling the early days of the label through to his curation of Meltdown Festival in 2014. Compiled from tour footage and tapes from Lavelle’s own personal archive, it’s a bold, insightful piece of film-making that shines a light on one of the industry’s most fascinating musical lynchpins.
But there’s much more to the man than can be told in one documentary, as Paul Weedon found out when he caught up with Lavelle to discuss his career and the enduring legacy of 'Psyence Fiction', which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Clash also invited him to reflect on some of his key collaborators from those past two decades.
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Congratulations on the film, James. Out of interest, why a film and why now?
Oh, man. It’s been going on for ten years. It’s a bit of a convoluted story really, because it started with my ex-wife… and originally it was meant to be a series of short tour documentaries and it sort of escalated in to something else… Initially it was very much about her coming and filming on tour and at that point it was very rock and roll. It was a pretty mad time. And I suppose I didn’t really think about it too much… When you’re touring there are always people doing things with cameras.
This was around the time of 'War Stories', right?
This was 'War Stories', yeah, about ten years ago, when we first started touring as a band. So Rich [File] was around and Gavin [Clarke], and people like that. It kind of sort of continued, but I didn’t really ever think it was ever going to take shape in the way that it did and we’d talk about doing a Mo’ Wax film and an UNKLE documentary…
And then our relationship sort of broke down, but the people that she had brought in to this scenario, basically Mac [M.J. McMahon] and Matt Jones, the producer and director, had really started taking it seriously and it was one of those really weird decisions where, you know, does one move forward and support it, or not?
So was that what prompted you to trawl through the archives?
I was going through a massive amount of archive for the Mo’ Wax book. I found all this video that I’d shot… I just basically gave them all the tapes and that has unravelled in to what it is, some of which maybe, I wish I hadn’t. [Laughs].
There are things in there that are more personal, which I maybe think… if I’d looked at it all, it would have probably been different. But, that said, it is what it is and I think what it’s done is it’s allowed something to have that feel and that honesty and that truth, even though it’s not my film and they do have their agenda.
And that agenda is the highs and the lows, which at some points maybe focus more on the lows than I would rather at certain times.
I was going to ask you about that. The balance tips back and forth quite a lot.
Over the last few years, as it’s developed, it climaxes with Meltdown and uses Meltdown as an end point, but also a couple of years of working after Meltdown we sort of went back and forth and certain things that I thought were more important were recognised... I think that there are incredibly brilliant things in it.
If you break it in to four quarters, I think that the first half is great. I think the third quarter is not and I think the final quarter is great... And I don’t mean that in the sense that you’re seeing me warts and all… That’s not what it is… If people are constantly going on about how your music isn’t selling… It’s actually not correct in the sense that the whole industry had changed. 'War Stories' was a much more successful record than the previous two in what we achieved.
And the film doesn’t really allude to that. I know it touches on the impact of downloads, but there’s a reason that that happened. It wasn’t a reflection of the record. What were the figures on War Stories?
On 'War Stories', in the UK, we probably did 100,000 physical on that record at a time when it was kind of done. But it wasn’t just that - it was a reinvention of what we became. As far as how the business changed, we became one of the most licensed electronic bands in the world, so that was something that wasn’t covered. It’s not as simple as a pie graph in the way that they show it in the film. But I think the 90s stuff, for me, that’s really, really great, what they’ve managed to find and pull together.
There are lots of positive things… I don’t know. It’s difficult to look at yourself in that way. It’s difficult to look in that mirror. I had a lot of difficulty with it for a long time. I felt very embarrassed by it, but I sort of feel now, especially in the last couple of years, the way the industry has changed - and not just the music industry particularly, but the film industry, along with sexuality, mental health, addiction, being able to finally talk about these things.
I guess public figures have a platform to be a lot more open about their struggles now.
To be honest, one of the things that really hit me was… and I don’t have any personal attachment to it in the sense that I wasn’t a particular fan – not in any negative way - but what happened with Avicii, when that happened, I was like, “Man. I’m going to look at the documentary again.” And it just made me realise that what I’d been through in my life and what I’d been subjected to was indicative of… When you’re famous very young, and what you built goes - the control goes, the machine eats you up and it spits you out...
There are a lot of demands and a lot of expectations. And I came from an era where it was very much lads running the business. If you dyed your hair, you were criticised. There wasn’t a lot of space for being particularly - strangely - artistic actually. It’s a very different time and I think, from now I look at it and, for one thing, I’m actually very proud that I survived, because many of my friends haven’t. They’ve gone…
In the last ten years, I’ve had ten people kill themselves from that world. And I’m not trying to put any major negativity on it, but for me to realise that, actually, you did all this stuff, however it’s gone and however you feel about success or not, it shows people certain realities of that.
If you’d made the film yourself, do you feel it would it have been different?
I don’t know, actually… There are a lot of relationships that aren’t in the film, which continue to this day… It’s not my film, but I don’t think that the agenda of the film, in certain ways, I would have changed. It’s just more about certain people who aren’t in it… And a very big focus on my relationship with DJ Shadow, which, to be perfectly honest with you, that relationship kind of ended nearly twenty years ago.
But there are voices that aren’t included that could have told other parts of the story that aren’t told here?
It’s groups of people. It’s never just one individual. 'Psyence Fiction' was meant to be like a film. If the voice of Richard Ashcroft, or Thom Yorke, or whoever it may be, or Will Malone’s strings hadn’t been on there or Futura’s characters, or toys or sneakers, we wouldn’t be talking about it…. I think the enduring appeal of it is the fact that, one, it was a good record - it could have been better, but it was a good record.
And, secondly, it was the first record that brought all this culture together in a way… It was the first time that it was an international record made by a kid in London and a kid in America with people all over the world contributing to it before the Internet, based pretty much on adolescent references: sampling, toys, Star Wars, Stanley Kubrick. That fed in to A Bathing Ape, Supreme - all those relationships. It was the record that came out as that world started.
The industry has changed a lot since then.
For Kanye West and everybody, it’s all about the merchandising. Whereas at that time, it wasn’t… The best reference for merchandise in the world is Kiss merchandise, but it was different because those things were like Americana... This was different. It was pop. The record that came out was part of the birth of that culture… People don’t talk about records that were arguably better in that same regard that came out at the time, because those records were records…
It was a different type of beast. It was a universe. It wasn’t just a record. And I think that’s now… that is, basically, how modern music sells, generally… The only problem was it was just very misunderstood at the time.
Is it strange looking back at the seven years between 'Where Did The Night Fall' and 'The Road', and how much the industry changed in that time?
Yeah. Yeah. A lot. Believe me... I had, unfortunately, a few upheavals. For instance, the documentary doesn’t talk about the fact that my last business partner is in jail for £200m tax fraud and that’s why we fell out…
The guy who funded my last label and the reason that I fell out with everybody and the reason that I was upset with Pablo [Clements] was because he stayed with that person and that guy stole everything. He took my catalogue and is now in jail for the biggest tax fraud of its time… And I’m still, to this day, trying to get my catalogue back. So, there are a lot of crazy stories to round it all off.., I really don’t want to sound negative though because I always say that there are many truths. There are always two sides to a story.
And I’m sure there are a lot of other stories we could mine.
Yeah. There are many more. I thought, for instance, there’s not a lot in the documentary about my DJing career at the time… From 'Never, Never Land' onwards through to 'Where Did The Night Fall', there was a lot of big DJing stuff. So there’s nobody from that world covered.
You still DJ, right?
Yeah. I don’t do as much as I used to. That’s for many different reasons, but I love it. I love DJing and now I’ve been going back to the old school really, so I’m doing my Soho Radio show and playing much more eclectically… I played in the last year of Space. There were only twenty DJs in the world, or something, who got to play that period, but I’m going to Columbia and Mexico and Japan this autumn. But it’s not like it was, but that’s also because I don’t want to be playing at 6-7 in the morning.
You and Shadow did a lot of crate digging back in the day. Do you feel that the magic has kind of gone from that world now?
I think there’s a magic of collecting that’s gone, because everything’s available and everybody does it and everybody wants the same things. And getting records, you know, the idea that it could take you five years to find a record and there was this constant search for the Holy Grail. I think that’s sort of gone. But on the other flipside, it’s fucking great making records at the moment. It’s much easier…
The reason 'Psyence Fiction' took so long was because you didn’t have the Internet. Thom couldn’t record a vocal and send it back online, or whatever… I just think that the dynamic of collecting has changed. If you want a Supreme pinball machine, you can go and get one online now, you’ve just got to pay the money. Back in the day, it wasn’t about that. It wasn’t so much about the value, it was about the discovery.
How many warehouses worth of stuff do you have, out of interest?
[Laughs]. Not warehouses, but I’ve got about 35,000 records in storage.
Do you know what each of them is?
A lot of them, but I’m just in the process of sort of working out where they’re going. But it ain’t nothing compared to Shadow. I think he’s got a million records.
On the subject of Shadow, that neatly leads us in to our list of collaborators…
1) DJ Shadow – 'Psyence Fiction'
You’ve got to remember that some of the greatest times in my life were with Shadow: being young and the period of 'Endtroducing' and being a part of that and getting him his first ever PC and staying in his dorm. He was in college. I was 18. Going on driving trips, buying records and beginning to sort of change the world. It was pretty incredible. It was an incredible part of my life that… unfortunately, that dynamic changed with 'Psyence Fiction'…
Our paths changed a long, long, long time ago and the unfortunate thing with UNKLE and 'Psyence Fiction' is it’s a never-ending thing… Pretty much throughout all the albums until after 'War Stories', I was in the shadow of Shadow, you know? I’ve been trying to deal with this' Psyence Fiction' reissue for a while now and I found a bunch of demos that me and Tim did before Shadow was even involved and they sound more like the records I make now than 'Psyence Fiction'. That’s the irony. That sound, that idea was something that was there from day one.
Shadow wasn’t the person who brought in the idea of doing vocals or anything like that. I mean, I think actually if you listen to Shadow’s albums after 'Psyence Fiction' and after Mo’ Wax and my involvement with Shadow, I think they’re very different records.
2) Thom Yorke – 'Rabbit In Your Headlights' ('Psyence Fiction')
Me and Shadow had been invited to Skywalker Ranch, to ILM. They were working on Men in Black and the irony is that I’d sampled them on an earlier UNKLE record. All my friends had called themselves things like ‘Jedi Knights’ or something… They sued everybody apart from me and they flew me over because all the staff were really in to it…
Radiohead were playing a show in San Francisco and basically management from their end had said, “Look, this is the only time you’re going to get Thom.” So there was the studio across from the Skywalker Ranch on similar land in Marin and it was this amazing residential studio overlooking a valley. And we had this amazing day.
I think we went to see the show the night before and Thom came and it was one take. And then he played the bass and some synths and it was just joy. It was a joyful day. But I always remember feeling so different from Thom because Thom was kind of one of those artists who was already anti-the business but signed to EMI, but I was part of the business because I had Mo’ Wax… I felt sort of quite strange. I kind of understood.
In those days people were so much more kind of hardcore, I think. You didn’t want to put music in adverts or movies. It was like us against the world. And I’m sure that exists very much still now, but it was very much about that. And I just always thought, “Fuck. I’m sort of half that person with this record company.” [Laughs].
3) Richard Ashcroft – 'Lonely Soul' ('Psyence Fiction')
'Lonely Soul was the first recording that we did on the album. I think that was recorded two years before, so it was recorded before The Verve reformed… The Verve had split up and I met Richard with Tim and we all got on and we talked about making a record. And me and Tim and Shadow were working on some ideas and Shadow had done this beat, which was the basis for 'Lonely Soul'. And it was sounding pretty cool, so then we ended up doing a session with Richard on this demo…
What happened with that is I wanted to make a record like 'Adagio For Strings', which is my favourite classical record. My favourite arranger was Will Malone who did 'Unfinished Sympathy', which is my favourite record of all time and was my favourite record at that time and I wanted to do my 'Blue Lines'… Will wrote the string section with me and we took that back and then Shadow programmed against that and Richard came in about a year later and did all the BVs.
4) Josh Homme – 'Restless' ('War Stories')
I wanted to do something like 'Check Your Head' and I had this sample which was this fucking mad 70s glam track and it was just fucking sick. I wanted to do something, which was like, it’s got the beat from The Turtles, which is used in 'Check Your Head' and also on 'Pass The Mic'. I just wanted to kind of do a Beastie Boys thing… Let’s just say it was a very nocturnal session.
And that was one take. He did that and then he did 'Chemistry' in one take on the guitar. And then he did guitars on 'Hold My Hand'. And the thing was I was going out to LA to work with Josh on the record. He was meant to be more involved, but his life at the time was… Things were difficult. There were a lot of substance things going on for both of us at the time, but I suppose we both managed to capture something great out of that in the work that we did together.
5) Ian Astbury – 'Burn My Shadow' ('War Stories')
I wasn’t in a good way. Mo’ Wax had finished and Fabric had taken over my life and Fridays were turning in to weeks, which was all good fun, but I had a young kid and a relationship with somebody who was nearly ten years older than me and life was difficult. And a friend of mine knew Ian and Ian was really in to Bathing Ape and the whole Japanese streetwear thing.
I wasn’t particularly interested in that period of rock and roll. I liked The Cult because they worked with Rick Rubin and did The Witch, but the only reason I knew about The Cult was because you’d go and buy drugs off the goths when we were kids, you know, if you couldn’t get them off the rude boys. But my friend was like, “He’s been through what you’ve been through ten times over and I think that it would be good for you to meet him.” So I was kind of like, “You know what? Fuck it. I’ll meet him.”
And we just really got on. He became a really positive influence on my life – someone I could really talk to and he told me to get to LA and meet [producer] Chris Goss and out of that came a really interesting record.
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The Man From Mo’Wax will be released in selected UK cinemas on August 31st and digital download from September 10th. A 3-disc limited edition Blu- ray/DVD will be released via the BFI.
Words: Paul Weedon // @Twotafkap
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