Personality Clash: James Lavelle vs Robert Del Naja

Clash put the two of them on the blower...

When UNKLE leader James Lavelle first bumped into trip-hop pioneer and Massive Attack founder Robert Del Naja at just seventeen, it was a match made in Heaven. Bonding over their obsessive passion for graffiti art, cool record sleeves and “wanting to be part of something”, the pair formed a creative friendship that still burns brightly today.

Del Naja, or 3D as he’s more commonly known, started his career as a graffiti artist before forming ’80s soundsystem outfit The Wild Bunch and then Massive Attack, who recently curated the Meltdown Festival, which culminated in a mind-blowing take on Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack.

Likewise, Lavelle started his career at the tender age of fifteen, staging block parties in his hometown, Oxford. Three years later he started his own record label before he joined forces with DJ Shadow to form UNKLE in the mid-Nineties. Since then he has collaborated with everyone from Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft and Ian Brown to Josh Homme, Jarvis Cocker and of course 3D, who incidentally created the cover art for UNKLE’s 2007 album ‘War Stories’.

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James Lavelle: It has been a pretty busy year for you, hasn’t it, curating Meltdown and coming back to Glastonbury?

3D: It has been pretty full and it’s taken a lot of twists and turns. Arranging Meltdown and trying to get the artists we wanted and sorting out the artwork was pretty intense.Planning the Blade Runner performance in particular was exciting because it was very multi-layered. We had to put fuck loads of different work in to it to make it as authentic as possible. We wanted to use the original keyboard sounds but the original keyboards weren’t available so in the end it was arranged orchestrally. Itwas one of them gigs where an hour before the doors opened, I was like, ‘Get someone to get some fucking incense’. So we sent someone out to a florist. We just tried to come up with as many ways as we could to make it feel totally unique. I was pretty nervous because I kept thinking, ‘We could fuck this right up’.

Lavelle: Meltdown for you has got to be quite a personal achievement because you guys came back together to put something on like that and you had a wealth of artists and different genres to choose from. On one level it must have felt like a great personal achievement and on another it must have been insightful working with the artists and coming in from a different perspective?

3D: It was quite surreal because when we were putting this stuff together we found ourselves going into a different place. And when people started turning up and performing we had to pinch ourselves because it was quite moving. To us it was like virtual reality or some pornographic wet dream. Weirdly though the hardest part was the visual set up. We spent a lot of time actually getting stuff built and working out how you get it all into the building.

Lavelle: In many ways it must have been different from what you’ve done on records in the past where obviously there is a certain collaborative element in bringing people in whereas with this you’ve got such a massive spectrum to fill?

3D: It was really interesting having this cross section of people from the past, present and the future and it was exciting having them asking us what we wanted to do and just reaching out and trying things. I mean a lot of things didn’t happen but it didn’t matter, we just tried to make history and make it our own. Then of course we went straight into Glastonbury and got absolutely destroyed. In a way it was like the perfect antidote because Meltdown was hard to walk away from. It was a case of, ‘Shit what do we do next? How do we fill this void?’ Luckily Glastonbury came along and erased our memories in a Men In Black style fashion.

Lavelle: It is interesting with Massive Attack because on one level as an artistic brand you’re one of those bands who embraced the digital revolution at an early stage but you’re also quite a successful band in quite a traditional record company sense. You’ve had hit albums, you’ve sold globally and you’re still probably the oldest band on Virgin.

3D: That’s true, we’re one of the originals and we’ve always had a different way of communicating with people. ‘Mezzanine’ for example was one of the first albums available for download in 1998. So we’ve always been interested in different ways of presenting stuff because we’ve never been happy releasing records in a conventionalsense. In a way maybe the industry is coming back round to the idea of special packaging because music is so cheap now. The actual way you present it and the ideology behind it seems really important again and I’ve always loved that. But it has been a fucking fight to get that hasn’t it? I mean the amount of battles I’ve had in the past, even on the last album, has resulted in me falling out with record labels because they didn’t want to release the record I wanted to. I wanted to finish the project off with this special EP with a fucking amazing movie and they were like, ‘No no no, we’ve spent a load of money, we’re not spending any more fucking money’. So I was like, ‘You’re just letting me down and the fucking fans down because that’s what they want. That’s what they expect and that’s why they like us and that’s why they’re into our music and our ideas. Why not fucking bother investing into that? Otherwise you’re gonna lose what you really need the

“I get frustrated because we get associated with a long period of history and sometimes I wake up and just want to do something completely different.”

most.’ It’s mad now though because they’re all changing their tune but I guess that’s the fucking way it is. Only the visionaries could see it coming and that’s people who had time for the band, who collect music, who collect art and love art. That’s the fucking point of this whole thing.

Lavelle: That was our trading point in many ways. Collecting music and art was how we met and how we talked about what we were doing. Back then you had to sell the bigger picture in a certain way because that’s what you were trading. Now it’s more about electronic trading. It’s about collecting music as quickly as you can on the Internet by discovering it through people you work with or from younger people that are coming from a more digital angle. But for us collecting music and art was a way of creating our identity.

3D: It’s quite interesting because when I was younger I guess I was obsessive. When it came to music I smelt it, lived with it and died with it. I was a total collector and I knew everything about what was cut on the fucking sleeve, where it was pressed and all that sort of shit. Now people don’t have the time.

Lavelle: How do you find it now with a situation like we have with EMI who have gone through a lot more changes than most record companies? In the past labels like Domino and XL went through a difficult period because the Internet hadn’t happened. But you’re now in a position where you look at the likes of XL and they’re now one of the best independent labels in the world.

3D: That’s true, and when Radiohead had the opportunity to do what they did I thought, ‘Fucking hell this is a dream come true’. Not many bands – including us – would have got away with that because we haven’t got that power to release a democratic download. What was great about it too was it was eventually released on all formats. To me that was just a fucking amazing move. On the other hand, there are musicians I know who live off music to feed their kids and they haven’t got time to make music anymore because there’s no money left in it. As music becomes less valuable you wonder what is going to happen to musicians out there. When you have a few companies monopolising the industry, whether it’s through the media or record companies, they can just pick and choose the artists they want to sell records and eventually you wonder what happened to artists who just wanted to make a living.

“When I was younger I guess I was obsessive. When it came to music I smelt it, lived with it and died with it. Now people don’t have the time.”

Lavelle:It’s strange for us because we’ve done it completely by ourselves and as a traditional CD format we’ve sold nearly 200,000 albums and yet I can’t get a record on the radio or get a live session. And yet we’re probably selling more records than a lot of the bands you see in the papers or magazines every day. You also start looking at Meltdown and all those artists you got involved with and most of those acts are very self-sufficient. With Primal Scream for instance, people forget the biggest single they had was ‘Country Girl’ off their last record, not anything off ‘Screamadelica’ like you’d expect. Then you look at other acts like Benga who are completely self-sufficient and none of the things that you think would sell records are connected with them. It’s about kids going out and buying records they want to buy. In that sense it’s a difficult time because when you get to a certain place it’s about trying to get over that grey area. We have both got brands and I suppose in that sense I get frustrated because we get associated with a long period of history and sometimes I wake up and just want to do something completely different. What I have seen over this last year, which I find interesting, is you being able to break out of that mould when you’ve not even released a record yet.

3D: It’s strange because still being on the road, we’re very much in that mindset where we’re constantly bombarded with information from fans, promoters and different media.It is interesting because it gives you a different take on it. Rather than being in a studio going, ‘Right how are we going to make this record? What’s it going to be about?What’s it got to say?’ you realise that you want to make a record for yourself and a there’s a lot of people out there who just want to hear your shit. You forget it’s not just about the record company and the media.

Lavelle: It’s interesting you say that, especially with England, because here everything has to be young and new. So many acts these days don’t know what’s gonna happen with their second or third record let alone where they’ll be in fifteen years’ time. With you guys going to France, Italy, Spain and Japan recently, it doesn’t work that way over there. They’re more interested in the creativity than the sensationalism and the marketing of it all. In that sense, do you think taking the next record out on the road has helped and do you think that’s gonna influence the way you make this next album?

3D: It has and it hasn’t. The interesting thing about it is we’ve gone on the road before our next album is even finished and we’ve never done that before. The response we’ve had to the tracks has been brilliant and people are really digging the fact they’re hearing new material and we’re playing things they know. To me that’s a really good way of doing it because it keeps it really exciting for them and us.

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