James Lavelle interview – the man from UNKLE
James Lavelle returns with UNKLE’s first album in seven years, The Road: Part I. We talk to the Mo’ Wax founder and musical all-rounder as he recalls his earliest vinyl encounters…
James Lavelle is back where it all began: Portobello Road record institution, Honest Jon’s. It was here in the early 90s that a teenage Lavelle, with all the bluster of someone who would go on to launch one of the best-loved independent labels of the 90s at the age of 18, asked if he could do work experience.
Cue the strangest job interview Lavelle, and indeed the rest of the working-age population of the UK, has ever attended. “Jon Clare, who owned Honest Jon’s and a few other independent shops, was at the end of his time in the business and had become a therapist,” Lavelle recalls. “So I had this weird interview with him. He had this hardcore knowledge of jazz records, and I knew fuck all, to be honest with you. But he also asked me: ‘Do you ever have sexual fantasies about your father?’”
What Freud had to do with shifting copies of rare groove and jazz albums was never made entirely clear to Lavelle, but it’s one of the many memories of working at Honest Jon’s that Lavelle revisits, like a favourite record, for inspiration. Stepping into London’s specialist record emporiums – places such as Honest Jon’s, Bluebird and Black Market – was a lightning-bolt moment for a young Lavelle desperate to break out of his home town of Oxford. It was an almost spiritual awakening that has sustained him through Mo’ Wax, right up to his brand-new (sixth) UNKLE album The Road: Part I.
“They were everything; the coolest places in the world,” he says, recalling his graduation from the predictable racks of HMV and Our Price. “I was going to London to do kung fu when I was 13 or 14. It was in Chinatown and I realised that area, around Soho, is where all the good record shops are. So I started getting the bite to discover records in a different way. Prior to that, I was only buying records that were domestically released. A lot of it on cassette, too; whether it was Street Sounds compilations, or early American and British hip-hop. But going to London was like going somewhere alien.” Swept up by the riot of cultures and characters hanging out in those shops, Lavelle got a kick out of how intimidating they were and set out to prove he belonged.
“I remember going to Bluebird on Edgware Road and buying a white label of one of the first Warp releases – Dextrous by Nightmares On Wax. It started a sudden influx, hearing that kind of thing. The shops were like clubs… but in the daytime. People smoking joints; everyone in the latest gear; the latest haircuts; the latest trainers.” – James Lavelle
Lavelle mixed with the sort of open-minded crowd that was absent in his middle-class homestead. He witnessed fights in the shop on an almost weekly basis, was introduced to soundsystem culture, met reggae- and dancehall-loving Yardies, and learned how to DJ. It was anarchy, Lavelle says, and he loved it. Working at Honest Jon’s was also like a Silicon Valley-style incubator for the music industry. Ideas bounced around the shop like the bass on a King Tubby dub.
Lavelle got to know people he would go on to work and collaborate with, like Straight No Chaser editor Paul Bradshaw, producer Trevor Jackson, and DJ and label boss Gilles Peterson. Lavelle’s hands-on approach to sourcing the right records for the shop – he was the first person in the UK to get hold of House Of Pain’s Jump Around (“A very powerful thing when you’re a geeky kid with broken glasses,” he laughs) – saw him talking to A&Rs, producers and labels in the UK and the US.
It was the start of a career built on networks and collaborations. Jon Clare’s predecessor Mark Ainley gave Lavelle the money he needed to set up his hip-hop, jazz and breaks-informed Mo’ Wax imprint. “I don’t think the shop understood what I was going to do; they just thought: ‘This is mental’, and I kind of fitted into the madness and the bending-the-rules aesthetic of the place.”
His partnership with DJ Shadow, who he met via Honest Jon’s, saw Mo’ Wax release Shadow’s early singles as well as his 1996 album Endtroducing….., a record that had an asteroid-like impact on sampling and put Mo’ Wax on the map. Shadow then worked on Lavelle’s own sample-heavy 1998 UNKLE album, Psyence Fiction, which, like every UNKLE record since, featured a cast of guest vocalists, including Ian Brown, Thom Yorke and the Beastie Boys’ Mike D.
Twenty years later, UNKLE’s The Road: Part I is similarly collaborative. Mark Lanegan dusts Looking For The Rain with his gravelly voice, while Elliott Power, YSÉE and Mïnk bring a youthful energy to the album. Another vital skill Lavelle honed at Honest Jon’s – not a bad return on something that started out as work experience – is the art of curating. The idea of curation has been wrung dry of any meaning these days, thanks to digital content agencies and cringeworthy pop-up shops in East London, but for Lavelle, curation – done correctly – is still essential. It’s a way of filtering out the flotsam, something he educated himself in when picking records to stack the racks with.
He’s used this same filter system to select the wide-ranging mix of songs, from folk and psychedelic rock to trip-hop and electronica, that pack his UNKLE albums; to install his art exhibitions, Daydreaming With UNKLE and Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick; and to choose the artists for his 2014 Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre, which included Neneh Cherry, the punk-funk Scroggins sisters’ ESG, and neo-classical artist Max Richter.
“If people ask, I do tell them that I’m a collagist or a sampler,” Lavelle says, trying hard to steer clear of the words ‘curator’ and, indeed, ‘artist’. “It’s the same idea with DJing. To me, it was about creating these journeys through sound that had a beginning, a middle and an end, and with a balance between education and entertainment. The greatest DJs would play records you didn’t know, but you wanted. That’s what DJing is to me. That’s François Kevorkian or DJ Harvey or David Rodigan or Gilles Peterson. You’d be in front of the decks all night, writing down the names of the tracks, you know?”
UNKLE’s new album is, as the name The Road: Part I suggests, rooted in that same idea of taking listeners on a journey, with different sounds around every corner. It’s a redemptive and soulful-sounding album that veers from the melancholy electronica of Farewell and Looking For The Rain to the driving, dystopian menace of Cowboys Or Indians to the thumping, sunshine-warped psychedelia of The Road, featuring the brilliant, Mercury-nominated singer ESKA, and the uplifting Sunrise (Always Comes Around). It begins, though, with a spoken-word sample that asks the question: “Have you looked at yourself and the road you’ve walked?” It’s something that Lavelle, now in the early years of his fifth decade, has been doing a lot lately. Last year’s documentary The Man From Mo’ Wax, for instance, was an open account of Lavelle’s ups and downs.
“It was a bit of a bookend to that period,” Lavelle admits. “I’ve been faced with a lot of retrospective situations over the past few years. Meltdown, the Mo’ Wax book, then the film. You’re sort of looking at yourself in the mirror, evaluating the past and where you’re going. And all of that stuff is an influence on where you are right now.
“All the records I’ve made are reflective. They’re like life diaries. Relationship diaries, a lot of the time: series of relationships, divorces, love affairs, you know?” – James Lavelle
Lavelle’s relationship with making music hit the buffers for a time, too, which explains why this is the first UNKLE album proper since 2010’s Where Did The Night Fall. As record buyers will know, the near-death of the physical product – vinyl, in particular – during the first decade of this century was a demoralising experience. For someone in Lavelle’s position, it was much, much worse. “It had a very heavy economic effect on what we were doing – and also a creative effect. Living in a digital universe just wasn’t the same.”
Lavelle is, by his own admission, a sucker for the artefact. Carefully put-together albums housed in must-own sleeves, like those that Futura 2000, Req 1 and Ben Drury designed for Mo’ Wax and UNKLE. Indeed, everything Lavelle releases has an identity, inspired by labels such as Def Jam, Warp, Talkin’ Loud and ECM, but is also informed by the utilitarian function that an easily identifiable sleeve serves. It makes things easier for people buying records. “Especially when you’re collecting unusual things, like jazz-funk and soul and strange records,” Lavelle says. “If me and Shadow were on a record-buying trip, a lot of the time you’d have no idea, in a basement with 20,000 records. What do you do? You identify by the musicians, by the information on the record, by the cover. I wanted that for Mo’ Wax.”
Vinyl releases and reissues get more lavish by the week, new labels are following the old maxims, and The Road: Part I will provide more proof that people are happy to pay for special-edition double-vinyl albums these days. It’s a relief, says Lavelle, whose idea of hell is mastering digital-only releases to give away. “If you’re a band like UNKLE, you have currency in vinyl and that’s amazing. It’s exciting again. What you can do with these products is a lot more than you could do at the time. During Mo’ Wax, we were limited to the number of vinyl products you could release a track on, to allow you in the charts or whatever. Now, well, you can do a £500 boxset or do a box of 55 7″ singles. Whatever you want to do…”
Lavelle is surprised, too, to find a new generation digging about for records – some of which Lavelle, who’s still only 43, released on Mo’ Wax 20-plus years ago. Elliott Power, whose Once Smitten album was the first release on the reactivated Mo’ Wax label last year and who appears on three tracks on The Road: Part I, discovered Lavelle by flicking through his mum’s collection of Mo’ Wax vinyl. This curiosity of new fans is important, thinks Lavelle. “A whole wave of history got lost in the digital change. It’s like, if you’re Daft Punk or The Chemical Brothers or Underworld then your history is safe, because they had big videos and major-label support. But labels like Talkin’ Loud and Mo’ Wax were slightly forgotten about.”
Lavelle’s Top 5 mo’ wax record
- DJ Shadow Endtroducing…..– “Probably the most important record on Mo’ Wax. If you can put out a record that defines a culture you’re very lucky. The culmination of the love affair between me and Shadow and the art of sampling.”
- Various Artists Headz – “Really important this, with its combination of artwork, working with 3D from Massive Attack, and the fact that it helped hip-hop to be seen as a force of instrumental music. It pretty much put Mo’ Wax on the map.
- Dr Octagon Dr. Octagonecologyst – “I grew up on hip-hop as a kid and Ultramagnetic MC’s are one of my favourite bands of all time. I think this is one of the most interesting hip-hop records of the 90s, both lyrically and sonically.”
- DJ Krush Kemuri – “This pretty much started the idea of trip-hop. It also showcased the international side of the label, with a Japanese artist joining a US artist on a UK label.”
- Various Artists Major Force: The Original Art-Form – “Major Force were a huge influence. It took me 10 years to put this out and it was a real journey, trying to get the Japanese to let me do it. But Kudo and Toshio were the beginning of UNKLE.”
Unlike Bluebird, Black Market and some of Lavelle’s other haunts, Honest Jon’s is still around to help remind people. Back in the shop, Lavelle flicks through racks full of niche selections, from a reissue of the lost Bright Phoebus to dub, techno, reggae and rarefied jazz. Since Lavelle’s time working there, the shop has started its own label, with support from Damon Albarn, and brought in a wallet-emptying selection of music from around the world. It remains an essential outpost for adventurous record buyers like Lavelle. But with 30,000 records stored in a warehouse somewhere – he won’t say where, of course – he doesn’t buy as many records as he used to.
He doesn’t DJ with vinyl and his music isn’t so reliant on samples. Instead, he picks up Deluxe packages and hunts down “unusual things” he’s wanted for donkeys. But his love affair with record shops remains undiminished.
“The Honest Jon’s and Rough Trades of this world have survived because they offer the service they do, something special and artisan,” Lavelle says, remembering the “socialist-based environment” he experienced behind the counter at Honest Jon’s. “As the world has become more commercial and more globalised in product, it’s all got a bit bloody boring. Record shops are about discovery and human interaction. They’re important.” Right on, comrade.