James Lavelle was only fourteen years-old when he played his first DJ set. At eighteen he founded seminal trip-hop label Mo’Wax Recordings, and soon after, formed musical outfit UNKLE. Drawing together Lavelle’s prolific career, a new documentary by Matthew Jones, titled The Man from Mo’Wax, offers a cinematic insight into Lavelle’s prolific career, charting the impact he made on music culture whilst also providing access to stories from a highly inimitable era.
“It wasn’t run by lawyers and accountants – it was run by eccentrics. It was run by music people and the environment was very hedonistic… It was Alice in Wonderland.” – James Lavelle
A fearless spirit balanced not only with business savvy, but also a deep and instinctive understanding of the harmony between different artistic personalities, Mo’Wax Recordings carved a unique path. From his father’s folk music background to film soundtracks and hip-hop, Lavelle developed a varied musical palette which became the firm basis for a career led by the ability to see beyond genre and labels. He signed global acts such as DJ Shadow and Japanese hip-hop producer DJ Krush early on, and formed the ongoing project UNKLE which has seen him collaborate with the likes of Richard Ashcroft, Mike D, Thom Yorke, Ian Brown, and Joshua Homme.
Here, Lavelle takes us through the Mo’Wax archive
J.L. Sirisuk: I know you grew up in a music household and played the cello. I was just wondering if you can recall one of the first moments when you first fell in love with music?
James Lavelle: Falling in love with music – as a sense of identity – was through hip-hop, but music was around me as long as I can remember. My father was a drummer and a folk musician so it was constant. There are early memories of being into film soundtracks as a kid, you know, things like James Bond and stuff like that. I remember buying things when I was young, like the score for Platoon because I liked Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.
JLS: The Man From Mo’Wax just came out, how did this all come to be?
JL: It was started by my ex-wife and he [Matthew Jones] was brought in as a co-director with her, but it was originally just meant to be a series of short tour films, then my wife turned it into something else. At the time I thought, “Okay, whatever. Come and shoot stuff and we’ll talk about a Mo’Wax documentary,” then suddenly they put this trailer together to present to potential investors and it kind of leaked and suddenly everybody was like, “Oh, there’s an UNKLE film coming out,” and it kind of built from there.
JLS: This film reveals many facets of your personality and work, how did it feel to watch these moments from your career?
JL: It’s always difficult to watch yourself regardless of subject matter. I suppose it depends on what kind of person you are, but for me I learned to accept and go with the flow. In a lot of ways its cathartic and it sort of puts a box on things. There’s a certain honesty. The film has a habit of talking about all these broken relationships, it doesn’t really focus on relationships that have continued for many years. It has an agenda coming from a certain period of time where you have someone like Giles Peterson talking about War Stories, but a record like War Stories wasn’t made for that group of people. It would have been more interesting for me to have someone like Trent Reznor talk about it – that record really connected in America.
It also talks about record sales and how the records aren’t as successful, but the whole industry shifted. I think it has its agenda based on a sort of DJ shadow, 90s sort of jazz-funk, acid-jazz perspective at times but that’s not really what was going on since Psyence Fiction. It has a certain perspective but that perspective is not a universal one. It’s not a definitive Mo’Wax or UNKLE documentary because there’s so many things that aren’t pointed out – it says that it was a disaster with XL and Beggars but the last person I hired signed Adele, so it wasn’t a disaster for them. There’s quite a lot of people that I’ve worked with for years who aren’t in the documentary. It doesn’t really focus particularly on things that are coming from the art world perspective that I did, and also the fashion side of things. It’s a snapshot and it has its agenda and that’s okay. It doesn’t define one, I don’t think, both emotionally or creatively.
JLS: You had an exhibition devoted to Stanley Kubrick, and there’s an interest in space mythology that filters through your work. What draws you to that genre?
JL: My father studied Greek classics. I grew up in a household of music and mythology and art with my mother, and I think that combination as well as being a child of a certain time and growing up on Star Wars, Spielberg, martial arts, etc, is what influenced my creative directions. It was also just about trying to find identity at a time where it was very tribal and those things defined you. Those were the things that inspired me as a kid.
JLS: Why do you think you’re so good at bringing the right people together?
JL: I just always look for what I think is unique in personality and in expression. I look for something different in people and tend to veer away from the obvious.
JLS: Is there anything else we might find surprising that sparks something in you?
I like music across the board. A lot of it is just fragments of things that will inspire me, whether it’s a certain type of sound… Especially things like drums and emotional songs. I’ve always been drawn to melancholia in music, but if I was to recall my favourite records of all time, it would be Rumours [Fleetwood Mac] on one side, Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber on the other, and then it might be a Queens of the Stone Age record. It’s quite sporadic.
JLS: What drives you?
JL: That continual search for the Holy Grail. Light at the end of the tunnel. To understand why, and to constantly question yourself while pushing creatively as far as you can.
The Man From Mo’Wax is out in selected UK cinemas now. Buy tickets and create screenings here. The film will be released on 10th September as a digital download and limited-edition DVD via BFI. A special edition vinyl soundtrack will also be released on 31st August.