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mav­er­ick: james lavelle

- Celebrity Inventors · Celebrities · Joshua Davis · Thom Yorke · Michael Diamond · James Lavelle · London · Noel Gallagher · Ian Brown · A&M Records · Brian Cox · Giovanni Boccaccio · Oxford · Oxford University · New York City · Tokyo · Beyoncé · Los Angeles · Paris · Malcolm Gladwell · United States of America · San Francisco · Goldsworthy · Napster · Maserati S.p.A · Finland · Talk Talk · Talk Talk · Metallica · Stanley Kubrick · Richard Ashcroft · Carl Craig · Alexander McQueen · Jean-Michel Basquiat · Massive Attack · Straight No Chaser · BAPE · Beastie Boys · Parliament-Funkadelic · Photek · BMG Rights Management · Bertelsmann Music Group

This month’s cult hero is the man be­hind UNKLE, founder of the Mo’ Wax la­bel, and the in­ven­tor of trip-hop.

IJames Lavelle was the boy won­der who, as the founder of the Mo’ Wax la­bel, launched DJ Shadow and in­vented trip-hop. But it was as the di­rec­tor of his great col­lab­o­ra­tive project UNKLE that he proved him­self to be a vi­sion­ary light­ning rod, bring­ing Thom Yorke, Mike D and Richard Ashcroft to­gether. By 2003, though, he was nearly bank­rupt. And then the trou­ble re­ally started. Do­rian Lynskey hears his story. n Fe­bru­ary 1998, James Lavelle cel­e­brated his 24th birth­day with a party at London’s Met Bar in the com­pany of Noel Gal­lagher, Richard Ashcroft, Ian Brown, Carl Craig, Alexan­der McQueen and an Ever­est of co­caine. It was, he says hap­pily, “a fuck­ing amaz­ing night”. At that mo­ment Lavelle was the boy won­der of Bri­tish mu­sic. He was the hip­ster geek whose Mo’ Wax la­bel, home to DJ Shadow and his own UNKLE project, was the im­pec­ca­bly cool junc­tion box for an in­ter­na­tional network of mu­si­cians, DJs and de­sign­ers. When he was ne­go­ti­at­ing a deal with A&M in 1995, his gutsy deal-breaker was a paint­ing by Jean-Michel Basquiat. By 2003, how­ever, his star had plunged. Mo’ Wax was dead and Lavelle was in debt to the tune of £ 270,000. He had to sell the Basquiat. “It was beau­ti­ful,” he says wist­fully, “while I had it.” It’s been a long, in­tense jour­ney, hence the ti­tle of the pow­er­ful new UNKLE al­bum, The Road: Part 1. Raid­ing the archives for Mo’ Wax’s 21st an­niver­sary in 2013, cu­rat­ing the Melt­down fes­ti­val in 2014, and par­tic­i­pat­ing in a new doc­u­men­tary, Artist & Reper­toire, have all con­spired to make Lavelle re­assess his past and ask him­self why he makes mu­sic. “The last 13 years have been fuck­ing tough fi­nan­cially,” he says over car­tons of Korean food in his man­ager’s of­fice in Cam­den. “In one way I’m prob­a­bly in­sane to keep do­ing what I do. Any­body ra­tio­nal would have stopped try­ing to do UNKLE years ago.” He laughs oddly. “I’ve put my­self through quite ex­treme sit­u­a­tions, both fi­nan­cially and emo­tion­ally. But then I got used to that very young.” The Road: Part 1 opens with ac­tor Brian Cox say­ing: “Have you looked at your­self ? And have you thought about the mis­takes you’ve made, and the road you’ve walked?” James Lavelle has.

“When you’re mak­ing a lot of money you don’t think it’s ever go­ing to end. Now I look back and think, ‘How the f**k did I do that?’ But at the time that’s just what was go­ing on. The in­dus­try was snow-blind.”

Lavelle wears his fan­dom on his sleeve – or, to be pre­cise, his arms. They are tat­tooed with de­signs by Basquiat, 3D from Mas­sive At­tack, graf­fiti leg­end Fu­tura 2000 and Gio­vanni Estevez of fash­ion la­bel Supreme. At 43, he again looks like his younger self – buz­z­cut, boxy glasses, Supreme T-shirt – and still fizzes with en­thu­si­asm and knowl­edge, talk­ing with breath­less in­ten­sity about the “amaz­ing peo­ple” he has known. You can see why so many of them wanted to work with him, but also why he ended up over­reach­ing. Grow­ing up in Ox­ford, Lavelle was “a very ob­ses­sive child”: first Greek mythol­ogy, then martial arts, and even­tu­ally hip-hop. By 14, he was DJing, pro­mot­ing par­ties and work­ing in London record shops. “I had con­fi­dence to push any door I pos­si­bly could,” he says. “I wanted des­per­ately to get out of Ox­ford.” His mother, an artist, and fa­ther, a lawyer and mu­si­cian, had re­cently ex­pe­ri­enced a “hor­rific” di­vorce, which intensifie­d his hunger for a new life. “I don’t re­mem­ber a lot of that time. I think I blanked it out.” Through writ­ing his Mo’ Wax Please col­umn for Straight No Chaser mag­a­zine, Lavelle got DJ dates in New York and Tokyo, forg­ing friend­ships with like-minded en­thu­si­asts. “Pre-in­ter­net, these were the com­mu­ni­ties that sup­ported the same ideas,” he says. “If you didn’t go out and find some­thing, you wouldn’t get it. You couldn’t down­load it.” In 1992, the 18- year-old Lavelle launched Mo’ Wax with his school­friend and DJ part­ner Tim Goldswor­thy. Ob­sessed with street art, skatewear and in­stru­men­tal hiphop, he made Mo’ Wax the nexus of a cross­dis­ci­plinary global scene, in­clud­ing A Bathing Ape and Ma­jor Force in Tokyo, Fu­tura 2000 and Supreme in New York, the Beastie Boys in Los An­ge­les and La Funk Mob in Paris. He was what Mal­colm Glad­well would later dub a “con­nec­tor”: some­one who can “span many dif­fer­ent worlds” due to “some com­bi­na­tion of cu­rios­ity, self-con­fi­dence, so­cia­bil­ity, and en­ergy.” Un­able to sign US rap­pers, Lavelle pur­sued a more ab­stract, ex­per­i­men­tal aes­thetic. In­trigued by a strange remix, he asked a young San Fran­cisco pro­ducer called DJ Shadow to make him a track that was “as weird as pos­si­ble”. The re­sult, 1993’ s crate-dig­ging odyssey In/Flux, gal­vanised both men’s ca­reers and launched the genre known as trip-hop. The fol­low­ing year, Lavelle made his first UNKLE EP with Goldswor­thy and Kudo from Ma­jor Force. Each Mo’ Wax record was a cher­ish­able arte­fact, an ex­quis­ite mar­riage of form and con­tent.

“I wasn’t be­ing in­tel­lec­tual about it,” Lavelle says. “I just wanted to do as much as I pos­si­bly could and cre­atively outdo ev­ery­one else in ev­ery pos­si­ble way.” What kind of boss was he? “Oh, a night­mare. Er­ratic. Dif­fi­cult. I think the vol­ume of work I put on peo­ple was ex­haust­ing. But I’ve never bul­lied or ripped any­one off. I was never some­one like that.” Though less mythol­o­gised than Brit­pop, Mo’ Wax was much more em­blem­atic of the 1990s’ en­er­getic eclec­ti­cism and just as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of its snow­balling ex­cess. Lavelle couldn’t help him­self. The 1994 com­pi­la­tion Headz con­tained 18 tracks; two years later, the vinyl ver­sion of Headz 2 bulged with 70. With the mu­sic in­dus­try at its pre-Nap­ster peak, A&R wars be­came ab­surd. Lavelle re-en­acts his at­tempt to sign the drum’n’bass pro­ducer Photek. “You’re on the phone, Vir­gin’s on the phone, BMG’s on the phone. It was like a fuck­ing auc­tion. The next minut minute it’s like, ‘Deal’s done, they’ve just given him a Maserati.’ And you’re like, ‘Fuck, why didn’t we give him a Maserati?’” He mimes snort­ing an ana­conda of co­caine. “It was in­sane.” His life­style was also in­sane. He spent ev­ery­thing he had on art, clothes, travel, Star Wars mem­o­ra­bilia (most of it since sold) and am­bi­tious projects. He be­gan tak­ing coke to get by in a “lad­dish” in­dus­try, to min­gle with the new glit­terati of pop, art and fash­ion, and to keep up with the phys­i­cal de­mands of his job. He says with­out pride that he partly in­spired one of the char­ac­ters in John Niven’s bac­cha­na­lian satire Kill Your Friends. In 1997, amidst all this may­hem, he be­came a fa­ther. “It was all too much, too soon, and with no un­der­stand­ing of what I had and how to deal with it,” he says. “When you’re mak­ing a lot of money you don’t think it will ever end. Now I look back and think, ‘How the fuck did I do that?’ At the time that’s just what was go­ing on. The in­dus­try was snow-blind.” Lavelle staked his rep­u­ta­tion on UNKLE’s 1998 de­but al­bum Psyence Fic­tion, a gru­ellingly am­bi­tious transat­lantic col­lab­o­ra­tion with DJ Shadow. This big, brood­ing, sci-fi-themed al­bum fea­tured Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft, Mike D and mem­bers of Talk Talk and Me­tal­lica, and spawned mer­chan­dise and ac­tion fig­ures. Lavelle even ap­proached Stan­ley Kubrick to di­rect one of the videos. Any­thing was pos­si­ble. And then it flopped. “It started with a fan­fare of joy and be­came the be­gin­ning of the end,” he says heav­ily. “It’s not per­fect but it’s a pretty amaz­ing record for the con­text. I don’t know how we did it. The way peo­ple per­ceived my in­volve­ment in that record was very up­set­ting. I wasn’t the golden boy any more.” To the crit­ics, Psyence Fic­tion was the trip-hop Be Here Now. One called it “a grandiose, bloated, ego­tis­ti­cal folly,” pin­ning the blame squarely on Lavelle. Not be­ing a mu­si­cian, song­writer or pro­gram­mer, Lavelle strug­gled to ar­tic­u­late his role. “I’m like a film di­rec­tor,” he says now. “My great­est he­roes are peo­ple like Stan­ley Kubrick – you cre­ate a world and ev­ery­thing that goes in it.” He seizes another anal­ogy: “I’m a col­lag­ist. The great art of DJing is putting things to­gether that aren’t al­ways meant to work.” His de­trac­tors claimed he was a slick net­worker with no mu­si­cal ta­lent and that UNKLE was his van­ity project but the ac­cu­sa­tion that Lavelle was a busi­ness­man pre­tend­ing to be an artist was, in fact, up­side down. “I didn’t know about busi­ness!” he says. “I’d been por­trayed as be­ing the next Richard Bran­son but in my youth­ful, an­ar­chic way I was like, ‘Fuck that!’ You don’t see very far when you’re that age. You’ve got to do it all now.” Mo’ Wax moved to Is­land and then to XL, still re­leas­ing fine records (hip-hop duo Black­a­li­cious, veteran com­poser David Ax­el­rod),el­rod), but no longer in the

“What we cre­ated as a uni­verse is the sta­ple diet of the cre­ative in­dus­try now. But I wasn’t seen as part of that and that was frus­trat­ing. Most of what I was in­volved with is now boot­legged in Cam­den.”

van­guard. Headz 3, the com­pi­la­tion to end them all, was never fin­ished. “Again my won­der­ful way of mak­ing some­thing so ex­or­bi­tantly mas­sive that it never hap­pened,” Lavelle says drily. He notes that his A&R pro­tégé Nick Huggett stayed with XL and pro­ceeded to dis­cover M.I.A., Dizzee Ras­cal and Adele. “If Mo’ Wax was still around, would I have let Nick sign Adele?” he muses. “Would it have been ap­pro­pri­ate? Prob­a­bly not.” In 2002, Lavelle qui­etly let the la­bel die. “Be­cause of my re­la­tion­ship with my fa­ther and the di­vorce, I had a mech­a­nism of mov­ing on and shut­ting things down,” he re­flects. “I don’t re­ally re­mem­ber what hap­pened at the end but I ba­si­cally just walked away. I’d had enough. I turned my back on ev­ery­thing.”

Dur­ing the dog days of Mo’ Wax, Lavelle heard that Da­mon Al­barn was work­ing on a hip-hopin­spired col­lab­o­ra­tive project called Go­ril­laz. Over the phone, Al­barn jok­ingly told him, “Yeah, I’m do­ing the ul­ti­mate UNKLE rip-off al­bum!” Dur­ing the ’ 00s, Lavelle felt like yes­ter­day’s man. Go­ril­laz was the big­ger, brighter ver­sion of Psyence Fic­tion, right down to the ac­tion fig­ures. XL’s Richard Rus­sell was the reign­ing hip­ster mogul, with much sharper busi­ness in­stincts. Phar­rell be­came A Bathing Ape’s new mu­si­cal am­bas­sador. DFA Records re­placed Mo’ Wax as the clued-up in­de­pen­dent la­bel that could do no wrong. One of DFA’s founders was Tim Goldswor­thy, who com­pounded the sym­bol­ism by dat­ing Lavelle’s ex-girl­friend. “The press pit­ted me against them and now Tim was the ge­nius of UNKLE,” Lavelle frowns. “Are you fuck­ing kid­ding me? It was just aw­ful. I think that threw me into my worst pe­riod of ex­cess be­cause I was hid­ing from what was go­ing on emo­tion­ally.” Sud­denly he stands up to leave the room. “Do you mind if I have a cig­a­rette and get my brain back into gear? It’s a lot of stuff I’ve closed off in my head.” One fag later, he re­sumes the story. Need­ing both money and dis­trac­tion, Lavelle buried him­self in DJing, hold­ing down si­mul­ta­ne­ous res­i­den­cies in London, Ber­lin, Tokyo, Sin­ga­pore and LA. It filled the void left by Mo’ Wax but he be­came as ob­ses­sive about he­do­nism as he had been about hip-hop or kung fu. “It was an ex­ces­sive, noc­tur­nal time that be­came more and more detri­men­tal.” At the same time, Lavelle was fall­ing in love with rock. He be­friended Josh Homme, Mark Lane­gan and pro­ducer Chris Goss, all of whom worked on sub­se­quent UNKLE LPs, start­ing with 2003’ s Never, Never, Land. His tim­ing, he notes, was fi­nan­cially un­for­tu­nate. He scaled back DJing to start a live band in 2007, on the cusp of the EDM ex­plo­sion. Most bands only break up once, maybe twice, but UNKLE’s un­usu­ally fluid iden­tity means that Lavelle is al­ways part­ing ways with his stu­dio part­ners: Goldswor­thy, Shadow, Richard File, Pablo Clements. “It sounds silly but ev­ery one of the key peo­ple I’ve worked with in my life I’ve loved,” he says. “Maybe it’s too in­tense some­times. Ev­ery record is like a love af­fair and a break-up.” His he­do­nism and strained friend­ship with Clements both came to a head while mak­ing and tour­ing 2010’ s Where Did The Night Fall, the last UNKLE al­bum for seven years. In a grim coda to the story, reg­u­lar vo­cal­ist Gavin Clark com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2015. “I’d been wor­ried about him for a long time but our re­la­tion­ship had reached an im­passe,” Lavelle says hes­i­tantly. “It’s hard to talk about. UNKLE isn’t a band where some­body should kill them­selves. It ended up so bloody rock’n’roll and that wasn’t re­ally what it should be. I asked my­self: ‘What the hell is this about? Why do you make records? This pain, this drama, has just got too much.’” At 37, Lavelle fi­nally slowed down, licked his wounds and re­built his con­fi­dence with projects such as Melt­down and the au­da­cious

cross-dis­ci­plinary ex­trav­a­ganza Day­dream­ing With Stan­ley Kubrick, on which he “worked for five years and didn’t make one penny”. Even­tu­ally, school­friend Matthew Puf­fett and young singer-song­writer Jack Leonard be­came his new part­ners in UNKLE. When Lavelle re­vived the project, he had two pri­or­i­ties. One was to fos­ter sta­bil­ity and min­imise stress. “It’s been a 99.9 per cent joy­ous ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “I al­ways felt that I was build­ing a pyra­mid from the top down. This time we started from the bot­tom.” The other was to prove that UNKLE was never an A&R-led Franken­stein’s mon­ster but a deeply per­sonal state­ment. “Ev­ery record is a di­ary of a pe­riod in my life. It’s al­ways hard when peo­ple look at me as a con­cep­tu­al­ist and ar­chi­tect. It’s not that in­tel­lec­tual. It’s more from here.” He thumps the left side of his chest. “It’s about love and re­gret and all of that stuff.” Just as im­por­tantly, he feels that Mo’ Wax’s legacy is fi­nally get­ting its due. Nor­man Cook once com­pared Lavelle to Grand­mas­ter Flash, the pi­o­neer who fell by the way­side, and him­self to Dr Dre, the late­comer who made all the money. “Your prob­lem,” he told Lavelle, “is that you’re into the cre­ation of things but you’re not good at be­ing pa­tient and fol­low­ing through.” It’s true. Lavelle was an early cham­pion of many things that are now main­stream, in­clud­ing all-star col­lab­o­ra­tions, street art, au­dio­vi­sual DJ shows and part­ner­ships be­tween mu­si­cians and fash­ion la­bels. “What we cre­ated as a uni­verse is pretty much the sta­ple diet of the cre­ative in­dus­try now,” he says. “But I didn’t ben­e­fit from the suc­cess be­cause I was con­stantly mov­ing on. For a long time I wasn’t seen as be­ing part of that move­ment and that was frus­trat­ing. Peo­ple can un­der­stand it now. Most of what I was in­volved with is now boot­legged in Cam­den.” Lavelle needs another cig­a­rette but be­fore he goes he rec­om­mends a scene in Artist & Reper­toire: a clip from an MTV in­ter­view he gave when he was 21. “I sit there and say, ‘I don’t re­ally care about the money. At the end of the day, if it all goes wrong, I’ve got a load of beau­ti­fully de­signed records that peo­ple will col­lect for­ever.’” He shrugs, amused rather than bit­ter. “It’s ironic.”

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 ??  ?? La­belled with love: (above left) Lavelle with Mo’ Wax sign­ing DJ Shadow (right), 1998; (above right, from left) Keith Flint, Ian Brown, Lavelle and Richard File, 2003.
La­belled with love: (above left) Lavelle with Mo’ Wax sign­ing DJ Shadow (right), 1998; (above right, from left) Keith Flint, Ian Brown, Lavelle and Richard File, 2003.
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 ??  ?? (Clock­wise from above) Mo’ Wax com­pi­la­tion Headz; DJ Shadow’s Endtro­duc­ing; UNKLE’s de­but, Psyence Fic­tion; (right) Lavelle in his pomp, 1995.
(Clock­wise from above) Mo’ Wax com­pi­la­tion Headz; DJ Shadow’s Endtro­duc­ing; UNKLE’s de­but, Psyence Fic­tion; (right) Lavelle in his pomp, 1995.
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 ??  ?? Tak­ing it to the bridge: a fit­ter, hap­pier Lavelle, Cam­den, 2017.
Tak­ing it to the bridge: a fit­ter, hap­pier Lavelle, Cam­den, 2017.
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 ??  ?? “I didn’t ben­e­fit from the suc­cess”: Lavelle fi­nally makes peace with his past.
“I didn’t ben­e­fit from the suc­cess”: Lavelle fi­nally makes peace with his past.

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