Wednesday, 11 May 2011

James Lavelle

Since forming the 'genre-defining' Mo’ Wax record label in 1992, James Lavelle has since introduced the world to DJ Shadow, DJ Krush and Money Mark, released records by OG Bones Brigader Tommy Guerrero and collaborated with Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft, Josh Homme, Mike D, Kool G. Rap and Ian Brown. With his band UNKLE he has written the music for the second Relentless ‘Lives of the Artists’ full-length documentary, which will be available for free right about now.
We took James to one side for a quiet word.

So how did you become involved with the Relentless ‘Lives of the Artists’ project?
I’d worked with Ross the director, many years ago, in the early days of Mo’ Wax. I hadn’t seen him for about 15 years when he approached me about wanting to do the documentary. He showed me the first film that they’d done and I was really into the whole concept behind it, and the stuff they’d been doing with relentless, and the potential for help with what we’re doing as a band.

You’ve had your music appear in a number of films before, but other than the ‘Exit Music for a Film’ album you’ve never really done a proper score. Was this something you’d always been keen to do?
We’ve had stuff in various films, and ‘Exit Music for a Film’ was really just work that we’d done over that period that hadn’t seen the light of day- from working on various multi-media stuff, from film, TV, computer games, stuff like that. We wanted to get the music out because a lot of the time nowadays music doesn’t get released in the soundtrack format. It’s great to score this. I like the way they’ve done it- it’s taking place in such extreme places and it’s so beautifully shot, it’s great to be able to put some music to it. Even though it’s strange being in it... It’s amazing looking at the shots of Jeremy and Xavier, and kind of going “Why am I in it?”.

Have you been able to put forward musical ideas that you previously wouldn’t have been able to use in your own material?
Working on film gives you a different template to work with, it’s a very direct emotion. When you’re writing a song you’re reflecting on whatever subject matter it is. You’re just putting it out there. Whereas with a film it’s like “Ok, that bit’s scary, does it need scary music or do I juxtapose it?”. In that sense it makes the process a lot easier at times.

So how did you go about scoring it? Did you see the finished film before you began putting music to it or what?
We started with a rough cut, and had discussions about ideas. Ross had quite a specific feel that he wanted to get across, so you start referencing those and building ideas from that. With this film, there are three characters, three different identities throughout the film that you’re trying to address, and give a direction to.

Where do you do most of your writing? On the road or in the studio?
I find that lyrics tend to come when you’re away, just randomly, and then writing is mostly done in the studio.

So how did it work on this tour, knowing that you’d be writing the score to whatever happened when the camera got pointed at you?
I really just didn’t think about it very much, and most of the time when the filming was done it was fucking absolute chaos. We had a nightmare in Russian, Japan was cool because it was just DJing and running around, and it was the initial meeting. It was quite adrenalin-led, because you’re in Japan and just want to stay up 24 hours-a-day because there’s so much you want to do. I hadn’t struck me until I watched the rough cut. It was like “I’ve agreed to do this, and now I’m scoring myself...” I find it hard to look at myself on camera, but all of us involved were quite happy to throw ourselves in the deep end and not really think about what we’re doing. It tends to be quite like that with me and Pav and Aidan within the band.

Going back to the beginnings of what you’ve done, it’s fair to say Mo’ Wax was a pretty important label. A lot of people reading this will have heard Mo’ Wax stuff in skate videos. The music was always excellent, as was the artwork and packaging. What was your intention when you started the label?
There wasn’t really much thought. I just wanted to put records out, DJ, put my mates’ records out and have a platform to be heard. Beyond that it just... happened.

What went wrong in the end?
We worked with Universal, then worked with Beggar’s Banquet, and the dynamic just changed. The landscape of the record industry changed, and the landscape of the people involved with the label changed. The best analogy for me is that it’s like a band that’s split up. It just didn’t really work anymore.

Can you imagine a label like that happening again nowadays?
I don’t know. There’s a side of me that’d like to say yes, because there’s still great music out there, but the industry’s so different, the life-expectancy of records is so different and the desire to invest in packaging and identity is so different. It could never really be the same again because it was also a period of time, in the same way that a band like Led Zeppelin could never happen again, a band like the Beatles will never happen again, The Clash, the Sex Pistols - any defining  moment in musical history can’t be repeated. That’s not to say that something similar can’t happen. It’s evolution. I don’t think there’s a label around just now, but that’s not to say it won’t happen. Things are always about reaction- everyone’s always got a million ideas and concepts, but in the record indusrty I don’t think anyone’s really got a clue about how people are going to change, and what formats there will be. I’m a great believer in the end that people do want something to hold and feel, and feel that they’ve invested in. I think music has to come back to that place to a degree, and maybe a label that could do that would be great. I was 18 when I started Mo’ Wax, and it was something that a particular generation could understand. There’s a lot more clued-up 18 year olds around now than there was when I was doing it.

Do you think it’s more diluted now?
Everything’s disposable now, the internet’s changed everything. Everybody has the information, kids are more savvy on every level possible than when we were kids. I’m 36, and when I was a kid it was definitely a much smaller group sharing ideas. But it seems like it’s saturated now, and there’s not much time to develop anything. That’s the big problem, I think.

With UNKLE, you’ve worked with a lot of massively well respected musicians. How do these collaborations come about?
It really just comes in a lot of weird ways. From the first record, everybody was beginning to come together and people were beginning to interact socially because a youth movement was happening. So Thom (Yorke), Richard (Ashcroft),(DJ) Shadow and myself were all at a similar place in our lives. At that time walls were breaking down, whether it was working with Alexander McQueen or working with Thom, everyone just kind of met. You just kind of meet people through these scenarios, it can be from going to a gig, or a band is a friend of a friend. Very occassionally  you’ll put it out there and get in conatct with people. Sometimes that’ll result in something, sometimes it won’t.

So what’s in the future for UNKLE?
I’m working on a big exhibition just now, trying to keep this record going- promoting the record- doing new videos, a new single coming up, touring and then working on another album. A lot going on!

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