James Lavelle founded legendary record label Mo’ Wax aged 18. His band Unkle shaped a new genre of electronic music, evolving from remixes to 1998’s ICONIC debut album Psyence Fiction, which included collaborations with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Beastie Boy Mike D. Unkle’s latest LP, The Road Part 1, dropped in summer 2017.
DISORDER: You talked at the #musicmatters conference about how music venues helped shape you…
JAMES LAVELLE: Record shops and clubs were very social experiences; at that time with no Facebook or Instagram, those were the places to meet like-minded people. Club culture was somewhere of total escapism, somewhere very colourful, a sort of melting pot of people. It’s changed. Club culture has become more PC; if you go to Fabric you’ll go through three metal detectors and dogs… Hence why #musicmatters is happening here [in Selfridges, in central London], because a lot of what’s really good in London has gone. In many ways the members’ club has taken the dynamic of what nightclubs used to be. People are hanging out in the Soho Houses and the Grouchos and whatever. The club scene is a much more commercial beast.
When and how are you inspired?
My social environment tends to be more global than just London. But I also don’t DJ as much as I used to. When you’re playing five times a week, it’s a different social experience than when you’re playing more fragmentally. The way my life moves is very kinda strange. That’s why this record is called The Road – these weird creative journeys that culminate in collaborating with and meeting people.
Are you bothered by London’s recent development?
I always really loved characters. The gentrification of cities pushes these amazing characters out. But I think it’s changed a lot everywhere. Ibiza is very different to what it was. America is now very different. And while I love America, once it takes over it can have a habit of destroying the heart and soul of things... in the sense that EDM has now taken over what a lot of great DJ culture was all about. A lot of the time, when you were going to clubs, it wasn’t about expensive drinks or door prices. If you’re going to a club now and you’re going to have to pay thirty quid to get in and a drink’s gonna cost you twenty, it’s very different. Communities get pushed out. Like when Old Street started. Now it goes further and further east and to Peckham, and now [even] that’s changing. The heart and soul of [these communities] is usually people who are not about money.
What is good beyond the capital?
Eastern Europe is always really fresh – the crowds are just great. I feel an affinity because I’ve been going to those places for a long time. A lot of eastern Europe has always been receptive to [he says this ironically] melancholic electronic music and club culture, and they’re just hungry. When you’re in London or New York, people are spoiled and have been for a long, long time. But don’t get me wrong. Club culture in certain places is still amazing.
Do you like social media?
It’s changed things. People are a lot more concerned about letting go; everyone’s too worried about being recorded. I remember the first time I really felt that, I saw Paul Oakenfold DJ’ing about six or seven years ago. I looked in the crowd and everybody was looking at their mobile phones. I was just like, that is fucking mental. Literally the whole club was people dancing with their mobile phones.
The Road is the first new Unkle album in seven years. What brought you back?
I’m not in a band. It’s not like I’m in Radiohead or something. I’ve worked on this record for the last three years, and leading up to that I’ve worked on lots of other things, so while it’s seven years I didn’t feel like I was going away. I just didn’t release an album. When Unkle finished in the way that it was before, you have a sort of mourning process. You have to find your feet again. But it’s not just about music, it’s about visual content. It’s about the community of people that you’re working with. It took me a while to build a new community, meeting people like [electronic musician] Elliott Power or [Korean singer] Mink or Jack Leonard who I wrote most of the record with… or [German painter] Jonas Burgert who did the cover or John Isaacs who’s involved in the artwork – that’s a whole journey in itself.
Do you wish you had an Ad-Rock and MCA to give you a permanent crew?
Yeah, sometimes. Whenever I’ve been in a relationship with somebody you always feel that it’s gonna last forever. You never think, oh we’re going to do it for one record and then we’re gonna have some fucking major bust-up and fall out. There are lots of people who I have had long relationships with. I worked with [orchestral arranger] Wil Molone on Psyence Fiction, I’ve worked with [composer, cellist] Phil Sheppard since Never Never Land, I’ve worked with [Queens of the Stone Age singer] Josh Homme since Never Never Land. Troy’s on this record [Troy Van Leeuwen, Queens of the Stone Age guitarist], I’ve worked with him for 16 years. But when I started Unkle with Tim [Goldsworthy, producer and schoolfriend] the idea was it was a band, but that was naïve. Sometimes you’ve gotta just re-find yourself and what you want to say.
Is The Road Part 2 going to be similar in tone?
We’ll see. Everything’s evolving. I want to see how this record connects with people. I could put Part 2 out tomorrow, but then I’m suddenly sitting there going, hmm dunno maybe I want to change that or look at this. With Unkle sometimes things are received very well or very not. So we’ll see how it goes [laughs].
What advice would you give the teenage James Lavelle?
Protect your neck. There’s a lot of vultures out there. It’s awful. I’m not talking about the creativity. I’m talking about the business. You’ve got to make sure you take ownership of what you have. We’re in a good part of the world where you can do that now. You can own your masters. And patience. You have a lot more time than you think. When you’re 18, four years is a long time. Twenty-five years later it’s not. What’s important is building your creative community. To surround yourself with like-minded people, to collaborate, to build your identity, to find people that you share ideas with, to look beyond the box. Look out – there’s a wonderful universe out there you can create.
What gave you the confidence?
Because I was told I couldn’t. What people may think is not necessarily what it was like. I was knocked down, by all accounts, pretty early on. And perpetually for a lot of things. I developed a pretty thick skin.
Do you still get crushes?
There’s been a lot of bromances along the way. That’s part of making records. And love affairs. I had a silly idea that destruction was kinda romantic. That’s a notion I don’t have any more. The drama was romantic. But from a lot of that stuff has come some great situations. Life is a connection of situations. So if I hadn’t been in a certain place at a certain time I wouldn’t have met a certain person, or vice versa. Mine tends to have been a bit of a mad road. Trying to break all these different barriers down and be involved with music and toys and DJ and do a live band and… I just wanted to do everything. People that tend to be, “I just want to be the greatest guitarist” might have a slightly better road.
Where is home?
Camden’s been my home for 20 years. It’s where I saw my first gig, Soul II Soul, and it’s still got the best music venues in London. I’ve always had aspirations of leaving London and actually the more I look at it I think, [conspiratorially] I kinda like London. There are lots of things I don’t like about it, but there’s a peace that you can get in London that you can’t get in lots of places.
You can get headspace.
What are your (remaining) ambitions?
I wanna make better records or make better art, and there are thousands of people out there I’d love to work with – [light artist] James Turrell, [Pearl Jam singer] Eddie Vedder as a vocalist, [Wu-Tang Clan leader, rapper, producer] RZA, [movie score composer] Vangelis, [movie score composer] Ennio Morricone, great film directors, video directors. And so many new people, it’s endless.
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