Tracy Phillips catches up with DJ and producer James Lavelle

Tracy Phillips catches up with DJ and producer James Lavelle

The man from U.N.K.L.E

Text: Tracy Phillips

Image: Meltdown images by Victor Frankowski
Image: Cover image: James Lavelle

In town recently for the Neon Lights Festival, Tracy Phillips chats with the founder of seminal 90's record label, Mo'Wax, James Lavelle aka U.N.K.L.E sounds, ahead of his label's first release in 13 years

DJ, producer, label owner and tastemaker, James Lavelle has re-invented himself time and again over the last two decades. From starting his first record label, Mo'wax, at the tender age of 18 — which went on to become the alternative soundtrack for the '90s kid — to fronting the genre-breaking, audio-visual UNKLE project, he's also ran a clothing line, Surrender. Last year saw him being picked as a guest curator of the annual Meltdown event series at Southbank Centre in London. An honour reserved for the world's most distinguished musicians — David Bowie, Patti Smith and Morrissey were past directors — it's an indication of the mammoth of an influence Lavelle has over the music industry.

It's been a while since I've caught up with him — seven years to be exact — and it seems a lot has changed from his days as a Zouk regular and his involvement with Surrender. While he's still every bit as engaging to talk to and just as animated with passions in music and art, he's noticeably calmer and more centred. In fact, he was quick to remind me that the last time I saw him here, there had been an incident of a lost passport.

So what do old friends do when they haven't caught up in awhile? They get straight into it.

DJ Producer James Lavelle

So what have you been up to since I last saw you?
A lot.... I've been finding myself again, getting back to basics as to why I did it all in the first place. Mostly, I've simplified my life and I think I'm a lot less materialistic. I still love images and design but it's not my main motivation anymore. Having a kid changes things, and now that my daughter is grown up and off to university, I feel like it's a new beginning for me again. I don't need to keep those same routines and can travel more. It's very liberating.  

What have been the major changes?
Everything and nothing. I'm as interested and as confused as ever, but I feel like more of an artist than I've ever been. I have something to say again. Which is why my next solo project has been one year in the making because there is so much I want to convey. I think it's going to sound more joyous and a lot calmer, which is reflective of my life now, but it also has the best bits of my past records. I'll be singing on it too. I think I place a different value on what I create as compared to the past.     

What's been the biggest highlight of your career in the last few years?
I'd say curating Meltdown at the Southbank Centre last year. It was my ode to London and the London I grew up in. It received huge accolades and was a great confidence boost. I used to be more worried about what people thought but after its success, I feel that I have less to prove and to some extent, have paid my dues.

James Lavelle's Meltdown, Photo by: Victor Frankowski

How do you think the scene has evolved as compared to when you first launched Mo'wax 22 years ago at just 18?
I feel that the walls have finally broken down. It used to be a bit like a big boys club, more laddie, where you'd get ridiculed for doing something different. Now it's acceptable to be more art-based. It's been the era of the individual, and not the band for a while now. I think it's because it's easier for management to control one person than manage a band made up of individuals with conflicting attitudes.

Music has become so homogenised though. It used to be more political; a reaction against things that were happening but music just doesn't seem to reflect the world we live in at the moment. It all feels insular and unreal but it also feels like the tipping point is coming soon and that's exciting.

I think there's going to be a crash and a reaction, and kids are going to wake up and realise that it's all not real. Music is a voice of the times and we need to make things grounded in some reality, because it affects intimacy and how we relate to each other. There is good stuff out there but we need to come together, and make sure we have a voice. Everything is so much more accessible — but what do you really have to say?

Who is your toughest critic?
My daughter. She's the centre of my world and fortunately, has great taste in music too. I run all the artists I'm deciding to work with by her and she's always a good gauge and critic.

It's been ages since you've given me music recommendations — tell me one artist you like whom I should be listening to.
Elliott Power. I think he encompasses everything I love about London: How it's multi-racial, multi-cultural, has one foot in the past and the other in the future. I appreciate that he and his crew are trying to find a new identity within the digital age. He's taking influences from the past across genres; like Massive Attack's Blue Lines, and bands like Radiohead and Blur but staying rooted in Black music and soul. It all still sounds very English too, which I think is a bit more cerebral than some of the hip-hop that comes out of America. I've kind of picked him to pass on the torch, which is why his LP is the first Mo'wax record release in 13 years, coming out in February next year.

Keaton Henson, James Lavelle's Meltdown Festival. Photo by: Victor Frankowski

James Lavelle performed as Unkle Sounds at Neon Lights 2015 on 29 November 2015. For more interviews from Neon Lights, click here.