James Lavelle Interview

Time for Mo’ Wax?

Words: David Kane
Photos: Yev Kazannik

This James Lavelle interview is an extended version of the one that first appeared in issue 08 of Bonafide, you can pick up a copy here. James is currently curating Meltdown at the Southbank Centre, featuring performances by ESG, DJ Shadow, Jeff Mills and more, as well as the exhibition Urban Archaeology: 21 Years of Mo Wax.

Aged just 18 James Lavelle created Mo’ Wax, a record label that transcended the sometimes great music it released, he did this by merging the worlds of graffiti, esoteric toys, Japanese street wear culture, Americana, hip-hop and electronic music.

In 1998 Mo’ Wax released Psyence Fiction by UNKLE, it was the groups second incarnation and debut album with Lavelle working in tandem with DJ Shadow. Alongside Shadow’s Endtroducing, it was the labels showpiece record; one that featured acts as diverse and still influential as Thom Yorke, Mike D, Ian Brown, Kool G Rap, Richard Ashcroft and Jason Newsted, bass guitarist for Metallica.

The label may be best known for trip-hop — the Bristol born bass – heavy sound it helped travel worldwide — along with hip-hop, but Mo’ Wax released records crossing much of the musical spectrum; including singles by Carl Craig (as Innerzone Orchestra) along with reissues from luminaries like David Axlerod and post-punkers Liquid Liquid.

Beyond the music Mo’ Wax collaborated with the designers and graffiti artists 3D (of Massive Attack) Futura 2000, Haze, Stash and brands like Bathing Ape, Stussy, Nike and Medicom. Britpop may have ruled the airwaves but Mo’ Wax infiltrated the clubs, sneaker boutiques and style magazines from Soho to Tokyo like few other labels of the time and since. But in 2002 the bubble burst in a torrent of bruised egos, bad business decisions and music industry excess.

“People said it was all about business, but all I was trying to do was to create a universe.”

The precursor for our interview is the 21st anniversary of Mo’ Wax, and the successful (and over funded) Kickstarter campaign that has enabled Lavelle to go into production on a book together with Rizzoli and work towards a series of exhibitions and music events in early 2014.

In person James Lavelle seems surprisingly shy, that is until the camera lens clicks and his 20+ years of experience as an artist, DJ and record label boss comes to the fore. When we speak over the phone a few days after the photo shoot Lavelle is less reticent and A sprawling and candid conversation takes place covering the difficulties of running Mo’ Wax, the progress of music and art, and fake Star Wars figurine collectors.

What is your earliest musical memory?

Playing music with my father and grandmother, both of whom were musicians, my father was a folk singer, guitarist and drummer. My grandmother was a cellist.

You grew up in Oxford, Radiohead met there and a few other indie bands of note, but it’s less known for electronic music and hip-hop. What was it like for you back then?

There wasn’t a lot going on but there was a local record store that sold import records and tapes. Cassettes were the big thing at first and I started buying records properly when I was about 14; things like Street Sounds 1 by (Afrika) Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash records. Then the whole sound system culture started to emerge; suddenly you’d end up hanging out with Fresh Four, Soul To Soul, Wildbunch and the whole Bristol scene. Also (Tim) Westwood’s (Kiss FM show) was a big influence.

You were a big figure collector, as someone who was also a collector in the 90s I can tell you it was a very uncool thing to do at the time, but in the last decade or so it has become very hip. With the clothes, artwork, figures and general limited releases and rarities do you feel that you pre-empted a lot of the ‘hypebeast’ phenomena with Mo’ Wax?

Yeah, I’d like to think none of that would even exist if it wasn’t for things like Mo’ Wax and Bathing Ape. But in the 90s people weren’t really into it, they were more into it in Japan and America. Most of the people who professed to being into the toys (in the UK) weren’t, it was a load of rubbish. I knew exactly who way buying toys, I had the second biggest Star Wars collection in Europe, and I knew every dealer.

Although I got rid off most of my stuff I think I’ve still got pretty much every figure from the original Star Wars, including a one off Speeder Bike piece that was very rare.

Going slightly off agenda what do you think about Disney releasing a new Star Wars trilogy?

I think that we’re all so nostalgic about it (Star Wars), it’s like doing a line of cocaine, you want it to be like your first but it never is.

When you grow up with something you have an attachment (to it) and there’s something incredibly unique and special about the first three films…but I don’t know if it’s ever going to be what you want it to be, in your mind you want it to be like it was. JJ Abrahams is great but it’s how far it wants to be kept on a child’s level. I thought the new ones were awful but most of my friend’s children loved them and didn’t think the first ones were that good.

You started Mo’ Wax 21 years ago, you had just moved to London and were 18-19 years old, I believe. Can you remember what the cultural feeling was like in the country back then and within music in particular?

I was 18, I working at (the record shop) Honest Jons and I was into hip-hop and sampling culture. Even though I was into techno I had enough of raving and the big house clubs at the time so it was sort of an antidote to that, I was hanging out with Gilles (Peterson) and DJing constantly.

It was a really great multicultural mix of people, yet it was still really small. A lot of it revolved around DJing and spending time in record shops, in particular, it’s where you met your friends and the people you ended up working with. It was record shop culture. It was all part of the counter culture that existed that I don’t think exists in the same way (now).

There were four magazines – Blues & Soul, The Face, Soul Underground and I.D – and you waited a month to find out about things, whether it is music or sneakers, and that’s what we did. Everyone wants to be a DJ, pop star or designer now.
Not saying people didn’t want to do that 20 years ago. But the idea that you went to your parents, like I did, who went to Oxford, and said ‘I want to be a DJ’ just didn’t happen. They were horrified.

One of my favourite Mo’ Wax releases is the Dr Octagon record, how did that come about and do you have any special memories of hanging out with Kool Keith?

I didn’t really hang out with Kool Keith. I remember going to meet him once and going into this room where there were loads of scantily dressed woman, which was kind of entertaining. He had a tendency to be very cool one minute and difficult the next. I mainly dealt with Dan the Automantor.

Kool Keith was amazing but very difficult to deal with, as were most Mo’ Wax artists.

The thing with Mo’ Wax was it was a label that you lived 24/7. It was brilliant but incredibly complicated and difficult to run at such a young age. I was 18 when it started and 27 when it finished. You had to deal with a lot of shit.
One minute you’re trying to be an artist and then you’re crucified for being an artist and a businessman, but it’s fine now. People said it was all about business but all I was trying to do was to create a universe. It was complicated and sad in many ways.

Were there any records you regret not releasing on Mo’ Wax when you had the chance to do so?

There are records I regret not being able to sign. The end of Mo’ Wax was sad because everyone I tried to sign other labels just offered them more money and that kind of killed the label. I wish I’d been older and could have signed Portishead or Tricky.

A lot of people came through the door; there were a lot of hip-hop artists I tried to work with. I tried to sign Organised Konfusion and Company Flow.
But, for whatever reason the whole world jacked up (their prices) and people wanted £150-200,000 deals, any success as a label meant every other company tried to copy that. In retrospect it was interesting as majors put out good records. If you look at Virgin they signed Source Direct and Photek, these were hundred grand deals, that’s like three hundred grand deals now, it wouldn’t happen now.

DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing record is a genuine part of hip-hop history and beyond, could you possibly anticipate it having this type of impact at the time?

Absolutely not. When I signed it people were like ‘what are you doing, it’s only instrumental? Well so is fucking Beethoven!’ I knew once Influx got delivered we were onto something but it took a while (to develop). In America it’s all about hip-hop, and Josh wanted to be a valid hip-hop artist and wanted rappers on the record but I really just wanted him to make a Eurocentric record.

We had a really strong rapport. I supported his vision, encouraged and A&Rd the record and he trusted me. That record was a very close-knit production and I was the only person who ever heard any demos on that record.

You were incredibly productive at the time, both running the label and as an artist and DJ. How did you manage the juggling act?

I don’t know if I did (laughs) I was young and had a lot of energy, it was full on, there’s a gang and you just go with the flow. I’m not comparing it to their creativity but if you look at a lot of great bands, Led Zepplin or the Beatles whatever, most great bands tend to last 7-8 years and they do a lot and then they implode. Everyone involved had time and energy on their hands. And then you look back and you think how on earth did I do that? I just did it every day 24 hours a day, no worries about mortgages and kids…

What were the highs and lows of running Mo’ Wax?

The highs were working with the most amazing people and being involved in making amazing music. The lows were the barriers, the in fighting, egos and fallouts. Being that young you was so responsible for so many peoples lives, in retrospect it was a lot to take on board. Unfortunately there are a lot of people I have fallen out with. I’m only just starting to deal with some of this stuff now, I couldn’t think about it for 10 years. I mean going through this book is killing me; it’s a constant thing of highs and lows.

And what was it like to shut the door on Mo’ Wax in 2002, so to speak?

I was so fucked off with it all by then. I was so in the midst of clubs, touring and DJing that …I’m still trying to work it all out, I was not very happy.

On retrospect I wish I hadn’t, I wanted some space. I had a child and all I had done since 14 was work in record stores and ran my own record label. My 16-year-old daughter has never been to a nightclub; I was a resident at The Fridge (now defunct nightclub in Brixton) by then.

Returning to Shadow, we spoke to him in our last issue and he said that we were living in a golden age of producers and beat makers, would you agree with that?

Hmm, I don’t know, I don’t find it that dissimilar to what we were doing in the 90s. For me it’s not nostalgic but I don’t see the rise of producers as the same it was in the 80s, I think Paul Epworth is great, but name me 5 or 6 other Paul Epworths? When I think of people defining sounds, people like Trevor Horn to Nellee Hooper, and then I’m not really hearing it now.

I’m a bit more interested in techno and the ambiguity of that world; I’m more interested in someone like Matthew Dear. I think there are a lot of interesting producers around but I don’t see people defining new genres in the same way.
In a way I don’t think anybody has made better records than the Beatles did, the production gets more and more (elaborate) but no one can be as (good as the) original. Tomorrow Never Knows is done on 4-track. Can anyone do that now?

It’s like master painters, is there anybody in the past 200 years who have been as good as Caravaggio or Michelangelo, there are amazing painters but everything becomes very referential and eclectic, and that brings brilliant things, but… time dilutes.

You’ve gone through several different evolutions with UNKLE both in terms of the musical set up and the people involved, what will the next chapter entail?

Good question, just trying to work it out. I’m working on a Psyence Fiction reissue, and i’m thinking of going back to basics and looking at sample culture. I’m really into trying to maybe get a record which references where I’m at as a DJ. Doing all this retrospective stuff is very interesting and has made me go back to my record collection, which has been in storage.

I would be happy to work with him (DJ Shadow) again, we’re talking about Psyence Fiction, and the last couple of years we’ve been spending more time together. Josh is someone I really respect and care about and it would be great to do something with him, we’ll see.

Can you tell us about the Urban Archaeology project, where did the idea for it come from and where is it going?

We’ve been talking about a Mo’ Wax book for many years. The opportunity arose when Ben (Drury, Mo’ Wax art director) and I met up with one of the guys who own Rizzoli. We thought if we kept leaving it, it will lose it’s relevance, and the time we’re in now makes it feel relevant.

Aside from the book, the idea is that we’d like to do a series of exhibitions and music events across the world and collaborate with some of the people we did the toys and the art with. Celebrate the positives of what we achieved.

Given the success of the Kickstarter campaign have you considered re-launching the label?

I do but it’s a whole different world now when it comes to putting out records. I’m not sure if I’ve got it in me. Not necessarily creatively, but managing the whole thing. It’s being responsible for a lot of people; I’m just trying to work out how to be responsible for myself!

But it’s always the thing of re-creating something from the past and hitting a wall. Of course it would be great, but whatever you put out would have to be very considered and done very right. It’s great to have that support and hopefully we can give back something that people are pleased to have invested in.

It feels a bit strange doing something like Kickstarter, but then you realise rather than taking money off a corporate sponsor – that doesn’t care about your legacy and just wants branding association – it’s great that its funded by people that care about the label.

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