UNKLE's James Lavelle on Resilience

James Lavelle Photo by Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones
James Lavelle Photo by Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones

In the wake of the electronic music legend’s warts and all doc, 'The Man from Mo’Wax,' we talk to Lavelle about bottoming out, being resilient, and bouncing back to score Danny Boyle’s FX series Trust.

James Lavelle was the golden boy—until he wasn’t. In the 1990s, helming record label Mo’ Wax, he created a uniquely UK spin on hip-hop culture, fusing turntablism, sampling, and graffiti with Britain’s anarchic rave spirit. He put out groundbreaking albums from DJ Shadow, DJ Krush, and Dr. Octagon, and then, as the mastermind behind the shape-shifting group UNKLE, he reimagined the executive producer as a kind of creative figure in its own right—forging the missing link between Warhol’s Factory and Kanye West’s Yeezus.

But, as the recent documentary The Man from Mo’Wax details (check the trailer below), the glories didn’t last. Lavelle lost control of his catalog when A&M, which had invested in the fledgling indie label in 1996, was shuttered a few years later, making Mo’Wax an early victim of a rapidly consolidating music industry. Lavelle took his talents to XL, but drugs, alcohol, and arrogance all took their toll on his creative output, while internal squabbles and outsized ambitions plagued UNKLE’s follow-ups to its celebrated 1998 debut, Psyence Fiction.

Eventually Lavelle pulled out of his tailspin. In 2014, he was appointed curator of Southbank Centre’s prestigious Meltdown Festival in London, placing him in a lineage of greats including David Bowie, Yoko Ono, and Patti Smith, while a retrospective exhibition and accompanying book canonized Mo’ Wax’s influence in electronic music, street art, and pop culture. Last year, UNKLE released The Road: Part I, the group’s first album since 2010’s vexed Where Did the Night Fall—an album whose disastrous gestation period the documentary portrays in almost Spinal Tap-like terms. Last year Lavelle returned in a new role: scoring the soundtrack to FX’s 10-episode, Donald Sutherland-starring series Trust, centering around the 1973 abduction of John Paul Getty III (three episodes of which were directed Danny Boyle).

Spotify for Artists spoke to Lavelle recently about resilience, determination, and learning from past mistakes.

Spotify for Artists: F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. Obviously, he never went anywhere near the music business. What act are you on right now?

James Lavelle: I think I’m like a cat. I’m probably on my ninth life. Fortunately, I survived, both mentally and physically. The documentary was a cathartic way of putting a full stop on a certain period and being able to move on. There’s been a lot of retrospective stuff over the last few years, with Meltdown, Mo’Wax anniversaries, and the film. That was a real period of rediscovery and getting my feet back on the ground. The Road: Part 1 was a bit of a new beginning for me.

The documentary was a pretty unvarnished look at your ups and downs. Did you know it was going to be like that?

I did to a degree. It had gone on for so long, 10 years. I’d been shown a rough cut three or four years ago, and it felt more like a BBC documentary, which I didn’t feel was that interesting with a band like UNKLE. Because I’d been doing Meltdown and the Mo’Wax book, I discovered a lot of video I’d shot over 25 years ago. There were probably a hundred video cassettes, maybe more. So I gave [director Matthew Jones] this box and then a couple years later I saw another cut and I was like, “Oh, OK, fuck. That’s my life.” But you’ve got to remember, there are other things that went on that aren’t in that documentary. There’s only so much you can fit into two hours, especially if you want to have a narrative of ups and downs.

Do you feel like they played up your weaknesses in order to portray you in a better light at the end?

Yes, 100 percent. You know, I had a certain amount of control. But based on the filter system I have around me—because I think it’s very important to have people around you that don’t kiss your ass all the time—the general consensus was it’s better if it’s raw and honest, and not to pull it. Yeah, the subject matter was pretty hardcore, but I actually felt it was quite cathartic in the end. It just made me go, “Wow, what a life you’ve led,” and, “OK—not gonna do that again.”

The film opens with you advising anybody entering the industry to “attempt to achieve total and utter control.” Today, when you sign a contract, what's the first thing you look for?

I try and retain as much ownership as I possibly can. You can never get it always right. If you look at some of the greatest musicians, actors, film directors, whatever, they don’t always get it right. You can sign on to a project and it can read as the most exciting thing ever, with the greatest people you could think of, but it doesn’t always come out that way. I just try and go in there having as much control as I can, but also trying to be understanding and mindful. It’s not good to go in with a fuck-you attitude, either. It’s also about trying to be more mindful of who you share your time with. I work in a creative process. I write and I create, and it’s about being able to have the right people around you to do that, because that’s where the real cracks are. It’s about that balance.

How did you get involved in writing the score for Trust?

Danny had used quite a lot of UNKLE stuff over the years. The closing track in The Beach was “Lonely Soul,” and he used various tracks in other films. I had really wanted Underworld to do Meltdown, but they couldn’t. Then, a few months later, they ended up doing a show at the Royal Festival Hall. I was invited to go backstage, and Danny was there. I’d never met him, so I went up and said hello. We exchanged numbers, and it was like, “Let’s get together next week.” Then four years later I just get this text saying, “Hey, it’s Danny. I’m sorry I haven’t got back to you. I hope it’s not too late. Do you want to work on a project with me?” I met him and he was like, “I’m doing this TV show and I really want you to do the music. Are you on?” There was no negotiation, it was literally done that day. If only most deals could be like that.

When you began singing in UNKLE, there were those who criticized you for it; they said that you’re a curator, not a singer or a musician. Were there people that doubted you were capable of writing a film score?

I think there’s always people that doubt hundreds of things I do, but no. I think the overwhelming thing, from most of my community or fan base, is why hadn’t it happened before? I’ve done a lot of stuff for films, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to score something like that in its entirety. Danny would laugh about it. He was like, “I hired you because I know you’d do a better job than anybody else, but none of the big film composers would do it, because TV is a nightmare.”

Why?

It’s a lot of work and it pays a lot less. You do a two-hour movie, you might do 15 pieces of music. I got 10 hours to score. I did 85 songs.

Did you have to learn a new skill set in writing for the series?

When you’re doing television, you have so many people’s opinions. You’ve got different directors and FX and the production company. You’ve got the various producers, you’ve got the writers. Suddenly you’re getting emails from people asking you to change things, and you’re like, “Who the fuck are you?” I’m used to dealing with A&R and management and some collaborators, not having to appease 30 people’s opinions.

Danny was very good about that. He has a strong vision, but when you get to a certain level of success as a director, it’s also about how you navigate all the moving parts. You can’t just be like, “Fuck you, fuck FX, I want to do it my way.” You just can’t. I found Danny to be incredibly articulate and cleverly accommodating. Rather than throwing his toys out the pram, he made it feel like those asking for changes were considered. When you’re suddenly being asked to do 10 new things, Danny would be like, “Well, you give ’em one new thing—but you gotta give ’em something.” You gotta make people feel invested. Make each director feel that they have something that is theirs, but they also have to respect that you’ve created a sound and you’re an artist too. You just learn a lot about communication.

If you could have done one thing differently with Mo’Wax, what would it have been?

I wouldn’t have walked out the way I did with XL. I don’t know what happened there. I think I was so fucked and burned out and exhausted. I had an office by the time I was 18. I had staff. I was the youngest in the building, in my own company. I had too much responsibility, which I didn’t really know how to deal with, and I didn’t have the support. It’s like, if you give a kid an F1 McLaren, he’s gonna drive it fast, you know. I regret not having somebody that would have caught me when I fell, but on another level I just wish I’d not walked away. I wish somebody had said, “Take six months off.” But it’s hard to take six months off when you’re 27, 28, and you’re DJing every club in the world and you have a seven-year-old child and you’re trying to deal and you don’t really have the knowledge. The snowball goes out of control. There was nobody there just to say, “Stop. Let’s just stop for six months. It will be OK.” It was literally like, “It’s over. Goodbye.”

You did a new UNKLE record last year, your first in seven years. Given that the previous album had been such a star-crossed affair, what did you want to do differently on the new one?

Where Did the Night Fall was all about getting the music first, not the songs. You had this exhausting process of recording drums and synthesizers and every sound had to be perfect. I didn’t want to go through that process this time. I wanted to start simply, get the lyrics and melodies formatted, work around basic beats and basic sounds, and take that song to the appropriate person to get the sound you’re looking for. Also, to feel like you’ve got something to say, because it’s not just about whacking a record out for the sake of it.

What’s the biggest thing you learned from the process of making this one?

It doesn’t have to be this constant emotional upheaval. Life can be simple and it can be gentle. We made our records very hard for various reasons. It doesn’t have to always be so hard.

-Philip Sherburne

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