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James Lavelle interview: The man from UNKLE

He shaped 90s dance music - and now James Lavelle’s calling the shots again as curator of this year’s Meltdown

It’s like being given the keys to a McLaren F1 [car] without having had a driving lesson. You drive it really fast and then you inevitably wrap it round a tree.” James Lavelle is sitting on a balcony overlooking the Thames at London’s Southbank Centre reflecting on his glory days as head of Mo’Wax, the record label he founded in 1992 when he was just 18 years’ old, and which became one of the decade’s most successful.

While Britpop hijacked the headlines, Lavelle became the toast of the club world and the driving force behind a new genre-bending sound known as trip-hop, whose roots could be found in the late Eighties electronic and hip-hop scenes but which would later morph into the background music of choice for the young middle classes. Among its pioneers were Mo’Wax signings DJ Shadow, then a little-known producer from California; the similarly obscure Japanese hip-hop producer DJ Krush; Dr Octagon (one of the many incarnations of New York rapper Kool Keith) and Lavelle’s own ongoing electronic project UNKLE.

After 10 years, however, he dissolved the label: “When you’re young, you’re caught up in the energy and the madness of it. There’s the money and the drugs and the massive ego that comes with that.  Mo’Wax felt like a band in which I was the lead singer. But there’s a point where you have to go ‘OK, we’re done’. The whole thing had lost its momentum and I was pretty burnt out.”

Lavelle may have since slipped off the cultural radar but he has been far from idle. He’s toured the world with UNKLE, started a new label called Surrender All, put on art exhibitions, made movie soundtracks (including for the Ray Winstone crime drama Sexy Beast) and remixed everyone from Queens of the Stone Age to Lana Del Rey. There have also been DJ residencies at clubs in LA, New York, Berlin and Singapore, although now he has a commitment closer to home.

Next week sees the start of Meltdown, the Southbank’s annual music and performance festival that Lavelle is curating. It’s a prestigious job previously undertaken by David Bowie, Patti Smith, Morrissey and, last year, Yoko Ono. Lavelle’s programme will include performances by long-serving legends Grandmaster Flash, Chrissie Hynde, Edwyn Collins and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme alongside young upstarts including the folk singer Keaton Henson, the Danish electronic wunderkind Trentemøller and teen punk-rockers Radkey.

Given the cultural weight of past directors, Lavelle might be a surprising candidate. Certainly he’s the first to admit that he has a lot of live up to. “I’ve agonised over whether I’m justified in doing in this,” he reflects. “You look at these people who’ve had astonishing careers and huge accolades. But rather than be daunted you’ve just got to roll up your sleeves and get on with it.”

If he has a vision for Meltdown it is “to reflect the world I come from as an artist, which is electronic music and DJ culture, without being too nostalgic. You want to keep it varied and eclectic, and have synergy and continuity. There’s no one scene that I’m trying to reflect, but there’s a certain attitude and style to the artists that I feel connects them. A lot of them are people I would have wanted to sign to a label 20 years ago.”

The programme has taken six months to hammer out and, Lavelle concedes, has brought about a few meltdowns of his own. “I’m an emotional person and I don’t take let-downs very well. Getting Joshua [Homme] nearly killed me. It was on, then it was off, then it was on and then off again. Knowing him, he’s just sitting on the end of the phone laughing his head off. But I’m very proud to bring that to the table.”

Of course, picking and choosing suitable acts should be second nature to Lavelle who was a curator of all that was hip in the Nineties. The name Mo’Wax came both from his column Mo’Wax Please in the electronic music magazine Straight No Chaser, and the club night that he ran from the age of 16 in his home town of Oxford.

The label’s roster was informed by Lavelle’s love of jazz, hip-hop and the Massive Attack/Soul II Soul/Wild Bunch sound systems, hard-partying collectives that would set up at underground parties across the country. “I come from a sample background,” he explains. “I steal things and put them together in a collage. That’s the world that I grew up in. It was an unbelievably exciting time for the club scene. I was obsessed with new music. The more I heard the more I wanted to hear.”

Both an expert taste maker and a canny networker – early connections were forged by Lavelle during a stint behind the counter at Honest Jon’s record shop in Portobello – he released everything from sinister techno and sun-drenched soul to the polite ambient noodling that would later be saddled with the trip-hop tag. If the shape-shifting label had an ethos, it was about breaking down the barriers between cultures and genres, an approach that was typified in DJ Shadow’s 1996 cut ’n’ paste classic Endtroducing .... Meanwhile its aesthetic was defiantly “street”, with the artwork taking its lead from rave, graffiti and skate culture and its merchandise extending to clothes and, for a while, toys.

Lavelle insists he has always been more artist than businessman but it was undoubtedly with his business head on that he signed Mo’Wax over to A&M records in 1996, bringing about a marked dip in quality. It was a move he would later describe as “the worst decision I ever made”. He subsequently shifted the label to Island records, and after that to XL. “My contribution to XL is that I hired the person who signed Adele and Dizzee Rascal,” says Lavelle, ruefully. “So they did all right out of that.”

The closure of Mo’Wax in 2002 was, he says, inevitable. “My life had crashed. My relationship was over and I had a young child. It was quite a strange time for me. Luckily, I was young when Mo’Wax started and pretty young when it finished so I was able to start a whole other chapter. I toured with UNKLE and the DJing just took off. I would take my daughter to school on a Monday morning and the other parents would be talking about their weekends picnicking on Primrose Hill. They’d ask what I’d been up to and I’d say ‘Playing records on a beach in the Black Sea’.”

For Lavelle the Nineties now feel “like a lifetime ago” though lately he’s been taking stock. As Meltdown celebrates its 21st anniversary this year, so does Mo’Wax, with its founder dusting off the archives and marking the occasion with a book plus a planned re-issue of UNKLE’s biggest album, 1998’s Psyence Fiction.

In highlighting his label’s achievements, Lavelle has found himself vying, once again, with fellow Nineties musical phenomenon Britpop, also enjoying anniversary celebrations this year. “Britpop had the edge in terms of sales,” says Lavelle. “And it was certainly more tabloid friendly. But what was exciting about that period was its eclecticism, and I think we had a lot to do with that. Some of the records I put out were great and some of them probably weren’t but I always tried to make sure we were doing something new. While Britpop looked backwards we looked to the future. For that I am very proud.”

James Lavelle’s Meltdown runs 13-22 June. For info and tickets visit southbankcentre.co.uk ‘Urban Archaeology: 21 Years of Mo’Wax’ by James Lavelle is published by Rizzoli (£40.00)

Have a meltdown: five festival gigs that you can still get tickets for

Max Richter: ‘Waltz with Bashir’ Royal Festival Hall (15 June)

To accompany this special screening of Ari Folman’s brilliant hallucinatory animation about his experiences as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War, avant-garde composer Richter performs the soundtrack live with the assistance of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Radkey: Royal Festival Hall (17 June)

These grungy teenage punkers from Missouri are one of the new bands of the moment, having generated lots of buzz for their visceral live performances. Catch them ahead of the release of their debut album, which they recently finished recording.

Trentemoller Royal Festival Hall (17 June)

The Danish electronica producer will grace the festival  with his stunning, cinematic, techno-flavoured vistas, played by a five-piece band, including the man himself on keyboard.

Nick Zinner: ‘41 Strings’ Royal Festival Hall (20 June)

One half of renowned art-punkers Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Zinner oversees the UK premiere of his extraordinary four-part, classical work composed in recognition of Earth Day and chronicling the ups and downs of the seasons using strings, percussion and multiple guitars. Players include Romy Madley Croft from The XX and Gemma Thompson from Savages.

John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ Queen Elizabeth Hall (22 June)

Coltrane’s seminal, massively influential jazz record will be re-envisioned in this performance that will apparently incorporate “instrumentation from different global, spiritual and cultural traditions”