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James Lavelle

The return of The Man From UNKLE

2015 Nov 16     
2 Bit Thugs

James Lavelle finds it impossible to sit still. Even during a phone conversation you can hear him pacing, moving, doing. He ducks in and out of reception as quickly as he considers and develops ideas.

These physical traits reflect his work: from writer to label owner to DJ to producer to film scorer to exhibition and festival curator. Most of his recent press pictures show him in a wide-brimmed Stetson, but in reality he wears many hats. Often several in one day.

He\s been this way - professionally - for over 25 years. If anything, this behaviour is invigorating: fresh off the back of curating London's Meltdown Festival and scoring Paul Bettany's movie Shelter, the Mo'Wax founder has stepped up to the freshly reincarnated Global Underground city series.

In classic Lavelle form, it's far more than a straight-up DJ mix. Across two CDs it features a wealth of reconstructions of acts such as Queens Of The Stone Age, Mark Lanegan, London Grammar, Noel Gallagher and Elliott Power, a brand new artist who Lavelle has temporarily reignited Mo'Wax to support. It also features a whole stack of of revised and revived UNKLE classics and a brand new track: a bold UNKLE take on Rui Da Silva's perennial pop-dance classic Touch Me. Oh, and it marks the start of a brand new UNKLE album which he hopes to complete and release by the end of next year.

But before we talk future, let's rewind.

To 2009, Bangkok, and your last Global Underground appearance.

"Since then, we've seen the biggest shift in dance music, technology and DJ culture I've experienced since I set up Mo'Wax 25 years ago! The influence of everything digital has caused a massive change, and there's been a huge shift in youth culture, especially in America. The main faces of dance music are young now, as they should be. The guys who were on top for 20 to 25 years are no longer quite as relevant and it's a new generation at the forefront.

"Obviously some of the original guys are still huge, but for years the DJ demographic was very different and now the whole perception of DJing has changed. Ostensibly nothing has changed - we still play music - but now you are a recording artist before you're a DJ. Before now there was a clear demarcation between producer and the people who played records. Giles Peterson or Normal Jay are great examples of this. Obviously some people have done both very successfully - Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin, Andrew Weatherall."

James Lavelle.

"I guess. My point is that DJs didn't become DJs just because they'd made records. They did it if they had something to say as a DJ. But now, to be a DJ you have to make tracks. I think what will be really interesting is who will survive this new cultural explosion and still be around in 20 or 30 years time. Will any of these new guys be like your Tenaglias or Garniers or Kevorkians and those legendary tastemakers now?"

Only time will tell. Garnier has publically dissed EDM DJs for not drawing so deep and only be playing hits. Is the role of tastemaker is being lost in the midst of hits?

"Perhaps. But people like Tenaglia and all those DJs I mentioned spent years on their craft before they became that big. So I wouldn't look to those big DJs as tastemakers."

Did you consider your role as a tastemaker while creating your Global Underground mix?

"Not really. I just picked the music that I love. One thing I've noticed lately is that people are making songs again. We're less track-based now and have a lot more properly constructed songs to draw from. But what really inspired me with this mix it that it was a physical release. This excited me because once something is released digitally it just exists or lingers in cyberspace. Having a physical product gave me the opportunity to put together things I've worked on, things I've loved and things I wanted to for a long time but not had the chance. Something like Sasha's Involver; a body of work that's more than just another mix."

It's also a nice reminder that UNKLE never really went away.

"You go through waves, don't you? I had a very productive five years as UNKLE, then I spent a few years doing lots of other projects. This is the start of me getting my head back into that space, slowly getting back into that world and working on a new album."

Your cover of Touch Me is an interesting choice.

"I've been playing it out recently and it's from a great era in dance music. It's one of those records that was massively populist but also cool. I wanted to do something on it for a long time and this was the right opportunity."

Leila Moss's vocals make it special.

"We've been working on and off for the last decade. I've always loved her voice and the way she works, her unique enunciation and delivery. Touch Mecould be really cheesy if it's not done the right way. She made it cool, basically."

Who's actually in UNKLE right now?

"Just me at the moment. UNKLE has always been a creative collective that's changed over the years. It's very fluid. So right now I'm just writing and opportunities and creative ideas arise from that. There are a lot of different ideas and directions flying around at the moment. I'm hoping to have something out by the end of the next year."

Great! Back from the future, why Naples as a city for your Global Underground mix?

"It's a beautiful city. I've always loved performing there and spending time there personally. There's a certain element of chaos and beauty which I know I could capture. Especially with a physical release, it was great to put out music, do something on a club level and do something visually. I highly recommend anyone spends time in Naples."

Tell me about Elliot Power. He features twice on the mix.

"He's incredible, isn't he? I met him through Phillipe Ascoli, who was founder of Source Records back in the day and now runs Marathon Records. I've known him since my days working at Honest Jons. He told me about Elliot, who was a fan of Mo'Wax, so we met up. I loved his vibe and what he's about. I'd been toying with the idea of doing some Mo'Wax collaborative projects and Elliot and Marathon were the ideal people to do this and help build Elliot's universe."

So this is a one-off or is Mo'Wax back for good?

"We've been doing collaborations for a while with clothing and books and Meltdown and brands like Saachi. I wouldn't want to go back to running a fully-fledged label again but I'm interesting in creative collaborations and opportunities when they arise. Elliot is a unique case that works: his style and personality remind me of the people I hung out with when I started the label."

That community sense of a label is really important. I remember a quote of yours saying that, at its height, Mo'Wax felt like a band and you were the lead singer. Do you think labels can still develop that type of culture now?

"There are many great underground labels who put out amazing records. But as far as labels having their own culture and community, you don't see that very much now. Maybe Young Turks? I don't collect labels in the way I did back in the day. Back at the time labels were a very social experience. It had an impact on your day-to-day life - how you communicated, how you made friends."

Quite a tribal thing.

"Yes. It probably is still now, but I'm not hanging out in Peckham or East London every night any more. During the Mo'Wax days it was very different: the internet was only starting, mobile phones didn't invade our lives in the way they do now. But I'm not in the pocket of hardcore youth culture like I was back then. Maybe it isn't quite so tribal but you would know about other scenes and little crews doing their thing. With or without hyper-connection, we still know about other subcultures but choose how we define ourselves.

"So, like the shift with younger DJs taking over, the impact of technology will have on the future is really interesting. How will people value creativity, music and culture in the future? I'm working with a lot of younger people who are now turning their back on the smart revolution and social media. They're being bombarded, so they're taking it back and finding space for themselves amid the constant barrage. It would be interesting to have this discussion in 10 years' time. We're in a perpetual change and flux right now, which can only be exciting."

Global Underground 42: James Lavelle Presents Unkle Sounds - Naples is out now

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Tags: James Lavelle, UNKLE, Rui Da Silva, Global Underground, Mo'Wax