My Life In Vinyl: James Lavelle interviewed

A cratedigger par excellence, James Lavelle has worked in legendary record shops, DJ’d in some of the world’s greatest clubs, started the game-changing Mo’ Wax label and worked with film directors including Danny Boyle and Alfonso Cuarón. He tells Gary Walker about the 10 records he’s most proud of.


James LavelleAs well as releasing sixth UNKLE album The Road: Part II (Lost Highway), 2019 sees Mo’ Wax founder James Lavelle celebrating 30 years as a club DJ. The 2014 Meltdown Festival curator has been a resident at Fabric, Berlin’s Watergate, Ibiza’s Space and Tokyo’s Womb as well as producing mixes for Cream and Fabric. Growing up in Oxford, Lavelle worked at legendary London record shop Honest Jon’s, starting his revolutionary Mo’ Wax label in 1992 with a loan from his boss Mark Ainley. Lavelle released DJ Shadow’s genre-straddling masterpiece Endtroducing in 1996, and two years later the pair unleashed the UNKLE cut-and-paste classic Psyence Fiction. Fusing hip-hop, trip-hop, indie-rock and electronic music, the record featured a stellar cast of vocalists including Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft and Ian Brown. Lavelle has also worked with Queens Of The Stone Age, produced remixes for bands including Massive Attack and The Verve, written several film soundtracks and nearly worked on a James Bond film with Danny Boyle. Here are 10 standout projects from an incredible career that has never strayed far away from the world of vinyl. 

headzVarious Artists
Mo’ Wax (1994)

“The Headz compilation was pretty pivotal. I did volumes one and two, and the first one really put Mo’ Wax on the map as far as presenting this new sound that was a more abstract, instrumentally led hip-hop sound. Also, visually it was important, because I worked with 3D from Massive Attack on the visuals and the artwork. I wanted to show this new sound that I’d been trying to champion and pioneer. It was a combination of Nightmares On Wax, Tranquility Bass, what was happening with people like DJ Shadow, R.P.M, LA Funk Mob and also people like Portishead and Massive Attack. Having grown up on a lot of cut and paste hip-hop records and abstract hip-hop records, whether that’s a Stetsasonic instrumental, or a Mantronix record, or a Major Force record… it was taking a lot of that stuff but doing it in this new way that combined more electronica and the influence of labels like Warp, as well as hip-hop labels. It was about putting this new world of emerging artists and records together and the beginning of this canvas that I suppose became widely known as trip-hop.”

Like ClockworkQueens Of The Stone Age
…Like Clockwork
Matador (2013)

“I’ve had a long relationship of working with Josh Homme, and at this time UNKLE had split up, I hadn’t made a record for a long time and had started working with Ridley Scott’s company. There was an opportunity to do the end title credits for the film The Counselor, so I asked Josh if he’d be interested. I thought his aesthetic would be so good for the film. He was making his new album, and was up for it, so I went to America. We came out with what we thought was a fantastic record, but Ridley didn’t go for it. Josh rang me and said, ‘I’m so relieved, because I’d like to use it as the lead track on my new album’. It was quite ironic for a hip-hop kid from Oxford to have your first No. 1 record in the States with Queens Of The Stone Age! I’m really proud of the track and I love that album.”

EndtroducingDJ Shadow
Mo’ Wax (1996)

Endtroducing was probably the greatest record I A&R’d and released at Mo’ Wax, and quite possibly in my whole career. That record changed everything for me, but also on a global level the way people perceived this movement. It’s arguably one of the greatest records ever, certainly in its field, and it’s the pinnacle of what was happening at that time. It’s DJ Shadow’s greatest record and one of those albums that transcends everything. It was a classical record… it was like The Dark Side Of The Moon… it had such an emotional, emotive field that connected with people who didn’t necessarily like hip-hop lyrically, and brought everybody together. People in so many different areas of music could emotionally feel what was going on in that scene. It transcended beyond the underground, in the same way that records like The Dark Side Of The Moon went beyond rock ‘n’ roll or psychedelic records. It was also intellectually brilliant, sonically brilliant… and made by a kid in America and A&R’d by somebody in the UK, pre the internet. That record stands for so many great things – and it was made in a bedroom! When that record started, I was 18, he was 19. To think at that age, that somebody can make something so sophisticated is pretty amazing.”

The VerveThe Verve
Bittersweet Symphony Remix
Hut (1997)
“It was that moment in my career when everything collided. Mo’ Wax, The Verve, Radiohead, all those fantastic bands we were hanging out with and championing suddenly became the biggest bands in the world. I went to the studio when Richard and the band were recording Urban Hymns and heard Bittersweet Symphony and it was one of the moments when you just know, ‘This is going to change everything. This is going to be the biggest record in the world’. Richard said, ‘Remix it’, I did and it became the most played remix ever on British radio at that time. It was one of those songs that you just knew exactly what to do with. I wanted to beats it up, there was a little bit of a cheeky Electric Prunes sample in there because that was a reference Richard and I had. We were both into David Axelrod, that was one of the first conversations we had when we met each other, and it was around the time of Psyence Fiction as well. It was just one of those moments when the planets aligned. It was a little moment, when you’re in your early 20s and you say, ‘We’re going to change everything. It’s us against the world and we’re going to fucking do it’.”

FabricliveJames Lavelle
Fabric (2001)
“It was the height of DJ’ing for me. I became one of the first residents at Fabric, this club created by clubbers. It was mindblowing to have it on your doorstep. The sound and the environment were perfect. Prior to that, a lot of clubs you played were coming from the discotheque era, but Fabric was perfect. They started doing the mix series and I did the first one. It showed the eclecticism of what was going on on a Friday and how the dots were being joined between Radiohead and Mo’ Wax and Bushwacka!, from house to techno, to hip-hop… in many ways, there were still a lot of boundaries between those genres. It was the best-selling mix album at the time and really broke down a lot of barriers. That’s always been part of what I’ve loved about DJ’ing – trying to push those lines. As a DJ, you push to play new things and experiment, but when you have a residency you also have these kind of re-occurring records that you bookend with. The tracklist was selected on that basis, really, trying to create something that would take you on a journey, as they were the classic moments of what I was playing at the club at that time.”

James LavelleJames Lavelle 
Trust OST
Lakeshore Records (2018)
“I had the honour to work with Danny Boyle on his first TV series, Trust, based on the story of Jean Paul Getty and his grandson, who was kidnapped. Danny has used quite a lot of my records in his films over the years, starting with The Beach and Lonely Soul. I’d always wanted to meet him and collaborate with him. I went to see Underworld at the Royal Festival Hall and met him there and exchanged numbers. I tried to get hold of him… and four years later I got a text saying, ‘Hey, sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to you. Would you like to work together?’. It was the idea of finally being able to do a James Lavelle/UNKLE soundtrack working with a subjectI liked, and working with him was incredibly rewarding. He’s so music-led and I was so film-led, so we had these great conversations about connecting these two passions. He’s incredibly hands-on, open, articulate and focused, everything you’d hope that working with a director would be. He was more brilliant than I’d even hoped. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, I was supposed to do a James Bond movie with him, and had formulated some ideas, but it wasn’t to be the case, which was very frustrating.”

RomaVarious Artists
Music Inspired By The Film Roma
Columbia (2019)
“I got a call to go and see this new film by Alfonso Cuarón, who I’m a huge fan of. I went to see Roma a long time before it came out and it blew my mind. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d seen in a long time. He asked if I’d be up for contributing a song to an ‘inspired-by’ soundtrack. I’d been wanting to work with Michael Kiwanuka for a long time, I love him as a writer and a singer, and I got to work with him on On My Knees. We created something that I felt was lyrically a reflection of what the film had given me. We did something beautiful and I was able to work with Wil Malone on the string arrangements, who’s done things like Unfinished Sympathy, Neneh Cherry, The Verve… it was just one of those perfect mixtures. I’d wanted to make more of a soul record for a long time and it brought me back to where I’d started. Originally, Psyence Fiction was going to be something much more akin to Blue Lines, much more soul-oriented, and it just ended up going off in the direction it did and being this new indie vocals, hip-hop record. I felt like I was going back to the beginning, which was great.”


Psyence Fiction
Mo’ Wax (1998)
Lonely Soul is one of my proudest moments. When I spoke to Wil Malone, I wanted to make Blue Lines meets The Verve, meets Adagio For Strings. When I started making that with him I was 22, and stepping back from it, it’s pretty emotionally poignant and intellectually brilliant in the sense of what you’re trying to achieve at that age. To programme and make a record like that at that time was hard. All the beats were made on MPC, there was no Ableton, it was the time of early Pro Tools. Emotionally and technically, it’s a pretty amazing piece of work. The album, for all of its up and downs, some people saying it’s the worst record ever, some people saying it’s brilliant, if you step back and look at it as a whole, it’s a game-changing record made by a kid in England and a kid in America. The recording sessions with Richard Ashcroft were brilliantly good fun and Thom Yorke was very special, too. It was done in Marin County opposite Lucas (Skywalker) Ranch, a residential studio overlooking a valley, with eagles flying around. When Thom did the vocal, it was just me, Shadow and him in the studio, and it was one take. One take! Me and Shadow just looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my God’.”

Sexy BeastVarious Artists
Sexy Beast OST
Edel Records (2001)
“This was an interesting one. It was that period of time where electronic artists of my generation weren’t seen as big enough to be doing soundtracks. Jonathan Glazer called me and said he’d had a nightmare with a composer, and would I be up for doing the music for his film? I saw a rush of the movie, and ended up doing eight tracks. We had eight days to do it! We went to Nellee Hooper’s studio in Kensal Rise and locked ourselves in and did the soundtrack. We wanted to create something that had a kind of tension, and I was looking to combine references of drum & bass with Suicide, a weird sort of dark electronic sound. It was an insane session but ended up becoming one of the most referenced soundtracks of the time. The big irony was I never got the credit for doing the soundtrack.”

War Stories
Surrender All (2007)
“This is one of the albums I’m most proud of because it’s coming out of a lot of things – the breakdown of Mo’ Wax and that world, trying to move on from a lot of stuff and find a new identity. It was at the start of my relationship with Queens Of The Stone Age and being really inspired by them and what was going on with that world of rock. I loved what they did with their drums – the speed and the drive and groove to things. Drums have always led a lot of what I’ve done musically. It’s always one of the first things I look at. Me and Rich [File] went to America and tried to reinvent ourselves, and it became a bit of a global phenomena, one of the most licensed records of that time in film and advertising. We were in LA for three months experiencing all that and being in Joshua Tree, and it was a really important experience in my life. My relationship with Chris Goss, who produced the record with me, started here. There was this interesting historical process to working with him. He was best friends with people like the Dust Brothers and worked with Delicious Vinyl, so there was this great period of learning more about music and being out of your comfort zone.”

Gary Walker