The Electronic Music Conference kicks off in Sydney next month, and as part of its evening program – EMCPlay – will be a screening of the documentary on Mo’Wax and UNKLE founder James Lavelle, The Man From Mo’Wax. Paris Pompor from Groovescooter is curating the film program of the festival, which will screen at the Surry Hills cinema Golden Age. Ahead of the screening, Paris caught up with the film’s director Matthew Jones to talk about the film, which also features interviews from DJ Shadow, Thom Yorke, Grandmaster Flash and more..
James Lavelle – the man known as UNKLE and the man behind British bellwether record label Mo’Wax – achieved more by his late-teens than most of us do in a lifetime. A millionaire label executive by 21 and already an in-demand DJ, his ideas are many but his exact talents are hard to pin down. Conceptualist, conduit, collector and collaborator, alongside Massive Attack he spearheaded the global rise of trip hop, as well as turntablism as an album artform with DJ Shadow’s now legendary Endtroducing… LP. Landing his label and artists on every major music magazine cover during the ‘90s, Mo’Wax was a Lavelle-led movement, admired for its aesthetic as well as its sound. He launched the recording careers of respected artists whilst he himself became known as a producer in his own right.
Documentary The Man From Mo’Wax distills Lavelle’s phenomenal journey into a tightly crafted, must-see “warts and all” film. Full of archival nuggets (like DJ Shadow climbing over mountains of vinyl in dank basements) alongside other previously unseen, highly personal footage, there’s also a swag of well-known cameos: From Radiohead’s Thom Yorke – on George Lucas’ ranch no less – to Gift Of Gab, DJ Krush, Gilles Peterson, Grandmaster Flash and Futura 2000. Like many music documentaries, the story is one of excess and the seemingly inevitable downfall.
Below, director Matthew Jones is happy to fill in the film’s backstory.
Paris Pompor: James is a complex, multi-dimensional character, which comes across in the film. You show him warts and all and in some fairly candid and personal situations. What was his reaction to the seeing the finished edit?
Matthew Jones: I remember the first day we showed him the first rough cut. We had this cinema in Soho in London we booked just for him to screen it. So it’s this one big empty room with James Lavelle sitting in the middle and us sitting behind him hoping for the best. That was a very emotional experience for him as it would be for anyone seeing their whole life played back to them in two hours. I don’t know what that would feel like. But credit to him because after that he just came up with a number of ideas for additional interviews he thought would make it more rich and more insightful… So after that we shot an interview – [for] example – with the Turner Prize nominee Nathan Coley, who is one of James’ closest friends. James very much had ideas about where the film was flabby… I think the great thing about James is he’s able to have that distance. Even thought it’s a film about him, he could look at it objectively…
Firstly, congratulations on the film, your treatment of the story, the use of music and the editing/production is beautifully executed. Was your vision for how the film would ultimately look always in your head from the outset, or did it evolve over the course of filming or during discussions with the editor?
When [editor] Alec Rossiter came in – he came with several great ideas in terms of trying to treat our archive [footage] like DJ Shadow would treat samples. One of the first things I had done when we first started the editing process, [was] I had every single Mo’Wax track I could get my hands on and UNKLE’s entire back catalogue, put on to one iPOD. I listened to that throughout the months and years we were doing the project.
I always planned for it to be this extravaganza of archive footage from all over the world, because James is an international DJ and has travelled across the globe… There have been so many people who have filmed him over the years. We [also] always wanted there to be a home-video aspect to the film. When I sat down before we started editing, I said I really wanted the first 45 minutes to be like this incredible rise to fame… and the people he met along the way. So that first 45 minutes is like a rock ’n’ roll adventure that you go on with him. It puts you in those shoes and then we kind watch it unravel.
The film was been ten years in the making. Can you give a bit of a background on your relationship with Lavelle and the project’s history?
We shot first up in late 2006. Initially at that stage it was intended to just be a “tour stories” film about UNKLE on the road for the first time as ‘UNKLE live’ touring the world… It was just going to go on-line. But through filming… and learning more about James’ rich history, the thing that really ignited our imagination [was] James’ amazing catalogue of work across the years. He’s really been a pioneer, someone who’s pushed boundaries in music going back to the early ‘90s. That was too good a back story, we thought, to just make an on-line film about.
In addition, what happened was that once we’d made that decision to make a bigger project, the band then said: Why don’t you stick around and film our next album (the album after War Stories). It wasn’t a quick process. That album took about two and a half years to get made and along the way we had a lot of sticky issues. Partly the film was filmed by James’ former partner and during the process of the film they got divorced. There were points at which the film wasn’t going to happen.
Besides admiring James Lavelle’s catalogue of work, why did you think his story was an important one to be told?
He embodies the music industry’s ups and downs. A lot of the more dark times James has come through have been the result of not just the things he’s done, but also wider industry trends that he’s never really been in control of. The music industry and its changes, is this kind of background pernicious monster in our film. It keeps coming in and pulling the rug from under him. That’s what made his story special. The [other] thing that separates James from the pack is that there aren’t many other people who start out making a record label and then become the artist on that record label and have a career that lasts nearly three decades. It’s not only that he discovered some great artists along the way, he’s come from an A&R background and become the artist himself. Again, that’s kind of unique. Also the things he did around the record label in terms of creating a culture, it was so different and ahead of its time. Things like doing trainer collaborations with Nike. Things like doing amazing vinyl packages. Things like doing art shows. All these things make Lavelle… an incredibly interesting individual who warrants a film. It’s not just a band film.
I love the film’s opening quote: “Art isn’t art until it’s sold. Till then it’s obsession and a storage problem.” What’s the story behind that quote?
Specifically the key theme, which we always wanted to be there as a kind of subtextual narrative element, was the battle between art versus commerce. How you marry the two in the music industry. I wanted the film to read like a book in many ways, because it does have this grand, epic, biopic feel to it. When reading a book, you’ll often get a great quote at the beginning of the book which sums up one of the key themes and kind of lets you know what you’re about to enter in to. I think it’s a really good device that works in cinema as well.
Where did [the quote] come from? I honestly can’t remember. When we were looking for an art and commerce quote, I remembered the quote and searched for it on-line to research where it came from and it was ‘anonymous’. I’ve done a lot of digging and I can’t find out who said it originally.