Factory-farmed, JAMES tuck into a bean fest with carrot-crunchin’ DON WATSON.
“We take a lot from TV, particularly children’s. We used the Rainbow theme tune too. Beatrix Potter is a big influence.”
EVERY DAY they deliver themselves to the door of the pop abattoir. Fresh-faced, pink-cheeked and plump, they line up at one end, patient and compliant.
And they conveyer belt grinds away. . .
From the other end emerge neat little packages– pork pie singles, neatly cut and nicely glossed.
What’s so disturbing about our current breed is not only the unnatural strength of their herd instinct, but also their apparent zest for their own carve-up. If they don’t yet come ready-sliced, they’re sure marked “cut on the dotted line”–and in their own eye-liner, too. Retarded pigs, woolly-brained sheep and prize turkeys the lot of them.
Under such circumstances, it’s scarcely suprising that some of us have more sympathy for the wolves– they may be hard at the core but their company is more fun. But every now and then, from the ranks of the herbivores, there falls an unlikely offspring.
Such are James, strange and ungainly, awkward and charming– a black sheep at last.
HERE THEY come in their cardboard box van. Here they come, trundling around the country in a truck designed for the get ahead greengrocer of the 1950’s. Here they come, the reputed Taoist vegans, another Manchester quartet supporting The Smiths on their nationwide tour. Here come the old pop perpetrators. Playing music! Eating beansprouts!
Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce James– saviours of nothing at all, suppliers of intriguing music.
Vocalist Tim wears what appears to be a white football jersey onstage and possesses possibly the most appalling pair of shoes I’ve ever seen (the kind that look like large brown omelettes). He talks softly and convincingly but warns the listener that by tomorrow he’ll have changed his mind. He has a sense of humour (which, with those shoes, is just as well).
Drummer Gavan has a beard, wears shorts onstage, and maintains he once liked Led Zeppelin (he also has a sense of humour). As recently reported, he has been known to indulge in jam sessions with house bands in Greek restaurants. “But they threw me off after two numbers,” he moans, “and charged me full price for the meal.”
Bassist Jim is thin with short straight hair and is, for inexplicable reasons, a generic Mancunian. He started James when his friend at school bought a nicked guitar.
Guitarist Larry has a beard and wears glasses. He appears onstage in yellow trousers.
James are, as everyone associated with Factory has told me, strange.
Our first encounter takes place after this first support slot on The Smiths tour. In their van, they’re tucking in to a celebratory post-gig mixture of baked beans, bean- sprouts, and brown rice. They have to be back early to their bed and breakfast abode– this ain’t rock and roll.
“Vegans yes, Buddhists no,” they maintain concerning certain rumours currently circulating. “God knows where they got that one from.” They continue to conduct a eminently knowledgeable conversation about the yin and yang of food.
Passing their home photos to the bemused photographer, they discuss how it nice it would be to stick a snap-shot of a friend on the front cover of NME as representative of a James piece. They seem to be serious, although with James it’s often hard to tell.
LIKE I say, James are strange and indeed it’s their strangeness that’s their strength. As evidence, may I refer you back to their two excellent Factory singles– ‘Jim One’ and ‘James Two’.
Released in October ’83, at a time when the country was rank with Postcard plagiarists, ‘Jim One’ didn’t sound too much like_ anything, but it was touched by a almost frantic energy that charged with the thrill of a “Falling and Laughing”, a “Radio Drill Time”, or a “Get Up an Use Me”.
‘Folklore’, the most individual of the three songs on ‘JIm One’, took the same folk tinges that were being touched by the then nascent Smiths, and expanded them to full nasal extremes. Lyrically they played with self- examination, humour and contridiction, spinning a delightful web of nonsense. There was something special about ‘Jim One”.
From here to silence. The Smiths rose, James ducked. Illness, and their insistence on individual methods kept James schtum. Their low profile was broken only for the odd New Order support slot– their ruptures were met with raptures but still no more was forthcoming. The conveyer belt was not for James.
As undoubtedly the brightest prospect for ’85, James were to be the cover of the New Year NME. They refused– “We want to introduce the band by music, not words,” was their argument. James are not interesting in shouting, Look at Me!
Now at last, there’s the second single, the classic ‘James II’, pairing the offbeat anthemic ‘Hymn From a Viilage’ with the spindly romanticism of ‘If Things Were Perfect’. And with a support slot of The Smiths grand-scale British tour, it seems that James are, however reluctantly, set to attract attention.
THE SMITHS have sown their seed, but not yet spawned their imitators. Some cloth-eared observers, seeing Morrisey as a man who might not be averse to flattery, have misread James’ sincerity.
“It doesn’t really annoy us,” says Tim, “it doesn’t really touch us, because we’ve been going so long, and anyone who really took the trouble to find out about us would know that we’ve been playing those songs and that music before, it’s just through force of circumstances, and through the popularity of The Smiths that we find ourselves in fashion.
“We’d worry about it if we didn’t have strong songs, but we do.”
There are features in common of course, a certain folk influence a vulnerability in the singing. Not that it’s a race, but in many ways James are ahead of The Smiths; live they reach far further into areas of form experimentation only touched on by The Smiths in ‘Barbarism Begin At Home’. Morrisey is certainly not taking the easy option by inviting his favourite band on tour with him.
“They were offered money to take people on this tour,” Tim points out, “but instead they’re paying us and losing money.”
“WHATS THIS then, a school party?” asks the hunched caretaker in West Country drawl as photographer Ridgers leads us through the graveyard gate towards the mausoleum for the photo-session.
Um no, we just wanted to have a look around.
“Weeeell, you be supposed to get permission, there’s some strange_ things been happening around here.”
“Strange unnatural_ things,” we chorus once out of ear-shot.
Strange James may be, but unnatural never. Their vegan lifestyle, their attitude toward music is all directed to the concept of natural music– that may sound like a soundtrack to meusli munching, but there’s a touch more to it than that.
“If you drink a lot or whatever,” says Tim, “you’re always swinging from one extreme to another. A lot of our approach is concentrated around the idea of maintaining a balance.”
“Then you have the strength to pursue your own interests, rather than being pulled by other influences,” says Jim.
“You have a strong centre which you can then work from,” Tim continues. “People have this idea that balance has something to do with conservatism. They seem to think that it’s the core of this society, which is rubbish, this society is a very unbalanced one. To be balanced in this society is to be radical and extreme, whereas to be ill in this society is to be normal.”
Of course I have my copy of _Under The Volcano_ peering from my pocket and can’t quite agree with this as a rule. Try as I might I can’t picture Jane Fonda as more extreme than Charles Bukowski, Malcolm Lowry or Antonin Artaud. My mind also runs to favourite sick men like Nick Cave and Blixa Bargeld, sometimes victims of their own excesses to be sure, but far from normal.
Black sheep James have it seems, been tempted themselves to run with the wolves.
“Something like the early Birthday Party was really appealing to me,” says Tim, “and it was appealing because it was self-destructive, it appealed to the adolescent in me. You look at the world, see how awful it is, realise you can’t change anything and you just turn your anger inwards, you just want to burn up. It seems like a romantic, mythical way to go, but inside it it’s really shit.”
Tim recently had a dream.
“I met Nick Cave, and he was showing me a video of The Birthday Party doing a fantastic version of ‘Dead Joe’ and I was going God! How did you do_ it? Then I looked at him and his face was just covered in huge craters, turning green and falling away in lumps, and I said, Ah, I see how you did it! It seems that if you really want to create that type of poison then you’re going to get poisoned by it in the process.”
Instead James have swung to the opposite extreme– and their resultant individuality is testament that it is, as they claim, an extreme. Particularly live, James are a certain sound pushed towards its limit.
“It is a matter of the balance between order and chaos,” says Tim, “always seeing how far you can go without the results sounding actually unpleasant. Always teetering on the brink of pure chaos, but always keeping that thread.”
IN THE age of gloss-finished, soul-less single, ‘Jim One’ and ‘James Two’ are appealingly messy. They sound urgent, direct, and rough around the edges.
“That’s because they’re recorded live,” explains Gavan, “also because quite frequently, we don’t know where the songs are going to start and stop.
“Particularly live the songs are rarely in a finished form, they’re just collections of threads of ideas that that can always vary. The idea, theoretically, is that when a song stops being changed by the new inputs and new ideas then it’s recorded and then ideally we never play it again.”
“Unfortunately it doesn’t always work like that,” counters Tim, “With ‘If Things Were Perfect’, for example, we’d been playing that for three years, then on the day we came to record it, it just changed.”
So what if you had the money to afford a big expensive studio and expensive production?
“I think we’d record rehearsals instead,” replies Jim, “or maybe work in a classical studio with the methods we use now. The trouble with working with rock studios is that they’re just not used to doing live recordings.”
“We have got tamer,” says Tim, “we’ve had to. At one time the majority of our material was made up onstage, and either we’d be great or we’d make absolute arseholes of ourselves.”
“Once on a New Order support slot, Jim and the other guitarists we had at the time just went on with acoustic guitars and jammed. We used to swap instruments a lot more too; one time Gavan just walked offstage and left us to get on with it, leaving me to play drums. We used to do that a lot, just disrupt each other deliberately, just to make it more exciting, now we just leave songs open ended.”
It occured to me that ‘If Things Were Perfect’ showed the noble influence of the _Camberwick Green_ theme tune.
“Yes,” replies Tim straightfaced,”that’s where we lifted it from, consciously– we take a lot from TV, particularly children’s. We used the _Rainbow_ theme tune too. Beatrix Potter is a big influence.”
Sounds inconsolably twee.
“Not at all, have you read the _Tale Of Samuel Whiskers_? That’s about a cat that crawls up a chimney and gets captured by a big rat in a waistcoat who puts it in a roly-poly pudding. All the mother cat can hear downstairs is this roly-poly-roly-poly sound. She doesn’t know they’ve got her kitten and they’re turning it into a pie.
“I used to have nightmares about being put in a sandwich after that one.”
JAMES ARE happier in the turnip field opposite than in the mausoleum. Once the photo-session’s over they can even dig up dinner.
Are you a bunch of hippies?
“Hmmm, radical Neils, that’s the current stereotype for vegetarians, isn’t it?”
As with The Smiths, there’s a strong undertow of folk in James’ themes.
“My dad’s a folk singer,” says Gavan, “so that might have something to do with it– 24-verse Scottish ballads and all that which takes some doing.
“I think there is a bit more to it than that, though, it’s a lot to do with modal tunes, which seem to be in all of us. What we used to do at the beginning was to try and strip our influences down– if we jammed a song and it sounded a bit too much like Joy Division, New Order, Birthday Party, Pop Group or whoever, we’d just stop playing it. When we stripped them all down we were left with folkish, modal tunes. There’s something about them which seems to be characteristic of British people.”
HERE THEY come, trundling around the country in their top-speed-20 van.
Why, you sometimes wonder, do they do it?
Jim: “When you play a song at the point when you write it, and it’s just so good. In a way you know that you’ll never play it that well again, there’s a tremendous buzz from that.”
Tim: “When everyone changes together at the same time and you’ve never played the song before, so you shouldn’t know, but just because you’ve been playing together for so long you anticipate it.”
Larry: “It goes on to another level and everyone realises and starts grinning at one another.”
Tim: ” You’re trying not to stop because all you really want to do is burst out laughing. So we play for about 20 minutes and then fall about in hysterics.”
“Then you’ve got to condense 20 minutes of ideas into one song,” says Gavan.
“Most of our best songs actually are based on mistakes,” says Tim. “When you make mistakes that’s when you’re acting from yourself, rather than what you’ve learned or heard before– chord changes that go wrong, drum beats that fall apart.”
“When it collapses,” Gavan adds, “somehow something comes out of the other end.”
Meanwhile the conveyer belt grinds on. . .
Tim: ” ‘If Things Were Perfect’– it’s partly about the way people will say, Hey! We’re having a great time! Come and join us! But you really know they’re not, they just need people to reinforce the idea that they’re having a great time, you can see that they’ve got frozen smiles.”
Somehow I get the impression that James will keep going their own sweet way.