This James gang are different. Different from what, and how, remains to be answered. But definitely different.
For a start, most bands who’d been feted by the music press and courted so assiduously by record companies would have jumped at the opportunity of selling their soul (music) by signing on the dotted line for a massive advance, and having their faces plastered across the nation’s news stands. Not James. Having dipped their toes into the murky waters and have decided to wait until they come up with a scheme to sterilise the cesspool before they plunge in.
After the release of their first single Jimone (pronounced Jim 1) during the back end of 1983, James laid low for a year, partly by design and partly enforced by singer and lyricist Tim Booth’s bout of hepatitis. In the last six months, the release of the musically more sophisticated James II (no prizes for the pronounciation) and the coveted slot as support on the recent Smiths tour has seen James move up from likely contenders to dead certs for the title of the “next big thing”
James pop is proving to be a breath of fresh air in what has become a stale self-congratulatory idiom. Gavan Whelan’s drumming provides a precise backbone for bassist Jim Glennie and guitarist Larry Gott’s whirling musical dervlish. When did we last have a potential chart act whose intelligent lyrics force you to put down what you’re doing and actually listen to the radio?
Comparisons with The Smiths abound, not least because Morrissey has taken it as a personal crusade to champion the James cause to all who would listen, and everyone else, too. The Smiths have based a career on perming Johnny Marr’s two tunes with Morrissey’s two theme – misery and sexual abstinence. Although most Smiths songs stand out individually, collectively they’re at risk of sinking into a whining sludge.
By contrast, James, with only five songs released so far, have traversed a breadth of emotion within a remarkably varied musical format. They have recently been re-released as a twelve inch under the title Village Fire. This combines the strangely hypnotic anti-sexist themes of Folklore, the drivingly anthemic rush of What’s The World (a genuine pop classic), the staccato-like angst of Fire So Close, the reflective romanticism of If Things Were Perfect and the powerful musical synthesis of the celebratory Hymn From A Village.
James have cultivated a reputation for being a bunch of eccentrics. False rumours abound that they’re a collection of crazy Buddhists, no doubt fuelled by the fact that they used to go around with their heads shaved calling each other “Buddha” or “Gandhi”. They’re also the proud owners of a van which looks like a relic from a time long past. They trundle up and down the country at a snail’s pace cooking their vegetarian food in this home-from-home. Every James interview seems to take place over a wholesome meal – we were meant to meet at The Hare Krishna Restaurant. What I still haven’t discovered is how a band who eat so much manage to stay so thin.
How did the name of James come about?
“Our ex-guitarist came up with it,” replies Jim. “He may have named us after James from Orange Juice, he fell in love with him.”
“Also, there was a surfeit of Jameses in the band then,” adds Gavan. “Anyway, my name would be too Heavy-Metal sounding”
Tim : “I don’t like the name much”
What would you prefer “Timothy”? Shane MacGowan of The Pogues observed that he would have preferred Jim to James. Do James get portrayed as being too serious?
“No, we’re not,” responds Tim, “we’re seen as wacky vegans, garden gnomes, Buddhist gurus or even Tiny Tims”
Jim : “People ask us banal questions like ‘Is Morrissey celibate?'”
Larry : “Or ‘Was Ian Curtis buried or cremated?'”
Tim, when you used to have your head shaved in the past, you said it was because you were disgusted. With what?
Larry : “Dandruff”
“That was my standard reaction in those days,” says Tim. “It was disgust with everything, myself included. It wasn’t a very positive outlook and it had to change.”
It was about this time that the Buddhist rumours were bandied.
Gavan : “We weren’t surprised, though they were false.”
“None of us adhere to any religions,” adds Tim. “They’re based on faith and belief, not personal experience.”
“Some Buddhist ideas are quite good. For example, the idea that this is all an illusion and that you label things, and then stop actually seeing them because you’ve given them a name. So you don’t actually see what a tree is, you just call it ‘tree’ and that takes care of that.”
What have been the major influences on you?
Tim : “Everyone is a hotch-potch of influences, it would be difficult to pull out any specific ones. Our childhood and parents are bound to have the greatest effect upon us. I used to go to church a lot and that’s coming out in our songs now – those God-awful Christian hymns! If we see something that’s too overtly like something else, we don’t use it.”
Gavan : “Individually we all have our influences but collectively they don’t come through.”
Gavan cites various jazz musicians while Tim talks of Doris Lessing. Interestingly, no mention is made of contemporary pop music. Do you ally yourself with any other bands?
“We hardly listen to pop music anymore,” replies Larry. “I think we share attitudes more than music with other groups.”
“We had a group outing to see Dollar Brand” adds Jim.
You’ve quoted him saying “I’m not a musician, I’m being played” before. What exactly did you mean?
Tim : “In our day-to-day life, thought results in a time delay before it’s translated into action. But when we’re playing and it’s going really well, we don’t really think about it, it just happens spontaneously. The music almost becomes out of our control.”
Gavan : “Usually when we rehearse a song for the first time, you get that feeling where the hair stands up on the back of your neck. We hit the highest peaks during our practices.”
You came out of Manchester at the time Joy Division were in their prime. They must have had an effect on you.
Jim : “A lot of their music was very minimalistic, simple and depressing and that did influence us. Although we’ve got away from the depression, we’ve always been pretty basic.”