James, a charming Mancunian foursome write tunes tingling enough to excite the man who discovered Madonna. After indie success, now they want mega fame. Eleanor Levy reckons they could be as big as Cheesy Wotsits.
An Indian restaurant in Whalley Range can throw up some strange characters. Eastern sounds float lazily around in the atmosphere, an old guitar sage sits in one corner while a bearded drummer taps constantly on the table whilst searching vainly for his vegetable dahl.
James are in the heart of their home city. And yes, it is raining.
The desperate race has already begun to discover that most lucrative of objects – The Band of 86.
In short, the collection of musical souls who will breathe fresh life back into a snoozy music industry, liven up the deadliest of dull charts – and make someone, somewhere very rich indeed.
While some noses turn sheep-like towards the preposterous preening of Sweet-On-Sennapods soundalikes Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and others to any number of pretenders to the U2 throne, there’s one band that have none of the trendiness of the former, nor the guitar swirling pomposity of the latter.
James are a Mancunian foursome. They’ve been around, in some form or other for six years, but play with the enthusiasm and joy of a bunch of novices.
James have a rather stupid name, but two timelessly charming singles on Factory Records to their credit.
They once supported The Smiths around the concert halls of Britain and – after much deliberation – have just been signed by the man who discovered Madonna.
James, erstwhile indie favourites and no doubt with neatly spruced belly buttons to the fore are making their play for big label success.
Tim Booth, Gavan Whelan, Jimmy Glennie and Larry Gott are the four individuals who make up James.
They laugh a lot, write rather good tunes and perform them with a sparse but energetic sound and much twitching and twirling from Timothy.
Their forthcoming single “Chain Mail” is the first since signing to Sire / blanco y negro for a rather nice, if undisclosed sum. Out at the turn of the month, it’s the first chance for most people to hear them.
“We want to be as big as Coca Cola,” says Tim. “But we won’t rot your teeth.”
It all began six years ago. The cultural centre of the music scene had switched from London to the North. The safety pin was no longer the holy relic it was purported to be.
Instead the cult of the dirty mac was in full fringe-flopping flow.
In Liverpool, Ian MacCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie were the monickers to bandy round, while Manchester’s greatest musical export since Freddie Garrity went by the name of Joy Division. Coming up the rear was one Mark E Smith and his cheery Fall crew.
And in the Whelan household’s front room, Gavan and Jimmy Glennie, just recently introduced by a mutual schoolfriend, were practising songs by these two most influential of local bands.
Some two years later, Gavan and Jim were joined by Tim, first as a dancer (and if you’ve seen them live, the wonders of his epiletic skank will already have been revealed to you), then as singer of the still unnamed band.
At this time, the vocalist was one Danny Ram, whose departure was followed by even greater things in the world of entertainment.
Jim : “On the Val Doonican show”
Tim : “He did the rocking chair. He pulled the string”
With a sense of humour like that in tow, Tim, Jim and Gavan set about thinking up a name that would sum up their musical aspirations. Or not, as it turned out.
Tim : “James really didn’t mean anything but it was quite an original name back them. There were no Smiths… No other bands with just a name for their title”
Gavan : “There were lots of bands with long names at the time”
Jim : “It was things like Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, that sort of alternative thing. Only it wasn’t alternative anymore”
Tim : “And with the name James, people didn’t know what to expect, a hairdresser, a poet or whatever”
Gavan : “So they got both”
Larry : “That’s right, we’re hairdressing poets”
Eighteen months ago, the line-up was completed when “old guitar sage” Larry left a life of teaching other people around Manchester how to find fame through six strings and some nimble fret work and took to a life of performing himself.
James first appearance on vinyl was three years ago with ‘Jimone’, a collection of three songs that long ago sold out of the initial few thousand pressings.
Together with James II (‘Hymn From A Village’ and ‘If Things Were Perfect’) they appeared on a 12 inch EP late last year, again on Factory.
Jim : “All we’ve done is made two singles with Factory. We’ve never signed anything and have never considered ourselves on Factory. I don’t know if they did. They were really good. They let us do whatever we wanted and it worked really well at the time”
Tim : “I think we always had our eye on moving, taking things on a step and just moving onto bigger things. Our experience with Factory in this country with the singles has been that they were quite …. inefficient in a way. And we didn’t want to trust an album worldwide to them.”
Gavan : “They haven’t got the capital behind them. They’ve got £5,000 or something for a single, but as soon as it’s released, then that’s the money gone. There’s no money to back it up until it starts selling.”
Jim : “We got to a stage where we thought we’d got good enough music to reach a lot of people, so we decided to sign up with a major label. There just doesn’t seem to be any alternative to us anymore.”
Ten years after the punk explosion was supposed to end the dominance of the major labels, it’s rather sad that bands still feel the need of the heavy backing of a major corporation to gain the success they yearn for, but such is the situation.
After months of rumours about large cheques exchanging hands in return for James’ collective signature, they finally signed for Sire together with blanco y negro in November last year.
So why was it necessary?
Larry : “To get an LP out basically”
Tim : “And to do it professionally. We’ve spent a long time on songs and you want them to sound the best you can”
Jim : “We signed with Seymour Stein. He’s the guy who signed Madonna and Talking Heads. So we want to be the next Madonna. They have this huge promotion scheme for us. They’re going to make us shave our beards and Larry’s going to have to wear compact lenses . We’re really into it, because we’re in to being puppets”
If James were at all hesitant about relinquishing their indie status and “selling their souls to the devils”, they hide it very well.
With their diminutive minders Martine and Jenny keeping a sharp eye on their business interests, just how much control are they going to have over the way they are to be sold to the wider record buying public?
Tim, Jim, Gavan, Larry : “None!”
Tim: “We said, do what you want with us. we want fame.”
Jim: “Give us your money. We will only sign for lots of money.”
Tim: “Thirty quid. We come cheap. Jim was a bit hesitant. We had to beat him every night to persuade him.”
Jim; “I was convinced we were worth 35, but. ..”
Behind the frivolity, though, is a group of people who appear to know exactly what they’re doing and are under no illusions as to the situation they are getting into.
Tim: “The thing is, we looked at different companies and the thing about Seymour Stein is that he seems to be quite a music fan whereas with everyone else we saw, there were nice individuals but they were ‘business men’.
“There are businessmen behind Seymour Stein, but it was nice to see the person in control of it all was a music fan.”
“We’ve got a fair amount of control. We haven’t got total control, which is what we thought we’d get, but we’ve got quite a lot. We thought we’d hang out for total control – for eight months – but we never got it.
“We all thought our music was so. ..”
Jim: “Brilliant. ”
Tim; “That they’d eventually say, do what you want, boys.”
Jim: “Geniuses, geniuses!”
Tim: “And unfortunately they weren’t like that. Some of them were incredible. They’d say, ‘Oh, this is great’, then suggest a single for release and say, ‘But you have to chop the last minute off the end’ or ‘You have to stick this or that in’.” Gavan: uOr ‘You’ve not got enough choruses’ or ‘Can anyone play a synthesiser?’.”
Tim: “One guy thought we had a few wild songs. but some good commercial songs too, so he thought we could make an album of commercial songs, then press a few of the wild ones and give them away to our fans.”
With the contract they have signed, though, James are confident that they’ll be consulted on everyttling to do with them.
“They can’t do anything without asking the band first, ” points out manager Martine.
Jim: “Then we say no and they just go ahead and do it anyway!”
So far, James’s media image has come across as anything from “Buddhist vegans” to surly musos to wacky chaps who appear to be wearing custard pies on their feet”.
Being neither Buddhists nor vegans, and there certainly don’t appear to be any custard pies hiding under the table today, there’s just the surliness and furrowed brows to find out about.
Unfortunately, James positively beam with good humour. (Well, Tim and Jim do, Larry kind of smirks enigmatically, while Gavan’s style leans more towards the wry curl of the lip than cheery grins, but it amounts to the same thing.)
Gavan: “Smiling. That’s something a lot of people have picked up on as well. We smile a lot on stage apparently. Dead wacky that”
Jim: “Smile ‘smugly’ at each other.”
Larry : “The fact that we’re from Manchester and Manchester bands don’t smile seems to confuse some people. The new Manchester misery guts school – James don’t just fit in.”
Tim : “That’s another thing. Not many “serious” bands smile. Bands which seem to have serious music they’ve worked hard on , you make a joke and it somehow seems to undermine it. There aren’t many bands that are passionate who also make jokes – even in records. There are some that sneak them in and hide them, and some like the Fall, you can’t tell whether it’s humour or grotesqueness. Instead, you’re meant to walk around being angst ridden and full of fury and depresssion”
Jim: “We are, aren’t we?”
James are under no illusion that as the new Duran Duran, they would stand as much chance as Michael Heseltine keeping his hair in place. The new Wham! even. And as for the new Aha – well my dear, they wouldn’t stand an earthly!
No, their aspirations lie more in the area of Tom Waits or, more to the pop Talking Heads- artists who have achieved a fair amount of commercial success; but at no expense to their ‘credibility’ (ahem) or musical brilliance.
Larry: “What’s ‘big’ or successful anyway, Is it sales of records or is it how much in the public eye you are! There are some people who are not in the public eye and they sell a consistent number of records. That’s a good situation to be in.”
James’s music is never likely to be a favourite on the Steve Wright show nor are they perhaps the stuff the musical breaks on Pebble Mill are made of.
Their songs range from the quirky to the downright tuneful and pleasant. If the commercial success they deserve does come, it’s likely to be through building a following live and subsequent album sales rather than snappy three minute songs -although don’t discount that possibility too quickly.
Tim: “I think we might sneak in like the Police did. Their stuff was very good at the beginning. Maybe more commercially accessible than ours, but they went through and established themselves very quickly after hard work. ”
Jim: “We have got more commerciaily accessible songs. ”
Tim: “All we do is put them out the best we can in the way that we like them. I hope we’d never put out anything just sell large numbers.”
Jim: “Though if we’ve got mortgages going -!”
And so, with contracts signed, the first single waiting in the wings and maybe the odd new woolly jumper to add that touch of showbiz glamour, just how successful wouid James like to be?
Gavan: “I’ve thought about this one, and unless we change – change our music I couldn’t see our music going down well at Madison Square Garden.”
Tim: “We think our songs can be very popular though. Big as Madonna! Larry, when he’s got less clothes or looks amazingly like Madonna, so we could handle that one. Or big as Jesus”
.Jim: “Big as cheeses!”
Tim: “Yeah. Just like John Lennon said. ‘We’re now as big as cheesy wotsits’.”
That, indeed, would be fame.