“I’d like to put a disclaimer in at this point: Mat Snow is using very long word and drawing us into an academic discussion of our music when we consider it to be fun and quite simple.”
I wasn’t going to pretend otherwise.
“But I wanted that disclaimer. And that was no insult to you.”
None taken I’m sure.
“You’re using a lot of words, varied words, quite well-chosen words, but a lot of which you associate with theories and academics. ‘Hermetic’ things like that. When you talk to someone like that, you tend to start talking like that too; so if you quote us, it might make us sound … This isn’t the way we normally talk about things. So your piece will reflect, to a large degree, you – even down to the words we are using.”
Should you imagine that what you are about to read is a minefield of misinformation, plonking authorial projection and sheer misrepresentation of James, a pop group from Manchester, then think again.
A plethora of polysyllables and a thimbleful of theory does not mean no fun, it means James are scuttling around in the margins of pop, in an area so left-field as to present no easy comparisons or ready made definitions. So until someone can coin accessibly short and simple words to describe what James are up to, then volumes of verbiage will just have to do.
It is quite possible however that there are no stories about James that are not true.
Here I am tucking into a plateful of vegetarian chilli as the lecithin is passed round the table to be sprinkled on one’s food as an aid to the absorption of cholesterol and harmful saturated fats.
Also breaking bread in the parlour of Liverpool’s Amazon studios are Larry Gott, whose guitar is as mercurial as his demeanour is of guru quietude; bearded drummer Gavan Whelan, the band’s token drinker (“I’m the bad one, really, I haven’t come to terms with anything.”); bassist Jim Glennie, the soul of amiability; managers Martine and Jennifer, the diametric opposites of every cigar-chomping, turkey-talking shark of your nightmares; producer Lenny Kaye, six-foot-four of hair, New York bonhommie and jovial recollection of his illustrious track record with ‘Nuggets’, Patti Smith and Suzanne Vega; engineer Gil Norton, who wants to see his name in print; and an empty place for Monty.
Monty comes in. He is James singer Tim Booth, pale, quiet, seemingly lost in thought. Soft, unlined and somewhat angelic, his face is half-concealed behind a pair of spectacles so owlish and bulletproof as to scream for attention; likewise those Cornish-pastie shoes, the fashion sensation of the indie scene last Spring and still just as mindboggling.
Tim is an odd fish. From his careful deliberation when asked to talk about what he does for a living, you might expect a stoolbound stummer of the early 70s school, another Nick Drake perhaps. But when he’s singing, he shimmers in the grip of an electric spirit, as if he’s a medium or conduit for some kind of unearthly ectoplasm, a third whimsy, a third ecstasy and a third warning.
And yet it’s the mystique which might grow around such apparent schizophrenia that Tim is so keen to avoid – hence his disclaimer. Much though it might profit James to come across as some sort of professional enigma, they always steer my flights of fancy firmly back down to earth, down to the basics of simplicity, health and fun.
The boss of their former record label Factory (James have now signed to WEA subsidiary Sire), Tony Wilson, drew a telling comparison; the Dutch national football team. In the early 70s, Neeskens, Cruyff, Rep and the other eight purveyors of ‘total football’ believed that they were merely doing a job and never talked about it in any other way – but it was beautiful to behold. The next generation of Dutch footballers felt thus inspired to go out and self-consciously recreate that beauty on the park. Result : their football was a shambles.
But what we saw in the 1974 World Cup is of the same order as what we hear when James hit their stride. Harmony, Empathy, Alchemy …..
So let’s lob a few high balls into the box, Brian, and see if we can get a result….
“We’re just as mystified as the audience….”
What I’d wondered, is the meaning of those sidelong glances, inward smiles and sotto voce chat that makes a James gig so clubbable, so intimate and yet so ultimately exclusive of their audience?
“Each night of a performance one of us will choose a set list,” explains Tim. “And often one of us will choose a setlist that they know we really can’t play, an absolute minefield. The joke is, we don’t know where the changes are, so we have to look at each other to sat, Are you ready now for a change?
“Like in a performance, you’re just projecting out to the audience, and sometimes you find we haven’t got together, so I think, look at the others to try and bring it back in. Cos if we haven’t got it right amongst ourselves, we can’t push it out to anybody. If I feel the energy’s getting too dispersed outwards, we’ll try and retreat as a group to get this bit right so we can take it out again. It’s like juggling from one person to another. We have to be very alert to each other, very aware of what each other is playing.”
Gavan : “Because we’ve been in relationship with each other for quite a while, there’s more than just a connection between us when we’re playing. There’s a stronger link; through the songs we keep confirming that. A look is much more than that, much more expressive than that.”
Tim : “Sometimes says we must argue a lot, and you can see that in a lot of songs, and then you see more harmony coming in. It’s going towards harmony all the time.
“It’s like a personality, isn’t it? You can have a person who doesn’t express a lot of what they’ve got or doesn’t know a lot of what really lies inside them. The more you let out, then you’ve got to integrate it and make some sense of it otherwise you’re going to get into a bit of a mess. It’s the same thing with us. It’s like, getting bigger and bigger, but trying to integrate things within a song.
“Does that make sense?”
The flipside to the excellent new 45 ‘Chain Mail’, titled ‘Hup-Springs’, epitomises the beauty born of cock-up and the dashing trail of the untameable in hot pursuit of the unplannable.
“‘Hup-Springs’ was a three-year old song and we all got really bored and pissed off with it. So we said, Come on, let’s really push this one and see what happens. In the middle of the take Gavan dropped a drumstick, but everyone went with it! You can’t plan things like that. And when we listened to it, it was wild. You can’t better that – it had it’s own life.
“And that’s how a lot of the songs are formed.”
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha”. All I’d suggested was that James songs suggest a hermetic personality, imprisoned and armoured and in two minds – half wishing to get involved in the world of worlds and other people, half wishing to remain secure behind closed doors: perhaps, indeed, like a baby at the threshold of birth, torn between the womb and the harsh bright light of the world. Ahem.
I earn a round of applause as well as a laugh. But they agree the word tentative is not too wide of the mark.
“Originally there were four of us, and we knew there was something missing, something we were looking for, It could have been another person in the band, so we tried lots of people, but we haven’t found anybody who had a really likewise attitude. Then, to a degree, Lenny Kaye was that piece for the making of the single (James Lenny Kaye-produced debut LP ‘Lost Innocence’ is out in May). We didn’t know what producers did….”
Tim changes tack.
“We wanted a record company we could trust our records with – we’d made all these records we cared about like, to go back to your image, a mother whose got all these kids but she doesn’t want to let them out on to the streets, cos she sees what the world does to kids. But now we’ve decided everyone’s going to get tainted anyway, so you’ve got to give up and accept the fact that there’s no perfection. What happens is what happens. If we become bland and boring because of the process, then that happens.”
“I used to go to church every week and my Dad had a particular way of singing that people would think was out of tune and everyone used to turn around and listen to him, and the family would be really embarrassed. But when you know he listen to what he was doing, he was always in harmony but in a really strange way. Quite bizarre.”
I’ve heard tell of Tim’s closeness to his family and a possibly secluded childhood. Indeed, he seems far older than his 25 years, a serene young man seemingly untouched by his days as a post-punk raver when studying drama at Manchester University, during which period he was to some of his friends “the little woolly lamb”.
Gavan and Jim grew up in the same terraced street in Manchester’s Moss Side. Only one side of it remains now, the rest of the terraces torn down during their childhood to make way for tower blocks. Singing nursery rhymes whilst playing amongst the building sites is a memory; seeing The Beatles on TV is another. Inscrutable as ever, Larry’s roots lie in the anonymous Manchester suburb of Denton.
“If you think of a kid seeing the power of television, seeing the effect the Beatles caused. I bet that sticks in there,” speculates Tim. “But later on you might think of all these brilliant reasons why you want to be on stage – you were going to be a great actor or change the world – but the reason is it got attention. Everybody’s so insecure they think there’s some value in being special in a public way. The reality is you see how people get corrupted by it, really ill from it, with a vain and empty lifestyle.
“I’d acted twice in school plays and it sounded like a soft option at University and quite good fun. And I wanted to investigate acting because I thought people acted with each other all the time, and I thought this would penetrate to the heart of it. But I found it really boring, didn’t like it all. I could never remember lines!
“Purging demons? Hmmm, yes, in those days it was true. Acting used to put me through a lot that I hated, It used to put me on the edge, scare the hell out of me.
“Now I find I do better performances when I think it’s all a big joke, and I think we all share that. People say we’re playful and I think that’s when we’ve got it in perspective – it’s fun and that’s the way it should be. You’ve got all this stimulus coming at you and you’ve got to integrate it or else it’ll just drive you mad.”
Ever investigated Exegesis, EST, encounter therapy or the like?
“I’ve looked into a lot of those things. I find that a lot of them are very superficial and might work for a couple of weeks and then the holes start to fill back in again. And all of them are based on ego in the first place. Really, if you want something that’s going to last, it’s got to penetrate deeper than that.”
“Those words are loaded – God! But there has to be some intelligence otherwise everything falls apart. Nature is such an integrated system that there has to be an intelligence behind it; it just couldn’t happen otherwise.
“When you go into the country on your own, you can become very harmonious, very peaceful. And yet when you come back to the city and the pollution and traffic noise and the speediness and the electric bombardment and the drink and the canned food and the cigarettes, you are different and then it’s easy to believe in disorder with chaos and no meaning.
“When I lived in Hulme, I got sick, I reflected the environment I live in. It all will end up being the case that you’re thinking of. The mind is a very dodgy implement to understand the world with and personally I wouldn’t trust it on any level. Intuition is much more penetrating than intellect because intuition seizes the whole all over. Whereas intellect will look at a cup as its outline and tell you its colour, but not see what’s in the cup..”
Which neatly runs up against the buffers of a zen-like truth about not just James but all writing about music, something almost by definition beyond words. Like that cup, I can see James in outline and tell you what colour James are. But as to what’s inside?
That’s for you to sup it and see.