Sounds: August 1986 – In fear of earwigs crawling through their heads, these strange James boys tell Jonh Wilde about the bizarre phobias creeping through their pop music. Photo debris by Ian T. Tilton
Eighteen months ago, James were just born and didn’t give interviews because “people hadn’t heard the music and we wanted them to decide what it was like before they took another person’s opinion”.
These days, four singles and one LP forward, they’ll talk until their tongues start rattling about in their heads and their faces turn purple.
These days, they concentrate madly and try to make the chat as consuming as their extremely strange records. Today they tell me they’re being pensive because I’m being pensive, but it’s not always like this.
“We thought about suicide all the time, we didn’t see any other point in living, we at least wanted to go out with a bang. It seemed very romantic, and we came pretty close.”
Then came Factory, plucking them from the dusty corners, and their ambitions swerved away from hara-kiri and toward “making an album as good as ‘Horses’ or ‘Prayers On Fire’”. They settled, temporarily, for a brace of enticingly scruffy singles, little fussed over but beautifully insecure.
James were likely to remain a snug but slovenly concern.
The bee crept into the bonnet and started to hum with some true spite earlier this year. ‘Chain Mail’, part of their Sire ‘Sit Down’ EP, tipped the wink to crystalline melodies and purged words. James were scraping all the crusty bits from their Y-fronts and starting anew.
And last month came ‘So Many Ways’, some of the holiest pop of this year, James truly gasping at us, at last.
Now their debut LP ‘Stutter’ gets word-drunk and the fetching, bespectacled Tim Booth is telling me that his song about earwigs crawling through your head, ‘Skullduggery’, comes from his kindergarten memory of “being told that earwigs crawl through your ear if you lie down on grass. I only realised it was a fib the middle of last week”.
There are many such rum moments to be found on ‘Stutter’, at its best a copulation between Syd Barrett’s ‘Baby Lemonade’, the Velvets’ ‘The Murder Mystery’ and some of The Laughing Clowns. Oh, bugger it, James don’t sound much like anyone anymore, snubbing a nose at foolhardy Smiths analogies, saving up their spittle for the mirth and madness that spills from their vinyl pores.
“What are we like now?” muses the bearded Gavan, after just admitting he’s the most likely member of James to plot a murder. “Frightening, uplifting, scared at the world and its surroundings, not so much complaining as reflecting”.
“People have picked up on that madness, but then go on to treat it like Half Man Half Biscuit or something; otherwise, some really neurotic noise. It might be schizoid but we see it as something joyous… accepting all the mad energies.”
With Tim looking on dubiously, Gavan tells me, “It’s like there’s a fifth thing going on, like a fifth member directing everything.”
Whatever goes, they’ve hurdled far since those old death wishes, now emerging as Manchester’s best sandblasted racket. With ‘Stutter’ beside them and their future no longer behind them, they shape up as a prime slice of high fiction.
“You can almost imagine this character, James, wandering around outside there,” Tim suggests. “He’s probably dark and light and funny as hell…”
Probably one of those tourists of the emotions, pecking here and there, a contrary sod, miles and miles of celibate lust. James are dragging some welcome jive-ass jabber back into view, their scribbles packed with doubletalk.
Their potential, so to speak, is far behind them. Four plain James, losing the gravel pit for the sweat pit, singing “trying to impress is the nature of our work”.
These four grinning skulls write about lads called Johnny Yen who run down the street with their clothes on fire. They sensitively note that “to be loving when the lights are out takes much courage” in the sobbing ‘Really Hard’.
All in all, they tell me that “without getting too involved, the meanings come out all displaced, but the characters in the songs somehow emerge as real, maybe slightly surreal”.
So ‘Stutter’ reels with much erratic brilliance, a grainy soundtrack to fickle moods and shifting perspectives. Their hurried jangle is inhabited by characters halfway between a lovelorn swoon and a nervous fit. The greatest plus is that their music no longer has any centre, it merely flurries from some strange, unknown corner.
James are looking at me, almost scolding.
“People get so psychological about us,” Tim tells me. “People don’t really know where to put us. Those that call us ‘hippy’ get contradicted and confused when they see all these other sides.”
“What we do,” Gavan intercepts, “is push and shove and look at things with a different perspective. Like being a kid, when you go out to the park and look at nature differently, it fascinates you. As you grow older, you look at a tree and it’s just a tree.”
You must be barmy.
“James don’t take those things for granted, that’s all.”