In their first interview for more than a year, James explain to John Wilde how their search for child-like innocence ended in tears, and why they’ve spent the past 12 months climbing their way out of the wimpy/cissy pigeonhole they used to cuddle up in. Pix: Phil Nicholls
Singer Timothy Booth is describing what life should be like.
“When you think of a dog or a young child, the way they look around when they come into a room. Or a dog going on a walk, smelling something completely new to it. The next day, it’s a whole different thing and the dog has a look of pure joy as it looks around, experiencing all the sensations as they are. Or a child looking at a plant, wanting to touch it or eat it. It’s also living in the present. I’m not making an argument that this is how we should behave all the time because we’d never get out of one room. You’d look over at one corner, turn your back, look over again and it would be a new corner.
“One reason I think people are ill and unhappy in society is because most people are well out of touch with the childlike quality and we all need some of that. Some people look to drugs to get it. You can get it after a lot of sex, when you get that rush of vitality. You get it from concentration. We get it from performing our music. It happens whenever your concentration becomes heightened.
“I’ve had months when life has been really mundane and then something happens and you get that special buzz and want to hold on to it. You wonder why the rest of life isn’t like that, at that level of intensity, at that level of living.”
Are James particularly special?
Showing up all these contradictory components, incompatible things, a kind of intimate association of opposites. Are James like litmus paper?
No, not litmus paper, the other thing.
“Oh, the acid test. Yeah, we’re like the acid test.”
It is almost 18 months since James took a tumble with us on the nuptial couch, since “Stutter” found 11 new ways of taunting itself with its own doodles and fear of heights. Now this starving man is back. Drummer Gavan Whelan has been working in a hotel and bassist James Glennie has been flogging second-hand cars. Very James. Very commonplace, very matter-of-fact, very left-handed. The splurge of lopsided obsessions that made up the brilliantly shoddy “Stutter” ultimately failed to persuade a sunken nation like ours to throw its ballet skirts to the wind and bare its thighs and backsides. Indeed, “Stutter”, even considering the way it rushed over the style, failed to provoke so much as a neatly-dressed ankle. Me and James are mystified by this. In fact, if it happens this time around, we’re going to whip some asses sharpish.
“When we finished that first LP,” Larry recalls, “it was the culmination of so many years worth of work focussed in a six-week period, incredibly intense. At the end of it, we thought we’d created a monster and a masterpiece. It came out and we just didn’t touch people with it. You just lose your perspective when things like that happen.”
If slivers of “Stutter” might have proved too far gone for British pop-pickers used to having their meanings written in scarlet tartan, there could be no excuse for overlooking “So Many Ways”, the group’s “Eight Miles High”, three rippling minutes that defied you to keep your knees or your head together. As a single, it was beautifully dressed and powdered and all you killjoys out there in the real world turned your backs.
Together with the rest of “Stutter”, it seemed that this group had abandoned their uncertain, prudent beginnings for something daft and dark, something that was just three gulps short of a minor masterpiece.
James were showing that they needed to be lived with to be understood, that they were too complex and enraptured to settle for a quick roll on the grass-verge behind the youth club. They were obsessional and terribly droll in a way that most pop music is too pious to be. They made you itch in ways that had little to do with your winter woollies or your last hernia, bringing you to a point where you never knew whether to scream or cackle. To most people, though, they were still like oddball deviants caught in the revolving-doors and none of this mattered a hoot.
“Pop is deviant itself”, Tim Booth reminds me. “If David Lynch can have a hit film with ‘Blue Velvet’…well, we’re much less deviant than he is. I think Lynch is too dark. James is full of dark but also full of light.”
Too many wicked curves?
“We like to offset music and lyrics to some degree,” says Larry. “Loads of contradictions because there’s loads of contradictions between four people. A song like ‘Fairground’ is built completely on a contradiction. We were in this terrible black hole of a rehearsal-studio having a huge argument, me and Gavan on one side, Tim and Jim on the other, both sides playing something entirely different, stuck in these separate camps, no unity whatsoever. These two disjointed things were playing along at the same time and we accidentally recorded it. When we listened back, it was brilliant, like galloping horses at a fairground. Where you’ve got this circular motion contradicted by this up and down motion. They go in opposite ways but somehow blend.”
Are you consciously trying to please? Is this why you are making such a din?
“We try to do that, we think, jut by concentrating on exactly what we are doing. Not that we all know our individual parts blindfold. It’s that anticipation of what’s coming next. If that gets picked up by an audience, then there’s a certain thrill of going into unchartered territory that heightens their concentration and their awareness of what’s going on.”
You’ve got to lose yourself. You have to expect your ration of convulsions, palpitations, fainting fits, anxiety attacks and brain fever.
“You’ve got to be right there, right then,” Jim nods, “The kind of losing yourself in a way that you’re not really there to some degree. It’s the build up to things. The best thing about having a present is the moment before you open it. That’s the thrill, knowing you are going to open it.”
There was a hungry look in your eyes when you said that.
“He didn’t get any presents for his birthday and he won’t forget it,” says Larry. “Some group we’re in! I didn’t get one bleeding present either.”
“Ya Ho”, a new James single, presents them to the nation, visibly stimulated in new ways, a song about rescuing people on beaches, about whirlpools, fear of failure and rubbing movements. Dry James, pea-shooting James. This is far from the glazed gusts of “So Many Ways” or the campfire dragnet of “Why So Close”; calm James. Persist with it though. After the bits that go plink and fizz, there’s a marvy (marvellous) bit three-quarters of the way through that manifests itself in ways that are almost indecently flirtatious. Like other new James peaks, particularly the possible follow-up single “What For”, it brings us scarlet mouths, dagger-like peaks, waving arms and a golden clitoris that, believe me, is a pleasure to tango with.
Already “Ya Ho” is meeting some rum reactions, adopted as a terrace anthem in parts of Leeds after a recent James show there, replacing the cry of “Come back Duncan, come back” that has wafted through those cobbled streets for the last 10 years, an obscure reference to Duncan “Golf Ball” Mackenzie, Leeds United’s former post-Revie golden boy. I suspect that this is coy James sticking their tongues out at us as only they know how.
“Actually, it’s a cry of despair”, James Glennie informs me. “It’s ungainly James, experienced and dying to tell a story. It reminds us of the time we left Factory, when Tony Wilson compared us to the Dutch football team of 1974, the Cruyff era, when it didn’t seem like it was trying, because it was all
so natural. Of course, when they started thinking about it, when the next World Cup came around, they were complete crap.”
People still think of you as fey, frightened outsiders. Cissies. Apologetic rather than apoplectic. When are we going to convince people that you have real, six-foot ulcers hidden under those coats.
“A lot of it came about from us being on Factory to start with,” Jim explains, “which affected how people viewed us. There was also the rare, secluded image of James because we didn’t do interviews and didn’t do a lot of live work. We were seen to be withdrawing from the public eye and people thought it was our decision. It built up a kind of mystique but it made us special in a way.”
These days, James seem more lucid, looking none the worse for wear after their prolonged hallucinatory, delirious phase. The phantoms of the troubled “Stutter” appear to be fully exorcised. All those earwigs crawling through lug-‘oles, small twisted figures disappearing into black smelly tunnels, people spontaneously combusting… the obsessions of that first torrid collection of waking nightmares seems purged now, replaced with another copulative beat and another set of clinging compulsions, more inclined to fondle you this time round. Endearing?
“Well, we feel are obsessions are what obsess other people,” reasons Gavan. “This time, we seem to be telling people more about our obsessions instead of just hiding within them. Maybe there’s more sense of distance in that way now. In previous songs, our lyrics have been clear but our meanings haven’t. Our meanings have tended to be perverse. Musically too, we’ve tended to shy away from stating the obvious, not going to the root of things. Now, the lyrics have gone to the root the same way as we’ve kept to the root of the song as musicians. It’s taking it one step further.”
Making for a better James?
“Locating our perversities and making them work for us. Before, we’d get to be so obsessive trying to predict what was going to happen that we’d make what we didn’t want to happen…”
Brain tissue everywhere. Lovely stuff.
You ask the four James rouges what all this nervous shifting really amounts to and you get some words back to poison your brain with.
“Insular? Personal? Tricky? Argumentative. Asking for trouble. Obsessional, of course. Brittle. Awkward. Out of context. Different. Playful. Tony Currie. Socks that don’t match the shoes, very James. A call to arms. Clear. Dense. Overturning one thing and finding another thing beneath it. Not meticulous. Perfectionists. Making things better. Intrigued. Broke. The desirability of men and women foxtrotting together while naked. Acrobatic. No longer so nightmarish. Embezzlement.”