City Life Interview October 1998
Martyr And The Vendettas!
James’ last performance at the Ritz has been mythologised as Manchester’s best gig of 1988. With a new album under their belt and another Ritz gig in the pipeline (October 11), James should be ecstatic, yet Mike West found Tim Booth poor, pensive but in the pink.
The interview is postponed. The singer has slashed himself with a shard of broken glass. Was this a suicide attempt or an accident in the kitchen? “I was washing up the stem glasses and… I guess I lost control,” says Tim Booth, arriving two hours later with five out of ten fingers bandaged. James, the pop group, Manchester’s most visionary project since G-mex, suffer for their art. They suffered for a well publicised abuse of drugs. They suffered for an over-public use of meditation. They suffered for vegetarianism and two successful independent singles. Finally, they suffered at the hands of big business, WEA Records. If you worship martyrs, Van Gogh, Jesus Christ and Jim Morrison, you will probably worship James.
“In 1984, my liver packed in. The band were ill, disorientated, using drugs, happy to burn out. I was a materialist, left-wing. I knew nothing about health and magic.” Tim, James’ esoteric lyricist and unlikely idol to legions of beer-boys from Leeds, has perfect bone structure and a carrot juice complexion. He is explaining how he came to write the nursery rhyme narratives that Yorkshire delinquents have taken to their hearts. “I read Arthurian legends, Beowolf and Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories at too young an age.” The delicately featured boy grew up frightened, perverted, and obsessed by these fantasies of monsters rising from the sea. “Then I read this book on interpreting dreams.” Uniformed nurses administer him poisons. Alien parasites attack his jaw. Tim’s dreams have more adventure and less sex than Sigourney Weaver’s films. Aided by Jungian analysis, his dreams became metaphors. And reality became symbolic. And meditation became an obsession. And sex became infrequent.
Four years ago, Tim’s heath and James’ habits were turned around. Narcotic depressives became suspected Buddhists. “That’s when we began to see beyond the surface of things.” Stripmine, the current and long-delayed follow up to Stutter, documents this catharsis with depth, honesty and wonderful songs. “They are simple stories with an underlying resonance of meaning that not even I understand. I used to believe that my lyrics wrote themselves.” The stories have a happy end: the suffering artist’s liver complaint is cured with acupuncture and a regulated diet.
But does the suffering end? Of course not. While Tim discovered alternative medicine, other states of being, escapes from the material world, James found no escape from the materialists. Shortly after the success of ‘Hymn From A Village’, their second single on Factory Records, James were snatched from Tony Wilson’s collection of precious curiosities by a connoisseur with greater pretentions and more capital, Seymour Stein of Sire Records.
They say Seymour hoards artifacts and artists like a squirrel hoards nuts. He buries them in expensive holes – his New York apartment or his record company – leaves them there to own and forget. Stripmine was recorded two years ago, kept from the public by accountants and A&R departments, quibbling over production, presentation or budget. James were shelved, an ornament adding to Stein’s prestige but taking from the livelihoods of Tim, Larry, Gavan and Jim. “We had no record, so we had no gigs, so we had no money. We could not subsist.” Sire, WEA, choose to ignore that bands are made of people not porcelain. James made their compromises.
Once, they were obstinately human, their dress sense uncoordinated, their image as incoherent as four strangers waiting for a bus. Then, under the persuasion of Simply Red’s manager, megalomaniac Eliot Rashman, the four men began to experiment with clothes, make-up and method acting. They learned the basic skills taught to fourteen year old school girls and rock stars. “That was only for photographs… off camera, we fall apart.” Tim is defensive. The clutter of conflicting styles that is James’ music has also been cleared out, like their wardrobe, reorganised. The result is Rock music, a professional compromise between performer, producer and promoter.
But now the group are preparing legal letters severing their relations with Sire. They will emerge from the conflict as four friends, whose worst injuries have been self inflicted. “Although we’re very close, the pressure has caused fights…” admits Tim. And later that afternoon, in the small park opposite the Buddhists’ Eighth Day vegetarian café, a strong man with a weak chin is seen shouting at the man with a carrot juice complexion. A Christian rally sings psalms nearby, but Gavan Whelan’s expletives cut through. “Fuck Hugh Jones,” says the drummer and ardent meat eater, “John Paul Jones (Led Zepellin’s bassist) should be our producer.” Tim Booth turns from carrot to beetroot. “I hate Rock,” he says. “So why do you fucking play it?” asks Gavan. First year Polytechnic students bow their heads with embarrassment as they walk by.
Tim Booth believes all things are fated, preordained by magical powers, numerology and good cooking. “But in this culture, it doesn’t necessarily follow that talent gets rewarded.” James have their talent. They have yet to get their reward.