Loud, dumb, obnoxious, red-neck Americans. Dontcha just love ’em? There are seven of the Big Mac dickheads in a Soho restaurant, terrorising the lettuce-reared, trendy wimp clientele. The yanks are shoving mountains of pasta into each others’ Grand Canyon gobs, splattering the table cloth with Sandinista blood sauce and chanting “Nicaragua! Grenada! Vietnam!” at the tops of their nuclear deterrent voices.
At a nearby table, one reputedly ideologically sound, sweet young English vegetarian and his two Manchester mates sit laughing at the Stars ‘n’ Stripes gorillas, winding them up, “What movie are you from? Animal House?” says the curly haired one. But the Americans prefer to pick on the girl opposite who’s getting ‘confrontational’ “Come on darling, frighten me with more than your face” they tell her. “Plastic surgery would be worth it, sweetheart” So her boyfriend picks up a bottle and starts to wade in.
At this point, Tim Booth, Larry Gott and Jim Glennie, who were thinking of leaving, decide it’s their moral duty to order a pudding and stick around for the fun.
None of this is quite the sort of behaviour that people would normally associate with James. But then people do have some funny ideas about them. In their seven year history as Manchester’s precious enigma boys, assumptions have grown around James like fungus on a dead fish. Despite the dashing pop energy of last year’s brilliant two singles, ‘Come Home’ and ‘Sit . Down’,they are still broadly conceived of as follows : the Smiths inheritors who slipped through the net; rustic English oddballs, too arrogant to write a decent pop song; village poet laureate mystics with a boring Green-leftie moral certitude streak; bookish wimps, not at all the types to join in with a bunch of meathead US shitizens singing “America The Beautiful”
The latter however is exactly what James were doing the night before I met them. In the intervening 22 hours Tim Booth took in a movie, danced like a nutcase at the Wag Club, slept for four hours and then got woken up by workmen singing “Ooooh Black Betty, bam-a-lam” outside his hotel window. Then in the hotel lobby he met a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who pinned him down to recount his life story , and when I met him that afternoon he was standing by a large fish tank in a photo studio, herding fish into frame for photographer Cummins.
Tirn Booth is nobody’s caricature. He is intense, open and funny, and after a weird , sleep-deprived day and night, has the manic stare of an amazed child.
“James are going to be a big fish in a big pond,” he tells me with reference to the band’s recent return to major label Fontana / Phonogram, so I take Tim, Jim and Larry down the pun for a bit of a grilling.
Funny ideas about James One : James are a bunch of bleeding-heart, knee-jerk liberals.
Tim : “Well, for a start, you’d have to be referring to the lyrics to make a statement like that because how do knee-jerk liberals play? I’ve never seen David Steel play a guitar and I wouldn’t really know how he’d handle it. As for the lyrics, anyone who actually bothers to look at them will see that they’re a lot darker than that. Do you think that, or is it a provocative statement?”
It could be.
Tim : “Well it’s a good thing I’m not a bottle-on-the-head jerk left wing angry young man isn’t it?”
Booth’s mad eyes are staring rather intensely at me, so I agree. OK. Funny idea number two : James are a folk rock band.
Tim : “Anyone who has seen us live would have that idea changed. There might be certain songs in the set which have that element in them especially the acoustic ones, but that’s at most ten percent. And no one says we’re a heavy rock band, but there’s an equal measure of heavy rock songs in the set.”
Three : You, Tim Booth, would rather read a good book than shag Madonna.
Tim : “I think we’d better leave you with your popular misconceptions. I think you should get some help. I don’t think Madonna is actually… I think she’s quite sexy, I guess. I think I’d rather have safe sex than read a good book. I’d rather have safe sex with Madonna than read a good book. Now, if you’d said Jodie Foster…..”
Four : You, Tim Booth, are a surrealist poet who nicked all his ideas from Arthur Rimbaud.
Tim : “No, Anton Artaud please. I can’t read French anyway… I find poetry boring.”
Five : None of you have sufficiently similar musical tastes to want to play the same song at the same time.
Larry : “Probably not too far off the truth there.”
Tim : “That’s a nice one. They’re getting a bit soft now.”
Six : James moment has come and gone
Tim : “Well we can’t say anything about that, can we? We’re just going to have to show you. We’ll show whoever decides that. We’re going to make them all eat fish.”
Aside from the fact that they’re suckers for a dumb fish joke, what becomes quickly apparent from locking antlers with Tim, Larry and Jim is that they’re in confident combative mood. There are good reasons for this. A year back when the new breed of Manchester bands were getting geared up for Top of the Pops, James were still recovering from an unproductive period with Sire.
Three awkward years on the major label had left them without even the money to sue the name crowding Halo James (“He deserves a good kicking”). As they expanded to a seven-piece they were for a while planning to change their name, feeling that they were by no means the same band who put out Hymn From A Village in Factory in 83.
Tim Booth was, however, outvoted. They kept the name and by the end of the year, they’d had two glorious singles out on Rough Trade, kept their dedicated fans happy with a live LP, One Man Clapping, and had their summer. recorded, imminently released album ‘Gold Mother’ picked up by a major label.
The new James songs, of which the single ‘How Was It For You’ is the first unleashed, are fiercer, poppier and funkier than before, without losing any of the humpbacked dementia. They would seem to be going through the same sort of renaissance that The Fall went through with ‘Extricate’
Tim “We’ve all been stripping things down and trying to make the songs more simple and more direct in what we’re trying to say”
Do you think you’ve been musically arrogant in the past? Expected too much?
Tim: “Not from…. There were definitely people who were reading us on our level, and a lot in Manchester. We always got that feedback there…. If you ever see us play in Manchester, they’ll tear you apart if they ever found out who you were. You’ll see. It’s a really different kettle of fish there. Oh dear, nearly said ball game.”
“But some people have been able to respond to us on the level that we take ourselves, which is very seriously. I mean, we don’t take ourselves… I mean yeah, we were difficult, we were arrogant, we were very protective of our babies, our songs. We thought they were masterpieces and we wouldn’t let anyone else touch them. That ended up with us hiring producers who we didn’t let do their jobs. Now we’re more relaxed about it.”
Lying somewhere in Bristol is an entire student thesis written entirely about James. This would make for curious reading because as a songwriter, it has to be said that Booth is a bit of a schizo. On the one hand, there’s the fraught wordplay of the likes of Stutter or Whoops. In the other cranial hemisphere there’s the liberal protest songs, ecologically concerned, like Sky Is Falling, anti-Thatcher, like Promised Land, or bleeding heart for the disadvantaged like Sit Down.
So far from the new album, it emerges that How Was It For You? is about using drink and drugs to evade sexual guilt, How Much Suffering is about English emotional restraint and Gold Mother is about mother courage in child birth. Just occassionally it seems that Halo James would be an appropriate name for Booth’s own band. Is he angling for a sainthood or what? Fortunately, God Only Knows from the new album suggests otherwise.
Tim : “It’s about people speaking in the name of God, or thinking you can speak in the name of God, which is a highly dubious claim. Because a long time ago, I used to speak in the name of God.”
What do you mean?
Tim : “I had that kind of self-righteos zeal that only people who think they’re favoured by God can have. It was a long time ago, but I’m still very attracted to people who try and live their life by a thought-out code, and then find their life has another idea about it and it goes its own way. The more you say Thou Shall Not to anything in your life, the harder it becomes to resist. It’s like you build it up. So someone like Jimmy Swaggart I find very interesting. You know, the public posture contrasted with the private personality.”
“It’s like all the heavy left wing people, when they get to about 60, they all become fascists. It’s like they can’t hold back any longer. And all the atheists you know suddenly become born again pillocks.”
Does that mean the more you try and be a reasonable bloke who just happens to sing in a band, the bigger wanker you become? Hypothetically speaking, of course.
Tim : “No, it means that if I started telling people I was a regular guy in a band, which I don’t, but if I pretended I was, then I’d be a very irregular guy…. It doesn’t mean I’d be a wanker. An irregular wanker, perhaps, which I am. Not a man of habit.”
Back in 83, with Tim Booth fresh out of Manchester University drama studies, James put out Hymn From A Village, the song which was to line them up as the next big post punk jangle. A sprightly piece of off-kilter guitar pop, it’s mostly remarkable for a lyric which snaps at the inadequacy of pop-song language. So maybe the moralising streak in Booth, the bit that keeps coming up with – songs about wicked governments, evil preachers and irresponsible sex, is fired by plain old guilt. Do you feel guilty about doing something as frivolous as singing in a pop group?
Tim : “In terms of how you define pop, I don’t consider myselfto be in a pop group. You know, we make music and I don’t feel at all guilty about that because we make brilliant music and give a lot to people and get a lot for ourselves. I mean, unless I become Mother Theresa or a lawyer or something, there’s no moral high ground in most people’s jobs, to absolve you of guilt. You know, unless you’re Bob Geldof. So I really don’t feel like that at all, and I don’t think any of us do.”
“I hardly ever express just one viewpoint in a song. Usually, there’s lots of different attitudes in them. I don’t understand how people can have clear cut attitudes to basically anything, except this government. I don’t understand how people can have clear cut attitudes about morality, about sex, about drugs. You know ‘DRUGS ARE GOOD’, ‘DRUGS ARE BAD’. Who can say? I don’t take liberal viewpoints.”
“I don’t believe there’s any morality. I don’t believe in morality. If I have to take a decision on something the decision will be practical, not moral. Liberalism is a lot to do with guilt and morality. If you’re going to make me fight out of that corner, you bastard.”
Neither wet liberal apologist, nor in-tuned poet nutcase, Booth is maybe too much of a slippery character to fit in with the conspicious pop personalities. Last time around, while the Morrisseys and Mark Smiths ran off with the miserable bugger prizes and the Housemartins stole the right-on plaudits, James were left muddling along in the margins. Too leftfield, too flighty as musicians, too cool for their own good. This time round though, there’s a focused, hard-headed determination in the James camp that comes across both in Booth’s righteous indignation at my James jibes and in the kick-ass edge (honest) to the new songs. The fired-up Tim Booth who sits at the back of a North London pub spouting lyrics in defence of his songs and telling me I’m as rude as the Americans in the restaurant, hardly matches up with the serene, angelic portraits painted of Tim in the past. Has “the little woolly lamb” who skipped out of Manchester University changed much over the years?
Tim : “Yeah, I’m born again now. I mean how do you answer a question like that? Y’know, I’m much more handsome than I ever was and more modest. No, but we’ve been through a lot of crap. A lot of strange experiences. We’ve got a lot out of James. It’s been our focal point, and the more people who wrote us off, the more it’s been, well, they’re going to have to eat humble pie.”
“There was one day when we talked about packing the whole thing in, for about an hour, but after that it was ‘We will fight them on the beaches!’ Because the music turns us on so much. It’s like we’d be having all these business problems, but the rehearsals would be brilliant. You get a song, and you lose yourself in a song and you feel fantastic. There’s no way we were going to give that up. And we knew that when we play live, we could take people to the same place.”
Last October, when the James tour came to the London T&C Club 2, they took the young dedicated and hot as f–k crowd way out to rapture and back. Frantic, climatic and ebuillent, wiht Booth losing himself totally in spasms of electric eel dancing, it was far from any creaky-jointed nearly-men display. On that kind of form, when they play at Glastonbury at the end of their June World Cup tour, then James have every chance of stealing the Happy Monday’s thunder.
James are, of course, thoroughly affronted by any suggestion that the rise of Mancunian dance society has left them a bit out in the cold.
Tim : “You don’t know how we relate to that and what we do in our private lives. Yeah, that’s how it’s perceived, but the reality, that’s a different matter. If it’s seen like that then OK, but we don’t want to part of the scene, because that isn’t going to last and there’s going to be a backlash. It’ll be fine for the Mondays and The Roses and the bands that get through, the good bands. But that’s it. And that was 1989.”
There is however, nothing blinkered about James current course. There were remix discussions going on last year with A Guy Called Gerald. Graham 808 State Massey danced-up their Come Home single although it was never given an official release. James are just smart enough to scowl at the bandwagon jumping implications of a rumoured Andy Weatherall remix of Sit Down (“It’ll make us the most un-hip band in Manchester”) and wily enough to promise that the dance mix of the already eight minute long rambling groove jam Gold Mother complete with backing vocals by Inspiral Carpets will only come out as a b-side.
It is time for the funny ideas about Booth and his band to binned for good. Whatever weight of history they have in tow, James in the 90s are not going to sink beneath the raves. They’re sleaker and groovier than ever before and Tim Booth is a match for anyone who wants to try and box him in. Well, for a lettuce-reared, caring, sensitive, sweet young Englishman he is anyway.
Do you think, Tim, you might one day write a song about, say knobbing Jodie Foster on the back of a motorbike?
Tim : “Actually, that’s the next single Knobbing! Isn’t that a crude word? I’m a bit more romantic than that. So ‘no’ is the answer to that, I mean, who would be driving for a start? And you know, crash helmets and so on, I’d never be able to keep an erection going while driving a motorbike. My technique would suffer….”
Cool as Hadd–k for sure!