Take our hand and let us lead you through 72 hours on the road with James – herbal tea and guarana-driven wholemeal bread-heads back from the dead and on a hometown rampage in a Ned’s t-shirt (small).
“It’s such a feeling yeeeah! It’s such a feeling Wooooah!” Blitzed out of their minds at two in the morning, a group of sleet-soaked lads in office suits stumble merrily through the gnawing cold of central Manchester, belching out the rising coda to How Was It For You?
Three hours after witnessing the celebratory communion of James final G-Mex show, they have alco-smashed out of company-car consciousness into a state of heightened oblivion.
The song that they’re bellowing is a viciously penned meditation on the psychology of abandoning yourself to drink and drugs, but I don’t think they can give a flying f__k about that. They’re having a fine time as it is. Probably better than if they’d been to see Gary Glitter’s Christmas Gang Show.
That was the last warbling echo of three days on the road with James that had started on the most chilling note possible, and ended with a grin. The 48 hours that turned in 72 hours had been but 30 minutes old when the dread realisation dawned that it would be absolutely unthinkable to ask Tim Booth the top pop triv question “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” Armed with a battery of crushingly banal enquiries the journalist sloped into the backstage catering room of James gig at Brixton Academy, prepared to smugly trivialise into Milli-Vanillidom the Oedipally fixated, quiche eating, earnest pop misfits James, with their holier than thou Jesus sandals intelligence and intacto integrity. Un-funnily enough, that isn’t how it worked out.
Fifteen minutes amidst the backstage atmosphere of veggie cooking, polite sobriety and intense preparation and the journalist is listening straight-faced to Tim Booth explaining that they have a masseuse backstage to help them relax before a concert. “Better than getting stoned,” suggests the snide journalist. “We don’t do drugs,” snaps Tim, convincingly. Then he’s off, enthusing about David Lynch’s re-invention of 50’s pop, speculating on the expected weirdness of the band’s pre-Christmas tour of Russia and dipping into a quick appraisal of Czech novelists. “I’m more into Kundera than Kafka,” says Tim, like someone who’s actually read the books. “Kafka’s not very good with sex, is he?” And finally, the hammer blow to mockery is delivered in the form of an innocent looking fax.
The fax is a letter from the family of a young James fan who died tragically this summer. The kid had a ticket to see James in Manchester and the family’s request is that Tim dedicated a song to him at their G-Mex show. It would mean a lot to them. There is a gobsmacked silence backstage as Tim stares at the letter.
“We’ve had a few like that,” he says. “I’d rather you didn’t mention it, actually.” Many hours later, when I suggest to Tim that it must be frightening for a mere pop group to become involved with such serious feelings, he agrees to having the letter mentioned.
“I’m just worried because there’s a real fine line between something like that happening and exploiting it,” says Tim. “I don’t want to be like the politican after a disaster, turning up at the hospital to kiss the injured. But it has happened a few times and it’s really touching and things like that really move you.”
You’re not scared by it then?
“No. Because when I was 17 someone like Patti Smith was hugely important in my life. Hugely important. Like a complete lifeline in an environment that I felt was totally hostile. And there was suddenly something that I could totally relate to, and made me feel that I wasn’t crazy after all. And I feel that we supply that for some people, and in that respect, I don’t see us like a pop group at all.”
“That’s what Sit Down’s about, and that’s why they particularly respond to that song. Y’know ‘I’m relieved to hear that you’ve been to some far out places/’Cause it’s hard to carry on when you feel all alone.’ It’s a song for the darkest hour.”
“So it doesn’t frighten me. I’m really happy when people take us that seriously. Because I’ve taken things that seriously, and they’ve helped me that much, and stopped me going crazy, and made me feel that I could keep going.”
Spending three days on the road with James at this stage of their existence is like watching the tightrope walker half way over towards applause and bow-taking. Ahead of them lies a prize that says “Most Important Band Since…” Beneath them on the sawdust lie the mangled windbag bodies of Rock Hams who overdid it – Bono, Kerr, Gary Glitter and friends.
In the past 12 months, James have gone from being a seven-year running, cult Manc soap opera to prime-time networked public exposure. This year, resigned to a major label, they hit the Top 40 for the first time with How Was It For You? and Come Home. Their summer World Cup tour ended triumphantly with two glorious nights in Blackpool. Their Gold Mother album, the first time they’d come close to capturing their deep power on an LP, went silver. And their T-shirts were everywhere.
Now, on a brief pre-Christmas tour of major league venues, including two sell out nights in the enorma-dome of G-Mex, they are being interviewed and videoed like never before and meeting the kind of over-the-top audience reaction that would’ve embarrassed Christ into retirement.
At James Brixton show, despite the set lacking their usual fire (although Tim is as fascinatingly energised as ever) the entire audience follows the pre-set tradition of folding to the floor and dancing cross-legged on their bums for Sit Down. They look like worshippers at the feet of Maharishi Tim. When Sit Down’s euphoric, anthemic rallying cry for the alienated (with its Gary Glitter Rock n Roll Part One drum intro) is re-released next year, James will have to dance pretty clever to avoid becoming the type of band they’ve always hated.
“I feel embarrassed when everyone sits down,” says Tim. “That’s probably the primary…. No it isn’t… You get mixed emotions. You’re really touched, a bit embarrassed, and you’re a bit frightened. Ultimately, it’s really moving, but I’m up there panicking, thinking ‘How long before it becomes a cliche?'”
“We’re worried about this song. I’m frightened of Sit Down becoming the only song that people want to come and hear. But, James is so awkward that I swear that if it got out of hand we’d stop playing it.”
“It’s getting that balance between showmanship and it being real. Like tonight, you could say I was performing, and in one way I was. but I felt totally convinced of what I was doing.”
Are you ever worried that you’re turning into Gary Glitter?
“F–k off! But on other nights I’ve gone on and felt really embarrassed and my body’s felt awkward. Everything I’ve done has felt like a performance. What I’m trying to do is make a distinction between hollow theatere and …. Well it might just be the distinction between bad theatricality and good, between striking postures and poses, which is what most rock is about, and a theatricality where I’m totally into what I’m doing, so I’m totally convinced… And it’s a weird state to be in.”
These are indeed weird times for James as they attempt to cope with the transition into the big rock world without becoming caricatures. They do, however, have certain built-in advantages in that respect. Like an off-stage unobtrusiveness that borders on invisibility.
The ‘after gig drink’ at Brixton Academy is about as wild as a Sunday afternoon spent reading the papers in a country pub. The next day’s flight up to Manchester passes completely without incident. And when they arrive at the airport, Tim, who is yet to sleep after the Brixton show (having eschewed the traditional frontman’s post-gig relaxant of eight cans of Red Stripe and a spliff) heads for bed.
Then, in the afternoon, the arguments start. After soundchecking (intensely) in the imposing empty hulk of the G-Mex the band sit in the catering room, running through the day’s business. First up is a lengthy and unresolved discussion over who should produce the next single. I vote for Lee Perry, but noone seems to go for this. Then the daily grudge match over the set list (which they change every night) begins. Starring Tim, guitarist Larry, bassist Jim and James manager (and Mum to the Booth family baby) Martine, it goes like this.
“Are these just songs we can rearrange in any order then?”
“I’m doing that because I’m a difficult bastard”
“I’m not happy. There’s too many slow ones.”
“I’m going to do that one if I have to do a f–kin’ vocal solo.”
“What about the lighting people?”
“Alright then. Write the f–kin’ thing out yourself.”
At the front of G-Mex, £40,000 worth of James T-shirts are being set out on the merchandising stalls. In the production office, the video crew for the next night are fighting for backstage passes. Does it ever bother you, I ask Jim, trumpeter Andy and garrulous violinist Saul, that Tim gets all the attention/.
Jim : “No. Well, a teensie weensie bit. But it’s just one of those things. We know what we put into James but it’s just like you’ve got to remember that. Then there’s like a f–kin’ article in the paper and it’s like ‘Tim Booth and his backing band’ But you can’t get too pissed off about that.”
Saul : “He’s very popular on the roar-o-meter”
Do you ever worry he’s turning into Gary Glitter?
Jim : “All the time, actually. Yeah, if he wears any more…. No, but do you think it’s a bit over-dramatic? I think sometimes we walk a fine line, especially when gigs aren’t going well. We act.”
Saul : “We’ve become really big, like this big powerful sound. I’d like to hear it going a bit weirder.”
So you argue a lot?
Jim : “Yeah, all the time”
Andy : “We do hate each other. Quite a lot.”
On the first night at G-Mex, the Booth-chosen moody intro track of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game gives way to the screams and hooting claxons of the footy-sized and predominantly dead young James audience. In a set of escalating brilliance, the band carry off their mellower moments (like the haunting new single Lose Control) with ease. They adrenalin whip through the rush and rattle songs (Whoops, Bring A Gun, Johnny Yen) and supply anthems-a-plenty with What For, Come Home and Sit Down. Spasm dancing like a man with 40,000 volts up his bum, and even clambering into the crowd at one point, Booth is a consummately wired focus.
James show no sign of having a problem with projecting themselves into the hall of Rock Hugeness. And it is something of a medium-sized miracle to witness a band who have made few – if any – accommodations to bagginess, putting over songs about God, sex, soul-suffering and madness to 9,000(ish) Manc raver teens. Especially since that band comprises (trivia fans) a worrying guilt-racked Correspondent(RIP)-reading singer (Tim), a Jack Nicholson fan, family-man guitarist (Larry), a sly, Viz-reading bassist (Jim), a dress-wearing trumpeter (Andy), a neurotic Nabokov-reading violinist (Saul), a non-talking keyboardist (Mark) and a right-on drummer (David) who plays Welsh dance music in his spare time. It’s all a bit ‘against all odds’.
But there are moment at G-Mex, like when Tim sombrely introduces Stutter as ‘a song about losing your faculties; and a unseemly number of fans scream “Woooaah! Yesssss!”, when you have to wonder. You have to wonder whether James newly widened audience actually gives a nana about all that agonised stuff.
After the first night in Manchester, The Most Intense Man In The World, now in the grip of post-gig adrenalin fever, eyes me even more intensely than usual. So I put it to him that some of the fans seem to be just waiting for the sing-a-long songs. And mighn’t he just as well be singing ‘We’re all going down the pub’ as ‘God only knows’?
“Is this a wind-up or do you actually feel that?” says Tim, taking a deep breath. “A lot of my lyrics are quite dark and quite sad, but the audience take it and turn it into a celebration. And that’s lovely. So the more twisted we can make it, and it still be a celebration… That’s a wonderful contradiction.”
“It’s harder to pull off slow sets in Britain now, because people are used to the adrenalin buzz with James. But we can play slow songs and hold an audience. Maybe you have a point, but I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in becoming a figure of popular appeal if that means we get castrated in the process.”
The Saturday afternoon following the first G-Mex show, Manchester is lashed by the sleet and snow of the nationwide cold snap, presumably summoned up by James new line in snowflake T-shirts. Two hours before the G-Mex doors open there are already 20 or so of the younger and bloody stupider of the woolly-hatted hordes getting ice-whipped outside the venue.
Inside, James have reconvened to go through the day’s picky preparations all over again. There is an added tension in the air caused by the presence of the video crew, there to document the show. After a sleepless night spent wrestling with erotic thoughts in a hotel room which “smelled of sex”, Tim Booth is nevertheless up for a chat about, erm, sensory depravation tanks and mind expansion.
There is a none too serious but noticeable difference between Tim and the rest of James. You talk to Larry about his family. Saul will joke around confessing to scenes of “disgusting greed” when the band were recently presented with a roomful of free Levi’s gear. With Tim, however, the tone is unavoidably analytical. Tortured, almost. Already on this tour, he has lost enough weight to mean that his free Levis no longer fit. Usually he loses about a stone on tour. The previous night, Tim had been led to ponder on how a weirdo (anxious, doubt-ridden variety) like him, copes with being in showbiz (sort of)
“Erm…Phew! I think I’m probably fairly schizophrenic. So I can switch into another mode as well. There’s a whole load of politics that go with being in a band that we payed no heed to for the first seven years, and as a result didn’t get anywhere near publicity. Now we pay heed to a whole load of games…. interviews, photographs, shaking hands, kissing babies… eating babies. And only once or twice does my… I mean, I have done some things which are diplomatically highly incorrect.”
You seem like this controlled person who’s fighting a constant battle to maintain that control. “Mmmm Lose control? The image of Lose Control is I think more important to me as an idea of breaking out of personality, breaking out of physical limits. Not so much going mad, just wanting to push reality to its limits, to see if there’s anything more.
“I’m quite confrontational. I’m not a particularly easy person to be around. And to really want to push a song, like OK, where’s that going to?… And the same with myself. Push my body. Y’know, how much can I do? That’s really a big drive.
“That’s the idea of losing control…. ‘Shake my body, release my soul’ Y’know, break out of this, Because I think a lot of the time, people are really trapped within their own personalities. Really bored with themselves. And I can get really trapped in myself and it’s like wanting to f–kin break out… and to scream. Some people have said I’m starting to repeat myself in songs, but I think I’m getting more to the point of what I want to say. I’m saying it more clearly.”
Isn’t it all impossible? A bit mad?
“No, I don’t think so. And listen, I think it’s very common. I think that’s why people drink. I think that’s why people take drugs. I mean everyone’s trying to do it all the time. But I don’t want to do it artificially. Or at least, not very often. Because it has too much of a damaging effect. You know…. be careful, it’s big medicine.”
Sixty milligrams of Coenzyme Q 10 natural energy capsules have just slooshed down into Tim Booth’s stomach. Around him in a non-smoking zone dressing room littered with Guarana packets, health drinks and the odd beer, the rest of James are getting ready for the final show. Larry has been put into a state of nerves by the video crew who asked him how it felt to be adored by 9,000 people. “I didn’t know what to say,” he confesses. “I just sort of sat there looking embarrassed. I thought I’d get used to it all by my age.”
Dave is pulling on his ‘F–king F–k’ sloganed T-shirt. Saul is worrying that the snow has kept the fans away. And Tim is standing in front of a mirror trying to work out what to wear. “Motherf–ker! F–k I’m angry tonight. Or at least I’m trying to get angry. Bollocks.” Tim sighs, frowning at the pile of shirts crumpled on the floor. “It’s just the idea that it’s going to be on video. I wouldn’t give a shit otherwise.”
The doorway that opens onto the backstage area at G-Mex sends a sunburst of white TV camera lights out into the darkened arena where the swaying hollering James fans wait in near hysterical mood for the band to walk on stage. Eight years ago, James first photographs were taken outside the G-Mex building when it was still Manchester Central Station. Then they were still too self-effacing to even look at the camera. Tonight they jog on stage to face the crowd roar with a TV camera shoved up each of their noses.
From Tim Booth’s entrance on top of the speaker stacks, through to the moment near the end where he dervlish-dances himself into near unconsciousness and has to crawl stage-side for oxygen, the final show is pure drama. A truly uplifting mesh of black thrills and ecstatic pop. Fainting teenagers are dragged out of the crowd throughout. When James drop the volume half way through Sit Down, the entire audience sings the chorus, unaccompanied, for a full five minutes. It is shamefully, inescapably moving.
Tim Booth dedicates the encore to three fans who have died during the year and somehow, one James-ette dodges past the security men to scramble on stage and skip around madly during How Was It For You?. Bono would have made a show out of that. Booth, the canny bastard, just carries on dancing himself stupid. For two hours at G-Mex, James were the most important band since….
“You slag Morrissey off you do, you f–king bastards”
A sweat-soaked James cub standing next to me at G-Mex has sussed out that I work for the NME and is spitting Moz fervour in my ear. So I ask her James Corps friend, who seems a little less likely to stab me, if she thinks Tim Booth is like Gary Glitter.
“Naaah” she says “Gary Glitter wears platform boots. Tim Booth wears Jesus sandals.”
Thank Christ for a sense of humour.
“We were very naive back in 83” Tim had told me earlier. “We thought we’d be stadium level… I was dragged to a Bruce Springsteen concert, and I thought ‘Corny old American’ but it blew me away. Not really the music because it wasn’t very original, but it was more the heart of how much he was giving. I always wanted to be in a band that was like that.”
Surely though, Tim, you can’t expect that the commitment and intensity of James is all that’s going to come across? Isn’t it OK to be a clown as well as a poet?
“No, the jester thing I didn’t like. Being a jester sounds too weak. It would have to be more like a psychotic jester, nearly getting executed for saying all the wrong things at all the wrong times. Humour is very important, but becoming a wacky band, or donning loads of costumes… ‘know, it’s got to be hard. The songs have got to be hard.”
So in that case it wouldn’t really be appropriate to ask you what you had for breakfast?”
“Hash browns. Button mushrooms. Baked beans.”
And for the one and only time in my three days with the nearly un-mockable James, Tim Booth actually laughs.