“WHAT ARE JAMES CELEBRATING? OH, OUR RECOGNITION OF WHAT THE WORLD’S ABOUT. THAT’S WHAT IT IS, really. Seeing the dark side of life, knowing things can really be shit, but trying to say that there’s still hope. Trying to say just look how beatuiful THIS is! That’s James. That optimism. Not a blind, foolish optimism that merely says the world’s a wonderful place, la-di-da. That’s too easy. No, you have to recognise there’s beauty and there’s crap in here. You have to recognise the complexity.” –Tim Booth
FEW groups know how to celebrate like James. Few truly recognise the art. It’s not a question of mere cheerfulness. Any fool can grin. True celebration involves a joy, a depth, a resonance, an intelligence. True celebration needs complexity and conviction. The very best fun is a genuinely serious business.
James never used to be skilled celebrators. Not even two years back. There was a greyness to shake off. They tended towards the sombre. James have always been many things; perverse, giddy, singular, contrary, clever, tilted, troubled. But they weren’t always fun. Pop success eluded them. James looked doomed to perenial comfy, vaguely sullen cult status.
But then James became a cause to celebrate. They blossomed spectacularly. Where once they scripted edgy, twitchy angst-dramas there came loping anthems. Two wicked, intoxicating singles, “Come Home” and “Sit Down”, exploded their morose milieu. Live shows grew into addictive, joyous theatre. From being the ultimate student band, James were reborn as uneven, insanely joyous entertainers. It was a miracle.
Five months ago, they converted 50,000 souls to their busy mayhem at Glastonbury when Tim Booth rode their twisted rhythms from the stage and into the crowd. James were delirious that day, fervent, inspired demons. They came of age. And now, to complete the process, comes a potent new single, “Lose Control”, to strafe the charts. At long last, James’ exile is over. The secret’s out. Tim Booth’s unstable, maverick glee can go public.
It’s surely time to celebrate.
“LOSE Control” is a classic single, one of the year’s greats. Set to the ubiquitous Soul II Soul drum shuffle by Flood, producer of The Soup Dragons’ “I’m Free”, its curios, querulous outlook is unmistakeably James. “Where is the love/That everyone is talking of?” wonders Booth dolefully over the hypno-beat, before deciding, “We have found the love/To carry on”. It’s baggy, yeah, yet superbly aloof. James have always kept their distance.
“It was a long, dark night when I wrote it,” grins Tim. “I tend to write through the night. The idea is pretty dark: ‘Don’t be deceived, no land in sight/We’re all adrift in this dark night’. It’s an insomniac, awake all night, plagued by doubt and fear. ‘The terror’s all within my head’. But it ends on a positve note, I stuck in a real corny American-type ending.”
Why do that, Tim? Why contradict the song’s delicate, delicious meloncholy?
“Recently, I’ve seen that if I write a load of depressing songs, I get depressed soon after,” he confesses. “I feel a responsibility to make things positive. But I don’t know why. It’s not a conscious effort. Life’s hard enough without bloody unhappy endings!”
How about that line, “My body’s young, but my spirit’s old”? Do you feel that way? Were you badly down that night?
“Yeah, but my spirit being old is okay. It’s a continuation. And when I sing, ‘Shake my body, release my soul”, that’s to do with dancing and trying to BREAK OUT of your limits! Your skin is your physical prison. So, punish your senses! Break out of your physical prison. . .”
THE cleverly camp Tim Booth is charismatic in tiny ways. He knows all about eye contact, how to glance just_ so, how to be quietly flamboyant yet immaculately polite. He’s a real charmer. The band’s Jim and Larry plus myself, sitting round the table in a Manchester greasy spoon, all seem lumpenly oafish in comparison. We’re too laddish.
On stage, Tim is yet more puckish, a dextrous Pierrot orchestrating James’ heady chaos and the audience’s love. It’s no surprise he used to be a drama student. Does he ever feel like an actor up there?
“No, I was a terrible actor,” he grimaces. “I had no confidence at all. I’d spend my whole time on stage trying to remember my words. I always had a complete panic expression on my face. Even in James, we were pretty bad at first! It took us two years to overcome our stage fright. Two years to want to be up there.”
It’s hard to believe now. Two weeks ago saw James take apart a theatre in Paris. Tim Booth played to cockeyed messiah to perfection. The French adored him. Their love for him was palpable. Does he feel powerful?
“Yeah, I’m aware of a power. The power of music, of the whole event. I get so much adrenalin going. I might as well be taking drugs. We’ve walked on stage before and the audience bayed at us so much we’ve tilted backwards, like in a fierce headwind! So we try to use it. We have to. It’s fight or flight. . .”
WHEN did James cast off their shackles? What made them embrace this dizzy, frenzied new lease on life?
“We toured earlier this year,” recalls Tim, “and it got ever more celebratory. We learnt how to celebrate. Look at my lyrics very closely, and a lot of them are very hard, extremely depressed. But every gig we played, people were singing them as great big celebratory anthems. When I remember how I felt when I wrote them, what I was going through, it was totally weird!
“But it’s alchemy really. We can transform depression into joy, and that’s beautiful. I love it. We’re playing two shows at G-mex in December, 10,000 people each, and they’ll be such a celebration! Completely over the top! I’m nervous, but I can’t wait.”
So what is it that James celebrate?
“I think it’s life,” decides Tim. “Vitality. Some kind of joy. It’s so hard to say it. The world’s a f***ing hard place, sure, but it can be a wonderful place, so enjoy it! Enjoy that painting! Enjoy that animal! James should be life-affirming.”
Is it accurate that James are called “eccentric”?
“I don’t like it,” Tim says, “it’s too light. I just think we’re open to chance, and realise chance means the subconscious. It arranges things so much easier than the conscious, which can only work according to what it’s heard before. The unconscious brain throws in random factors. It’s much fresher.”
How do you trigger the unconscious?
“Take loads of drugs!” A shake of the head. “No. Oops! I mean just be receptive to it. Mistakes can be great. They’re original. You can’t make mistakes on purpose. We wrote ‘Come Home’ by mistake! We were trying to play ‘Sit Down’. ‘Sit Down’ is the big bastard brother of ‘Come Home’, the big bastard brother who’s been to Strangeways!”
James have always been contrary. They sabotage themselves. It’s part of their left-handed charm. Jim and Larry tell me eagerly how thet deliberately make sets hard, set themselves improvisatonal tasks, “for a challenge”. And Tim, not to be outdone, says “Lose Control” may be their sole dance single.
What?! Are you serious?
“Yeah! It’s a good single, but don’t forget there are seven people in James. There’s loads going on! We can’t mix everything with the bass and drums up front. . .”
THE charming Tim Booth enthuses about his recent wargames debut, shooting paint bullets at bored executives. “I killed loads of people,” he grins, wide eyed, divulging plans to set up a band contest against Happy Mondays. Our minds boggle en masse at the prospect Of Bez wielding a paint gun.
How personal to Tim Booth are James’ songs?
“Songs I though were very external to me turn out at a very later date to be personal,” he says. “I wrote a song about Jimmy Swaggert, or thought I had, and it turned out to be about me. He was interesting to me. He had all these commands for how others should live, then he couldn’t live up to them himself.
“That works in my life as well. I had very set ideas how I wanted to be. I haven’t lived up to them. So, maybe, the ideas weren’t right! Maybe I should just live my life, and not have too many concepts about it. I haven’t meditated for two years or so now. I get angry a lot more. More impatient. I’m turning into a right bad-tempered git!”
Yet see James live, in 1990, and Tim Booth isn’t a bad-tempered git. He’s a cunning jester. He even seems to love it when the kids cheerfully bellow that line in “Come Home” where he glumly tells the world he’s become “the kind of man I always hated”.
“I was in a pretty deep pit when I wrote that,” he recalls. “It was so personal. When I first heard it on Radio 1, I was shocked. I’d never heard such self-hate on the radio. But nobody ever figures it out! They all just sing along!”
Do you resent that?
Tim’s eyes twinkle. He’s a clever sod. “No, it’s fine! It’s the transmutation of something dark into something very light! Good! The song has a depth written into it. Maybe people will go back to it, in the future, and see the nastiness. I dunno. But I appreciate people getting joy from the songs! It’s better than feeling depressed.”
JAMES’ fragile days are over now. They know their worth. They’re no longer spindly. This curious, lopsided, singular band have learned to dance without blushing, rock without apologising. They’ve followed their erratic, engaging vision for eight years, gathered disciples, never compromised. The hard work’s over now. Here comes the pay-off.
“How do I summarise James?” asks Tim. ‘Where do I start? All I can do is talk in very general terms. About vitality, and energy, and an attempt to discover things about ourselves and our relationship with the audience. We’re here to discover.”
Larry: “People always called us Manchester’s best kept secret. Then the secret got let out of the bag. When this Manchester thing happened, every band in every attic and garage was dragged out and thrown out on a stage for the press to look at!”
Was it fun being a secret, all those years?
“Well, secrets lead to gossip,” says Tim. “People gossip. When we can sell out a 10,000 people concert in two weeks, we know someone’s let the cat out of the bag! Someone’s told their friends! Now it’s time for James to be Manchester’s best-kept gossip”
So what motivates you to keep inventing new twists for James?
“We’re probably addicts,” grins Tim Booth. “If we tried to give up, we’d get withdrawal. It’s very compulsive. We don’t have a lot of choice in it. But this doesn’t feel like the time to stop. I think we’ll know when that time comes.
“We have a psychotic need to express ourselves in this manner,” Tim concludes. “Someone asked me yesterday, what’s our drive? And I said personality disorders. I just need to hit myself on the head a few more times! Then I’ll be alright!”
James have found the love. Their time is definitely NOW. I suggest you celebrate frantically.
“Lose Control” is out next week on Fontana. James play December dates in Glasgow, London, And Manchester.