It’s as if The Beatles never happened. Deafening screams that could slice your head off flood London’s Brixton Academy. The smell of teen spirit fills the air, a huge throng in matching T-shirts bob and bay the words, “Sit down next to me” in unison. Half of this sweating, salivating mass were still in short trousers when James stumbled into the pop fray. For the older and wizened half, James’ elevation to God-like status was, quite simply, overdue.
Remarkably un-phased by their crooked road to riches, Tim, Jim and Larry – the songwriting nucleus of the seven piece – are enjoying themselves to the hilt.
“We’ve been indulging in the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll much more on this tour, because we’ve never done it,” croaks freshly shorn and throat-infected singer Tim Booth backstage.
“It’s a bit strange, it’s like a new world we’re venturing into,” says Jim. “It seems such a contrast to what we’re actually trying to do.”
“This tour, the crowd certainly have different expectations,” Larry continues. “It’s hard to judge because our crowd has changed so much over the years. I hope there’s still some original James fans there. They don’t make themselves as known as the newer fans, a lot of whom are younger and of the female persuasion.”
Wham! Bam! It seems James have entered the teen sexdome. “I think there’s a lot of handsome people in this band,” Tim deflects. “I’m far too strange, too odd, to be a sex symbol though. Not with my dancing! What I do see is us generating a lot of energy and power onstage and some of that stems from confused sexuality.
“Some nights,” he continues, “when we go onstage we have real control, it’s really from the belly. Then other nights we’re completely lost and no one really knows what’s going on. It’s completely chaotic.” Indeed, most James shows are an anomaly. Changing the set list every night, the only live staple now is the anthemic ‘Sit Down’, usually their parting gift.
“The first four or five times we played it and everyone sat down we got such a buzz off it,” says Tim. “By the fifth or sixth time you worry that it’s a cliche but what you forget is that for that audience it’s the first time. I see it as the final chapter in a novel. But if you take it out of context you miss the whole point. There’s 15 or 16 songs before that which affect people in different ways, before they can join in on ‘Sit Down’. It’s a release. It’s a whole.”
Originally their ‘comeback’ single for Rough Trade in ’89, it took nearly two years for ‘Sit Down’ to do the business. but, they claim, there was no game plan.
“We should have had this incredible campaign where we could have taken over the world 12 months after ‘Sit Down’,” Larry muses. “It’s just like life, another day another door opens and if it looks promising you’ll go through it, if not you’ll check the next door out.”
The belated follow-up ‘Sound’, out this week, eschews the sing-a-long commerciality of its predecessor. With no real chorus to speak of, aren’t they playing with fire?
Jim: “Every time we throw our ideas into what we think is a single, it’s never the same as anyone else’s ideas. We’ve got no fucking idea. We love them all, that’s the problem. We just can’t get the distance to judge them properly.”
Errors of judgement have severely hampered their progress in the past. In early ’85 they looked set to become the next big cheese on the indie scene after The Smiths, with Morrissey’s full endorsement to boot. It proved a mixed blessing. Despite a rapturous response as support on the former’s ‘Meat Is Murder’ tour, James were burdened with a very dour, serious image. Gawky to a fault in interviews, they came on like anathema to the rock press.
“I think the serious thing really came from me, it didn’t really reflect the band,” says Tim. “In the early days we were called folky wacky vegetarians,” explains Jim, “and we had hard songs at that time. Some weird heavy hard shit knocking around and that small element of what we did was picked upon as a criticism. We spent ages trying to get away from that image.”
“I think we’ve lightened up a lot,” claims Larry.
“We were dour, we were precious, we were scared. We were entering into a big sea and you can drown very quickly. So we huddled together in our own tight little group, and we were very precious about what we had. We found it very hard to make snappy decisions. We had to let things grow a bit more organically and just see how it goes. And we still feel like that.”
Big Mistake Number Two was signing to Sire. Courted by label head Seymour Stein (the man who signed Madonna), they reached a deadlock on their unfinished second album ‘Strip Mine’, delaying its release for over 18 months. the band remain phlosophical about the time.
“It wasn’t like banging your head against the wall because we always had something – and that was rehearsing and writing songs,” recalls Larry. “Everyone perceived James through 1983-5 as stepping up rungs of ladders and then we just vanished. In everybody’s eyes we just seemed to disappear.”
Tim: “We were never involved in the business side of things, we just did it and it was at that point we realised we had to get involved. We were getting such a kick off the music at the time. we wrote ‘Sit Down’ then and we were on a real high. It was dead exciting.”
Jim is even more stoical.
“All the animosity from the Sire thing has gone now. It was our cock-up as well. If you put your career, your life, your future, all your hopes, ambitions and dreams in somebody else’s hands, is it their fault if they fuck it up or your fault for giving it to them in the first place?”
Eventually freed from that deal, James went back to square one: playing grass roots live shows, patenting their now famous T-shirt design and borrowing money off their bank manager for the live ‘One Man Clapping’ LP. Back on an indie label they transformed into a seven-piece and released ‘Sit Down’ and ‘Come Home’ or Rough Trade with luckless precision, just as the label hit its rough trade. ‘Sit Down’ entered the charts at 75 and dropped out again. Yet they remained undaunted.
“We’ve always had this weird self knowledge that we would get there,” says Jim. “There was no doubt. We just kept going, kept cracking at it. We always loved what we were doing and every time we played it to people they loved it. And for some reason the industry didn’t quite seem to fit in. And we thought, well, fuck it. Every time we went to the rehearsal room new songs kept coming and we thought, what we gonna do, call it a day? We’ve given it our best shot and it didn’t work out. We never felt like that.”
“There were just years of frustration which became our kind of driving force and we kept ploughing through it all. Obviously having no money and having set-back after set-back after set-back is serious hard work. I’ve never felt we’ve stagnated musically or even in the business. Each time we go on tour the venues are a bit bigger. We’re getting used to communicating to a bigger crowd.”
What they do refute, however, is that they’re on the verge of joining the stadium elite alongside U2 and Simple Minds.
“I think certain journalists are trying to put us in that bag in order to run us down,” says Tim. Jim: “I’m not arsed but there’s a side to what we do that I know is so big. Okay you can call that stadium but to me it works. It’s big and it sounds fucking great. But I know in that area we have to watch that we don’t get pushed too far over the top. Now we can create a massive sound do we push that or bring it back down again? Do we splinter it? I don’t know”.
“I like the idea that people think you can work and project that far. The thing I don’t like about stadium bands is that they’re overblown, larger than life. It’s the amateur dramatics that fucking get on your tits. And obviously I don’t want to get into that sort of bollocks, charging around like a blue-arsed fly so that people at the back can see you.
“The challenge for us has always been getting something that you can play to people that works in a way that doesn’t sound cliched, bombastic and crass.”
As the future, the possibilities are many. There’s a big world to conquer.
“It feels like we haven’t really started yet,” buzzes Tim. “It’s weird. we’ve only started playing Europe in the past two years really. We’ve never been to America, Japan, Australia. It’s only just starting – we’ll be touring for the next three or four years but it won’t be in Britain. It’s what we want to do, we want to take our songs to as many people as possible and see what happens when you hit a different culture. Variety is what we enjoy.”
“We’re only just ready for it. We’d have been in big trouble if it had happened five years ago. Now we can see all the pressure and problems you have to endure. And you can see why people trashed their hotel rooms and everything else. It’s bloody difficult if you don’t have friends and people around you to bring you down.
“I’ve got my own balance so I don’t go mad. It stems from years of discipline – self discipline and meditation – so I’m not worried about going off the rails. I still meditate but meditation’s not a strict regimen to me anymore. I’ve also got a brain machine for winding myself down, self hypnosis tapes…” The backstage James rider also takes in lashings of carrot juice, Guarana capsules and a martial arts expert “so we can feel empowered”.
Typically, Tim is thinking of taking more of a backseat in the future.
“I don’t like all the limelight coming down on me as a person. I’m seriously thinking of refusing to do interviews very soon because I’m embarrassed at all the attention. There’s too much focused on me.” Tim Booth the home boy is playing away.
JAMES BY JIM:
“I’m good at thinking up simple little tunes on the bass guitar. That usually starts the general hubbub of the jam that kicks off into lots of different directions and gets pulled away by different people. I’m good at starting seeds.”
“We work together quite closely on songs, he feeds off me when we’re jamming. It’s a two way thing; he’s pushing and pulling where he wants to take things.”
“Larry kinda fits in around that in a really supportive way. When he’s not there it’s virtually impossible. He works out what we’re doing and kinda pushes one side or the other. At the end the three of us can create a song that sounds whole.”
“Dave’s the energy, he’s the power. We piddle around with a drum machine but at the end of the day it’s Woarrgh and it can move.”
“He’s very supportive: personality-wise and in his keyboard playing. He never gets in the way. We always have to tell him to turn himself up! He’s so unobtrusive, he really is. You have to pull it out of him a bit. He’s come up with some great stuff: the hooks in ‘Come Home’ and the start of ‘Sit Down’.”
“The spark of the band. He brings a good kind of edge, a kind of conflict that I enjoy. He’s quite firey, being a bit of a Roy Castle in the band. He leaps around a lot, he adds a good energy. You give him a space with a violin and he’ll soar.”
“Strange one Andy. He’s very much the wandering minstrel in the band, a little bit separate, doing his own things. We give him a long leash. When you give him the space he’ll take it, he’s not pushy with things. Great fun to have around.”
Jim Glennie takes us through the James’ albums and previews the next, due in early ’92.
‘STUTTER’ (July ’86)
“I love ‘Stutter’ now. I went off it completely after we did it because it didn’t sound like I wanted it to. Now I’m really proud of it. I just think, Where the hell were our heads when we did this? Some of it’s really weird. It seems very different from what we do now.”
‘STRIP MINE’ (September ’88)
“A mixture of feelings on ‘Strip Mine’. I like most of it. I think on ‘Stutter’ we just did what we did, on ‘Strip Mine’ we werer trying to do something different. Musically some of it works, some of it doesn’t but the songs are great. There’s an element of madness that we should have let go more. Tim loves it.”
‘ONE MAN CLAPPING’ (LIVE) (March ’89)
“Our bargain basement album. I really like it, still. It brings back funny memories. ‘One Man Clapping’ was to fill a gap but there were a lot of odds and ends on it, old B-sides that we felt we’d never got right, never done justice to.”
‘GOLD MOTHER’ (June 1990)
“It wasn’t quite how I imagined it when it came out. I’ve got enough distance from it now that I can enjoy it. I felt at the time we were looking to push it again, put some balls in. I think we went for it on that.”
THE NEW ALBUM (Due early ’92)
“Youth (Blue Pearl, Bananarama, PM Dawn) produced it. His views were identical to ours so we decided to go for it. He basically just set a vibe. We were in Olympic Studios and he filled it with three-foot altar candles, loads of them, an oil wheel, a strobe for the fast songs, a load of kilns, rugs, flower displays and incense. We pissed ourselves laughing all the way through, but it worked. It’s got an energy, a vitality and a life.”