You are Tim Booth. After ten years of luckless striving and personal chaos you are suddenly huge. Have you kept your soul intact, or just become another mock-spiritual corporate rock tosser? Has James kept its integrity, or is it a load of pious pseudo-intellectual shite? Speak…(story by David Cavanagh)
“I think,” says Tim Booth with characteristic softness, “I would like some more champagne.” His vegetarian pancake’s looking a little on the dry side, admittedly. And that mineral water’s not going to help the flow. A decent bottle of Brut could be just the ticket for this lunchtime chin-wag. Three hours of having his photo taken has left Tim a little on the parched side – and constant wearing of shades makes him blink into the daylight like Mole at the start of The Wind In The Willows – and in an hour or so he’s got to do some interviews at Radio 1. He’s all the rage, is Tim Booth. Everybody wants him.
The restaurant was a good idea. Whoever did the booking successfully located an establishment so bereft of custom that the Tim Booth table remains the only one occupied all afternoon. And, give or take the odd Elton John ballad mewling its way over the tannoy, it’s a milieu of satisfactory, masticatory peace and quiet for Booth to think in.
Tim Booth talks a lot, very skilfully. Very softly, too, which is why even when he’s dithering over the menu he makes it sound like some sort of spiritual edict is but seconds away. He talks fluidly, pausing rarely and only hesitating when he wonders if he’s giving too much away. While you’re talking he has an endearing habit of nodding and saying “sure, sure” to each point you make. He appears incredibly attentive. Serene. On the scale of rock star intellect he’s easily in the top two per cent, as those fun loving types at MENSA would say. If 1992 is going to finally jettison this man into the league of Bono and Jim Kerr – and it’s an area he often seems to be racking his soul over – the IQ of stadium rock is going to take a serious leap as a result.
Beside him sits Jim Glennie, the bass player. Tim wanted him there. He keeps making sure the tape recorder is positioned so that it can pick up Jim’s voice as well as his own. From time to time Tim will turn to Jim for acknowledgement, clarification or – once or twice – actual permission to go on. On the afternoon you join us, ‘Seven’, James’ new album is about to come out. The main course has just arrived, the champagne glasses have clinked “cheers” and the tape recorder has just clicked on. Tim has already established that the Select interview is far from effusive, and the words “stadium rock” have just been mentioned for the first time. The dreaded words. It’s clear that lots of people now think James have got something terminal here. They’re now at the stage where the music press traditionally abandons bands – tchah, poor old James, they’re a stadium band now! – and leaves them to their globally-obsessed masterplan.
James, I hope we’re all agreed, are worth a hell of a lot more respect than that.
Have you accepted that you’re going to become truly massive this year, Tim?
We think so. But you can never tell. We stopped taking things for granted a long time ago. You know, Larry (Gott, guitarist) gets to LA and what’s the first thing that happens? He gets mugged at gunpoint. What if he’d been shot? What if he’d been killed? I don’t think the band would have gone on. I mean, there was a gun stuck in his ribs! His first time ever in America…
Is he going to go back?
I think he will. I think he’ll get over it. He’s very aware that he has to get back there as soon as possible. But he was freaked out by the whole thing.
Why choose ‘Seven’ as the album title? Because there’s seven of you?
Mmm. As a title it just seemed to fit. This album reflects the number of people in the band at this time. There won’t be seven always. It’s not that focused. A number of coincidences started occurring around the number seven when we chose the title about a year ago. ‘Sit Down’ went in at number seven. We did Top Of The Pops and were given dressing room number seven. On the same TOTP was a band who sang a song about lucky seven (‘Wear Your Love Like Heaven’ by Definition Of Sound’). Later on we found seven is the number of God in the Kabbala religion of numerology.
On a scale of one to ten, how happy are you with James at the moment?
Eight, I’d say (he looks at Jim, who nods slowly). Nine with the album, but then it’s different with that because it’s not something we can do much about now.
Now that the words “stadium rock” have been used about you – however flippantly – are you taking that as a criticism?
No Well…I don’t like the word.
Do you like Simple Minds?
Well (smiles)… we don’t feel they’ve progressed.
Is there a stigma to the word “stadium”?
Yeah! That’s why we don’t like it. Very few bands, to my mind, could play in a stadium and still communicate to individuals.
How many stadium-size gigs have you actually played?
I should think about six or seven.
Have you started writing in looser metaphors, writing for bigger audiences?
No. No, you can’t think about things like that. That’s where bands fall down. They start to think they’re writing for the people. And we’re writing for ourselves. And if you’re lucky the song you’re writing for yourself – if it’s got enough truth in it – will contact a large amount of people anyway.
How do you reach an individual in a huge audience?
I look at people. I sing to them. I look at individuals. And I can go to the back of a hall, I’m not just talking about the front rows. We played a gig in Paris last spring, doing 13 or 14 new songs that we didn’t know very well. We did ‘Born Of Frustration’ and there was this guy right at the back. And I sang the beginning to him and he was looking at me and he was really getting into it. And he started making his way through the crowd, dancing, moving his arms around, and he came right through the crowd, and as he got to the front we reached the chorus. And I bent down and sang it right into his face…I mean, the guy nearly came. And I was completely gone too, on his reaction. It was just like, whooaaahhhh!!! Because I love that song, and that was a really beautiful moment.
Is there nothing on ‘Seven’ that was written with a huge audience in mind?
No. If anything, we were trying to make certain songs smaller. ‘Sound’ – we actually made that smaller. It was more epic, it was more stadium. We don’t have much control over our songs. Recently, we’ve gone in to write new songs – and we’ve all been getting into Metallica and Nirvana and the Pixies – and it was like, Let’s get some really hard and heavy and harsh songs, y’know? And you try for a while and nothing happens. And then suddenly you go into a weird jam that’s in a completely different musical direction to the one you wanted. We’re coming out with all these folky songs, thinking, Aaah shit we’re going folk again. We have no control over these things. All the songs are totally accidental.
So you’re not one of these bands where the guitarist comes in with a chord progression?
No, never. Never. Nobody has ever brought a song into James. They start from nothing.
Well, ‘Live A Love Of Life’ sounds like it started as some kind of U2 riff.
Are you kidding? It’s blatant. It sounds like The Edge.
Well…(looking genuinely puzzled). I don’t think Larry has any U2 albums. I certainly don’t. I didn’t even hear any until ‘The Joshua Tree’. I’ve still never heard a Simple Minds album. So, no, that was not intentional.
What about ‘Sit Down’- have you ever wished you’d never written it?
No, no. Never.
(Jim says quietly that he has. Last tour, the whole question of what to do about ‘Sit Down’ had James beginning the set with it, ending the set with it, bunging it in the middle and generally trying to keep it fresh. Jim envisages a situation where James could leave it out altogether –“and if people couldn’t handle that, they needn’t come”.)
How many songs on ‘Seven’ are about your break-up with Martine (James’ manager and Tim’s longtime partner)?
Probably just ‘Don’t Wait That Long’. That’s the really personal one. That was written about two and a half years ago. The split was just beginning then. And we knew we’d written a beautiful song, and we kept playing it to people but nobody thought it was that good. We knew there was a missing piece, and it took two and a half years to find that missing piece. It was a rhythm change; we slowed it right down.
So that dates from ‘Gold Mother’ time, then. Was that a time of great misery for the band, before the success of ‘Sit Down’?
No, listen, you’re completely mistaking us. We weren’t miserable when we weren’t succeeding. Alright, lyrically, ‘Gold Mother’ and ‘Seven’ are the most depressed words I’ve ever written, but that’s to do with my personal life. We weren’t unhappy as a band when we weren’t succeeding. We were making music that we loved. The band has never been a problem. And, in fact, we wrote ‘Sit Down’ in our worst period of poverty. We’d look at each other and think, Well, we can’t give up now – we’ve got all these great new songs to play.
So the ‘James struggle’ thing is a bit of a myth?
Well, James was not it for us. You talk about our struggle, but we had problems in our personal lives (he looks at Jim) that were far bigger struggles for both of us. To see us simply as members of a band would be a real misconception of our states of mind at that time. I think people might have misunderstood what kept us going, actually. People kind of think James should have split earlier – how did they get through it, and so on. But we didn’t have many embarrassments live – we didn’t turn up and find there were no people. So all the time, to us, it felt like we were making progress. There was always as much a sense of movement in our lives as there was in our music. We were always more than an indie band.
Do you see ‘indie’ as a way of thinking?
Yes, and not necessarily a positive one. A very English second division way of thinking. A fear of success way of thinking. There are a few bands that can break through that. But it assumes…(smiles) it assumes not reaching for the stars.
Which you are?
There are some wildly opposing uses of the word ‘God’ on the album. On ‘Ring the Bells’ you’re singing “I no longer feel that God is watching over me”, whereas on ‘Seven’ you’re telling us “God is to love me”.
Sometimes I use the word to ruffle up preconceptions. Other times, it’s in a vague, more nebulous sense. I’m not a member of any religion or belief system at all. The thing is, I have a choice. I can either believe the world is random chaos and there’s no meaning and no values. Or I can believe there’s some purpose, some intelligence. And that, I would say, is God. Not a person. Not an entity. Just a vague understanding of an intelligence. And I flip from one belief to the other. I don’t think I could live in this world if I thought it was just complete chaos. I’ve experienced that state a few times, and it’s not something I can take for very long. It’s terrifying.
When was the last time?
About a year ago.
I can’t tell you. (Long pause) The last three years have been the worst period of my life. But they’ve also been…(his voice gets very distant) an awakening of a kind, I suppose.
The very last words on the album are “love can change everything”. Do you believe that?
(After a long pause) No, I don’t. Not unless it’s balanced by wisdom. I’ve always felt that, going right back to The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’. No, sorry. You need something else as well.
So why didn’t you qualify that lyric?
I don’t know. I didn’t think of it like that. Maybe if love is all you have, you probably think that’s all you need. Maybe that’s fair enough.
When you write about love, do you feel you should constantly do twists on it, as in Michael Stipe’s famous “simple prop to occupy my time” on ‘The One I Love’?
No, but what you do feel is intense irritation at all the other uses of the word ‘love’, because I don’t think that love exists as it’s presented in most people’s songs. It’s usually a wonderful thing and everybody wants it and it’s gonna last forever and all that bullshit. Well, I don’t find that real. That is not my reality. If I’m going to write about love I’ve got to make it personal. And it’ll reflect huge amounts of pain as well as the wonder and the joy.
Do you see Martine all the time, then?
All the time, yeah. And she’s brilliant about letting me see my son. But with her…I guess I see her in a business sense. It’s just something we’ve worked out. It’s unusual, I know, but it’s just happened.
You mentioned personal problems back there. If they were bigger than the band, presumably you couldn’t exorcise them through your music?
Well, the background to early James, if you’re really interested – at around ‘Stutter’ and ‘Stripmine’ time – we were meditating. Me and him and Martine and Jenny. Hours every day. Ten hours at weekends. And that was for three years. No one knew about that, we didn’t tell anyone about it. People thought something like that was going on, which is why we got that Buddhist tag, which was untrue. But meditation was our private life for a long time. And you could find lyrics from that time, if you wanted, that reflected that.
(Tim has alluded in the past to James switching to meditation as some atonement for their debauched years as a “drugs band”. Tim and Jim both admit their immersion in meditation had a lot to do with the serious mental illness – through massive daily ingestion of hash via the lethally potent ‘hot knives’ method – of an early James guitarist called Paul.)
After that period where there were a lot of drugs going round, I looked for ways to reach those states of consciousness without drugs. And that became my search. Partly because I couldn’t handle drugs – I had serious liver problems – and partly to get the one member of the band into these other possibilities so he’d stop taking drugs. Trying to get him back.
Is Paul dead now?
No, he’s not dead.
(Jim immediately interrupts. “His character disappeared. He woke up one morning and there was nothing there. He’s kind of OK now. He’s sort of built something out of it now, but…it’s really difficult, you know? He was my best friend since I was 13.”).
So this search for altered states goes on?
I’ve always been drawn to the area where madness meets drug abuse meets mysticism. If you look at all the books I like and all the films I’m really into, that’s your common ground. When we started meditating, that was the intention: let’s do this properly. I’ve always been fascinated to find that schizophrenia and madness and divine wisdom are all states of mind tuned to the same frequencies of brain waves. And at various times in the past these states have either been respected – as in witches and witch doctors – or despised and locked away. Or, in our society, they become artists. They become the cultural myth-makers. They are people that have to be dealt with, you know? Because they are picking up on stuff that the majority of people don’t believe exists.
So where do you stand on drugs now?
Drugs have been in every single culture that has ever existed, but very often used much more wisely than they are now. Say a certain tribe would have a mushroom ritual three times a year or so…or solstices, or initiations…because you can’t do that every day. But this society’s so greed-based and consumer-based that not enough respect has been shown to these areas. So it’s well out of control now, which is why I can’t take a stance either justifying or negating drugs now. You have to show these things respect.
What’ll you do if James ever ends?
I should think we’ll want a long break from each other. Because it’s been pretty intense. But I think that after that we’ll become pretty good friends. All that talk of splitting up in 1989 was highly exaggerated, incidentally. That was only ever articulated once and quickly rejected. We have something to complete here. We all feel that.
You asked me earlier about how I felt about James on a scale of one to ten, and I said eight. I think I’d always have said eight. We love our music. But there is work still to be done.
Finally, on ‘Sound’, you yell out “do something out of character”. Was that a very James moment?
Yeah. I think so. We’re happy with it. That’s the kind of thing I’m happy with. And it’s going to be great onstage. We’re going to really intimidate each other. Start staring each other in the eyes, seeing who can handle it. Just move in on each other. Try to push things, psychologically. States of mind again, you see.
Isn’t there ever a risk to the sanity with all this?
Ah…(laughs) I don’t know the meaning of that word.