As far as the American public area concerned, James are just another British group with a funny name and a single. While Tim Booth and his henchmen mark their first trip to the States by filming Born of Frustration in the Californian desert, Randee Dawn straps on her seven shooter and discovers a place where the grass is actually greener. Meanwhile, back at the Bonaventure Hotel…
And there they were: like something out of Lawrence of Arabia (or not), all seven of them, pale and dazzled, amidst the ochre sands of the Mojave Desert, horns a-blasting, singing about frustration and just who’s to blame. The camera sweeps broadly across the sharp coral structures that are all that remain of an underground lake. Strong winds blow piercing particles of sand into every crevice. It is all very reminiscent of November Spawned A Monster, actually, but if you told this to the seven out in the field, looks might kill. Yet another Morrissey reference might not be the best way to approach James these days, not even the new, reformulated James who have assembled five new multi-instrumental members around them like padding, or insulation. The press photo says it all: smack in the centre of the loose spiral of members sits Tim Booth, singer and mind, head cocked just a bit, insouciant and protected. This time, James want no room to slip up, this time, they are taking no chances
Today’s topic: Silence of the Lambs. Today’s speaker: Tim Booth. “I was a Jody Foster fanatic long before John Hinkley. She’s amazing: at 12 she was a great hooker. She’s good in even crap films, like The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. So, having followed young Jody’s career all my life, it was good to see her really make it.”
The same could be said about James fans. Most anyone who knows anything about James has known it for quite some time. James may hold the record for being the greatest also rans in musical history. For just under a decade they’ve been there, slogging it out among the best, and yet never quite getting inside the winner’s circle. It has, to coin a word that Tim Booth so hates, become a bit of a habit. But now there are new members in the former quartet, and there is also a new album to commemorate the new number, Seven. From Fontana, their record label, there is also much enthusiasm. “We’ve had a lot of business-speak,” says Tim, “you know, ‘James is going to break America,’ but it doesn’t really help anybody. We’ve never been in a very big hurry for success; we weren’t very ambitious. We just thought the music was great and eventually everyone would catch up on that.”
It has taken just about everyone a long time to reach James’ level, buy to some extent they have also lowered their standards. Formerly this was a band who would never give an interview, have themselves photographed, or indulge in self promotional nonsense. “But if you don’t play that you’re shooting yourself in the foot,” says Tim, who clicks his tongue as he pauses, thinking, like an old man gnashing his dentures. “The reality of the 1980s was you have to do that, times have changed and the industry had become just that, an industry. The reality of James in the beginning was rehearsing, making a racket, really enjoying it. We didn’t make any money for the first seven years at all, but the music was so good, we felt it would work out in the end, they’ll invite us to the party eventually.”
And on a level, they have, at least been let in the door. For the first time, says Tim, they don’t have to rely on good press at home to push themselves or their record. “This song’s going to be heard by everyone in England,” says Tim, “so I don’t care what they say about it.” And just in time, too – right on schedule, he adds, the revolt has experiencing a press backlash for our success.
This may be a first from Tim Booth’s lips. Sure, James have always known they were too big and too fantastic for just anyone, but to actually say such a thing implies security. Because unless you’ve been in a cave, or lived in America since 1982, you probably have at least heard of James and their many misadventures. Stare more deeply into your memory’s photographs and you’ll recall James somewhere, either as an elegantly crazed opening act, or reading about their record label hopping in some paper, or maybe just by hearing Ya-Ho or Hymn From a Village, or more likely Sit Down. Familiar, they have become easy to overlook. And they have always been labelled – incorrectly: “We used to have two acoustic songs,” says Tim, “so we were a folk act. And then we wrote songs that had political overtones, small ‘p’, and suddenly James were a political band. Now we have two songs that are slightly anthemic and being like U2 is the latest criticism. But we refuse to stand still. It’s the spirit behind the music, not the genre. I love defying categorisation – it’s be a bad day when we kept getting the same review.”
It was this refusal to sound or be like anyone else in music that ultimately may have been the cause for James being shunted to the side so often. Avoiding being pigeonholed is one thing – not allowing the masses to at least get a grip on what you’re doing is quite another. “We’ve always been frightened of rituals and clichés,” says Tim. “We improvise, and we change our set every night. I hate it when musicians get too good, and all they do is end up looking technical, and when you mention improvisation they’re either so afraid of hitting the wrong note or their idea of improvising is to play as many notes as they can at the same time.”
This, Tim says, was part of the “James attitude” they had been searching for years for from musicians. The booting out of drummer Gavan Whelan gave the remaining three impetus to begin to take a different outlook on what James ought to be. That, according to Tim, was a widely expanded version of the old model. “We thought, we’ll look for a drummer, but let’s look around for what else is out there, too. We wanted good musicians, but who didn’t have to show it, musicians who were looking for the simplest way to play a song, rather than the flashiest way. So when one person takes a chord, everyone reacts. It’s a vulnerability, and an ability to be very awake, flexible, and able to take the lead when you need to.”
Thus assembled, James became the old: Tim. Larry Gott, and Jim Glennie, and the new: Saul Davies, Andy Diagram, David Baynton-Power and Mark Hunter, many of whom play more than one instrument, and most of whom switch roles depending on the song, the night and the mood. And why not? There are improv jazz bands, improv comedy, why not an improv pop group? “Live has always been our element,” says Tim. “Playing a great live show is making it all real, so it doesn’t look like you’re just going through the motions. It’s a direct communication, it’s something you feel is alive in that time on stage, when you know the band isn’t going to do the same moves to the same songs every night, they’re going to live their songs.”
And so, as seven, they made Gold Mother. “I think the reason it didn’t work was it was too weird, with extreme types of songs,” says Tim. “Our own criticism was that it didn’t feel like a whole – people were wondering ‘Who the hell made this record.’ Maybe it should have been four records instead of one.” Regardless, Gold Mother was not the breakthrough they expected. Its re-release, in a new version with the stirring (or, better, the ‘settling’) Sit Down, however, was. All at once, James were acclaimed in the manner they had always expected they would be. Huge shows sold out, all the time. They were merchandised to death. Buttons. More t-shirts. “And now they won’t stop playing us on the radio,” says Tim. “We’ve gone to radio stations and asked them not to play our songs, but they wouldn’t listen.” Your life should be this tough.
But having hit a high water-mark at home, Tim says the bigger shows were putting them out of touch with the audience, and they were losing their desire to improvise. “It inhibits you from taking risks,” says Tim “and it wasn’t a Zen enough attitude really, to take one place more seriously than another.”
America had been on the agenda for some time, but better to struggle in one country than flounder in two, so James had prudently not struck out on the road abroad thus far. In fact, visiting the desert to film Born Of Frustration marks their first trip overseas. Apart from the expected culture shock, however, a language barrier appears to be developing. Hispanics all over the world might cringe when Tim pronounces the desert they are performing in as “Moh-Jayv”
When James tour America for the first time, they will be a different band than anyone has ever seen in England. They will come without ten years of preconceptions, without ten years of history to founder under : No Morrissey tag, no “bearded, Buddhist vegans” here. To the patrons of clubs around the States, James will be just another British group with a funny name and a single. “It’s a challenge,” says Tim. “We like coming onstage and knowing we’ve got to take these people somewhere and they’re not going to take it all in on the first song, it’s going to be on the sixth or seventh. Seeing how different songs play in different cultures is always fascinating.”
What does seem to follow, no matter what culture, is the inability to grasp James’ agenda. Magazines are already labelling them folk-metal, or psychedelic, or just a bunch of “adorable blokes.” And this is the American press. One review of James referred to Gold Mother as “celebrating the beauty of childbirth.” This had not been Tim’s intent. “The whole thing is about the birth of my son, and it’s not a romantic view,” he says, “because giving birth is the most incredibly real, animal primal experience I’ve ever been through, and I didn’t do it, I just watched. When the song first came out people thought it was a sex song. And they thought that “purple headed alien” was a reference to my penis. I have a much better relationship with my penis than to call it an alien. Can you imagine: ‘Hey, would you like to touch my purple headed alien?’ It’s not going to do much for anybody, is it really?”
But understood as seven adorable blokes or as musicians of more serious intent, James are coming. They’ll play clubs if they have to, but in a more perfect world, says Tim, they’d just rather be the support act. “Then we could play bigger places,” he confides. “lf we played for bands like the Pixies, or REM, or Talking Heads, that would be ideal. American bands feel more real, and Black Francis, he’s the weirdest of them all. He makes you think he’s completely crazy and say’s ‘My lyrics mean nothing, but I’m going to sing like I’m in primal agony.’ It’s that the depth of madness of American bands tends to be more real to us than the English, which I find a bit light.”
The full tour will take place a few months hence, once the latest James offering is firmly in stores and completely overplayed on alternative radio, and only then, when James have been on the road for a month will the sense of utter cynicism and sarcasm set in about America. But for right now, the States are “alien and exotic” according to Tim. “It’s like places you’ve heard of in films, so you feel deja-vu all the time – ‘Oh, I’ve been here before – no, that was Mae West.’ The mythology that comes from movies is very weird.” Especially when you expect New York to be like Mean Streets and instead get mugged at gunpoint less than an hour after being in Los Angeles.
“We’re not used to guns in England,” Tim says diplomatically. “We’ve only seen them in movies. This country’s obsessed with them. Yes, it is a right. And it is written in the constitution. But do you know what I found out today? The constitution was written on hemp. George Washington had his own stash. It’s a wild thing, that constitution you have’.
It is suggested that he visit that constitution when the band plays Washington DC, where it is preserved under glass. Tim says he thinks he will. “I’ll put my nose right up on the glass and take a big smell I might get a dose of idealism.”