JAMES were first supposed to tour America supporting The Smiths in 1985. Seven years later, they’ve finally made it across the pond. Ted Mico caught up with them in Los Angeles and discovered how Manchester’s best kept secret has started to become got property in the US.
ALARMED AND DANGEROUS
“We’ve all been to LA before” Tim Booth tells the first interviewer on the morning of James’ debut LA concert. “Except our guitarist Larry who was only here for a few hours.”
In fact, Larry Gott had been in LA for exactly one hour before he made his way back to Blighty. The guitarist went night-time window shopping on Sunset Strip, looked at the motorbike shop and the Western boot shop, and then got held up at gunpoint by two assailants.
“You know when you walk round a city at night, you can get a feel for the place,” he explains. “How was I to know that in LA, the only people out at night are lunatics, winos and muggers? I was an innocent abroad.”
During his second visit (later tonight), Larry returned to the scenr of the crime with the band’s 20 stone Samoan minder, but the muggers had taken the night off. James are in town again, but this time the only problem is fending off the 50 or so fans that congegrate outside the venue that afternoon before the soundcheck.
HANG THE DJ
Stumbling off the tour bus into the 10 o’clock LA sun, the seven members of James look conspicously out of place. In the middle of the LA hustle and bustle, James appear even more diffident, more reserved, more essentially English. While the rest of LA believes it’s living in a police state, James are content to live between polite statements.
Like all English “alternative” bands visiting the city, James are asked to make the pilgrimage to the “alternative” and hideously influential radio station KROQ, where they’re supposed to be interviewed and to play a couple of songs live. Things get off to a flying start when the DJ gets everyone’s names wrong and keeps asking “Who’s James?” Once he gets on air, things go from bad to worse.
“Hi, here in the studio we have Tim Booth from the band James,” he gushes, while Larry Gott and Jim Glennie look at one another, wondering when they became invisible.
“Actually,” Tim says, “there are some other people here as well.”
Later, Tim explains he’s now trying to shift to move the emphasis away from just him and onto the band. He’s sick of being portrayed as the weird lead singer of a band and would rather be described as a singer of a leading weird band. This is the main reason for calling the album ‘Seven’ and shunning most of the limelight.
“So you’re playing a sold-out show tonight,” the DJ waffles on. “That’s really great.”
“Yeah,” Tim agrees. “20 people – that’s really some achievement for our first time in America.”
By now, Booth has shifted from detached civility to open hostility. Finally, the question we’ve all been waiting for: “So are you sick of explaining where you got the name from? I mean,” the DJ adds when he sees Tim glower, “you must have a pat answer by now.”
“We have about six that we choose from, depending on the level of intelligence of the person asking the questions,” Booth says, his playfulness evaporating in the steam of idiocy. “Which one do you think you’ll get?”
The DJ laughs nervously as Tim tells him that Jim Glennie won the fight for a name. The radio interview is now well off course and any attempt the DJ makes to right the ship is scuppered by Booth’s sarcasm.
“So,” the DJ asks, “we have a mutual friend – Deborah O’Donahue.”
“We do?” Tin shrugs, not having the faintest idea what the man is talking about. “I don’t know her actually. Is she someone you slept with, Jim?”
“Several times, probably” the bassist replies.
“So tell us about the show tonight,” the hapless jock asks. “What makes James different from the average run-of-the-mill pop band?”
“Well,” Booth begins earnestly, “we do a slow striptease throughout the concert, which a lot of people really get into, and there’s the indoor firework display and a juggler and conjuror who makes rabbits and aardvarks appear&ldots;.”
“Yeah right,” the DJ says, with another nervous radio laugh. Maybe there’ll be other towns for him to work in. For sure, they’ll be running him out of this one soon enough. “How is it you’re so loved in England and so unknown in America?” he stumbles on.
“They’ve got taste in England,” Booth spits and then smiles.
It’s decided it’s time for a commercial break. After the ads, James unload a savage acoustic version of ‘Lose Control’, which so overwhelms the attentive DJ that he completely loses the power of speech.
“Wow”, he splutters. “That was fantastic. You know, some of the best work on the radio is actually done live on the radio?”
What? In the space of 20 minutes, a grown man has slipped several rungs down the evolutionary ladder and is now barely capable of the mental skills of an amoeba. The intellectual cripple must want someone to run him over and put him out of his misery.
“So tell me,” he demands, “what do you hate most about Americans?”
“The insincerity with which we’re treated by most people in the music industry here,” Booth retorts. Glennie and Gott grimace uneasily. Luckily the DJ doesn’t realise he’s the target of the comment, and a lullaby version of ‘Protect Me’ cools everyone’s increasingly frayed tempers&ldots;
The revolution may not be televised but at least some of it will be serialised on the radio. A week ago in Dallas, the band were on a Top 40 radio station and the DJ was conned into playing ‘Hymn From A Village’.
“It was five-o-clock primetime radio in Texas,” Gott later recalls, “and they played a minor indie hit from 1985 from a group noone’s ever heard of. I think the bloke must have been sacked after that, but we had fun.”
VOYAGES AND VOYEURS
It may have taken James nine years to finally tour America, but now the band are making up for lost time, filling every available minute with TV or radio interviews. Their Samoan security man looks perplexed when told of their meek and mild reputation in Britain, and dumbfounded when told of their legendary lack of excess.
“Well,” he says “I think America must have done them some good, because they sure as hell ain’t like that now.”
“I’m not sure that travel does broaden the mind,” Gott offers. “I mean, not on a tour like this We’ve seen a great deal but we can’t assimilate any of it. Like, going to sleep on the tour bus in the middle of a snowstorm and waking up in bright sunshine – it’s too much.
“I mean we played Boston, but all we saw was the hotel, the venue and the airport. We never even got to see the ‘Cheers’ bar in Phoenix, noone seemed to understand a word we said. We seemed utterly incapable of communicating with any of the locals, until we realised that they didn’t understand each other either. It was dead weird that all this misinformation was passed between people. The whole city was filled with cartoon characters.”
“To be honest,” Glennie says, “I’d rather tour America than Europe. Here, we can immerse ourselves in the culture, whereas in Europe, because of our ignorance of languages, we’re just tourists who say things like, ‘You-o, get us-o a beer-o’, and then spend fifty quid on a pint of beer.”
“People in Britain are still snobby about America,” Tim says. “But we’ve had a great time, met some interesting people and visited some fantastic places. There’s one street in Austin, Texas, which was just amazing. Larry said he saw the best guitarist he’d ever seen playing there. Then Saul (James fiddle player) said he saw the best violinist he’d ever seen in his life. It turned out to be the same guy. The landscape of the whole country is pretty devastating really.”
America is a beautiful country, largely populated by morons.
“We’re not finding that, although we’re never sure who to trust,” Booth says on the way back from the radio ordeal. “People can be so over the top here, it’s difficult to tell if they’re bullshitting or not. The shows have been wonderful, which comes as no real surprise to us, because we’re such arrogant f**kers, but we have been pleasantly reassured.”
America should embrace James. It is, after all, a land where the size of vision counts, not necessarily the size of sound.
“You’re being very tactful there, Ted,” Tim says warily as we speed down the Hollywood freeway. “We’ve always had the vision, though. The only time it’s blurred is when we’re drunk. Has America brought out the excess in us? Not really, that happened on the last British tour. Now we’re into the unprintable adventures of James. The X-certificate James.”
Tim tells the story of how various statues at venues they’ve played went missing, including one three-foot memento they attempted to smuggle onto a plane in Toronto. Tim begins to elaborate on more tales of the drunk and unexpected, but sadly his voice is drowned out by a police siren – a sound that James feel has followed them around from the moment they touched down in America.
“The most surprising thing about this tour is that it’s fun,” says Jim Glennie. “It seems like we’re having some kind of palpable impact. This is such a vast f**king country, the fear was that we could tour here for five years in the back of a Transit achieving very little. We at least feel that we’ve thrown a pebble into the ocean and caused a few ripples.”
“There seems to be a real buzz about us being here,” Larry adds.
“There are people who’ve just heard us and heard ‘Born of Frustration’ and then there are people who’ve been waiting since 1985 when we were supposed to come over here with The Smiths.”
“It’s partly down to the American charts,” Booth concludes, “which have loosened up a bit and allowed in your REMs and Metallicas and Nirvanas. Perhaps there’s a little space for James.”
“We only want the broom cupboard, and we’ve waited a long while,” Glennie pleads, but by now I’ve turned our car off the freeway and into Beverly Hills.
“No,” Tim states, gazing out of the car window at the enormous mansions. “I want the penthouse and the swimming pool and the indoor golf course! I love the excess. In Phoenix two nights ago, we were supported by a band called One Foot In The Grave. It was a group of 60 to 70-year olds who perform Ramones covers. The sign outside the gig just said ‘James – One Foot In The Grave’, which was a bit ominous, but like I’ve said before, we’d have to do something very stupid to go into reverse gear now. In England, we’re treated as vegetarian nutters, whereas in America, we’re considered English eccentrics.”
By the time we arrive at the Hyatt hotel and hit the swimming pool on the roof, the two usually silent members of James have hit their stride just as the normally garrulous Tim Booth crashes out.
All the bad luck and bad timing seems to be behind James now, but are they worried about f**king up again?
“I can’t see where the next downside’s going to come from unless we implode,” Gott says.
Yet James are the band who’ve shot themselves in the foot so many times, it’s a wonder any of them can stand up.
“I know,” Larry admits. “It’s a good thing that you can’t get Uzis in England. Can you imagine the damage we’d have done to ourselves with a sub machine gun. We shouldn’t take any of this for granted,” he continues, gazing through the late afternoon LA haze. “But we do. It’s just such a relief to be over the worry of whether we’d survive another week. Now it’s just nice to breeze along.”
“I mean,” Glennie adds, “if it hadn’t worked, we weren’t qualified to do anything else. We committed ourselves to an occupation, which, if you fail, is totally redundant. Being able to use phrases like, ‘I can’t hear the bass in the monitor’, or ‘There’s no f**king champagne in the rider’, doesn’t do you any good when you’re trying to flog double glazing! We’d have gone to the employment office and they’d ask us what we can do and we’d say, ‘Well I’ve been a pop star for the past 10 years'”
“Things are much more up and down now,” Gott explains. “This is like a rollercoaster ride that hasn’t got an end. You just have to keep your sense of humour handy.”
The guitarist’s handy sense of humour has a knack of getting everyone into trouble. It’s the third day of the Rodney King court case, where four policeman have been charged with beating King senseless with 56 baton blows, each one caught on amateur video. During the photo shoot, Gott leans against the Sheriff’s car, looks around and goes, “I don’t think I’d better vandalise it, I’ve seen the video of what happened next.” The sheriff is unimpressed. The rest of the band wonder, “If Larry didn’t shoot the deputy, who did?”
Are James coping well with success?
“It’s easy to feel precious when you’ve had a bit of success,” Glennie says. “You feel like shit because you’ve had a late drunken night, and you expect everyone to run around looking after you treating you with kid gloves.”
“Even though we’ve been together nine years,” Gott adds, “it’s a hard accusation to level at someone – you’re acting like a temperamental pop star and a complete f**king prat. It’s like you’re suddenly not just watching ‘Spinal Tap’, but playing a part in it. Especially with the US music business people around. They all seem so efficient and I think the music business should be shambolic. It’s in the very nature of the business, especially when dealing with a band like James. A magazine article about us last week said, ‘One place they certainly will not be is where their itinerary says they should be’, and that’s very true.”
The poolside muzak fades out and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” kicks in. The combination of Nirvana and too much sun causes the guitarist to experience several bouts of nausea before he recovers his composure.
“I used to like this song and the whole album,” he says. “But there’s been such an overkill, I can’t stand it anymore. The Pixies made a huge impact on a lot of people, but the record companies didn’t flood out to find the new Pixies. Now Nirvana have one single that was picked up by MTV, and the record companies are going ga-ga. Why couldn’t they see the potential before?”
Other bands also owe their success to one spectacular single, like for instance “Sit Down;”
“Indeed,” the duo chorus.
Before the LA gig at the Roxy, Tim Booth declares himself immensely happy with the way James first US tour has gone.
“All we have to do now is play a truly awesome show tonight,” he says, mockingly.
Even he must have been surprised, however, by just how truly spectacular James are. For once, everything seems to flow in the right direction, new songs like ‘ Next Lover’ melting brilliantly into old favourites like ‘Stutter’ and ‘Come Home’. The opening bars of ‘Sit Down’ prompt the usual stage invasion, but the song now not only has The Glitter Band drum bear, but a slice of T-Rex’s ‘Ride The White Swan’. For the last gig in San Francisco, the band plan to throw in Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’, just to prove that it can be done. The night before Booth left the stage in San Diego, walked through the audience and opened the venue doors, where there were people under 21 who couldn’t get in who were outside listening to the concert in the car park. It was just another touching moment from a man who enjoys making things happen, and now enjoys what’s happening to him.
It seems ironic that by playing a venue as small and intimate as The Roxy, James prove exactly how staggering they still are and just how foolish anyone would be to write them off as overblown and over the hill.
Alton Towers, where the band will be playing this summer, may hold a few thousand more people, but James are still the only band around that can turn one man’s misery into such joyful celebration, and the increased numbers shouldn’t increase the numbness. Like the relationship between coal and diamonds, the added pressure seems to make James all the more precious – and I say that without teeth gritted.