They stopped short of stadium ignominy. Opting for mass tribal bliss-out at the surreal dodgem Disneyland of Alton Towers. James bang on course of lost in the credibility jungle?
The roll up roll up of kiddie Utopia virtual reality dodgem Disneyland of Alton Towers is bleak, hollow joke as the rain sheets it down outside our window, and Tim Booth of James is coming out fighting.
“Of course it was Select who started it all.” He remarks sourly. “the whole…Simple Minds…thing.”
He spits the words out like they’re some kind of repulsive semantic kebab. James are due to be playing here on July 4th, and their recce has been a total wash-out. All they can see is rain. Where’s the audience gonna be? Er, just over there, mate, where all that rain is.
It won’t be like this on the fourth, grant you. The sun will be smirking arrogantly. Rains name wont be down on the guest=list. It will be a perfect summer day, and Tim Booth’s face will be flushed, awed, sensuous vehicle for all the intense drama and wordy love that he crams into a James song these days.
And he’ll have quite a view. James will be playing on a raft like stage set in the middle of a lake.
Anyone wishing to indulge in a little time-honoured brushing-of-hands with the James frontman will have a bit of a swim ahead of them.
Well its one way to meet your fans. And also one swift comprehensive way to have a major blast while striving to shed the excess critical baggage James have repeatedly been forced to check in since the release of their last album, ‘Seven’ and its first single, ‘Born Of Frustration’. Stadium rock! Pomp Pious shite! Just some of the quips lobbed James’ way (particularly Booth’s way!) in the last year.
Who would have thought that, when Tim came up with the singalong afterthought bit to ‘Born Of Frustration’, he’d still be defending himself almost a year later, against allegations of plagiarism and worse- not loathing Simple Minds enough. Tim’s adamant that James fans simply don’t see it that way.
“They understand that the new LP was a new avenue for us.” We understand the thing with ‘Born Of Frustration’, but that’s one song, one chorus. And people “ he says pointedly into the tape recorder, “ are missing the heart of something, just being sidetracked by the chorus. Anyway, our definition of success is sales plus respect. We’ve had respect – well, from some quarters anyway – but if you’re completely broke for years and everything’s a struggle and the record companies can’t or won’t, like your music or do anything to promote it, then that must be totally frustrating.
“Then again.” He goes on “if you have success but everyone thinks you’re crap then that must be totally frustrating too. It’s something that’s hard to gauge at the time. You can’t tell which bands are going to be remembered well in six years’ time. That’s, “he looks around the table at bassist Jim Glennie and guitarist Larry Gott who are following his argument impassively,” the sort of respect we want – for the songs to be remembered. Good music lasts, whether its Talking Heads or Velvet Underground or The Doors or The Beatles. But there are very few bands that have got really big and retained their credibility.”
He speaks measured, reasoned tone, but anyone can sense his anger. Larry Gott takes a long, cool squint at the rain bucketing down on the salubrious idyll of Alton Towers outside. And here, ladies and gentleman, we have an Area Of Great Natural Beauty, getting soaked.
“Stately Home Rock,” says Larry. That’s where we are now,”
THE USUAL LINE OF RECKONING WOULD HAVE James – yer nouveaux stadium rockers par excellence – lounging around and doing sod all artistically until at least the next eclipse. That’s the way the fat and indolent are supposed to play it: an album every three years and a gig every now and again if you’re lucky – maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to catch one of the drumsticks thrown into the crowd at the end.
To which James have one, typically James-like, reply. Two week-long spells in a studio in Wales have already produced 14 new songs develop from what they call “seeds”, scraps of songs that emerge from their improvised stage sessions. They like to “road test” new songs, playing them live while they’re still being developed – often without any proper lyrics.
“We take them into the studio and see which ones blossom,” says Tim. “some of the ones you think are good just die. Others grow into really exotic creatures. It’s a relief to get all these songs written. After we did ‘Seven’ we had nothing. We felt totally insecure. It’s like coming out of your bank with all your money. It’s a huge sigh of relief and we’re off in a direction no one’s anticipated.”
Bearing in mind the plan for ‘Seven’ was to get in as many Nirvana, Pixies and Metallica influences as possible, reflecting the listening habits of the band members and also bearing, in mind that that idea flopped miserably, what kind of patterns are emerging with new stuff?
Larry: “We’ve gone Goth. We’ve got a bluegrass Goth track called ‘Chicken Goth’, A song called ‘William Burroughs’, A really miserable one called ‘Goalless Draw’ which goes; ‘It’s a goalless draw and the goalies got the ball’, and you can’t get much worse than that in a football match. ‘Going Down On America’. Then there’s ‘Maria’s party’…”
Ah. Tim’s particularly fond of ‘Maria’s Party’. We’ve been hearing about it all afternoon. “the lyrics a litany of all these exotic creatures that come to Maria’s Party,” he starts to explain, clearly enjoying himself. “A gypsy playing trumpet in a second-hand dress. A bear in a tutu that loves to sing karaoke. A slug that dances. Siamese twins from a broken home. A limbo dancer that makes love in positions unknown to man. It’s done in a style similar to Algerian rai music – very sexy, hypnotic.”
“Admit it, “scoffs Jim. “It’s basically like a dodgy Spanish disco song.”
“Whatever shrugs Tim. “It’ll kill the Simple Minds thing off once and for all.”
What was the most annoying thing about being hailed as the New Simple Minds?
“I think the most annoying thing for me,” replies Jim “was the idea that we deliberately changed our sound to achieve success. Which is something we’d never do and couldn’t if we tried.”
“I don’t know,” shrugs Larry. “All that stuff written about us when the album came out doesn’t really seem relevant to us. We’ve spent most of this year playing pretty small places in Europe and America. Over here we’re a bit more popular and more people want to come and see us so we’re doing Alton Towers. It’s as simple and obvious as that. The idea that we’ve suddenly become this massive stadium band doesn’t make sense when we’re playing a 500-capacity club in Texas.”
Yes, but when you are playing a 500-capacity club in Texas or wherever, are you thinking big?
“We’ve always been ambitious in that respect” says Jim thoughtfully. “We’ve always thought we could be very big and we’ve never seen anything wrong with that. Even when things were going wrong we were quite arrogant in a way, believing we were a good group with good songs which a lot of people would really like. We’ve always been confident that we could be successful. To get to that position a lot of other things have to be in place – record company and all that business – but we’ve always believed that, given the opportunity to play to large numbers of people and get our records on the radio, we could be successful. But always on our own terms.”
James own terms have become a pretty cool legend. Any band prepared to submit themselves to guinea pig drug tests in Manchester hospitals just to keep their band alive (as they did in 1987) obviously aren’t kidding. The spirit of James may have taken a real kicking over such energy-sapping traumas as the overplayed Buddhist Controversy of 1985, the Lenny Kaye Production Debacle of 1986, the Great ‘Strip-Mining’ Disaster of 1988 and the Ignominious Royal Bank Of Scotland-Loan of 1989, but killing it off altogether is something you suspect could never happen. The spirit of James was made, as they say, of stronger stuff. Some galvanised tungsten-carbide formula. Aluminium could well have been involved.
Some things they do just seem bloody-minded. At last year’s Reading Festival a 40,000 audience waiting for a stupendous half-hour version of Sit Down had to do with a throwaway three minute extract, plus loads of songs they hadn’t heard yet. This, in the light of Carter’s performance-of-a-lifetime which preceded them, was seen as a totally blown opportunity.
“The reviews of us at Reading last year seemed to completely misunderstand what we were trying to do,“ complains Tim. “The papers decided to say that Carter had blown us off stage, as if we were in competition with Carter, which is not something we had considered. They played to backing tapes, brought in a special light show, which is fine, but we wanted to treat it as a normal James experience. That meant five new songs, playing down ‘Sit Down’ things that we thought had integrity – but we couldn’t really win. We were told off for taking risks by journalists. They condemned us for it. The very people who are always talking about sterility in music and how bands get complacent shouldn’t be condemning us for doing shows that are challenging, that take risks. They should encourage us.
“We are not crowd pleasers. We like to throw in new songs, improvise, make things as interesting as possible. It’s about stepping out of a formula. I think it’s important for us to do that. I like music that gives me something I haven’t had before, which is what we try to do with James. We change the set list every night, we improvise, we do new songs which I haven’t even got lyrics for and it’s to scare ourselves, to make us work harder.”
He’s not joking about scaring themselves. Because, after all, whats the alternative? The credibility jungle. Ooh, you don’t want to go in there, son. A fearsome place to roam. All those tendrils of temptation and tackiness. Tim mutters something about U2 “treading a thin line”. Jim picks up on it straight away.
“They blew it for me when I saw them live, “ he says fearlessly. “We all liked ‘Achtung Baby’ but then we saw the show in America. There’s just no need to put on a razzy show like that. They’ve got great songs, they’re great song writers. They should just chill out – just get up there and play the songs. Its fair enough if you’re crap. When I saw INXS it was well over the top and it distracted me from the music, but the music wasn’t great so it was fair enough. U2 don’t need that.”
Larry: “Well, you’ve successfully blown our supports worldwide there, Jim.”
“I like the idea of James playing to large crowds,” stresses Tim. “I’ve always liked festivals, even though they were quite unfashionable for many years. There seems to be so much going on this year but I wonder if this country’s too wet to support that many events. All you need is one Glastonbury like they had about six years ago when the whole place looked like a refugee camp and nobody went to festivals for about two years.”
The rains still doing the dance of the pyramids out on the picturesque slopes of Alton Towers, and Tim is getting increasingly insular in this conference room. He’s got to sing – as in perform, as in project, as in reach out and touch – to around 25,000 people out there in the middle of a sodding lake next week. It’s hard to envisage that kind of transformation in the man. Does he never feel just too terrified to contemplate it?
“I was petrified when I first went on stage,” he recalls. “I was a shy person who found it hard to communicate with people. Being in a group offered me a means of self-expression. I’d seen Patty Smith and Iggy Pop and others move me in a way that was really powerful. I saw the possibilities of what you can do in a live concert.”
Do you ever feel like an idiot?
“Most of the time its fine but other times I go onstage and, yeah, I do feel foolish. The songs start to fall apart, I can’t dance properly. Sometimes we go on and feel like a rock band – really hollow. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s horrible. And there’s ones when you go on in a weird psychological mood and can’t let the audience in, can’t smile even.”
What’s it like on stage?
“Onstage everything is amplified,” he explains, “from the basic sound to the emotions. So you get incredible highs, but when it goes bad you get an equivalent low which is why you get groups breaking up TV sets, smashing hotel rooms and behaving like arseholes. There’s so much emotion and energy you really have to learn how to deal with it.”
And you obviously have?
“It’s self expression and it feels valuable to my life,” he says, sincere eyes working overtime. “If you feel it’s not a worthwhile thing to be doing it’s because you’re not going deep enough. It lies within me to do that so if I’m getting bored it’s my fault. Some aspects of life I don’t like.”
Such as? You’re not renowned party animals.
“Touring is a moronic lifestyle,” he says wearily. “You’re up until four in the morning because after a gig you don’t want to sleep. Once a week I don’t mind staying up and having a drink or whatever, but as a lifestyle it’s really boring and destabilising. I have a son, Jims got two children, Larry’s got a step-daughter, Dave (Baynton-Power, drummer) has got a sort of step-daughter, though he’s not married – so for people like us it isn’t an ideal lifestyle.
“But it’s the life we’ve chosen,” he say, warming up a little. “At the beginning of James we never looked beyond the next couple of years. We’ve been going a long time now but the thought of stopping is something we’ve discussed and rejected. We’ve seen a lot of bands who have stopped early then regretted it and tried to get back together and do it again, but you can’t just pick it up two years later.
“We feel there will be a time when we realise its finished – were very conscience of that – but were determined to take it as far as it’ll go, to its proper conclusion.”
He looks serenely at Larry and Jim, who have been watching him silently for the past ten minutes or so. Is that the rain easing off?
“And it’s a long way off yet,” smiles Tim Booth.