In the stuffy den of a Manhattan vegetarian restaurant, our legs corkscrewed under a narrow table. I am attempting to conduct an interview with Tim Booth. We’re doing it here because, in their obstinate way, James are making the point that they like to do everything on their own terms. Steak and chips would be just the job, but I have to make do with falafel in pitta bread, which seems to have been sprinkled with authentic Saharan sand. Tim Booth gives me a pitying look as I order more coffee, as caffeinated as possible for the war against jet lag. “I’ll have a carrot and parsley and spinach juice please,” he tells the waiter. “A large one.” He looks down at the tape recorder on the table and grins. “There you go – it’s on tape! I’m doomed.”
He flashes back to what we’d been talking about a few minutes earlier, specifically : James image of vegetable-flavoured, vaguely spiritual wimpiness. “That thing about vegetarian stereotypes or ethereal stereotypes – if you’re ethereal, intellectual person, it doesn’t mean you don’t fight or fuck – it’s bullshit. When you get a tag like ‘intellectual’. I don’t like it – it’s one muscle, the one in the head and it’s unbalanced. There’s a heart one and a body one and a spirit one, and the key has to be balance and developing them all, so you don’t fall over because there’s too much weight in your head.”
There doesn’t seem to be much weight in any part of Booth’s body. Beside him, a stick of celery would feel ashamed of its wobbling obesity. His pale face, with its bird-like bone structure and rather irritating angelic smile, makes him look about half his 32 years. It sits on top of a body so slight that it’s hard to imagine how it carries its occupant through the punishing demands of touring, recording and promotion, which are increasingly becoming an everyday routine for James.
But James are tougher than they look. Booth insists that several band members often get quite drunk, actually, and tells me how he’d plunged into the audience the night before, brandishing his deadly tambourine at a troublesome coin-thrower. But the band’s toughness is spiritual rather than physical. Somewhere in Booth there’s a little bit of ascetic, even the Jesuit. Just like Kevin Rowland said : “I will punish the body until I believe in the soul”
Booth, who studied drama at Manchester University after being ejected from public school in Shrewsbury, can trace his family tree back to John Wesley and General Booth of the Salvation Army. He says he was “conditioned in Christianity” as a child, and some of that Evangelical zeal – or Booth’s response to it – has plainly rubbed off in songs like God Only Knows or Heavens. Channel 4 banned James from singing Live A Love Of Life on the Johnathan Ross show, claiming it was blasphemous. “Channel 4, the cutting edge of British television,” snorts Booth. “We asked which part they were referring to, and it was the whole thing. The guitar solo! The drum-sound from hell! It’s weird.”
“You do a song like God Only Knows and we get quite a lot of letters from Christianity, most of them complaining. Then we get Franciscan friars coming to the concert in Folkestone, and they think it’s wonderful. They think it’s anti-church and anti-simplistic ideas about the nature of God, which it is.”
Booth promises that he’ll stop writing about God now, especially since a nightmare he had in which he was chased through a cinema by fundamentalists. “People were getting up and saying ‘Oh, it’s Tim Booth, can I have your autograph?’ I was going ‘Shhhh! There’s fundamentalists behind me.’
Still, questions of faith have inspired some of Booth’s most striking imagery, like the lines from Seven which declare “God made love to me, soothed away my gravity, made me a pair of angel’s wings, clear vision and some magic things.” You don’t have to like it to see that Booth is pursuing his own highly personalised agenda.
There’s a sense that the James saga has been a question of mind over matter. It’s certainly been a damn long one. Their first record, an EP called Jimone (pronounced Jim One) was released by Factory in November 1983, but it wasn’t until 1989’s Sit Down and the Gold Mother album of the following year that James finally began to drag themselves up into the light of substantial chart success. By then, they’d left Factory, said hello and goodbye to Sire and Rough Trade and ended up on Phonogram’s Fontana label. Never in the remotest danger of being an overnight sensation, James had come within a hair’s breadth of remaining a no-hit wonder. Factory never even sent them a copy of their Palatine compilation, which included some of James early strugglings.
James are proud of their history, and will sometimes have a go at old songs like Folklore when the mood takes them. But while Booth ascribes the band’s laborious slog towards the big time as partly the product of his unconscious desire to “take hard routes and make like difficult for myself”, he has been realistic enough to jettison unnecessary baggage along the way. The original James manifesto included “no advertising” and “no interview” clauses, which have now gone the same way as Labour Party’s commitment to unilateral disarmament.
“We did have a load of ideals that slowed us down,” Booth agrees. “I don’t believe in fixed morality. It does shift with time and different cultures, and the same goes for ideals. You end up looking a complete idiot, running along a beach and planting a flag, and there’s nobody there to see your wonderful stance.”
The whole independent ethic, a sacred cow ten years ago, has begun to seem creaky and unworkable. or at least its white-boys-with-guitars dimension has.
“The term ‘independent’ no longer means this chivalrous, knights of the round table, ethical bards society,” argues Booth. “It means a lot of different things. We should look at individual bands and work out whether they’re making music that reflects them, that says something about their lives. If you can relate to what they’re saying, then all fair and well. If you can’t, then leave them alone.”
To some pundits, James always seemed like dogged indie no-hopers, terminally and hopelessly grey. This year’s Seven (their fifth album) came as a bold and coherent surprise, showing a band suddenly bursting out of its shell and at last finding the knob to turn monochrome into shimmering Technicolour. Inevitably, for a unit which had first found its feet in the narrow musical and intellectual confines of Indieland UK, this discovery of a new vocabulary (and consequent big new audience) prompted many diehard fans to accuse them of having turned into a stadium band a la Simple Minds.
Booth’s whoops and moans at the end of Born of Frustration can indeed bring to mind Jim Kerr in his papal robes and silly hat – and indeed, Kerr’s observations about the throttling self-obsession of British indie rock are probably beginning to make a lot of sense to James now. But there’s more to Seven than mere size.
“I think the whole stadium rock argument has come out of basically one song which is Born of Frustration” opines Booth, guzzling the large glass of something slimy and eau de Nile coloured which the waiter has just dumped in front of him. Fascinatingly, it looks like it has pondweed growing on the surface. “We kind of knew it,” he goes on. “Sonically, I can hear what’s been said. But it’s one song. You think, if they’re going to be that superficial, it pisses you off. The other song is Seven. We knew it, but we didn’t think it would colour everything else that people would miss the rest of it.”
The extraordinary thing about James is that throughout their years of running to stand still, they remained almost exclusively a British phenomenon. Whereas the groups they’re beginning to be compared to, like Kerr’s bunch or U2, were forever jumping on planes and ferries to flog their wares around Europe or across the USA, James have stuck parochially to their home patch. Pure economies of scale were partly to blame; for years the band simply couldn’t afford to travel. After their abortive sojourn with Sire they found themselves £50,000 in debt, but kept their finances afloat by selling their own distinctive t-shirts. Their manager and Booth’s ex-lover, Martine McDonagh, designed the famous James flower logo, and their three year old son Ben is part of the bandwagon when James hit the road.
Ingeniously, James persuaded a friendly bank manager to lend them the money to assemble the live album One Man Clapping. Rough Trade released it, but a prospective deal with the label fell apart when RT toppled into insolvency. The label paid for the band to record Sit Down and Come Home, but when the new-look seven-piece were halfway through making the Gold Mother album, it became clear that Rough Trade would not be in a position to stick to the terms they’d outlined. Luckily for the band, Fontana wanted them enough not only to sign them, but to write off their debts too.
“We may have helped Rough Trade; they might then have been able to help us, and it might have worked,” sighs Booth. “But probably not. They were probably too far gone by that time. No, it’s worked really well, and we’re really happy.”
While their home crowd has swelled sufficiently to warrant a show at the Alton Towers amusement park on the July 4th (their sole UK show this year), James lopsided form of success means that they still have a few mountains to climb in terms of overseas acceptance. In New York to play at Spin Magazine’s birthday party, halfway through a coast-to-coast string of small-to-medium sized dates, this is their first American tour. How can this be, given most bands propensity to head for Heathrow as soon as the ink dries on their contract?
“That’s the whole James thing,” explains Booth. “Patience is a major part of James, and it was always ‘Wait until it’s really right, wait until there’s a demand’,” Booth explains all this as if he’s talking to someone for whom English is a second language. “Once the band had become a seven-piece, we’d have lost so much money coming over unless there was an audience that we had to wait. We could have come over on The Smiths Meat Is Murder tour, but we had personal commitments at home at the same time, and we decided we should honour those instead. We also thought those opportunities would come again every year – and then they didn’t.”
Was there, then, some resentment when James saw their old Manchester contemporaries shooting past them to stardom during the Madchester craze? “There was a kind of envy,” Tim admits.
Bassist Jim Glennie, a founder member of James who pre-dates even long-serving guitarist Larry Gott, joins us, impatient for avocados and carrot juice. “There was no animosity towards the other Manchester bands because we liked what they were doing,” Glennie maintains. “When you see a lot of the dodgy stuff that gets in the charts, that annoys you a lot more than the Happy Mondays or the Stone Roses getting there. But it was like ‘Bloody hell! They pushed in – we were here first.”
“When the ones got through who we didn’t think were very good, there was jealousy there,” Booth admits. “With the Mondays and Roses, it was like: ‘That’s a good song, they deserve it’. But I liked the Joy Division / Fall period in Manchester – sarky, hard, awkward. I preferred that, really. The stress wasn’t so much on drugs either. Okay, Joy Division were probably taking drugs, but that wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all.”
Bring A Gun was written in response to changes Booth observed going on in Manchester. “It seemed like the government’s full of old men, reacting to youth, frightened. The tabloids got behind it and everybody over-reacted. The raves seemed to become pretty seedy and dangerous by the end of it, but at the beginning they seemed quite innocent and a real breath of fresh air. I don’t think old men in government can handle that from youth. They get frightened. That’s what it was about.”
James hardly seem harbingers of teen insurrection, but their New York show grows from a cautious beginning to a roaring climax, punched out at staggering volume. The many faces of James are on display from folk-rock to dance-trance, pop star (Sit Down) to rock juggernaut (Sound and Government Walls)
There’s something in the oft-drawn analogy between Booth and Cliff Richard. There’s the same weird youthfulness, the beatific grin, the sense that you ought to listen to this music because it can only be good for you. And no, they don’t sound a bit like Simple Minds.