JAMES evolution from bedsit folk-punk innovators to fully fledged international stadium band is now complete. They began the Eighties as peers of The Smiths, ended the decade as rivals to The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays for the Manchester crown, and entered the nineties with their biggest hits to date – the perennial crowd-satisfying ‘Sit Down’ and ‘Come Home’. But success has a price, as The Stud Brothers found out when, on the eve of the release of a new single (‘Sometimes’) and album (‘Laid’), they travelled to Italy to discuss fame, fortune and f**k-ups with singer, writer, philosopher and martial artist Tim Booth.
We’re in the clouds talking to Tim Booth
“We always knew we’d be successful, so it was never necessary to go looking for that. And we always knew we were good musically, even when we were crap. We’ve never been in a hurry.”
We’re 36,000 feet up, just about as far from down-to-earth as it’s possible to get without some chemical rocket fuel. Booth, impossibly frail, infinitely polite, disarmingly honest (often, we suspect, to a fault), neurotic, sharp, funny and occassionally disturbingly lost, like he’s drifted off, wanted to talk to us on the plane.
Like, get the work out of the way so we can hang out together and maybe get to know each other on a different level. He says that “hang together” just like real pop stars do.
We’re on our way to Milan, Italy’s cultural capital, home of the fashion industry and, to many minds, a hotbed of ponciness. James are set to play with Neil Young, just as they did three days ago at Finsbury Park. There they were fantastic, opening with an acoustic version of Sit Down and building to a monumental, electronically enhanced Gold Mother. These days James sound like such a big band.
“You spent the best part of 10 years f**king and being f**ked about. What does success mean to you?”
“For me, the word ‘success’ is asssociated with the word ‘trap’. What we want is respect and to be outside the cyclical popularity of the media where you’re okay, then you’re not, then you are again. Like Neil Young. Noone can touch him, He can turn up anywhere, anytime and a load of people will turn up just to see what he’s doing. He’s even in a position where he can do four or five crap LPs and people are still interested. Larry (Gott, James guitarist) is well into that. He’s looking forward to our series of crap LPs.
“I’m not so sure about that but it would be a success, to get out beyond the treadmill into hyperspace. And to get to the point where I wouldn’t have to do any interviews at all. All those people in all those places, all asking the same questions and talking to you on the same level of dialogue. It’s like a ‘Groundhog Day’ nightmare.
I’d like us to get beyond all that. There’s a certain thing about us, a certain spirit you can get from us live sometimes which is always changing and should always be interesting because it’s real. We connect as people. Sometimes it’s not right, the sound in the hall is wrong or the audience reaction is too automatic, the subtlety is lost and we end up sounding like some big clod-hopping rock band. Then we don’t connect like that. But we have to try and it has to be real because human beings are not a mystery to me when they make up images for themselves and fake it. They’re a mystery when they’re standing there quite naked and doing what they do. The mystery comes when they reveal themselves.”
Do you think many performers these days are prepared to reveal themselves?
“Not many. Mary Margaret O’Hara does, but that’s almost too much to bear, that kind of nakedness. I saw her once when she actually broke down, she couldn’t sing for about 20 minutes. I’d had her ‘Miss America’ LP for a few years and loved it, but I never realised how directly it related to her. She came out and sang ‘Body’s In Trouble’ and you could see that her body actually was. I just started crying. It was really bad because we’d just done a concert and we’d been recognised by all these people, so I pulled myself together. And then she started again and started me off again.
“I really didn’t think I’d make it through to the end. Then she lost it completely so I had a chance to take a breather. But even then it was brilliant. She looked like she could handle not being able to sing for 20 minutes, that she could handle whatever happened to her onstage. It was a wonderful acceptance of her own state of being and that’s what made it not a freakshow – you went with her. It was fantastic, one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen.”
Do you think its possible for you to move people as profoundly as that?
“Well, I don’t often crack up as substantially. I don’t think I’m at the same level of vulnerability in my life, anyway. I have been that way on stage but I don’t think it’s as apparent that I’m drowning, not waving. With Mary Margaret O’Hara, you get the feeling she’s drowning and waving at the same time. But I get a bit like that. At Finsbury Park, I was really f**ked up, I had a really bad night and I had to do a long session of yoga and Tai Chi and martial arts before I could go on.”
“Yeah, it’s funny. We’ve been described as wimps for years, but most of the band members have done Tai Chi and martial arts on and off for five to six years. Two ex-members were put inside for GBH. We’re actually quite hard.”
Why do you do those exercises?
“To calm me down. I’m always attracted to what I’m frightened of. That’s one reason I go onstage, because it still terrifies me. I have to spend ages doing the exercises before I calm down enough to do it. Yes, it’s Tim Booth in James are like Henry Rollins shock.
“It’s something I discovered on the Neil Young tour (James supported Neil Young across America), that Tai Chi actually centres me in the belly and I can do a really fierce set, right from the guts. It was an acoustic tour so I didn’t dance, I didn’t move, I just really wound it up and exploded only at points. Tai Chi enabled me to do that, it gave me not control but direction. I could really concentrate on the rage.
“That was something we learned from Neil Young. We watched him almost every night for 20 dates. His concentration was amazing, so was the way he seemed to demand you concentrate at that level. There’s this one track he did on the piano that could almost have come from the Julee Cruise LP, really hypnotic. You could imagine that if Richard Clayderman had done it, you’d have hated it, but this big John Wayne trucker singing such a naked love song in a high voice is devastating. He had most of us in tears.”
Booth originally joined James not so much to sing as to dance. He was sort of prototype Bez. Latterly, due to his constantly injuring himself onstage, he’s begun to take dancing very seriously indeed.
You have a dance teacher, don’t you?
“Yes, I found somebody who teaches an amazing form of dance which is linked to shamanism, which is a filthy word in rock. It’s really about finding your own natural form of dance. The teacher is a woman called Gabrielle Roth whom I met through an amazing series of synchronistic circumstances, really bizarre, and we’ve been really close ever since.”
The synchronistic circumstances are, more or less, as follows. Tim visited the Manchester clairvoyant he (and by the way most of Manchester’s gun-toting gangsters) uses to divine his future. She told him that, should he see a sign of crossed feathers, he’d know he was in the right place. While touring America with Neil Young, Booth searched for the sign amongst Young’s native North American artefacts but found nothing. Young himself had no idea what it meant. At the time, Booth was thinking of taking dance lessons and, via a friend of a friend, discovered Gabrielle Roth.
Above Roth’s doorway in America, says Booth, unbeknown to Roth, who’d lived and worked there for 12 years, was the sign of the crossed feathers.
Roth’s theory of dance is based around five metaphysical compass points – the first three being the Female Flow, the Stacatto Male and, between them, Chaos. It’s in Chaos, says Booth, that he found his natural dance.
So Tim, what’s the idea?
“The idea is to get in touch with your body. Your body is in the Here and Now and then there’s lots of things going on in the different parts of it and I think if you get in touch with it and release those things, you find out a lot about yourself. I don’t really know how much I should say about this because I hate the idea that it might come out as something contrived and I know I’ll be asked about it again and again in a much more superficial way and it’ll be really irritating.
“But basically, you do days and days of dancing with her, days and days until you’re completely lost. You get into some really strange states. At the very least, it’s helped me to warm up before I go on stage, and to centre myself. Anything can happen to you during the day, you could have a row, anything. And you can’t wipe that out before you go onstage, it all goes with you. If you connect the mood to your body, you’re fine. But if you fight, you’re f**ked, and sometimes you’re so f**ked you’re completely cut off from everybody.
“That’s the ultimate bad trip. It’s incredibly lonely. And what tends to happen is that I’ll hurt myself trying to break through. I’ll do something violent to myself, force it. I get to the point where I have to scream but I can’t. That’s why I do these exercises beforehand, to connect myself with what’s wrong with me, why I’m so f**ked up on that day, and I can take it onstage and use it.
“That’s what I did at Finsbury Park and I needed that because, like I say, I’d had such a bad night. When I was younger I was an insomniac and I got rid of that for a long time, but it comes back now and again. You just lie there getting angrier and angrier with yourself. It’s horrible.”
A great many of your songs are about being f**ked up. Are you really as f**ked up as you’d have us believe?
“Well, I’m f**ked up. Everybody is f**ked up. It’s a matter of finding ways in which you can live with it, so it’s comfortable rather than being overwhelming. And dance and Tai Chi are the ways that work for me. There might be a cure but I think part of the cure is acceptance. The other thing is that it’s part of my creativity. I went to see a therapist about three years ago and he said to me after about the fourth session, ‘I’m sure I could cure you but I don’t know what this would do to your writing’, so he stopped going.
“Same with David Lynch. And look what’s happened to John Cleese (laughs). No, he’s still quite funny. He’s just not as dangerously out of control funny as he used to be. I stopped going. I decided it wasn’t the kind of therapy I needed. I wanted to feel better and still write good songs.”
Why did you feel the need to go into therapy in the first place?
“I really just needed someone to talk to and to unravel stuff in my private life that’d just got too painful to deal with (Just prior to the writing and recording of ‘Seven’, Booth split from long time love and James manager, Martine). I’m also very curious. I’ve always been interested in that kind of thing.”
Tai Chi, martial arts, therapy, dance workshops – shouldn’t your music be therapy enough?
“Well, it all goes hand in hand. I love music and anyone I’ve ever been interested in who’s been in a band did it because they love music. And if you genuinely love it and pursue it, really go into it in depth, follow the love and passion within music that’s moved you, then you will find out about yourself.
“I agree music is therapy in itself – it is, you have no choice. You put so much of you into something and then it stands there as a thing in itself, as something you look at. It has to tell you something. It might be painful, it might be weird, but it is a reflection and it will tell you something. The rest is all a way of making that, me, more effective.”
The Sometimes EP is in a small sense a return to your roots. It’s folkier, bluesier and it comes as something of a surprise after the excesses of ‘Seven’. Can we expect the same from the album ‘Laid’?
“The album’s very stripped and naked. People have even asked us if it’s acoustic, but it isn’t. Again, that’s something we learnt from Neil Young. When we finished that tour, we had to continue playing around America for another couple of months and we kept doing acoustic shows. They were supposed to be electric, but we did them acoustic because we loved it so much. The record company went crazy and threatened to withdraw money from the tour, but they all came to this really ferocious show we did in New York and came up and apologised to us afterwards.
“So I think it prepared us for being more simple. ‘PS’ for instance (third track on Sometimes – Booth at his tempestuous neurotic best, perhaps comparing himself to Patti Smith) we recorded on an eight-track a year ago and couldn’t better. We just chopped it down from eight minutes and it still worked. Like I say, it’s a very stripped down, naked thing.”
According to Larry Gott, ‘Laid’ was the result of a series of jamming sessions presided over by Brian Eno. Anything that didn’t work immediately was put to one side, distorted and rearranged by the band, Eno and his assistant Marcus.
Consequently, there is a double James album – described by Tim as “quite industrial, like nothing we’ve ever done, actually like nothing anyone’s ever done” – ready for release early next year.
Tim, you talk a lot about nakedness, by which we presume you mean nakedness of the soul. It all sounds very self-obsessed. Are you one of those people who believe their emotions are bigger and more important than other people’s emotions?
“I think probably everybody thinks that their emotions are bigger than other people’s. But, realistically, I don’t think my emotions can be bigger, otherwise noone would understand what I was talking about. I’d sound like I come from another planet.”
We’re in a restaurant in Milan, just off the Piazza Doumo (that’s Cathedral Square, dopey) where James will have their picture taken eating ice cream. The cathedral, a supremely gothic pincushion of spires and gorgoyles, was a preposterous undertaking, it took hundreds of years to build. It now rates as one of the wonders of the world. Ambition and patience paid off.
We’re talking to guitarist Larry Gott, bassist Jim Glennie and Tim Booth. Both Jim and Tim are eating fish. Only Larry is now a vegetarian. We’re discussing James comeback because, despite the fact it’s only been 18 months since ‘Seven’, ‘Laid’ and the ‘Sometimes’ EP do feel like a comeback, like there’s an awful lot riding on them, like James have a lot to prove.
A popular notion among music hacks is that, since Manchester was consigned to the dustbin of history, James have lost their audience.
Larry : “It’s true that people have been telling us that our audience, the people who bought ‘Sit Down’ and the last album, just aren’t there anymore. I don’t know how anyone could tell. I don’t think they’ve gone, but neither do I think they’re anxiously anticipating the next parcel to fall from the James table. I hope people like the album but more important to us is that we’ve done something we think is good that people won’t expect.”
Jim : “Live, it’s always been like that. When we headlined Reading, we did ‘Sit Down’ in the middle just to blow away the cliché of how things are supposed to be, and that pissed off a lot of people. But it’s supposed to be challenging, for us and the audience.”
Have you ever had the feeling, especially after the success of ‘Sit Down’ and ‘Gold Mother’ that you could just walk out onstage and fart into the microphone and people would still love it, because it was you?
Tim : “No, not at all”
Larry : “I have. I know what you mean.”
Tim : “You have? Jesus”
Larry : “No, I’m not being arrogant. It’s just some of that adulation, the reaction you get sometimes when you walk on, or you get a really big cheer after you’ve done a song really badly, I think ‘Oh, they shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t worth it.'”
Tim : “Yeah, it can be a bit weird. When we played the Free Trade Hall, they were singing along all the way through. It was our acoustic set and they sang every word so there were no silences. It was like a great party but they weren’t listening to what we were doing. When we did it in New York, there were people stagediving and we had to stop it. There was just two of us doing this quiet, quite political song and people were bodysurfing. It was very strange.”
Back in the clouds, at 36,000 feet, Tim Booth tells us he first fell in love when he was 12.
The girl, Diane, was from Milan, 13 and six inches taller than him. He met her on the Tuscan island of Elba, on a family holiday. He followed her to the beach where he and her frequented and sat close by for more than three hours, trying desperately to pick up the courage to talk to her.
Eventually he did. He asked her out to dinner. At 12. She accepted. She was late. A waiter, noticing Tim’s evident distress, went round to the girl’s hotel on his motorbike and delivered her to a relieved and besotted Booth. The romance was tantalisingly brief, just one kiss. A week later, returning to England via Milan, Tim called on her. She dumped him.
In a cab now, on the way to Milan, Tim tells us about his second love. He was 20, at college, and so was she. This time he followed her to a laundrette. He got chatting to her, they got on, she liked him, they kissed. But she only wanted to be friends. He waited in vain hope. Some friends got her into heroin – nice f**king friends.
Tim, frail, polite, but highly trained in the martial arts, went round and threatened them. The girl escaped. She’s now a well-known contemporary dancer. As is Tim’s present love.
In the hotel, Tim talks football. Apparently, he attended Manchester United’s championship winning game at Old Trafford. After the game, the 40,000 crowd sang along to ‘Sit Down’, then burst into an impromptu series of anti Leeds United chants. Tim, polite to a fault, didn’t dare mention that he is a life long fan of Leeds United. He asks us not to mention it. But we think it is important.
It’s our contention that James began as a bad band and took, in pop terms, several centuries to become a great band. They are now a very great band.
The new EP opens with ‘Sometimes’, where a rough canter of a beat meets a furious, frustrated strum as Booth casts himself as a vagabond wanderer, taking notes on the travails of a young romantic in a rain-washed urban playground. The second track, ‘Raid’, sees the guitars embellished by a Hammond organ and is a melancholy celebration of love in the afternoon that itches with nervous obsession and piercing paranoia.
‘PS’ which may or may not be about Patti Smith but is almost certainly about Booth (‘You liar, you liar, how I love to be deceived’ he screams) is a glorious moody Cooder slide. ‘Out To Get You’ is too fantastically maudlin to write about without running the risk of electrocuting yourself as you weep onto the word processor.
It’s unbelievable to think that this is the same band that ten years ago were scrabbling around in the refuse looking for a tune.
Tim, are you proud of everything you’ve done?
“I’m really proud of it all. Some things are more listenable than others, like I find ‘Strip-Mine’ more enjoyable than ‘Stutter’ even though there’s some great ideas on ‘Stutter’. It’s like the PJ Harvey record. You may not want to listen to it all the time, or even all the way through, but there’s something you respect about it, you can tell the people are looking for something, really putting themselves on the line.
“That’s how I look at it. There are some LPs that come together, they get respect and they get a big audience. They’re the real rare ones. You’re lucky if you get one of those.”
Have you ever made one of those?
“I think the next one is it. I think that’ll be it.”