How sussed is that poet in the window? The one with the waggy psyche? A reborn Tim Booth opens up on famemania, libido therapy, Brian Eno and giving Kurt Cobain a throat massage
Tim Booth stands on the corner of 49th and Broadway; and he’s grinning. All around New York is putting on one of those shows that you’re sure are just being done for your benefit. It’s 88 degrees, a burst fire hydrant sends plumes of water coursing onto the sidewalk, loping youths in Onyx t-shirts give each other the high-five in subway entrances while taxi drivers give each other the finger. In Italian delis the World Gestural Olympics are in full-swing, in particular Men’s Shrugging and Team Forehead Slapping. Booth casts a happy eye around Time Square.
“I just love this, don’t you?” he confesses.
On the face of it, there’s not a lot of common ground between James and New York. The one brash, cut-throat arrogant and unyielding, the other warm, humane and liberal. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter said New York was like meeting Muhammed Ali head on and slowly realising he was quite a nice guy. Maybe being upfront is one thing James and New York have in common. What you see is what you get. Tim Booth is very aware that this admirable honesty and lack of guile is one of the band’s most immediate characteristics. And you get the feeling he doesn’t like it.
“Has being honest done us any good, that’s what I want to know? Does it make you hip?” he asks with heavy cynicism. He’s got a point. Who would have thought that silly old Bono could have made himself cool just by donning the horns and the Alcan foil jacket &ldots; and not telling the truth. Halfway through a personal-ish question, he looks up with a mixture of amusement and suspicion. “Why exactly do you want to know this?”
The 90s have been strange to James. In the last three years, James have translated the good reviews of the 80s into healthy sales, Hit albums. A number two single. Stadium gigs. Unfortunately they lost the good reviews. Chiefly because of the stadium gigs. Like all geeky maladjusted inadequates, rock journalists are obsessed with cool. And James have never been knowingly cool. Around their time of ‘Gold Mother’, the sheer weight of their admirers’ numbers, plus a kind of weird honorary association with the Madchester scene, meant that they could not be ignored. But by ‘Seven’ the penknives were out. James apparent transmutation into a new rock corporation, spreading good vibes and universal beneficence was greeted with a barely concealed sneer. Tim Booth is sanguine.
“I stand by ‘Seven’. It’s a good record. And if people have got any problem with it they can fuck off. If it was up to me I just wouldn’t do press anymore. But I have a responsibility. James pays a lot of people’s mortgages. I can completely understand Eddie Vedder saying he’s never doing another interview. It’s not entirely the journalist’s fault either. You make certain disclosures and they seem natural in the flow of a conversation and then you see them in print and they look awful and you can’t believe you’ve said them, they’re crass and embarrassing.”
So is honesty the best policy? Tim Booth has his doubts. On the other hand it can be very unhip. But on the other it makes for a refreshing kind of pop star. With his plaintive voice, lack of defensive mystique and even-handed charm. Booth is a refreshing kind of pop star. The kind you’re not likely to see wearing leather keks at Stringfellows. As the band’s lyricist, Booth’s concerns are writ large throughout James’ music. It’s tempting to see these songs as kind of protacted therapy.
“Well I suppose there must be an element of that. On ‘Seven’ and ‘Gold Mother’ I was trying to come to terms with the disintegration of my relationship. (Booth had until then been the partner of Martine, still James manager. They have a young son, Ben.) In that sense I suppose that was a fairly public piece of therapy, a sort of slow essential process.
“I wrote a song like ‘Walking The Ghost’ because of a whole load of stuff that was going on, not least being that I actually lived in a house with a ghost in it who used to rap on the walls. But it’s a mistake to assume that all my lyrics are autobiographical. It’s not that straightforward. I’m kind of loath to go too deeply into what they’re about, because you suddenly nail down what people’s interpretation has to be. I get amazing, moving letters from people who’ve interpreted them in their own way and that’s fine. Once a year, I play Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ and it always devastates me. Each time I hear things she’s saying, for the first time. I was talking to Lenny Kaye about it and I said I love the part where she sings ‘Twist her leg’ and he said, Actually Tim, it’s ‘twistolette'”
Booth admits that part of his reluctance to dissect himself and his lyrics is for the potential embarrassment, both to himself and those close to him. Nevertheless, some songs cry out for some kind of explanation. ‘One Of The Three’ is, for instance, a fairly direct critique of Jesus. Isn’t it?
“Oh, you think so?” laughs Booth “Well, yes there’s a bit of that. But it was also about the release of the hostages. It’s about Terry Waite. I mean he looks like a biblical prophet. Did you see when he was released? He went straight up to this podium and addressed the crowd before he went to his family. So pompous. It’s that crazy Christian thing about the value of sacrifice. Imagine being changed to a radiator with him for five years. Compare that to McCarthy and Keenan who were so human. I found McCarthy’s release very moving because of Jill Morrell and lots of things. It was about individuals. And stories like that have a kind of mythic quality because they strike a chord within individuals.
“There are terrible murders every day, but the case of that young woman who was murdered walking her young son on Wimbledon Common tapped into the national psyche at some very deep level. Well, anyway, as far as John McCarthy goes, I was in Manchester and was so overcome that I had to go into a café and sit down &ldots; and Black Francis was there who I sort of know. So I had to make polite conversation when I was on the verge of tears. It was very odd.”
Christianity and people who think they know best in general get pretty short shrift from Booth. One of Gold Mother’s highlights was his ringing denunciation of televangelists on ‘God Only Knows.’
“I have a suspicion of gurus and the like because I’ve been taken in so many times. You can see it happen in pop music. People get elevated into things beyond any perspective. I’ve known Morrissey and I’ve seen it happen to him. We did Top Of The Pops with Nirvana and Kurt Cobain was so nervous he couldn’t sing. He ended up singing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in this bizarre strangulated voice. It was pure terror. But because there’s an industry at work turning Kurt Cobain into something superhuman, it was read as something terribly significant and important, something very cool. He just hadn’t done much TV, you know. He was nervous. He lost his voice. I offered to give him a throat massage but he declined.”
As soon as the word ‘massage’ leaves his lips, Tim visibly tenses. He has forgotten himself. He has a whole range of interests in different philosophies and therapies which he deliberately censors from his conversation for fear of being thought as ‘new age’. It’s an understandable fear but sad because it shuts down a lot of interesting areas. It can take some reassurance that you’re not going to run a Loony Booth and His Fruitcake Remedies – Must We Fling This Filth At Our Grunge Kids-style piece.
For the record, he’s into a variety of physical deficiencies, dance, meditation and Tai Chi and has been involved with Reichian therapy (an entertaining philosophy which places sexual repression at the root of all human unhappiness, and counsels lots of guilt-free shagging as the remedy. Its founder Wilhelm Reich was locked up in America as a communist sex fiend – Modern Philosophy Editor) and the often painful, emotionally draining, heavy-duty massage known by the innocent enough name Rolfing. Despite his fears, this actaully makes him more rather than less interesting. It certainly beats owning a trout farm. Still how are things progressing. Is he happy? He looks shocked.
“Ermm, I don’t know. You tell me. How content do I look?”
“Actually I feel quite edgy,” he chuckles. “I have to work quite hard at staying calm. I have a few, errr, demons. But I’m working them out. Things are going well. Things look good for the band. I’m thinking of doing a PhD in Drama, Last August was a turning point. I moved into a lovely little house, I met my girlfriend and then Brian Eno rang&ldots;”
In a dark cool room, a score of storeys above the melting New York pavements, an intimate gathering – James, their wives and girlfriends, managers and American press types – are watching rough edits of the new James video. Guitarist Larry Gott is here and clearly over last year’s mugging incident (when in Los Angeles making a video for ‘Born of Frustration’, he was robbed at gunpoint and, terrified, immediately caught the next plane home, leaving the band to it). It rather put him off the Land of Opportunity for a while.
Despite the band’s reservations, the video is a striking affair; the band is performing their new single ‘Sometimes’, up to their chests in an unruly sea, lashed by storm-tossed winds and manfully wrestling their instruments from the salty surf. At the song’s climax, there’s the added emotive weight of a whole chorus of multi-tracked Brian Enos, austere, dignified and pretty damn catchy. Provisionally entitled ‘Lester Piggott’, because of the driving racing quality of the sound, it’s a great pop noise.
So let’s go back to the Brian Eno phone call. James had wanted to work with him as early as their first album but he had been busy.
“He told us to call back in a couple of years. Well last August he called us. Said he’d love to do the record. We were delighted.”
The results are spectacular. Whatever your opinion of ‘Seven’, the new album ‘Laid’ represents a significant shift. Spartan, dreamlike and haunted, it’s the best possible reposte to doubters. The germs of the record’s singular personality lie in two sources, and over both of them hangs the shadow of a rock titan. First, there’s Eno’s benign influence. Then there’s the Neil Young connection.
Last year, Young was looking for an acoustic band to accompany him on his American tour. He came across James and has now become a champion of sorts, insisting, for instance, on their appearance at his recent Finsbury Park gig.
“We haven’t told many English journalists. When Sonic Youth got the Neil Young support, they mentioned it in every bloody interview. Also, they got booed off quite a lot, according to the road crew. Whereas we, ahem ahem, went down pretty well” says Jim Glennie.
Without Jim Glennie, James might be called Trevor. Or Alan. Or Gudrun. As a teenager he gave his name to the fledgling band. Now over a decade later he happily admits that his life had been unalterably shaped by this group. For one thing he might have ended up in jail.
“I was a bit of a bad lad at 15. A football hooligan. Fighting was my fun. Nicking cars, that sort of thing. I think I would have ended up in jail. In a way, I’m a bit sorry I didn’t go. But then the band changed all that. I’ve gone through a lot of things. Getting into drugs, dodgy meditation groups, getting married, having kids, then that marriage ending. I suppose historically Tim and Larry and myself are the core of the band in that we’ve been there the longest.
“To tell you the truth, I probably get on better with the other three or at least have as much to do with them. But they’re happy to leave a lot up to the three of us. To be honest, there’s a lot of the business stuff that they’re quiet happy to be out of.”
The band has recently slimmed down from a septet to a sextet with the departure of trumpeter Andy Diagram to the twilight world of anarcho-jazz.
“He has his own things he wanted to do. He told us after ‘Seven’ that he’d tour the album but after that he wanted to go. Basically he was fed up with touring because he missed his girlfriend, which is fair enough. We tried hard to talk him out of it but he wouldn’t have it. Still it was the most amicable split in James history.”
Glennie gets most animated about working with Eno, whose memory he is still basking in.
“It was incredibly liberating, He encouraged us to improvise, encouraged us to use takes where we didn’t know what we were doing, He made us realise that this imperfection was a good thing. We began to let go of songs much earlier in their life. It also helped that we hadn’t toured the songs to death beforehand. A lot of them are quite vulnerable, and if we’d taken them on the road sheer panic would have made us beef them up. But they’ve remained in this kind of natural state. He had this reputation as a bit of a cod academic, which is entirely untrue. Every night I would get a bit tipsy cos he’s a bit of a wine buff and he wouldn’t mind us taking the piss a bit. We used to refer to him as Sir Brian. In fact, we got so dependent on him that on the days he wasn’t there we had to appoint Larry as honorary Brian to stand in for him.
The obvious question. Would you like to work with him again? Jim pulls a sheepish face.
“Well of course, but that would be expecting too much. We recorded a whole other album while we were there, a double album in fact. It’s the kind of record that should make people say, Is this James? Very experimental, quite industrial in parts. I love it but it’s strange. It all arose from improvising. Tim invented vocal lines on the spot which he was sort of embarrassed about but Eno encouraged him. So there’s great lyrics like ‘Lay the law down in your home and smile’, which don’t mean very much on paper but which make perfect sense in the context of the song. It made me realise what a great spontaneous poet Tim is. And amazingly Phonogram hear singles on it. There’ll be Andy Weatherall mixes and stuff. It’ll be great. But then what do I know? I thought there were singles on ‘Stutter'” he says beaming.
Later, in a room far too small to permit any form of dexterious cat manipulation, Larry and Tim and Jim are recording an acoustic session in some rooftop NYC radio eyrie. They perform a new song ‘Out To Get You’ which even in these conditions takes flight borne on the interplay between the delicate funkiness of the acoustic bass, the rhythm of the guitar and the frail earnest simplicity of Tim Booth’s voice. It’s an odd thing to hear in a shoebox in New York but it sounds terrific.
Below the gesturing and shouting and swearing goes on, But up here, in their genteel way, James are saying “shut up already” to their own kind of critics and giving them a very elegant kind of finger.