At the time of the Laid release, October 1993, Larry was interviewed by the influential Guitar Magazine.
Here is a transcript of that interview:
‘This is the first interview I’ve done with a guitar magazine,’ beams Larry Gott, ‘so to me this is proof that I’ve really arrived, heh heh!’ Typical really, James released their first single ten years ago yet it was only with 1989’s ‘Sit Down’ that they became anything approaching a success, became at all recognisable, became – whisper it – pop stars. Up until then, they were popularly known for two things; the fact that singer Tim Booth was a bit mad and couldn’t dance and a rather natty and lucrative line in t-shirts. But then came ‘Sit Down’. THAT song has since gone on to become something of a milestone round their necks, a reliable, hummable, anthem that moves otherwise well-adjusted people to spit, ‘Urggh! Stuuuudent bollocks!’ Luckily, James know this. Though their last album ‘Seven’, got them severely panned for moving dangerously near to Simple Minds/U2 bombastic stadium ‘rawk’; territory, they’ve suddenly pulled a fast one and returned with a stripped-down album that’s heavy on acoustic instruments, bubbling with slide guitar and about as far from stadium rock as you can get. James have gone folk… sort of.
And stranger still, they’ve done it with the help of Brian Eno – producer of U2. ‘A couple of years ago’ explains Gott, ‘we went on tour with Neil Young, who was doing acoustic shows, and one of the stipulations of touring with him was that the support bands were all acoustic too. There was us and John Hammond, the acoustic blues player. We were playing in these fantastic amphitheaters across America, on the edges of canyons, places like Red Rocks (yes, where U2 recorded ‘Under a Blood Red Sky’) which is this huge cathedral cut out of the rock in Denver… And There’s 10-12,000 stoned deadheads out there, with their picnic baskets, their beer and their pipes, and they were really laid back but they really listened to what we were doing. It really was a stripped-down sound – Dave (Baynton-Power) was playing on just two drums, there were no synthesizers, no electric guitars, no effects. It was dead dry – when you finished a note, it ended. And the more we played around with this the more we enjoyed it. I think we discovered the power you can get out of an acoustic performance, so we came off that, did an acoustic tour of the UK too, and then immediately went into rehearsals for writing this new album. We realised then that we’d brought this whole attitude with us – we picked up electric instruments again but we played them with a real stripped-down bare feel’.
James’ new LP, ‘Laid’ is nothing short of a revelation. The recent single, ‘Sometimes’, might well be a, erm, reliably hummable, rollicking yet shambling anthem, but this time it’s fuelled by manically strummed acoustic guitars and is one of the rockiest songs on the whole album. Most of the rest is seriously reflective and quiet – the folkish ‘Five O’, the slow wailing ‘blues’ of ‘P.S’ or the gently swaying pop of ‘Say Something’. And more than ever since their early days, ‘Laid’ also sees James songs powered by Larry Gott’s guitar. Having dabbled in all sorts of styles from African (‘Chain Mail’), through the usual indie-pop jangling to Stonesy R&B (‘How Was It For You?’), ‘Laid’ sees Larry getting seriously back into slide guitar, something which he first explored back in 1983.
‘I played it – tentatively – on the first album, ‘Stutter’, on a song called ‘Really Hard’, and that’s the thing about slide for me…I’ve always found it really hard! Your intonation has got to be so spot on, but it seems that in the last 12 months it’s just clicked with me. The slide fits really easily on my finger, playing it is comfortable, and it’s gelled really well with the sort of songs we’ve been writing. It sits great with the violin (played by Saul Davies), ’cause you’ve got two instruments without perfect intonation – effectively without frets – and they really weave around each other. So that’s worked and helped us keep the sound really stripped. I’ve enjoyed playing just simple melodies, and just discovering the possibilities of a slide guitar played in an open tuning.
‘There was a less precious attitude about this album,’ he confirms about Laid’s’ stark contrast to ‘Seven’. ‘With ‘Seven’ we started off producing it ourselves ’cause we hadn’t met a producer that we felt we could relate to, and then we started working with Youth from halfway through the project. Hence it ended up a bit of a mish-mash. At the beginning, because we didn’t have the confidence that a producer would have, we tended to over-fill the tracks, which was such a bad attitude ’cause we then couldn’t get rid of them. There were seven instruments always on the go on ‘Seven’, whereas in this one it’s really pared down.
‘Brian Eno came in at quite a late stage. He liked what we’d done up to that point, and really got interested in the jams we’d been having. He’d listen to these huge jams and come back and say, “You’ve got a whole song in there.” The title track ‘Laid’ came out of one of those huge jams, a song called ‘Lullaby’ too. Brian’s great, and he really came into the fore when we got into the studio, if something wasn’t working he’d just move us on to something else. He insisted we set up live in the studio and just play, and in the end we almost invariably went for the first take. Brian had the confidence to say, “Let it live with all it’s imperfections,” and although the second or third takes might have had the structure down a bit better, they didn’t have the naivete, this strange beauty that the first take had.’
There is of course some irony in James producing their most down-to-earth and honestly rootsy album with someone like Eno, though Gott insists the balding enigma is not quite some studio-bound boffin some people might think. ‘Brian’s not this studious character – he either discovers something straight away, or he forgets it. The thing is, he’s got a good chance of getting something he wants immediately because of all the background work he does. ‘A good example was when I was sitting in the car with him once and he had his notebook which he takes everywhere, and on it were all these dots and lines. There was basically this symmetrical dot pattern with lines going out from a central point and then coming back. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was working out the coefficient of reverb reflections in a pine forest! He’d heard a gunshot in a pine forest a few days earlier and when he heard the shot he noticed it had a particular reverb. It’s because you’ve got an organised plantation of trees, because the forest has been built by The Forestry Commission, and it’s all pine so you’ve got these very tall trunks, poles effectively because all the leaves are at the top,and a very dead floor because all the needles have dropped onto it. And you get a particular reverb because of this. So this is typical Brian – he worked all this out, and then he logs it in his notebook and when he needs that sound in the future he’ll know where to get it. But he won’t waste time laboriously trying to find it in the studio – he’ll know how to get sounds. It’s the best way because the biggest death of creativity in the studio comes from waiting around.
‘We had tapes rolling all the time in the studio – even when we were just tuning up, just in case something interesting happened, and very often it did. Brian set up these huge 14″ reels running tapes at half speed, so we could have all these ideas just jammed for up to an hour. It’s actually a very quick way of working because you discover what you’re writing as you’re actually recording it! And in the end we had an hour and a half of finished songs and this whole load, two and a half hours, of improvisation, including 90 per cent of the lyrics.’
If the folkiness of ‘Laid’ isn’t enough to confuse you, these improvised workouts are due to be separately released as an album next year. This, says Gott, will finally allow people to hear the whole James.
‘We’re still a song-based band, despite this album of experimentation.’ Gott qualifies, ‘but I hope that every album we do changes peoples perception – I know ‘Seven’ certainly did ha ha! But no, this one certainly will. We also wanted to release a Radio 1 live in concert thing we did, but, basically, they just want a ridiculous amount of money. We wanted to release three albums this year just so people would say “what fucking direction is this band going in?!” Still I think it would have confused the record company – it’d be like riding three horses with one arse heh heh!
Gott joined James after meeting bassist Jim Glennie and original guitarist Paul Gilbertson at a guitar lesson. Gott was the teacher, the two young Jameses the pupils. ‘They played me ‘Hymn From A Village’ and I just thought, “God, here I am giving lessons to guys who’ve produced far superior to anything I’ve ever done,” and I just thought, yeah! Not long after, Gott was helping out with James’ live sound and adding the occasional backup guitar, and he soon replaced the wayward Gilbertson full-time. He admits his teaching forte was pointing out the right chords to kids who wanted to play along to their favourite Jam albums, though he insists that this is what learning the guitar is invariably about. ‘You show someone how to play one of their favourite tunes and they’re happy. This is why there’s all these people playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ or ‘Smoke On The Water’ in music shops every Saturday afternoon – ’cause they’re getting a kick out of it. It should be fun; it’s not a study – or if it is, then take it up really seriously. I was never into that ’cause I’m a lazy player. You won’t hear any flash licks on my records! I much more enjoy playing simple melodies and finding a place where it’ll fit along with these five other musicians. That’s what I love about old blues stuff, or old folk stuff – every instrument has it’s place.
On ‘Laid’, what noticeably cuts through is Gott’s acoustic and slide playing. It’s nothing too spectacular, but it’s also something that’s too rarely heard these days.
‘When I was young, I knew these people who had this amazing American import collection and those records were a big inspiration. They had this record callled ‘Sleepwalk’ by Santo & Johnny which had this beautiful Hawaiian slide playing on it, and it had this purity of tone which really impressed me. I know the lengths that Ry Cooder goes to – using old pickups, using very heavy gauge strings and stuff – to get that sound, and I’m starting to understand the tonality of slide guitar much better. I really love it. As soon as you start adding distortion or playing too loudly it reminds me of those terrible bands of the 70’s that used to freak out on heavy rock slide. I don’t like that; I like the purity of acoustics and dobros.’
Citing influences like Marc Ribot (with Tom Waits), Neil Young, Ry Cooder and Captain Beefheart’s nutty duo of Zoot Horn Rollo and Antennae Jimmy Stevens, Gott’s playing is refreshingly free from any blues-rock stylings. ‘It’s too much of a footprint,’ he argues. ‘I think it’s too easy to pull one of those licks out of the bag. I remember doing this huge big rock lick in rehearsals once and it was so gross, Tim sneered, “Your roots are showing!” I had to drop it straight away heh heh! But even though I play slide, I certainly haven’t got what the early blues players had, and I don’t think anyone has had it since the British blues players stomped all over it with heavy beats and stuff like that. Unfortunately that’s what most people are reminded of when they hear a blues lick; it has that leaden connotation as opposed to the really free spirit you hear in Robert Johnson and now, I think, Ry Cooder – he’s still got it, or he comes close to having it.
‘I think we do manage to avoid cliches as a band, ’cause we all like different things. There’s no common taste as such – the thing we have in common is our experience. All the things we like go into a big melting pot and when it beings to take shape it makes it’s own sense, if you know what I mean. It has it’s own sense and you play to that. It sounds weird but it means you don’t readily get into cliches.
‘In what James do, it’s all about songs, and I think it’s actually important in some ways for me not to stamp my personality on something so much that it’s to the detriment of the song. It’s not about showing off with us. ‘It doesn’t bother me that this record sounds “unfashionable”. The one reason it doesn’t bother me is seeing someone like Neil Young’s track record – the Godfather of grunge puts out ‘Harvest Moon’, a reflective country album! And before that when everyone was expecting him to be getting old, he puts out fuckin’ ‘Arc’! Amazing!’
James’ keenness to sunrise is unlikely to produce anything as extreme as ‘Arc’, but there’s no doubt that in ‘Laid’ they’ve given birth to a little gem. Their record company, Fontana, have certainly got high hopes for the band and even though they’re reluctant pop stars, Gott for one is feeling up to the task.
‘When we wrote ‘Sometimes’ I just thought, “Fuckin’ hell, that’s brilliant! What a stunning piece of work!” And it was written in 10 minutes. But it’s not in your control, it’s not in anybody’s control, it just happens…Thats it, it’s all been a fluke, heh heh!
For the dobro-esque slide work on ‘Laid’, Gott used a Les Paul-ish shaped custom electric resonator guitar custom built for him by Parisian luthier Phillipe Dubreuille. It has an old Telecaster pickup on it at the neck and a transducer mic under the bridge, but it delivers a surprisingly dobro-like acoustic tone.
‘If you notice, all the slide work on the album is really slow. I tried playing slide way back on ‘Whoops!’ and I heard live tapes of that and sometimes my pitching was just awful! The song just got faster and faster as the drummer got more comfortable with the beat, but I just got more and more all over the place. So I’ve cut that out now, and I keep all the slide really simple. With a close mic on my Dubreuille, you can do a good impersonation of a dobro, though after playing John Hammond’s on that Neil Young tour, the difference is quite evident. Still I’m not under the spotlight solo, I’ve just got to cut through the row the others are making, so it’ll do for me!
‘My Strat is still my main guitar ’cause it’s so fundamental to our sound. It’s a 1961 – the one, so I was told. It wasn’t cheap but it sounds great and it was the first real good guitar I had. Up to ‘Seven’ I had a Strat copy with EMGs on it that cost me 70 quid from some dodgy geezer in a club in Liverpool! I got the ’61 from this guy in London called Phil Harris, who hires out very interesting gear. He’d just bought one of those classic ’59 flame maple topped Les Pauls but virtually mortgaged his house to do it, so he needed to sell some other stuff to pay for it and this Strat was one.
‘I also use a Gibson Les Paul Gold Top, and together with my Lowden acoustic and the electric dobro that more or less covers me. The main change for ‘Laid’ is that I’ve gone back to using my old Musicman HD212 which I used on all the previous albums. Until recently I had this huge rack with Marshall preamps and poweramps, put through two 4×12’s, but the more processing I used, the smaller the sound was getting. Now I just go straight into the amp, or just via a tc2290 which is the cleanest processor I’ve used, it doesn’t seem to affect the original guitar sound at all. Then it’s just two Boss footpedals for compression and chorus, though only on very gentle settings’.