The well-mannered madman stands on stage at Manchester’s Apollo theatre staring out beyond the empty rows of crimson stalls into the music hall past, He’s been here before, has Tim Booth.
Back down the still un-enlightened path, when the embryonic pop dervish was struggling against the channeling of a church-going public school education in Shrewsbury, Booth organised a coach party from his school to go on an away-day to a blood letting.
Somehow the school organist was recruited to drive the bus, and Booth and his classmates were shepherded up to Manchester fully expecting to be suspended fom school when their Bach-loving driver realised that the musical recital they were attending was a performance by someone little known in classical circles – the bounding maniac Iggy Pop.
It was some sort of starting point that night. And maybe a step towards a conversion. In the venue Booth escaped from organist overseer, and when the Rock Monkey God himself sprang onstage. bare chested, blood smeared and with a horse tail strapped to his arse, teenage Tim ran with his heart pumping to the front of the stage, whereupon a security guard fisted him in the face and briefly laid him out. Neither Tim, nor the school organist were quite the same afterwards.
“One of the reasons I came to Manchester in the first place was because it had such good associations for me. I’d had such good experiences seeing people play here,” recalls Booth still peering into the shadows of the Apollo, pulling memories from the glittery recesses.
It was in Manchester that he saw The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ tour during the heyday of punk and it was here that he came to see his teenage saviour Patti Smith.
“One night towards the end of school I couldn’t sleep. It was during a time when I thought my father was dying and I went down into the common room and I started listening to this record on some headphones and it was just amazing. It turned out to be a Patti Smith album, ‘Horses’. That record really helped me at that time. I got rid of my record collection and I went and saw her.”
Gradually, out there in the stalls, TIm Booth became convinced that pop music was something that could be used to break through to emotional truth. Something that you could make deeper connection with. His personal compass fixed on a questing path that was to help James to stadium pop success in s Britain and which has more recently taken them deep into the heart of the American experience. But James’ conviction route through modern life has recently placed them at odds with the machinery of pop culture in Britain. The new Eno produced album Laid’ and their current British tour has returned James to us in a mood of dissension.
In the Apollo, years after the Iggy revelation, Booth’s belief in the spiritual power of pop still acts as the band’s guiding light James do pop like they’re doing tantric sex. Like they’re trying to reach some higher state. On stage in the empty theatre where the six members or James and a technical crew have convened for a pre-Christmas tour rehearsal, Booth leads the band into ‘All Out To Get You’. A flickering, see-sawing lullaby for the insecure, it build. tremulously out of Larry’s shivers of slide guitar and Saul’s tender violin strokes.
With his eyes shut, Booth rocks from side to side, flowing with the feeling, waiting for the emotional current to push him into one of his mad dances Watching Tim alternate between standing stock still and jerking into spasms of dance it occurs to me that James must be one of the few bands in existence who treat soundchecks as major catharsis.
Each song rehearsed, from the bluesy, plainrlve ‘PS’ to the glistening, abstract ‘Sklndivlng’ is like a mini strategy for transcendence. Compared to the James of three years ago, swaggering through their powerhouse hits, this subtle, interactive, organic ensemble playing bruised, aching devotional songs from ‘Laid’ is a different band entirely.
A LOT has happened to James in the years since their ‘Sit Down’ and ‘Come Home’ hits turned them into a major-league group. They have gone through a perspective shift which has affected them musically and mental1y. The simplest way to explain it is like this. James left home.
“We spent like nine, ten years desperately trying to get some success in England and then got it and that gave us the freedom to move abroad and we have done,” explains bassist Jim ,” Glcnnie. “It’s just that if you move out of the limelight, you move out of concentrating 24 hours a day on England, then it’s going to make a difference. It just seems a small part of something much more large-scale really when once it was everything.
“We knew that from ‘Seven’ this didn’t become the most hospitable place for us in terms of the media and things like that,” says Tim. “It was kind of practical as much as anything else. It does affect you – whether you feel wanted or not. We go to places where we feel wanted.
“The ‘Sit Down’ thing came on the back of years of touring (that built to a head around that period, and since then we’ve been really trying to build up something in Europe and America. I know people in Britain tend to feel rejected when they read that, but that’s how it goes really. The media in Britain encourages a fashion music industry. I don’t think it’s got that much to do with music and we knew that it was our turn to get hit.”
Timing is sometimes everything. James did well out of the rise of Madchester and baggy pop. Their pre-history as fidgety Factory Records folk oddballs kept them at once removed from the baggy fad but by the time it had run its course they’d sold enough T -shirts to revive the Manchester cotton industry and were big enough to play Alton Towers, In the following 12 months, however, while James toured the world, the British charts sucked in a host of new favourites, from Suede to The Lemonheads, and James came home to what they regarded as a hostile critical reception.
ON THE surface James are the same unaffected and pelitely prickly group that they’ve always been. At their converted warehouse offices in a Manchester suburb, they mill around amiably. Avuncular guitarist Larry jokes about how they were going to set up an organic farm in the back yard just to confirm the veggy cliches about James. Hyperactive multi- instrumentalist Saul chats about doing ambient music with Youth under the Celtic Cross guise. Jim turns up still glowing from his weekend run.
It’s a happy family kind of an atmosphere that persists even when Booth’s car alarm persistently goes off on the drive across town. But there’s a defensiveness there that quickly surfaces. The new James T -shirts come with two slogans; one says ‘Get laid’, the other ‘James Suck’, According to Martine, manager of James and mother of Tim’s son, the ‘James Suck’ design is “because we want to sell T -shirts to people who don’t like James as well as people who do”. But maybe there’s more to it than that.
In the 1ast two years the longest consecutive time James have spent at home was the three months they took off earlier this year after they’d finished ‘Laid’. They have been busy. The period leading up to ‘Laid’ saw them spend five months touring America, including the lengthy set of acoustic shows with Neil Young, as well as playing in Europe and Japan, They were so “wiped” by , the time it came to start recording ‘Laid’ that Eno took one look at them and suggested they postpone the sessions.
They went ahead, however, and in the six weeks that they spent in Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios near Bath, they attempted to record three albums’ ‘Laid’; a double album of experimental ambient industrial jams which they now don’t know how to release; and a live album recorded at Bath Moles club. The live set didn’t materialise due to their over-estimation of their readiness to play new songs, but it did persuade Peter Gabriel, who saw the show, to book them onto the recent WOMAD tour of America.
A few days before I met them they had returned from playing in Los Angeles where they’d also appeared on the high profile TV show Tonight. The idea that since ‘Sit Down’ their career has drifted badly is therefore not something that they’re amused by, As Tim points out, ‘Laid’ is Top Ten in Australia, Number One in Portugal, and doing well in the States.
“I think we’re hitting our peak in a way,” says Jim, “I don’t know how long it’ll last but I think we’re coming into our peak of songwriting. If England can’t handle that because we had a hit single two years ago then hard shit, we’ll go somewhere else where people can appreciate it”
“The other thing is we’ve played in Britain such a lot that Britain becomes less of a mystery to us,” adds Tim. “The mystery comes from playing with Neil Young around America in weird venues you’ve never seen before, on mountainsides, rea1ly quiet gigs. Being forced to play acoustically and enjoying it. That’s where the mystery comes from. It comes from going to alien cultures. We’ve always said that. We want to tour in Egypt and India, places they’ve never heard of you and see whether you can translate, see whether you can communicate with those people.
Listening to the hushed strummed atmosphcrics and Ry Cooder guitars of ‘Laid’. It’s hard not to assume that Jamcs simply shipped home the influences of their American travels and Neil Young dates to the studio. Previous album ‘Seven’ had, after all, been roundly ticked off for being ‘stadium rock’ Were the acoustic shows an acknowledgement of that criticism?
“It had nothing to do with it” says Tim. “Neil Young basically asked us to play acoustically on his acoustic tour of America and so we said yes”
“It was either do it acoustically or not do it,” explains Jim, “We were forced into it and we were f—in’ scared to death We’d never played gigs acoustically berore and suddenly there you were in front of 10,000 Neil Young fans. It’s not something we’d have chosen but you have to make it work or you get f-in’ bottled off stage. Fortunately it worked and it led us in a direction which we really liked. It was fresh and it was different. It was like ‘F-in’ hell! This is exciting’.”
“I think we recognised that there was a simple undeniable power about when we played acoustically,” says Larry “And there was some recognition of the criticism that you talked about – the stadium thing. It’s like, if anybody came and saw James do this they wouldn’t be able to level those criticisms at us. It almost became a joke, like what would we be accused of next? Stadium folk?,’
BRIAN ENO, who the band had tried to involve as a producer as far back as the ‘Stutter’ LP in ’86, was drawn to work with them after seeing one of the acoustic shows. He encouraged them to keep things simple in the studio – something which was assisted by the fact that trumpet player Andy Diagram had left to play in his own band earlier in the year – and the blue thrummed plateau of ‘Laid’ was born.
Inevitably, thanks to Eno’s work with U2, there are those who have drawn comparisons. Tim and Larry will have none of it. The songs which people cite as sounding similar are usually ones that Eno didn’t work on, they say. There is an aghast silence when I mention The Edge to Lany. “No, he doesn’t play like The Edge, he just looks like him,” says Tim. And no, James are not planning on acquiring supermodel girlfriends. Subject closed.
They are not easily accounted for , James. Collectively they have a level of protectiveness about what they do which borders on the pathological. Mention the word ‘maturity’ and you’re likely to get drilled to death by Tim’s glare. “Maturity’s a dirty word! Only on the NME!” It would be preposterous if you didn’t know that they had something worth protecting.
“You’re judging everything off ‘Laid’, argues Tim. “But we made another double LP at the same time which is totally different, which is more like a Tom Waits or industrial type record and it also reflects us working with Brian at that time and if you put those two together then there’s so many contradictions that you won’t be able to come to a linear conclusion – that James have turned into this mellow, mature band because the other LP is crazy! It’s like we don’t know what the f– we’re doing so how are we meant to give you an answer!”
If anything, they argue, the move away from their celebratory stadium style shows to the current live mix of part electric part acoustic smouldering atmospherics, is proof of their desire to continue to challenge people.
“I think there was a stage when people came to a James gig and they thought ‘Celebradon! Party! I know all the songs and I’m going to go along and have a sing-along’ and there’s something inside or me that wants to go, ‘Yeah, well we’re going to stretch this’ says Jim
“But there’s no point in going on stage and talking in a language that no-one understands” adds Tim. “It’s a matter of communicating.”
Certainly Booth was impressed by U2’s Zoo TV shows, but they were mostly he says about ‘image’. And image is something that he claims to have little interest in.
“I think ultimately we’re more likely to head towards the Neil Young thing or stripping it all down. But it’s really hard to talk about because we stumble into things rather than consciously set out plans and we like that”
For Booth to claim ten years into his pop star career that he has little interest in image manipulation might sound somewhat unlikely. But the story that surrounds the sleeve of ‘Laid’ supports the idea that James just stumble into things. The cover photo of them wearing floral dresses and eating bananas came from a long session in Marseilles where Booth suggested they wore women’s clothes for a few or the shots. They already had a sleeve for the album but when they saw the photos from Marseille everyone liked the shots. It was not a calculated act, they claim. Andy Diagram had worn dresses for years. They just liked the photos
“It was done berore Kurt Cobain turned up in a dress and the guy from the Manic Street Preachers, so we thought it was quite original,” says Tim “And the picture goes with the title ‘Laid’ so well,”
“We have a really hard time with our own, erm, image,” squirms Larry “We’re still awkward in front of cameras We don’t take great photographs usually. We get them back and we look at them and we think there’s nothIng special about them.”
“We see bands time and time again reaching a huge public, seemingly with some good photographs,” adds Tim. “Not with the music but because they look great in the photographs. And we always think ‘Shit! We do not understand this language’ And we were just very happy with that photo.”
Aren’t you being a bit coy about the sexual role play aspect? You wore dresses in the video for ‘Laid’.
“We’re not coy”. answers Tim “We just don’t want to have to give some great answer, some serious uptight answer about sexual politics.”
“We’re a bit confused, as you might say,” concludes Jim.
IF JAMES have returned to us in a slighdy confused state, at odds with a pop machine which they believe wants to reduce them to something convenient, fashion friendly and superficial, then you can probably blame Booth. Driving round Manchester, Saul and drummer Dave think back to photo sessions past.
“Do you remember that one where Tim’s standing waving in that arch looking like a complete f-in’ homosexual?”
“Which one? There’s loads like that?” they chortle.
The rest of James might share some of Tim’s disaffection with the dirty old music business but their sensitivities are less offended by it.
Booth presents himself as a man who has no time for the ephemeral. His interest is in the deeper things. With the exception of the unreleased Kristin Hersh solo LP (produced by ex-James producer and ex-Patti Smith band member Lenny Kaye) he says he’s found little to inspire him in pop recently. Bjork’s career has been boosted by her photogenic qualities, he says. PJ Harvey doesn’t deserve the Patti Smith comparisons. On The Beat recently he stared down at the philistines who were shouting for The Wonder Stuff with an expression that screamed forgive-them-for-they-know-not-what-they-do. Booth expects James to try to be something more than just a rousing pop group. You get the feeling that he wants them to set souls on fire.
Often they succeed, like with ‘Sometimes’ or ‘Five-O’ from the album. Occasionally they fail. What is clear is that Booth pours masses of heart into James. Life and death stuff. Talk to him about the tone of the last two albums and he’ll say that ‘Seven’ was “depressed” while ‘Laid’ is “sad”. Even the most amateur psychologist could deduce that those moods partly reflect the fallout from the break up of his relationship with Martine.
“Sadness is a real emotion. It’s like joy or anger , it’s valid,” says Tim. “Depression is a black hole And it’s kind of a null. It’s not feeling. And I sung most of ‘Seven’ in that state. And on ‘Laid’ it’s almost like I’m confident enough to do some sad songs”
Check the lyrics of ‘Laid’ and you’ll find a songwriter trying to wrench meaning from a car crash of sin, sex, faith, love and loss. ‘Low Low Low’ he says is inspired by the fact that there’s apparently one gene difference between humans and apes. “I swing from seeing human beings as apes to seeing them as divine depending on what day you catch me” And ‘One Of The Three’ is a mixture of a Godot quote about the chances for redemption and a contemplation of Terry Waite’s near martyrdom. “He seemed to have been teeing up his whole life for it.”
Dirt and divinity! Sex and destiny! Can a mere pop group support the weight of this? How weighty should pop music be?
“How Terry Waite-y? Ah, you mean are those themes the correct dialogue for trashy pop music?” he laughs. “I just don’t care. I really don’t know how to explain it. Obviously if you’re brought up on a diet of frothy pink pop music you might accept ‘Laid’ but you won’t get some of the songs. I don’t mind that at all. Noone has to understand my lyrics. I just hope people get useful images from them.”
Did you sit down with Brian Eno and discuss the meaning or pop music?
“Oh we talked about culture a lot. We had good evening meals. He’s a wine connoisseur and we’d all get drunk, well not drunk but high, and discuss things. We had great ones on culture with Brian.”
In his tawny non-pop clothes, with his weather-beaten hair and stubbly chin, Booth looks out through philosophically sunken eyes on the tacky high speed vanity fair or pop and frowns. He doesn’t think he’s part of all that. One day he’d like to be in the some position as REM, just making good records and good videos and not explaining himself. He doesn’t think he had any mileage out of presenting an easy caricature for the papers. “I think we’ve failed to present a coherent myth,” he says. All that non-drugging, non- drinking, meditating vegetarian Buddhist stuff was grossly exaggerated. He got off the path to enlightenment years ago and anyway, he eats fish.
As for the recent reports of his interest in Tai Chi and martial arts and sharnanitic dancing..
“I wish I’d kept my big mouth shut. When we were meditating, we never talked about it ever. We only talked about a year after we’d stopped so we couldn’t be seen to be selling it. So no. I’m a person who gets very enthuiastic about things, whether they’re films or plays or whatever. I become quite obsessive, but it’s not an a attempt to.. it’s just b enthusiasm”
So what’s the current enthusiasm?
“Football. That film, The Piano. Just whatever I love good work. DV8, the physical theatre group, I’m going to see them in London. It’s a piece on cottaging, sounds really heavy. I think there’s much more interesting things going on than pop music. I think that the comedians in this country are much more interesting than pop music. I’d rather go and see any of them than go and see nearly any British band at the moment. I think that the whole ground for pop music is very superficial at the moment. It’s not worth it. And I think it’s to do with record companies, bands and music press. And it’s particularly bad in this country.”
“The fast turnover of frothy pop is what is promoted and encouraged at all levels. I don’t believe it’s just a matter of us having become a 30-second attention span culture. A few quite heavy and deep things break through, like The Piano. I believe it’s to do with what people are fed. Obviously consumerism is speeding up. It’s getting faster and faster and you can feel it in the media, there are so many magazines and papers and they’re feeding off whatever comes along and it eats it up for a couple of months and then on to the next thing and the next thing. It’s like a hungry shark. But at the same time there are things of depth that get through. And they should be encouraged. And of course…”
AND OF course, James are one of them. A few days after the meeting in Manchester I talk to Booth again on the phone. He explains that it’s a weird time for the band, that they’re going through some sort of change. It all sounds a bit confused, secretive, obsessive, hyper-analytical, determined, mad. He says of himself “I really don’t have any sense of how I’m seen and of course I’m bound to see the contradictions in it because I’m me and I know I can be a shit and I’m very confused. I’m actually quite a ball of confusion”
The curious thing is that after all the years on and off the path to enlightenment James have arrived in l993 with almost no certainties.
And because they are in this state of anxious flux, displaced by travel, unsure of their own sound, suspicious of the media, and surrounded by “froth”, and because Tim insists that they should strive to reach into the depths of experience, this is probably the best time ever to go and see them. Their December shows should be astonishing.