James is a band that has evolved, since its conception in 1983, from being a folk punk band to the group of great, diverse artists that they are now. They have become not only widely successful, but critically respected, possessing both the talent and ability to break through to the masses.
Unfortunately, James has never quite managed to “hit it big,” as groups such as U2 and REM have managed to do. Perhaps this will change with Laid, James’ fifth formal studio album released this September.
James started as a three-piece outfit, debuting on Manchester’s now defunct Factory label. Their first record was promising in popularity, and it didn’t hurt that the infamous Morrissey had given them a public vote of support. James signed to Sire Records in 1986, and released two albums with them before being dropped by the label. Then came an independent release, One Man Clapping, followed by two albums on Fontana Records, Gold Mother and Seven.
These last two albums were important because they really opened the doors of possibility for the band members, garnering them commercial and critical success.
James’ colourful, expansive sound is now created by six talented musicians: vocalist/lyricist Tim Booth; bassist Jim Glennie; guitarist Larry Gott; drummer David Baynton-Power; keyboardist Mark Hunter and multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies. They recorded Laid in six weeks at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios near Bath in southern England. Amazingly, the equivalent of three albums of music was recorded during the sessions, as the band was always using at least two studios (and sometimes four) in order to record and mix.
Recently, I spoke to Saul Davies about the process of recording in the studio with wizard producer Brian Eno.
“Eno brought his own engineer as well as Marcus Draws, who was involved with Eno’s last album,” he explained. “Eno forced us to look at improvisation, so the album was recorded live with all the songs on the first or second take.”
Davies also credits Brian Eno for enabling the band to have such a vast creative output. “He would know after hearing a song where the heart of it lay,” said Davies, “so we could go to work on it and make more out of it. He gave us confidence and the feeling that we were doing something special with each other. We had wanted Eno to produce us since 1986, but at the time he was tied up with U2 on the Joshua Tree,” Davies continued. “He was easy to get along with, but he still made us work hard. He made us look more closely at the relationship between the performers and the producer, which had a profound impact on the record.”
Davies found much in common with Eno and working together gave them a chance to talk over philosophy, art, science, and reportage. These interests were often incorporated in his work in the studio, bringing real-world experiences to the music.
Laid is a serious but subtle album. The sound is delicate and shifting, while the music has a stripped-down, almost naked feeling throughout. It is similar to vintage James, but much more mature, showing a growing boldness and artistic maturity in the band. James could be described as a “patchwork” band, as the band members take inspiration from the many things that they are involved with, but the result is a sound all their own. Watch for them to tour in early 1994, in support of a fine new album.