Sitting backstage at the Labatt’s Apollo, Ardwick Green, where James are rehearsing for their European tour, Tim Booth is softly and assuredly explaining the unexplainable: the contradictory nature of James.
“One of the things that has always made us different is that we accept the contradictions and we actually like them,” offers the affable and relaxed singer, his polite and patient manner in sharp contrast to the intense singer you see on stage. “We like it in the music, and that’s part of why it’s so difficult to do interviews, to rationalise what we do. You just can’t. It’s very instinctive, very accidental.”
The core of James -Tim Booth, bass player Jim Glennie and guitarist Larry Gott – have been together for 11 years. In that time they’ve released six albums and worked with four different record labels – including their own for the self-financed live LP, One Man Clapping. Life in James has been anything but a smooth ride.
“We struggled for seven to eight years to make ends meet,” recalls Booth, “to keep out of bankruptcy, and that was always hard. After about three years together, we went on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, even though it was supposed to be for new businesses.” The thought of this makes him laugh. “Well, we were so well-known we could pretend we were new and easily fool them.”
That James have survived the rigours of record company machinations, music press indifference and near financial bankruptcy is a triumph of spirit over circumstance. That they finally broke through into the mainstream with ‘Come Home’, at a time when Manchester raved on and laddish bravado ruled, compounds the twisted nature of their long and winding success story.
James were a product of a different era of Manchester music, the era of The Smiths, when Morrissey was redefining what it meant to be a tough modem man. “It takes guts to be gentle and kind,” he sang, and James epitomise this ‘new man’ philosophy. By ’88, when Manchester’s clubs were buzzing with a new wave of acidic house beats, Tim Booth and the band were more likely to be at home meditating.
James have never immersed themselves in the rock lifestyle. They may have struggled their way through the ups and downs of music business intricacies, but their relation- ship with it has always been one of distrust. Since the very early days, they have recoiled from the jaws of commerce, fearful of being sucked into the corporate malaise.
“The first song I wrote was called ‘What’s The World’, which was about selling your soul to some kind of business man,” explains Booth. “That was a commonly held fear by all of us. We didn’t trust record companies. And unfortunately we applied that to Factory (who released their first two singles), who were actually trustworthy. And then by the time we’d worked that out and gone and took the risk with Sire, we realised Sire were the ones we should have been careful with. So we really fucked it up.”
‘Folklore’, a song on the band’s first single for Factory, poured scorn on the notion of received wisdom, of learning the rules of life from jaded elders. It contained the pay-off line, ‘the only way I learn is put the fist in and get burnt’, a perspective which has informed the band’s thinking to the present day. Although words and deeds have not always tallied.
“At that point,” admits Booth, “we were probably bolder in words than in actions. That was what we wanted to do, but we were actually quite timid. We were frightened of the whole thing of becoming successful, which I think is partly why it took so long. So it was something we were trying to do, but not always succeeding.” Regrets? “Well, you look back and you think, ‘Jesus, what a wanker I was’, but that’s life isn’t it? If you never stick your neck out, you’re never really going to find out who you are anyway.”
A boarder at public school in Shrewsbury, expelled for being a bad influence, Booth came to Manchester to study acting at Manchester University. He ended up in the city’s most un rock-n-roll band, not because of his singing or his lyrical finesse, but by virtue of his ostentatious dancing.
“I happened to be dancing in a club one night, dancing very flamboyantly because I was upset due to my girlfriend leaving me, and they saw me and asked if I’d dance for the band. And they might not have asked me if they hadn’t been stealing my drink. So when I sat down I picked an argument with them and that’s when they asked me.”
“Now that,”says Booth, his voice hushed as if still shocked by the absurdity of it all, “is why I’m in this band.”
Accidents, chance meetings, ludicrous coincidences. The band’s path from a struggling folk-tinged indie guitar band to G-Mex packing, Neil Young supporting international pop eccentrics is littered with them. Planning, making strategies, rationalising, are all things they claim to avoid. Fate, believes Booth, not forward planning, is what guides them.
“To do interviews, to explain it all, you start to impose a mental structure on it, this idea that you did it on purpose, that you sat down, planned it and then created it. But when we create something we have no idea what it’s going to be like until it’s finished. And then we go; shit, look at this, this is interesting. That’s how it’s always been with us. The one frustration we have is when we try to consciously control something, because we never seem to be able to do it.”
Another case of the band’s contradictory nature, perhaps, but Booth’s explanation – or lack of one – appears at odds with the band’s music. It may be emotional, cathartic at times, but it rarely sounds unstructured, off the cuff. In fact their last but one LP, Seven, following on from 1990’s acclaimed Gold Mother, sounded contrived, self-conscious and self-important, as if the band had decided to make a concerted effort to break the US stadium circuit. They hadn’t, asserts Booth.
“It was a weird series of accidents,” he explains. “No one wanted to take the authoritarian role, and art does not work democratically..’ Producers came and went during the album’s recording, first Gil Norton, then Flood, followed by the band themselves. Finally, Youth took over, Seven was finished, the consensus being that James had decided to take the money and run. The record sold respectably, the critics recoiled.
“We didn’t hear it as stadium,” continues Booth, still a little bemused by the tag. “I love the record. Brian Eno worked with us on Laid because he liked Seven. Neil Young heard it and invited us to tour America with him.”
James, as Booth’s defence suggests, have been keeping good company of late. Their latest LP, Laid, is produced by Brian Eno, a man they had wanted to work with since their 1986 debut, Stutter. The fruits of this collaboration are something of a rebirth for the band, an album bursting with unfettered passion whilst avoiding the pompous pre- tensions of Seven. It is a sparse, acoustically derived collection of songs, harking back to the band’s earliest endeavours. An earthy, gutsy, guitar-pop masterpiece.
But where does it leave James? Are they still the T-shirt selling, alternative ‘teen band they used to be? Do their acoustic gigs with Neil Young suggest they are seeking the attention of more mature rock fans? And if in the early days, as Booth has expressed in the past, the shared, unspoken philosophy of the band was the idea of burning out, what is the shared philosophy now, 11 years down the line? Booth is unsure.
“This,” he says pensively, “is hard. We’re at a strange point at the moment, I feel that we’re at a strange crossroads. What I would have said two months ago – because at the moment I don’t know what to say – is simply to keep changing, keep being difficult, keep presenting music of a quality and a depth we believe in.”
If this is what drives James these days, then Laid is a record they can be very happy with. Recorded in just six weeks at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath, Eno suggested they take the pressure off making it by simul- taneously working on another LP. The result was an additional, double LP derived from extracts of jamming sessions, an experimental collection of acoustic and heavier, technological tracks. It will hopefully be released in the first half of next year.
“The next record has a lot in common with say, Tom Waits,” explains Booth. “It’s rough, quite ugly, but there’s a hidden beauty. You have to find the beauty under the ugliness.” The original idea was to release it at the same time as Laid – a kind of underbelly of Laid experience. But the record company didn’t go for that. “It is such a weird LP,” says Booth. “We didn’t really know what to do with it”
All of this activity, working with Eno, touring with Neil Young, experimenting with acoustic performances, suggests a very definite wind of change in the James’ camp. Whether it is simply a case of being touched by the hand of Eno, or if something more fundamental is at work, is hard to fathom. Booth, ever the one for a spot of cryptic mysticism, is not about to give too much away. “There’s going to be a big change in James in the next year,” he suggests. Would he like to elaborate? “I don’t know what it is, but I can feel it. Inside us.”