In the back of the James tour bus, guitarist Larry Gott wraps his lips around the nozzle of a small gas canister and sucks hard. A mixture of oxygen and Entonox (a drug given to pregnant women in labour) fires into his lungs, he whoops like a crazed teenager, pummels the air and grins like a maniac. His fellow revellers clap faster and faster, until Larry’s 30-second high begins to fade. Bassist Jim Glennie refuels the medical equipment, hands it to the next band member and the rhythmic handclaps start up again.
Meanwhile, Larry’s attention switches to a surreal, soft-porn video, flicking with a dull, yellow tint on the TV screen. “It’s more ambient this way,” he enthuses as he adjusts the set. For the next 20 minutes he fastforwards through a grotesque low-budget fantasy, featuring actors in bizarre genital creations made out of rubber and foam. One particularly gruesome creature, his back covered in a matt of thick black hair, gets the most popular encouragement, laddish roars of “Come on, Stavros”, greeting his frenzied encounter with a woman supporting 80-inch papier-mache breasts.
One person is absent from this carnal mayhem, however. As a member of the crew flashes a penis inked with the signature of a young groupie, James singer Tim Booth sits in the relative quiet of the “no smoking, no partying” area at the front of the bus. Tonight’s gig at the Memphis Omni New Daisey was not a success. James twisted awkward experimentation baffled the audience, which expected the conventional pop show promised by their first US hit single Laid. After several aborted attempts to whip up the fans with his arm-flapping St Vitus dance, the band’s singer feels drained and is looking forward to a good night’s sleep. Beside him on the bunk bed lie his one-piece nightwear (nicknamed “bunny suit” by the band), earmuffs and aeroplane eye patches which he slips on at night to block out the hysteria in the “party room.” “I like to have the band around,” he explains half-heartedly attempting to shrug off the accusation that he’s a stick-in-the-mud. “I can live vicariously through them. I have champagne now and again. I don’t take very many drugs. Well, I do, but very sporadically. Maybe once a week on tour I’ll have a bottle of beer or something,” he says poker-faced, playing the straight man a little too well. He adds “I have a refined sense of humour, but it’s very dry. I am what I am. I’m enjoying humour more now than before. We have fun.”
The image of James as a merry band of pleasure seekers is at odds with their old puritanical hairshirted image. Doubts about how much they’ve changed remain centred around Tim, who is still apart in his guided, self-conscious manner. The next day, talking in short considered sentences over the congenial chatter of a Memphis coffee bar, he makes it clear that he rejects many of his old constrictive principles.
“I had all these ideas about pain being deep, which is a great Western fallacy that I don’t believe in anymore. You know, show me your scars and I will crown you a great artist.” In retrospect he believes he adopted this serious approach partly because “I was quite judgmental of image, which was me, perhaps, lacking in humour. White 70s trousers just don’t appeal to me.” More significantly, he argues: “I was genuinely in pain. I nearly died when I was 23 of a liver disease. I actually stopped breathing. I didn’t know I was ill physically. I thought I was ill mentally, because I was behaving in strange ways that I couldn’t understand.”
In the 80s, Tim dealt with depression and his permanent liver condition by turning to alternative medicine, magic, tai chi and (along with Jim Glennie) a meditative religious sect, for whom he took a vow of celibacy. He now asserts that he’s ‘rediscovered’ his sexuality, proclaiming, “Celibacy fucks you up. It should become a sticker, shouldn’t it? Mind you, I didn’t feel confident before celibacy either. It was an escape for me, partly. My first sexual experiences were terrible and funny. It’s taken the past three or four years for me to enjoy it. And gain confidence in it. I’ve been practising,” he says, with an almost imperceptible leer.
When several members of the group appear, Tim’s attempts to join in the banter seems forced. He slips into a bizarre American accent, declares “get laid by James, it’s a wonderful experience” and looks a little awkward as he boasts about his early sexual encounters. “I got laid a lot at university, Too much. That was part of my problem. It was just bouncing around.” As the stories of backstage gropes and wrinkly autographs filter through, the singer makes his own claim as a rock n roll stud. “I avoided groupies. For the first eight years I avoided that cliche, until one day…” he pauses, “I could no longer resist.”
Tim slips away to refresh his frail physique with an afternoon nap. Fatigue appears to be a problem for this thin wiry-haired “rock star” with public school manners. Although he’s no longer the tortured insomniac of early 80s repute, he still rarely enjoys a full night’s sleep. The band shrug off his departure with typically barbed humour. “Tim’s not tired. He’s just being a wanker,” smirks violinist Saul Davies. His absence leaves them to enthuse about the looser, more upbeat mood of this tour. They point to their more light-hearted public profile in the States as a helpful catalyst. “People here know us for wearing dresses, eating bananas (on the cover of their 1993 album Laid, one of the few UK albums currently residing in the Billboard Top 100) and having a song in the charts about shagging,” laughs Jim. “We’re not seen as serious artists with pokers in our arses like we are in Britain,.”
Their rush of success in America contrasts starkly with the band’s disappointment at the mediocre sales Laid has achieved back home.
Larry complains: “It’s completely changed my perception of the British music-buying public. I always thought they knew a good thing when they heard it. But they completely missed it.”
In the States, James have been able to gradually build up a wider appeal from their college radio base. However, the UK’s rapidly changing fashions have often left James trailing behind the current fad – they offered vegetarian politics and indie pop at the height of the Smiths success; broke commercially after their fellow Manchester-based acts Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, and more recently released a Sabres of Paradise remix of Jam J, which sees them taking a belated dive into the ambient scene. They’re already steeling themselves for a cynical reaction to the forthcoming alternative album (due for release in the autumn) which falls somewhere between Eno/Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and U2’s Zooropa. Jim claims: “In practice we did it before Zooropa was released. We recorded it with Eno during the six-week sessions for Laid. But yeah, people are going to say that we’re just copying them. That’s the problem with fucking England. They’re too hung up on whether the music is current.” Larry weighs in with a resigned shrug. “It’s just timing. When The Smiths broke big, New Order’s manager Rob Gretton told us: ‘They’ve stolen your thunder.’ The Sabres remix was actually completed last spring. The trouble is we’re slow at making up our minds. We’re full of indecision so we always get pipped. We don’t want to get ahead of fashion. We want to get outside it.”
Wrapped in a long leather overcoat, Saul rolls his tiny hips with a pimpish swagger as he walks up to the bar to order a coffee – much to the amusement of the others who snigger: “Oh look at him, he thinks he’s a star.” This is typical of the sarcastic trade-offs between the four but it’s rare for Tim to be the butt of their jokes. A couple of days ago, Saul pretended to kick the singer up the backside in a moment of unexpected on-stage slapstick. Fortunately perhaps, the frontman remained blissfully aware of the mirth behind him. “I think if he turned around, he’d be cool about that,” considers Jim. “Maybe,” he adds with a wry grin. “Tim’s always asking us to be quiet and telling us to take our porn videos off,” says the bassist, affectionately drawing a picture of his friend as a delicate, prudish fop. “It should be a good angle for pisstaking, but we’re not quite there yet, to be honest. A lot of the time when people have a go, it’s usually nasty because they’ve had enough. It’s not humour. We’ve got to pull him in more and give him some fucking stick.”
Tim’s role as the band’s singer and lyricist means that the fans and the media naturally separate the 33 year old from the other musicians as the subject of special interest. “The singer’s is a weird fucking job,” says Jim. “The focus is on him. It takes a strange person to do it and I don’t think the circumstances you find yourself in help very much.” However, the bassist’s revelation that after a decade together he also treats him with circumspect care, signals an uneasy division. “It’s not good for him and us,” he argues. “We had a row the other day, and I told him I’d had enough. I flew off the handle and poured out all this stuff that had been building up inside me. The reason that I couldn’t say anything to him is that I’m worried about how he’s going to take it. That’s my fucking problem. He’ll come to the soundcheck, have a stroppy mood on and say something nasty and everyone’s like ‘oh shit’. If it was one of us lot, it’d be like ‘Fuck off, stop your whinging’. But if it’s Tim, it’s blown up into a big deal. And he doesn’t want that. He wants to have a grumpy head on and snap a bit, and then that’s the end of it. We put him in that situation and that’s our fault as much as his. He is trying really hard to change.”
“He’s travelling lighter,” laughs the band’s drummer, David Baynton-Power.
Later, back on the bus, Tim confirms that he likes to force arguments and then allow them to blow over. “I’m quite confrontational and it usually comes out in a pretty bad way. It can be really isolating. Some of the people personally connected to me have a rough time. They have to be pretty earthed.” As a child his judgmental nature – “I was always looking at adults, thinking they were all fucked up”- provoked arguments, especially when he claimed to hear people’s thoughts. “I used to think I knew what people were thinking,” he says, looking uneasy. “Whether I could, or not, I don’t know. In the end you don’t. It didn’t go down well,” he whispers, sucking in his breath. “You can imagine people’s reactions when I started telling them what they were thinking about. I really was an outcast at school, a misfit. I didn’t know how to get on with the lads.”
While the others muck in together, Tim Booth’s approach to touring is more self-contained. He handles the claustrophobic living conditions and aftershow parties in his own polite, thoughtful way, keeping strangers at arm’s length. If his cordial manner doesn’t keep the inquisitive at bay, his personal bodyguard will. In fact, Tim’s leather-clad protector has little to do and only serves to underline the fact that the singer is different from the rest of the band. Meanwhile, in his dealings with the media, he retains a quiet, evasive control over interviews and photographs, making it clear that “wacky” shots are out of the question. “James don’t do comedy,” he declares with the dry, self-conscious smile of a man who only half fits in.