They laugh! They drink! They ‘partake’ of nitrous oxide! Is this the JAMES of indie-folk wibble dancing legend? No! This is the About To Be Big In America James, taking on a country where no-one has any preconceptions of them– so they can do as they darn well like. BARBARA ELLEN joins them in Portland for a sermon on Mount Hood.
“We don’t think of ourselves as a success in America. We don’t feel like we’ve arrived_. We’ve got to work for these audiences. We’ve got to prove ourselves to them. We’ve got to get out there and do the f***ing business.” –Saul Davies, Mount Hood, Oregon
FIFTEEN minutes later, the Mount Hood crowd start to leave. Coats over heads, eyes blinking in the sour drizzle of rain, they grope their way down the hill one muddy, marvelous inch at a time until finally they skid through the exit gates to freedom.
From the safety of their dressing room chalet, headlining band James look down on the mass exodus with mounting panic. They’re on in five minutes and it looks like they’ll be playing for the benefit of themselves, their sound crew and the sprinkling of unfortunates who were trampled and left for dead in the rush to leave.
A disembodied voice barks out from amidst the chaos. It’s time for James to make their way to the stage. To get there they actually have to wade through the roaring human river leaving the site. The band disperse, still manfully attempting to laugh the whole thing off. My last sight of Tim Booth is of him shrugging on his jacket and zipping it right up to his neck with a wintry grin. When I look back, he is gone.
“You know, I used to enjoy ending up in the gutter. I thought I was getting somewhere. I don’t think that way any more.” –Larry Gott
TWO DAYS previous, on our first evening in crisp, clean Seattle, James’ PR takes photographer Sargent and I out for dinner with frontman Tim Booth and bassist Jim Glennie. Being a Japanese restaurant of Booth’s choosing– the food tastes of wet dog and aniseed, but it doesn’t matter. Sargent and I are in good spirits, having no reason to suspect that our two-date on-the-road stint with Britain’s latest unlikely Stateside success is doomed to metamorphose into The Assignment From Hell.
Booth and Glennie are keen to relax, too. Having been hard at work rehearsing for the mini-festivals (also featuring Violent Femmes, The Afgan Whigs and House of Pain), they are to headline in Seattle and Portland over the next couple of days. At the time of our encounter, James are also less than a week away from taking the stage as one of only three British acts to play Woodstock 2. An ‘honour’ they have good sense to view with equal parts amusement and trepidation.
Most pressing on the James psyche, however, is the brief, sneer-and-you’ll-miss-it release of their studio-improv album ‘Wah Wah’. Primarily conceived by ‘Laid’ producer Brian Eno as a diversionary tactic to diffuse the tension surrounding the main project, the unstructed but authoritative mish-mash of erotic folk, languid funk, primal screams, oriental spasms and savage dance energy that is ‘Wah Wah’ began to take on a life of its own. James, characteristically, dithered and fretted about releasing it and eventually another Eno improv-project– U2’s ‘Zooropa’, recorded six months after ‘Wah Wah’– surfaced first. Understandably enough, James now rue the time they spent procrastinating.
As regards their current US success, drummer Dave Bayton-Power is only half joking when he quips, “We’re running out of territories to sell our records. If we dip out over here, we’ve had it. We’ll have to find new planets.”
From cult Manc beginnings, James peaked in Britain around the ‘Goldmother’/’Sit Down’ Madchester period and steadily declined from there. Sales of the critically mauled ‘Laid’ were more than respectable (it went gold in both the UK and the US), but for a time it was starting to look like ‘drippy’, ‘worthy’, ‘folkie’ James had nothing to offer the Manics/Blur/Oasis generation but their entrails to dance upon.
Bearing this in mind, does their American success make them feel vindicated, smug even?
“Oh no, not at all,” protests Booth. “There’s a lot of satisfaction, but there is when we do well in Britain. . . I’m just glad that a lot of people have got ‘Laid” now, if you’ll excuse the pun.”
The very singular Mr. Booth probably accounts for 99 per cent of the adoration, antagonism and derision directed at James. According to popular folklore: he’s a vegan (not any more); a closet God-botherer (only in terms of lyrics, and they won’t come knocking on your door); an inhuman piss-taker, pedaling epileptic fits as dancing (“That’s your projection,” sniffs Timothy); a pinch-faced little hippy hypocrite who preaches peace, love and understanding then runs around shagging everything in sight (let’s ask him about that later); and a sactimonious, teetotal oddball with a sniffy attitude about hedonists.
Compared to the good-natured new-yobs who make up the rest of James, Booth is irrevocably odd. At times, he seems like an alien who has been sent to Earth on a fact-finding mission.
You get the feeling that if you stabbed him in the forehead with a fork he would gaily carry on chattering about dance, betrayal and the boundaries of human potential until the slow drip of his green blood alerted him to the fact that he’s been rumbled. Touchingly, the rest of James are openly protective towards him, dismissing conjecture that he is the band outsider.
“In any relationship there’s always going to be someone on the outside,” demures unflappable guitarist Gott, “but it isn’t always Tim.”
After a recent spate of Tim The Ousider press, Booth is making an effort to be sociable tonight. He is even brandishing a beer in his frail, bird-like hand. It looks wrong, ridiculous, unsettling–like a nun smoking– and within three sips Booth is pissed.
“I’ve tried joyful hedonism before,” he admits. “I’m not very good at it.” When Sargent goes to the loo, Booth ‘minxishly’ switches his full bottle for the photographer’s empty one.
“Come on, catch up,” Booth exclaims to Sargent on his return, adding wryly, “If you can’t out-drink Tim Booth, you’re in trouble.”
THE NEXT day we are informed by the James crew that the easiest way to get to their gig in the Breterman area of Seattle is by ferry. On our own.
I’m sorry, could you repeat that?!
“There’s no room in our cars, you’ll have to go by ferry.”
A couple of hours later, Sargent, the PR and I can be found floating across the River Death, gripping the top of a formica table which may or may not turn out to be our life-raft. Put it down to the coffees sailing past our heads, the screams of the sea-sick or the undulating floor, but there’s a distinct Herald Of Free Enterprise vibe to this trip and we’re pathetically relieved when it’s over.
On firm ground once more, we catch a cab to what first appears to be a huge dust-bowl full of corpses. It takes a while for our numb brains to realise that this is actually the concert and that those scary, motionless dudes in horse-hair waistcoats are the audience.
When we unearth James themselves in the backstage area (a cavernous hall with sections tented off like a war-time hospital), they seem similarly appalled.
Saul, the only violinist in the world with worse dress sense than Nigel Kennedy, actually has his head in his hands.
“What a dump,” he keeps sighing to no-one in particular, “what a sodding dump.”
The concert itself is standard James fare. Even those that hate them have to concede that their live shows are of almost text-book excellence. Stylish, balletic and direct, James are talented enough to hurl aural dynamite at the feet of their zombie audience and mischievious enough to enjoy the ensuing havoc. The audience not only stay, they even sit down during ‘Sit Down’ in time-honoured style, despite the fact that they have been lashed by rain since the set began.
Garbed in only a wisp of chiffon and a backstage pass, I stand shivering on the side of the stage next to some bloke doing an action painting. When the thunder starts clapping along with the audience I grit my teeth and beg God, in His/Her mercy to sort me out with a lift home. Whatever happens, in this weather, the ferry must be avoided by all costs.
“Once we had this idea of us all getting into a car and driving over a cliff. Everyone was ready to die. . .” –Jim Glennie
STRAIGHT AFTER the concert, James have to show their faces at the promoter’s party in a nearby hotel. Within seconds of arriving, Gott, Davies, Baynton-Power, Glennie and the absurdly shy Hunter (keyboards) start scheming openly to leave at the first possible opportunity. Preferably without Booth.
“Shall we tell him we’re going?” hisses Gott. “Nahhh,” grins Davies, “he might want to come.”
Suddenly, Booth appears out of the midst, plonks himself down on the sofa next to me and demands I interview him. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve just spent the evening dangling by my bra-straps from a tree branch in the Garden of Hell and there’s no bloody way I’m doing anything remotely resembling work.
Booth explain politely that there probably won’t be any time at tomorrow’s Mount Hood gig and looks a mite put out when I laugh with joy. The tour manager is brought over. Now the gloves are off. I am given a choice: interview Booth on the way back to Seattle in a car or take my chances with the ferry.
Five minutes later, I sit sulking in the back of James’ manager’s car, slopping a quadruple whiskey over my knees, still childishly refusing to ask Booth any questions. He sighs deeply, then, reaching over, grabs my tape recorder.
“OK,” he smiles quasi-angelically, “let me interview you instead. How old were you when you first started writing?”
Sod off, let me die in peace.
“Come now, what was the first piece you wrote?”
“Brookside (a lie)”
“Really? Was it scary, were you scared?”
Stop showing off, stop demonstrating how you can be the interrogator as well as the interrogatee.
“No, really. . . I’m interested.”
Well, I may not feel like being interesting.
“Hmmm,” he purrs, “but you expect it from me.”
That’s your job. You lot love it. You only come alive when the tape recorder comes on.
“Oh, you think so, I don’t think so.”
Booth falls silent and I grab back the tape recorder.
OK, you win. Tell me about something you did recently. Something unusual.
“I tried garlic ice-cream the other day.”
What was it like?
So, you would describe yourself as a person that’s up for new experiences?
“Yes, I’ll try anything once.”
How does this reconcile with your having been in the same band for over 3,000 years?
“Eleven, actually,” Booth snaps. After a moment’s thought he adds, “There is a repetition that is scary and boring and unusual to me, but as a band we manage to avoid it more than most.”
“Oh, you know, changing the set every night, improvising. . . That kind of thing.”
Wild. Would you say you have been spoilt by life?
“I am a little spoilt. I always have been. Everything has always fallen OK for me. It’s made me unpopular at times. So, what happened was, as I got older, I blocked out all the good things happening to me because I never thought I deserved any of it. It’s only been in the last four years or so that I’ve stopped blocking all the nice stuff and let it happen.
“I’ve had partners who’ve been jealous of me too. They couldn’t deal with my life being so good. Not just being in a band and having success, but other stuff, nice things happening to me.”
Was it that you were instinctively choosing unsuccessful, easily impressed people just to massage your own ego?
“Not at all.”
Well, let’s put it this way– how come you never went out with somebody equally successful?
“Equally successful people aren’t around to have relationships with.
They’re too busy being equally successful somewhere else.”
So, it’s hard to form and maintain relationships?
“Yes, very hard.”
But you’re a pop star. Finding available women should be the least of your worries.
“You can get sex easily if you want it. Which is OK. Sometimes all I want is sex.”
Yes, I heard you were very promiscuous.
“Did you? I go through phases. I have been very promiscuous. It comes and it goes.”
What brings on a promiscuous phase?
“It depends on a number of factors. If I’m in a relationship, that takes precedence. It also depends on how lonely I am. When you’re on a three month tour, you can get incredibly lonely and frustrated. But mostly it’s just feeling like it. . .”
I thought most men ‘felt like it’ all the time.
“I don’t think so. It’s quite common for men to not feel very sexual for ages and then suddenly hit a period when they’re horny as hell. What you must remember is, for the first eight years of James I hardly slept with anybody at all. I was actually completely celibate for a while because I was meditating and it’s fairly traditional to be celibate when you’re meditating. You’re supposed to put all the energy you usually put into sex into this other area instead.”
What made you change?
“Well, I read this Colin Wilson book which he wrote when he was about 50. In it he said that when he became famous years earlier he’d had all these sexual offers which he didn’t take up because he had a steady partner. And he said that was the one thing he’d always regretted, because he’s never found what it was like.
“And I thought, yeah, I could see myself getting to 50 and thinking, shit, all those wonderful offers from beautiful women and I could have slept with them but I didn’t. I just didn’t want that to happen to me. (Booth grins somewhat evilly) I wanted to experience everything.”
“In Britain, we’ve got an image which is difficult to shake off. We’re seen as mature and po-faced and very f***ing serious, no humour at all. It’s different in America because we’re seen as a relatively new band. I love that. It gives you the feeling of arriving.” –Jim
QUITE WHY sargent, the PR and myself were surprised when the plane we were booked to fly to Portland on the next day turns out to be a ten-seater pram with wings is beyond me. Ditto our mystification when the ‘short cab ride’ James warned us we would have to take from our hotel to Mount Hood site turns out to cost $100 (Mount Hood, beautiful as it is, is practically in Canada).
James arrive some time after us, take one look at the bleak arena topped by swollen, thunderous rain-clouds and, bless ’em, lunge strait for the balloons filled with nitrous oxide being handed out by some inspired roadie. Nitrous oxide makes your voice go all deep and your legs feel wobbly. Not much of a high– but when you’re desperate, anything goes.
Just before they go on, Sargent forces James outside for pictures in the last remaining seconds of usable light.
Anxious to avoid the usual Tim With Tree shots, he is at first grateful for the bundle of tyres he finds nestling underneath a wooden building. It is only afterwards when he spies punters wandering towards the same building with chilling regularity that he realises the ‘rain-splattered’ tyres James bounced so obligingly upon have been being pissed on all day by the crowd.
The guilt-ridden Sargent is then allowed/forced by Booth, the self-styled Nureyev of the indie-folk circuit, to take pictures of his lithesome self ‘preparing’ for the gig. As Booth prances, preens and twizzles (with no top on!), Gott, Glennie, and Davies appear from nowhere and start throwing shapes behind their unwitting frontman.
It is around this time that the heavens open and the crowd begins to leave. The PR explains to us all, straight-faced, that the reason they’re leaving is that the police have told everyone to go home before it gets too dark.
James themselves can’t be bothered to attempt a face-saving excercise. After the intial shock, they fall about laughing and Booth confides to me that the local paper had, in fact, slagged James off that day: “They said, ‘You may as well go home after the Violent Femmes’,” he reports blandly, “‘James are lightweights’.”
The band leave for the stage, but we don’t go with them. Having learnt our lesson from the night before, we’d secured ourselves lifts back to Portland within seconds of arriving at Mount Hood. The only problem is, the two jock-strangers we’ve begged them off not only look suspiciously like Ted Bundy, they want to leave now. No problem, on both counts. Home, James, home.