Who does Tim Booth think he is? Back in the public glare for the first time since 1993’s Laid LP, Booth has already done the one thing everyone else is falling over themselves not to do – he’s declared a total disinterest in the music of Oasis, dismissing them as “traditional” and “the mainstream.” Okay, it’s hardly cutting stuff, but it demonstrates a fundamental truth about Booth and his cohorts in James: they don’t enjoy playing by the rules.
“If we’d been a cooler band full-stop, James would have been much bigger,” says Booth. sipping herbal tea in Cyberia Cafe on Oxford Street. “But we never wanted that, it’s not what we’re about. We’re an awkward band, very awkward. But people want their traditional stuff, they want their rock’n’roll rebels, and that’s the mainstream. That’s Oasis, not us.”
Despite the talk about James, the reason Booth is back doing interviews is nothing to do with the band he has fronted for the last 13 years. Rather, he’s plugging a collaboration with the acclaimed New York composer Angelo Badalamenti, a 55-year-old bear of a man, best known for his sound track work with David Lynch for Twin Peaks. It doesn’t signal an end for James – their next LP is all but finished and should be released around January – it’s just a more public example of Booth’s life outside of James, something he says he’s always pursued with vigour. To Booth, the band have always been part of his life rather than his whole life.
“I do a lot of creative things outside James,” he says, gently yet confidently easing his way into conversation. “In that sense I’ve never wanted to be limited to working with one set of people. So now I’m branching out.”
Now aged 35, Booth has always maintained that he became the singer with James because of his dancing rather than his singing -the other band members spotted him in Manchester’s clubs in the early ’80s. In keeping with this, the last two years have seen him teaching dance at the drama college in Didsbury. “I do a lot of dance work. I go into a trance with dancing and I work with a woman in New York who does that -dance improvisation – which is very much about going into a trance. I love teaching it, it’s amazing; dancing is just incredible.”
And therein lies the conundrum, the stumbling block, that is Tim Booth and James. Yes, he’s fronted a successful guitar band for over a decade, has played with everyone from The Smiths to Neil Young, has had top ten singles. toured the world, sold millions of albums in both the UK and USA (Laid went Gold over there, which is a lot of records). But he is not very rock’n’roll: never has been and never will be.
“The dancing is actually more important to me than the singing,” he says, as he takes another dainty sip of tea. “And that’s kind of an accident – I became the singer with James because I danced, Angelo wanted to work with me after he saw me dance. So it’s like,” he begins to laugh, “that’s the thing I probably do the best.”
It’s also the thing that has helped define him as something of an oddball when it comes to great frontmen of our time. I remember first seeing Booth in 1986 and it was the flailing arms, the crazy eyes, the passion that stuck in my mind. Morrissey may have been throwing daffodils around and perfecting a similar off-the-wall dance, but his was choreographed, stylised. Booth, meanwhile, seemed so wrapped-up in it all that he didn’t care that he looked like a drunken reveller at wedding party. Strange days indeed.
“I’ve had knives pulled on me, glasses thrown at me when I’ve been dancing in clubs,” he recalls. “That was pre-house though. But then the dance thing came in and everyone was dancing like lunatics – they just didn’t know I wasn’t on drugs.
“Dancing is a very powerful, liberating thing,” continues Booth, getting into his stride. “That’s what draws me to it. It’s like to me, someone like Michael Jackson is more famous for his dancing than his singing – it’s more to do with the way he moves. That’s what pushed him through.”
Not everyone shares Booth’s fascination with dance. In fact it’s obvious that in many ways his exuberance, his lack of that all-important English reserve – check the likes of Ian Brown and Liam Gallagher for their cool stance – has been a barrier to wider acceptance. Like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, whose very real epilepsy surfaced in his manic on-stage antics, Booth’s jerky gestures can both fascinate and repel. On a recent appearance for Jools Holland’s Later, the latter was apparent, at least it was as far as the camera work went. As Booth worked himself up into a frenzy, injecting some much-needed movement into the often staid, muso atmosphere of the Later studio. the camera panned away from him as if uncomfortable with what it was observing, choosing to focus on…the guitarist’s fret board. Booth’s exorcising of demons through music and dance don’t rest easily with what is expected of today’s rock’n’roll stars.
Of course the backdrop to all this is a time in the early ’90s when James were the toast of the town – admittedly after nearly a decade of false starts and media ridicule. There was a time when you couldn’t go out day or night without seeing someone wearing a James T-shirt. After the Roses played Spike Island, the band were the next Mancunian act to make the move to huge outdoor gigs, now the domain of Oasis, Simply Red and M People. The latter’s recent show at Alton Towers came some five years after James played to a crowd of over 30,000 people there. It was a turning point for both the band as a whole and Booth as an individual.
“Alton Towers was frightening. It was like 30,000 people turning up in the middle of nowhere and I remember thinking on the day, ‘what the fuck am I going to say to them’. It felt like I was holding a party and didn’t quite know what to do. And then after that we retreated.”
Well, not quite. A few years later with the release of the Brian Eno-produced Laid – arguably the band’s finest hour to date – they played more smaller-scale gigs, including G-Mex in Manchester. They also toured the US with Neil Young. It was around that time that tough decisions had to be made, specifically about where the band went next. After the departure of Martine McDonagh, the band’s long-term manager and mother to Booth’s eight-year-old son, the need for new management and a new direction was acute. The decisions that were made then have clearly shaped the last few years in Booth’s life.
“When Martine left, these guys who manage Metallica approached us. They took us in a room and said; ‘we’re going to make you all millionaires within two years, this is the plan’. And they just laid it all out in front of us – 120 date tour of America, stuff like that, and it was outrageous. And we just couldn’t go with them. We thought, ‘we can’t do that. That’s not us’.” Instead they plumped for New York-based Peter Rudge, someone they knew and who they got on with. Not that he’s a novice – he’s worked for the Rolling Stones for starters. His approach, however, gave the band the chance to do as they liked, to step back and contemplate.
And so Booth is where he is now, out on a limb, overshadowed in Britain by the phenomenal changes in the country’s pop culture since the last James record: the rise of Oasis, the resurgence of Blur, the eventual success of Pulp, the demise and return of Shaun Ryder, the second coming and slow collapse of the Roses, the mainstream acceptance of house music mirrored by the return of the guitar band as a pop staple. And that’s just the start of it. It’s a new environment which, unsurprisingly in the light of his band’s history, he seems somewhat at odds with. “It’s like all these bands at the moment who rip-off other bands and deconstruct their songs – I don’t get that. I could never do that and neither could James, it’s just not in our nature. We’re too proud. We just want to express ourselves, not someone else. And we want the whole thing on our terms.”
Still, a lot can happen, a lot can change in three years. Booth has spent a lot of time in New York, principally working with Badlamenti on the new LP, but also hanging out, exploring possibilites outside of James. One of the possibilities is the life of an actor – he was offered the role of Tommy in the musical of the same name, currently running on Broadway, but “I went to see it and it was shit, so I didn’t do it.” And of course, there’s this new non-James record, the worth of which shouldn’t be overlooked; it’s a classy, uplifting collection of songs, the type of album that will slowly sell as people begin to realise how good it is.
“The record’s a very happy one. I was dancing a lot at the time,” grins Booth, settling back into a sofa in the corner of Cyberia, following a brief City Life photo-shoot. “I was dancing, I was roller-blading. It was a real breakthrough in my life during that time. Anyone who affects my life is in this record.”
And his choice of collaborator? Booth has been a fan of Badalamenti:s work for many years – he first caught the bug after hearing Floating Into The Night by Julee Cruise, with music written by Badalamenti and lyrics by the director David Lynch. The story goes (or so the press release says, which means it should be taken with a pinch of salt) that Booth was told by a clairvoyant that he would find it creatively rewarding if he worked with ‘a man with the name of an angel’. Years later, and after a year of pestering Badalamenti with phone calls, they met after a gig in 1993 and agreed to work together. They began work in the summer of 1994, working over a period of one and a half years in three, one month sessions. The record was actually near to completion a year a go, but was held up by disagreements between Booth and his record company over who should remix it. In the end the job was split between Tim Simenon (of Bomb The Bass fame) and, most tellingly, ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, who also plays guitar on the album.
“I think it will sell a lot and do really well,” says Booth. “And the James record’s going to ride on the back of that. It sounds really amazing.” For that record, James have somehow brought together the production talents of both the experimentalist Eno and the pop genius Stephen Hague, noted for his work with the Pet Shop Boys, amongst many others. Following on from Booth’s work with Badalamenti, it will mark a pivotal moment in both Booth and the band’s career. Will they battle back into the spotlight, or remain overshadowed by the new British pop royalty? Booth quite rightly feels there’s a struggle ahead. But does he crave acclaim and recognition once more?
“I don’t crave recognition but I think we deserve it,” he says. “I think we’ve made a lot of great records over a long period of time. I don’t see many bands doing that.” He pauses, smiles and adds, “I don’t see any bands doing that.”
Brave, and quite possibly foolish words. But for the moment the soft-spoken yet tough-talking Booth has made a powerful, moving LP to be proud off. Born of the creative urges of a man obsessed with dancing, the question awaiting an answer is whether it will make Booth the leader of the dance once more. Booth’s clairvoyant never provided an answer to that.
Tim Booth’s collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti, Booth And The Bad Angel (Mercury), is out now.