In recent times, a fair number of alternative rock’s success stories have happened overnight, but there are still those who’ve climbed the ladder one rung at a time. Such is the case with James, the Manchester, England-based septet that struck gold in 1993 with “Laid,” the seventh album in its decade-plus existence.
“I think the success we’ve had has been more a cumulative thing than anything,” says front man Tim Booth. “In a lot of ways, ‘Laid’ was less commercial than anything we’d done in the past, but it ended up selling loads of copies in the past couple years when we’ve been all but dormant.”
That respite will end Feb. 11, when Fontana/Mercury issues “Whiplash,” the first release from the band since 1994’s experimental remix set, “Wah Wah.” (In the interim, Booth released “Booth And The Bad Angel,” a collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti.)
“We desperately needed time off after working basically nonstop for 13 years,” says the singer. “We needed to find a new way of working, because we were going mad–or I was at least. I used to drive James and be there for every note, and I didn’t want to do that anymore.”
While he’s still at the forefront of much of “Whiplash,” Booth does cede more control to his bandmates on surprisingly abrasive, industrial-tinged tracks like “Greenpeace” and the largely improvised “Go To The Bank.” Fans of the band’s trademark aggro-folk sound will find plenty to like in songs like the first single, “She’s A Star,” which goes to radio the last week of January.
“They’ve delivered a very strong, very deep album, and I think ‘She’s A Star’ is their best chance yet at a multiformat hit,” says Josh Zieman, Mercury senior director of marketing. “Since it has been a while, we may have to solidify the foundation at radio and retail, but James does have a very loyal fan base.”
Anticipation is strong for new material from the band. “We’ve supported James since the beginning, and the band has always done extremely well here,” says Jane Purcell, PD at modern rock outlet WWCD Columbus, Ohio. “We played several cuts off the last album to good response, and quite a few things from their catalog are still in our gold rotation.”
Zieman says the band–which is signed to Fontana in Europe–will come to the U.S. for a promotional visit in late February. On that trek, James will perform on shows such as MTV’s “120 Minutes” and “Late Show With David Letterman.” A full tour, booked by Mitch Rose at Creative Artists Agency, will follow in April.
“Playing these songs live should be interesting for a number of reasons,” says Booth. “They lend themselves to performance a bit more than the songs on ‘Laid,’ which tended to be somewhat introspective. Besides which, we’re not playing with Larry any longer, which is a big change.”
The “Larry” Booth refers to is Larry Gott, the longtime guitarist who left midway through the recording of “Whiplash”–in Booth’s words “because he hated the whole fame thing even more than the rest of us.” Gott’s replacement is Adrian Oxaal, formerly of Sharkboy, who doubles on cello, making him a fine foil for longtime violinist Saul Davies.
“Bringing Adrian in shook us up, which was a positive thing, since we needed to find a new approach to things,” says Booth. “We’ve always tried our best to do that.”
Since a nascent fascination with the stripped-down style of bands like the Violent Femmes gave way to the more ornate, jaunty stylings of albums like 1986’s “Stutter” and 1988’s “Strip-Mine,” James’ career has been marked by more zig-zags than that of an all-star running back.
After moving from Blanco y Negro/Sire to Fontana in 1990, the band (which is managed by Peter Rudge of Mad Dog) reconfigured its sound, emphasizing grand structures, including string and horn sections. The enlistment of producer Brian Eno, who produced both “Wah Wah” and “Laid,” brought yet another about-face.
“Brian is as far from perfectionism as you can get. He’s very much into immediacy, into seeing what he can disrupt,” says Booth. “Stephen [Hague, who shares production credits with Eno on ‘Whiplash’] is just the opposite, which made for a fascinating mix.”
Mercury’s Zieman says he views James’ mercurial nature as one of the group’s strengths. “This isn’t the kind of band that will become stagnant,” he says. “They always manage to stay a step ahead.”