Bands should ask themselves three big questions once in a while. For starters: do we still matter? Secondly: what’s the point? And crucially: what difference do we make?
Most acts will admit that they’re just along for the jolly. Music provides them with a laugh, a few shags, a nice earner. But for a tiny amount of groups, there’s a crusade worth fighting. They want *betterment* of some kind. That’s what James fought over in the past, and you want to see if they still wear the scars with pride.
So when you meet the core of the band, still cackling over their “pervy” NME photo shoot (drummer Dave Baynton-Power, guitarist Adrian Oxaal and keyboard player Mark Hunter are apparently still, erm, tied up), that’s the important poser. How do James justify themselves these days? Singer Tim Booth suddenly turns stern. For the past few minutes he’s been charming and carefree. He’s been walking the line between flippant and serious conversation, but this question bothers him, and the good humour falls away completely.
“We don’t have to *justify* James,” he snorts. Jim Glennie, bassist and only original member remaining after Tim, rises to the question. “But hypothetically, if we have to justify ourselves…” “No!” Tim insists. “But we *don’t*!” So why are you in a band? What’s the point? “World peace,” says Jim with a straight face. “And global unity.” What are you bringing to the party after 14 years?
“Great music,” Tim decides. “To me, it’s about heartfelt music- ‘cos most people blow out bands after two LPs and we’ve managed to keep it going for a few more than that. It’s looking for depth and looking for real connections and real communication.”
“We still enjoy it,” Jim enthuses. “And we keep changing and moving on and challenging ourselves…and finding another area that we get bangin’ songs out of. We haven’t played for two-and-a-half years. It’s scary, and on-the-edge again. For us, it’s still vital.”
Tim, Jim and guitarist/fiddle player Saul Davies are loading up on poppadoms in a balti house on London’s Brick Lane. The background music consists of old faves (Deep Purple’s “Sweet Child In Time”, *The Godfather* theme and Jim Reeves’ “But You Love Me Daddy”)- all played in a Bollywood style, with masses of strings and wailing voices. This is surreal enough to usher us into the warped story of James, ’83-’97.
In the beginning, they were scatty, sacred fools, livening up Manchester. Each member appeared to be playing a different song to the other. Fold melodies were stretched beyond recognition, gone wild and raggedy. Their early releases on Factory Records typified the adventurous style of the label and the city’s post-punk esprit.
James became fellow travellers with The Smiths; railing against meat-eaters and the phoney glamour of the video age. They made the cover of the NME before most people had heard of them. Tim, like Morrissey, claimed to be celibate and aspired to a kind of gender liberation- away from set distinctions of masculine and feminine. He also danced oddly and wore cardigans.
“Yeah, we looked like a right bunch of losers in those days,” Jim remembers, with mock embarrassment as we mention the facial hair, waistcoats and Victorian pill-box hats of those formative times. “Granted, you *are* right. We couldn’t afford a stylist.” James echoed U2 in their aim to escape the conditioning and compromise of adult life. The Irish band called their debut LP “Boy,” and James wanted theirs to be titled “Lost Innocence,” before settling for “Stutter” instead.
In short, James were a classic indie band of the age. They survived crappy business deals to triumph during the Madchester boom of ’89; ranked alongside former support acts the The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, their flower-power T-shirt a top accessory. The James anthem, “Sit Down,” was cherished by rock fands and E-heads, a call for friendship a Smiley-suffused nation. It was ace.
But James fell out with Brit fashion again sometime after 1990’s “Gold Mother” LP and a mad finale to the year at Manchester’s G-Mex. The music became grander afterwards, losing some of the twitchy, village ambience of old. Oh well: America thought this was just great. Their sixth album, “Laid,” sold 600,000 copies there.
James’ last gig thus far was at Woodstock ’94, before a potential audience of 300,000 people. Typically, they played obscure indie tracks and songs from the then unreleased free-jam album “Wah Wah.” Still, the crowd went suitably bonkers, and marvellous prospects seemed to be opening for them once more. Nobody figured that Black Thursday was looming instead…
“We didn’t know that was Larry’s last gig with us,” Saul muses, remembering how original guitarist Larry Gott decided that touring and family life were incompatible. “He said, ‘I don’t want to be in this band any more.’ Then our accountant said, ‘I don’t know if any of you can *afford* to be in this band any more.’ Everything collapsed around us.”
Martine McDonagh, the band’s long-standing manager and mother of Tim’s son, Ben, had also left the camp, and Tim was ready to make his album, “Booth And The Bad Angel” with Angelo Badalamenti. He was also suffering from an injury that forced him to wear a neck brace onstage – something American concert-goers had loved. However, poor Tim had to spend 8,000 pounds on various treatments afterwards.
The band was practically done for, until Jim, Saul and Dave made off to the latter’s home studio near Wrexham on a rescue mission that developed into the new “Whiplash” LP. Later, Brian Eno and Stephen Hague duked it out as producers, and jTim passed by, leaving vocals on a multi-track tape to be mangled and uncoiled by the other musicians. Booth was free to work with Badalamenti, happy with his new-found freedom.
Everybody seems pleased with how it came out- free from the indecision and deadening democracy that stalled the experimental “Wah Wah” for ages. By the time *that* artefact was released, U2 and Eno had steamed through with the like-sounding “Zooropa,” which made James seem silly and after the fact. Not so this time; Tim reckons the new LP sounds “triumphant.” Heartstrings are soundly plucked on this record as Tim sings of long roads and good causes on current single, “She’s A Star,” rubbishes the cynics on “Greenpeace” and mocking capitalism on “Go To The Bank.” Booth’s voice is never better than when he’s aggrieved or beseeching- offering up a vision of something that’s going to give the old karmic wheel an extra spin. Some of the techno experiments of “Wah Wah” have even filtered through, offsetting the charge that the band are liberal tub-thumpers, a Simple Minds for the ’90s.
So maybe James have accidentally managed to catch the *Zeitgist* once more; now that emotional, cause-carrying rock is again acceptable in this post-“War Child” era. Now that every record company has signed up a band in the Radiohead/Longpigs vein, it’s only a matter of time before acts are claiming that there’s *always* been a “Joshua Tree” element to their music. In short, is anyone ready for a New Sincerity revival? “Sincerity is such a shitty word, isn’t it?” Jim figures. “It implies a lack of humour- that you’re po-faced. But I also think sincerity means that you’re putting yourself on the line and you’re giving your all. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s easy to undermine what you do- by slightly taking the piss to avoid being criticised. But I think that’s a cop out, musically.”
So what’s the mood of the band like now?
“It feels like we’re victorious, almost. After “Laid,” we thought, ‘Let’s have a really up album.’ There were a lot of miserable songs we didn’t put on the record because we wanted to tour it. So many of the new songs are in-your-face, with a f— you attitude.”
The closing words on the record are “into the deep.” It’s from a song called “Blue Pastures” that imagines some care-beaten individual crawling off into the snow to lay down and die. Bizarrely, a week after recording the lyrics, Tim discovered a friend’s mentor had actually chosen this method of suicide; taking a favourite walk into the Lake District at night and expiring slowly from the cold.
“That’s what songs do sometimes,” he supposes. “That was a brave thing to do. It’s not mucky and it’s you taking responsibility for your own life, because you take a long time to go that way. He’d tried it before and he woke up in the morning and the snow had thawed. That’s how they knew he’d done it on purpose the second time.”
James don’t sound ready to expire just yet. The mission is incomplete, the missionaries haven’t lost enthusiasm for the job. Which is where we came in, really. Given that Tim refuses to justify his band, we have to answer the questions ourselves.
Do James still matter? Yes, kind of. And what’s the point? Well, they make fine music, and float important ideas around. They restate the value of the alternative and make the outsider feel less alone. The new regime even has time for a right old laugh. And a final query: have they changed *anything* at all out there? Sure, James have made a bit of a difference. You’d miss then if they hadn’t existed. It’s time, once more, to fetch them in from the cold.