James Waited Seven Years For Fame Then Ran And Hid After A Few Years At The Top. They’re Back Now, Telling Tom Lappin All
POPULAR music has an uncanny habit of throwing up parallels. 1997 sees the return of a one-time cult band who inspired a quasi-religious degree of fanaticism, flirted with being stadium dinosaurs, shied away from the mainstream, reinvented themselves with the help of Brian Eno, have come up with a new album that has disparate nods to drum ‘n’ bass, techno and the new dance minimalism, and are not U2.
James never quite attained the megalithic status and corresponding ludicrousness of Dublin’s ageing swingers, instead clinging to a resilient intelligence and credibility, mainly through knowing when to take a break from industry insanity. Such is their freshness, it’s surprising to realise that James are pretty much contemporaries of U2, having been extant for around 15 years.
They spent all of the Eighties in cooler-than-thou obscurity, touring with The Smiths (who paid the rare compliment of covering a James song), releasing a couple of brilliantly inventive left-field albums, criminally under-promoted by their then record company, garnering a small but devoted following, but generally seeming the band least likely to. Then came ‘Sit Down’. A long-time staple of the James live set, its re-release as a single suddenly found it installed as something of a student classic. Smartass university ironists took to sitting down to the track in union discos.
The albums Gold Mother and Seven provided anthems from a similar blueprint, and suddenly James found themselves playing to crowds of 10,000 and upwards, all of whom knew the words to ‘Sit Down’.
“Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of us,” the group’s idiosyncratic frontman Tim Booth recalls.
“We were everywhere. But that seven years in obscurity prepared us musically. We totally established our identity, knew what we wanted, which was to keep exploring and keep being creative. We had that well embedded in the band, by the time success came along, and that was never going to change.”
Seven, and the band’s time-served potency in concert, offered them the chance to leap into the big league of early Nineties stadium rock. It was a possibility they flirted with only briefly before realising how restricting that path would prove. In 1992, they made a decision to withdraw from the fray in Britain and rethink. “We haven’t played here for four-and-a-half years,” says Booth. “That was kind of career suicide on one level, but we needed to do that on our creative journey, for better or worse. We backed away from the idea of playing stadiums because we didn’t really want to. We didn’t know how to handle it at the time. We could probably do it now, but at the time we were more into respect.”
They also had an almost paranoid attitude to their overnight fame.
After years of support slots in tiny clubs, being ignored by their record company and the media alike, they had developed a deep-rooted distrust of the industry that carried over to their sudden high-profile status. After having to support your musical career by volunteering for medical experiments (Booth was rejected for being too frail but the rest of the band were regular guinea-pigs) it is difficult to adjust to a life of schmoozing.
“It was hard to accept success,” says Booth. “If you are a loser for a long time in your life it’s very hard to accept that suddenly things might be going right for you. If we create our own realities, an idea which I loosely subscribe to, you begin to think that you are underdogs and it’s quite hard when people start showering you with love and affection and acclaim to actually perceive it. You get quite churlish. I got like that with ‘Sit Down’ when it became public property. Part of me didn’t want to let go.”
Their 1993 album Laid (and its ‘companion volume’ of experimental noise-scapes Wah Wah) was a conscious reaction against the epic territory of Seven. A substantial contribution from Brian Eno took James into more fluid areas soundwise. It increased their profile in America. The new record Whiplash credits Eno with ‘interference’ and he contributes some bizarre backing vocals but the album is a punchier, more upfront affair than its predecessor, helped by producer Stephen Hague, best known for the shiny pop sound he brought to the Pet Shop Boys and New Order.
“Our records tend to react against each other,” says Booth. “Laid was hard to tour because it was so low-key and delicate, whereas this time we wanted a record that we could really take out live and blow people away with, really uplifting and aggressive tracks.”
Lyrically, Whiplash is often concerned with the pervasive effect of the media, of images of violence and death. It’s something Booth has been writing about since the early James song ‘Johnny Yen’ but this time the focus seems sharper. “The song ‘Lost A Friend’ was partially inspired by seeing the film Seven and the film Heat and seeing the violence in there, the way Seven was making death into an art form.
I thought why is the mainstay of our entertainment watching people being killed? What does that say about us? It’s not a moral judgement, it’s just thinking this is weird. How did we get to this point?”
The single ‘She’s A Star’ could also be interpreted as being about fame, about fighting the restrictions of celebrity, although that’s not quite what Booth intended. “‘She’s A Star’ is a reference to celestial things rather than fame. My ex-girlfriend’s middle name is Zurina, which in India means star. I was influenced by that and some other women I met. One of them had a big star on her bedroom door. It crept into my consciousness. It’s about a woman coming into her own power, a stellar view of life with a different energy to the male world. That’s what I was thinking of. As it turned out the video ended up being directed much more around the idea of someone being a film star. We wanted it to look like a preview for a Fellini movie and be this film within a film. At the last minute they left out that extra layer which I was a bit pissed off with because it added irony to it. Otherwise it’s just us in posh suits, me getting snogged by a model, which I wasn’t that happy with, honestly.”
You believe him, if only because Booth has never been a signed-up member of the posey rock star fraternity. From James’s early days as cardigan-wearing, folk-playing vegetarians, the group have never been even close to having a cool image (on the cover of Laid they wore their mothers’ old flowery frocks). Booth, who studied drama and dance, has the sort of spiritual fascinations that the laddish rock press loves to ridicule, but that he feels are important to maintain an escape route from the cynicism of the rock treadmill.
“My endeavour is to go deeper and deeper and become more honest. I do lots of different things with my life to keep myself open and vulnerable. I have a fear of getting old, of getting rigid and closed. I do a lot of different arts as well as singing. I do acting, work with shamen, I do yoga, a lot of trance dancing, and teach it as well. That’s what my life needs. Otherwise we just fall into rigid patterns. That to me is what living a creative life means. Other bands might use a lot of drugs to get to that state but after a certain number of years you can’t keep doing that or if you do you end up wrecking yourself. I want it to be a conscious spiritual growth.”
At which point he listens to himself and laughs. Booth’s creativity in other areas led to last year’s collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti, the composer best known for his Twin Peaks music. It gave him the chance to express all the over-the-top romanticism his more prosaic bandmates won’t allow him to smuggle onto James albums. “It was something I had to do,” he says.
“I felt too chained to James and the responsibility was getting too much. It’s done us all a lot of good. As a band James had to work without me for long periods and that’s made us much stronger as a result of that. While with Angelo, I could be as poetic and romantic and lush as I wanted to because the music allowed me to. It’s context really. It’s like if you go in the NME and start telling them about meditating for eight hours, you’re a fool because it’s the wrong context. Choose your context and you’re OK.”
Eight hours? On the forthcoming tour Booth is taking a Tai Chi and yoga personal trainer with him to keep him focused. Former guitarist Larry Gott has taken the more radical step of leaving the band to become a carpenter. After a Houston show a couple of years ago he and Booth ended up having a punch-up backstage. The madness of touring eventually became too much.
The rest of them are learning to cope. “We’re getting very good at knowing what we need to stay sane now,” says Booth. “But it’s strange to think our last gig was at Woodstock two years ago, in front of 300,000 people.”