August 1994 on the East Coast of America. After practically three years of non-stop touring in the States, James are about to come off the road. The non-stop slog has finally paid off: the band’s sixth album ‘Laid’ has sold 600,000 copies in America, while the title track has become the most played track on some US radio stations.
For the 11 year old sextet, James, it had been a long march to freedom – freedom from a rollercoaster past that went from cult acclaim on Manchester, England’s Factory label, to an ill-starred sojourn at Sire Records, to their self-saving live album ‘One Man Clapping’ to hitting the motherlode with 1990s ‘Gold Mother’, 1992’s ‘Seven’ and 1993’s ‘Laid’.
So now James are setting the seal on their success, by playing Woodstock II. Between Live and The Cranberries, in front of 300,000 people. In the rain, in the mud, in the middle of the biggest corporate advertising free-for-all in the history of rock music. And James being James, Woodstock was where they began writing their new album. “We improvised a few songs in a weird barn near Woodstock,” Tim Booth recalls, “Those were the first seeds….” “Apart from that,” smiles Jim Glennie, “Woodstock wasn’t massively pleasurable.
Sweetness through strength, and strength through adversity. James have always been about finding leg ups in the breakdowns, the diamond in the muck, the brilliance in the humdrum. Tim Booth’s searching lyrics, the band’s insistent melodies, Booth’s yearning vocals, James epic intimacy – these are the things that make James unique and the things that shine on their new album. Through the deft simplicity of ‘Lost A Friend’ or the sparse electricity of ‘Blue Pastures’, through the clattering industrial disco of ‘Go To The Bank’ to the urgent energy of ‘Greenpeace’, to the bold pop of ‘She’s A Star’ and ‘Tomorrow’, Whiplash is a band proclaiming full steam ahead.
All of which is remarkable given the backdrop to the writing and recording of Whiplash. After escaping the Woodstock mire with a few nascent song ideas, the band decamped to Wales and London for further writing sessions. Booth recalls that “at that time we had a very loose framework for the next album. We were gonna make 11 songs under three minutes, very well composed, almost Beatle-like. But we never got around to doing that, and anyway, other bands have taken that idea in the meantime….”
Soon after came what the band refer to as Black Thursday, the day that Larry Gott (a founder member of James alongside Booth and Glennie) announced that he couldn’t go on being a part of the touring James; the day that the band found out that they owed five years in back taxes; the day emotional crisis gripped everyone in the band; the day James nearly split.
“Still,” sniffs Glennie, “we’ve had a lot of these days, we have been together for a long time. It had been me, Tim and Larry for hundreds of years. And when Larry left it really altered the balance. Suddenly everything was completely broken. All we had was totally shattered. Which meant that the rest of the band came closer into things. And what we’ve rebuilt form that is much stronger, much more open and much more of an honest reflection of what James are about. But it was painful, seriously painful.”
Throughout 1995, James worked. Dave Baynton-Power set up a studio in his house in North Wales. There, the entire band (sans Booth) began tinkering and overhauling and underdubbing and reworking and reflecting. They had big, big plans. They had a glut of song ideas, sound ideas, new ideas to work through. ‘Wah Wah’, late 1994’s double album of improvisations thrown up under the aegis of Brian Eno during the making of ‘Laid’, had energised the band. “We experimented with sound,” says Davies, “we tried to interact with each other differently. It wasn’t that it was drawn out, all this was just a logical extension of their earlier collapse. We needed to rebuild James and that’s gonna take a little bit of time. We did that through music.”
Booth, for his part, was doing his own rebuilding. He had hooked up with renowned composer Angelo Badalamenti, and the two spent much of 1995 working on their ‘Booth And The Bad Angel’ album in New York.
The sessions at Baynton-Power’s house let James regroup and rebuild. Jamming things together, unjamming things apart, constructing songs with Booth’s vocals, deconstructing everything except Booth’s vocals; five-sixths of James fiddled and noodled and doodled and drew together a new conception of making James music. One sixth of James, meanwhile, finally let go a little. “Things would have gone on festering otherwise,” Booth now shrugs. “and we needed a new way of working.”
“I do a lot of things. I act, I dance and teach dance, and I wanted to work with Angelo. On past James records, I’d be there on every note, but I didn’t want to do that anymore. And the band wanted more creative input, so we decided we had to find a completely different way of working in order for James to continue. And we found it….”
In February 1996, James finally began recording properly at Rak Studios in London and Real World, near Bath. As with ‘Laid’, they set up two recording workstations in the studios, one for the final tapedown and one for experimentation. As with ‘Laid’, Brian Eno was on board, less of a producer, more of a provider of tangential input, technological hints, backing vocals and production. Oh, and there was a third studio as well, for Booth to explore new lyrical and vocal avenues. Couple this with the proven pop suss and gloss of ‘actual’ producer Stephen Hague and ‘Whiplash’ was always going to sound special.
So, three recording studios, two producers, nearly two years of writing and taping, one double album of improvisations, one solo album, one near band split, a welter of personal, emotional and financial crisis… Any other band would have been ripped apart by such conflicting forces.
“Yeah, I know!” Booth laughs, “But we somehow have a good centre of gravity. This album has the same restless spirit of other James albums, it’s looking for some new language, something new. It’s got a lot more energy to it. ‘Laid’ was a hard record to tour because it was so delicate, but we want to tour this album. So it’s a definite thumping record, and it’s looking to combine the esoteric side of ‘Wah Wah’ with the pop ideas and rock angles that we obviously have as well. We’re always looking to take a snapshot of where we are.”
And that’s James ’97. United, invigorated, hungry – creating hymns from the global village. And that’s ‘Whiplash’; born of frustration, but shaped in visionary contentment. And Tim Booth still dances funny.