No rational being can deny that Woodstock II was an ugly marketing scam that took in far more suckers than the precious event for which it was named. But through a circuitous route, it actually helped James. At the time, though, no one in the Manchester sextet knew it. All they understood was that, riding the success of their 1993 album Laid, they were were suddenly minus one founding member of 11 years’ standing, guitarist Larry Gott. “That forced the brakes,” understates Jim Glennie, bassist and another charter James member. “It wasn’t an easy time, obviously.”
While the remnant of James tried to decide what to do, lead singer Tim Booth took time off to work with composer Angelo Badalamenti. The results came out as the seriously odd Booth and the Bad Angel. For the hell of it, James released Wah Wah, a double-album collection of improvised ideas Brian Eno had encouraged them into while they were recording Laid. Gradually, normal work resumed.
“We needed this break,” Glennie says. “We were careering at a ridiculous pace toward a brick wall,and something a lot worse would have happened. It’s given us the enthusiasm back.”
Their latest album, Whiplash, also restores a sense of grandeur. Laid, the album that broke the band in America, was ironically constructed on a smaller scale than either the band or American radio listeners were accustomed to. But a two-year learning process allowed James plenty of time to work back toward epic heights.
“We’ve needed this break,” Glennie says. “We were basically chopping up, sticking together, throwing ideas down, finding the best identity for a song. The process is quite time-consuming. We’re bloody-minded; we like to make things difficult for ourselves.”
Difficult for them, not for the listener. Without pandering to some imagined demographic, Whiplash is as friendly as a big rock album can be. The dramatic sweeping wave of “Tomorrow,” the easy roll of “Lost a Friend,” the fey charm of “She’s a Star”: all catch the ear, and Booth acknowledges his vocal limitations even as he gently prods it to the edge.
In songs like the clattering “Go To The Bank” and the jungle-derived chorus of “Greenpeace,” James push against the conventional pop and rock combinations. (The use of dance forms in mainstream pop/rock was first widely heard on U2’s Zooropa. With a mild dash of pique, Glennie points out that while Zooropa was released first, Wah Wah was actually recorded first.) In England, distinctions between styles — rock vs. techno, band vs. computer — are starting to dissolve, and James take advantage of that.
“Boundaries, not just music but the audiences, are getting blurred, Glennie noted. “Segregating things gets a bit silly. Technology brings a whole new music to explore. It opens the door of how you can approach your songs. You’ve still got to go in there and be creative.”
James were fortunate in the creative regard. They snagged producer Stephen Hague who, as producer for Pet Shop Boys and New Order, had already shown flair for electronic sounds. And Eno periodically wandered in to mess around and make suggestions.
“Eno didn’t want to baby-sit the album,” Glennie says. “Hague was the foil he needed. Hague will happily stew over a mixing desk doing the bulk of the donkey work. Very meticulous. And he had always wanted to work with Brian Eno, so we were really spoiled with two brilliant producers.”
In the interim, Booth and Glennie had mainly been concerned with convincing the rest of James to stick around. A new guitarist had to be recurited, and meanwhile, three band members who were still considered “new boys” (after eight years) had to be made to feel at home.
“Larry’s departure unified us as a band,” Glennie says with a hint of surprise. “It could no longer be carried by Tim and me. We had to hope things would solidify again. People in the band, whose creativity we’ve barely tapped, passionately believe in this album because they worked their fucking balls off to get it finished.”
Back in action, James face new problems. In the marketplace, bands who don’t immediately consolidate their success tend not to get a second chance. Whiplash is selling briskly in England, but America is an unusual place to have to win over twice. James barely know what happened the first time.
“‘Laid’ took off on its own,” Glennie says, referring to the single. “But just the scale of things…you can’t get your head around it, so you end up being shepherded around, doing things you don’t really understand. We come back four years later — maybe people just aren’t gonna be bothered?”
Nevertheless, the tradewinds are blowing in the right direction. After all, other struggling lifers such as Pulp and Manic Street Preachers have finally made inroads here. And after fighting to keep James together, Glennie is reasonably enthusiastic about fighting to get America interested again.
“It isn’t the public having trouble accepting James, it’s the industry,” he says. “We’ve seen different waves of music come and go. We’ve always sidestepped that, because if you jump on a wave as it comes in, you get dragged out with it. There’s something wonderful about throwing yourself back in again, not preaching to the converted. We have this naive view that if we think it’s great, the rest of the world will as well.”