On entering the LWT building on London’s South Bank, one could be easily unnerved. Immediately to the left, glossy photos of such toothy-grinning celebs as Cilla, Richard & Judy and Beadle stare surreally down on the reception area. Soon to be added to this Hall Of Fame, no doubt, is Mr Bob Mills – comic, footie expert and chat show host. James are here to perform their trimphant single ‘She’s A Star’ on his new Saturday night slot. Map and compass in hand, I venture out in search of the mercurial Mancunians. ventually I stumble upon the Green Room where Mr Mills, a Giant Haystack of a human specimen, is organising rehearsals. I stare into his kneecaps, grab a beer and scale further heights to the restaurant where the James boys have eloped for an early evening nibble.
Previous preconceptions would suggest nothing more than a vegefest, a rock ‘n’ roll rice dish. But this was never James. Singer Tim Booth, maybe – the original man to put the green in runner bean – but not the rest of the band. It’s appropriate that, tonight, Tim is busy in the wardrobe department, wearing the most antisocial of tartan trousers. There’s also been changes in James’ land -a new openess and democracy which means Tim doesn’t do all the talking. Surrounded by red meat and red wine, I’m talking to the cheeky coupling of Saul Davies (guitars) and Jim Glennie (bass).
James have been together for 14 years; have been compared to U2 and The Srniths, survived Madchester baggie and simmered below Britpop. Not uncommonly it was their efforts to crack the US (Laid has sold a healthy 600,000 there) that nearly led to their demise. Having attempted to bribe me with a tenner to say something nice about the band, Saul takes up the story:
“We’d been going strong for about four years, then after the American tour, we came as close as we’ve come to disaster. Larry (Gott, guitarist and founding member) left, the taxman got hold of us (for five years non-payment) and then Tim went off to record with Angelo (Badalamenti ). We could’ve just given up, got into four or five different bands and done nothing. Or we could re-group.”
“We were forced to re-evaluate what we wanted to do and whether we wanted to do it. Had we got the legs for it?” adds Jim.
Although outflanked by U2’s Zooropa the Eno-inspired Wah Wah sessions helped refresh the spirits. Saul reckons its experimental noodlings to be the band’s favourite work.
“We all love the sound of the album, it’s the band’s favourite. It was the first time we’d used technology through necessity. But we knew we couldn’t afford to make another weird album now. We wanted to make a record with that technological edge to it but one that was married to some blinding pop songs.”
The retrenchment process began with Saul, Jim and drummer Dave Baynton- Power assembling at the latter’s Wrexham home studio. Tim carried on with his side projects, occasionally dropping in with some vocals. They moved on to Real World studios and Mickey Most’s (“always dressed in white Versace”) RAK studios in St John’s Wood, “to get the well urban vibe,” quips Saul. Stephen Hague (New Order, PSB et al) was brought in to produce some pop sheen, Eno recalled for the sonic quirks.
The resultant new pervy James comes by the name of Whiplash (Fontana), mixing the old style sweeping pop melodrama of ‘Tomorrow’ with the jungly modernity of ‘Greenpeace’. Slightly schizophrenic, but still unquestionable class. Only now everyone’s involved.
“We’ve all had to take more of a role,” says Jim,”Being a founder member it had always been me, Tim and Larry – we thought we had to guide the others but we didn’t. The nucleus grew. For Tim it was a big relief. It took a lot of the responsibility off him. He could have some fun and for the first time we were a band that could all chill out. Some of the songs we just smashed up, not too many ‘cos we wanted it to sound up. Like, we had a little room where we could sort out the mad ideas before going into the £l,000-a-day studio (carefully avoiding being financially singed for a second time). We transferred ideas to Eno and vice versa. Bouncing ideas backwards and forwards. We ended up with a kind of b!oadstroked, haphazard, creative democracy .The only thing that stopped us was The Simpsons and the footie – we ended up being completely nocturnal.”
You could call James underachievers, suffering from a perennial identity crisis. But Whiplash slips in easily betwixt the likes of Radiohead and Oasis – the odd esoteric twist and socially concerned muse thrown in as trademark. But what about this new found laddishness? Common consent was an evening with James comprises yoga, Buddhism, followed by large helpings of tofu.
“James have always been seen as being po-faced but anyone who comes out with us for a night would realise that’s a load of old tosh. If they don’t end up with alcohol poisoning or a black eye it would be quite unusual.”
“But we’ve got to be careful,” adds Jim.”You don’t want to become too compartmentalised. We’ve not become a lad’s band who think they’re Oasis. We’ve always been fairly ordinary. Sometimes we’re arrogant like most people in a band, sometimes we’re stupid and immature, making idiots of ourselves and all points in between. It’s fun, we’re just playing with our image.”
So, at last, James seems to be playing themselves, knowing their place and quite content with that. Almost at home James.
“We don’t mind being slagged off, ‘cos that’s better than being ignored,” Saul concludes, “We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reaction so far. A lot of people don’t have preconceptions of us and they’ll go out and buy our records. We don’t intend to get paranoid.” Time to sit down and tune in .