James have had a checkered history, bouncing back and forth in the public heart and facing constant dissection by press. It is perhaps due to the many twists and turns of fate that through their battles they have become stronger. Jonathan Wright probes Tim Booth and Saul Davies for their reflections and projections.
“We know what we’ve made. It’s really triumphant. Very up. Or relatively aggressive…”
Tim Booth pauses. He is in a good mood, talking about the new James album “Whiplash.” As he speaks, the album is whizzing up the charts all over the world, and James, one the few British bands in recent years to have made a decent stab at breaking America, are gearing up for live work. He is proud, aggressively proud. Well, relatively proud…
This, after all, is Tim Booth, a gentleman and a gentle man. You remember him? The one who talked about meditation, the new man who was so new he was the prototype on the production line when the phrase was invented. The man who implored those who felt themselves ridiculous to sit down next to him, which they did at gigs across the country. Yes, that Tim Booth.
Except maybe that Tim Booth never really existed outside our own imaginations. Yet that Tim Booth, (and the version of James he represented), was one we needed desperately.
It is time to rewind a little. It is 1990, the scene is a portacabin which is being used as a dressing room and, if that sounds bad, you should see the toilets. In short, it is the Glastonbury Festival and James are getting ready to play. A wide-eyed Tim Booth is trying to explain what the festival is like. “There’s every form of human behaviour here. It’s like a surrealistic tent city,” he says in awe.
It is easy to understand his wonder. The festival has yet to expand into its current proportions so there is only one main stage and the crowd is huge. The cream of British pop is also here to play-The Cure, Happy Mondays, Sinead O’Connor, even a fledgling Lush-but James are about to blow them off the stage, with a set which conveys more warmth, and more identification between audience and band than any rock ‘n’ roll show most of us privileged enough to see it are ever likely to experience again.
You see, if Shaun Rider and the Mondays crystallised the darker, hedonistic side of the blissed out, baggy, acid nose, (okay let’ say it) Madchester period, Tim Booth was its guru. Tim Booth was the man who told us it was okay to feel bad, the man who told us it was okay to not be okay.
So when, inevitably, our collective hangovers sometimes got too much to bear, we needed Tim Booth desperately.
So what went wrong? After the huge success of Sit Down and the “Gold Mother” album, what happened? The conventional wisdom is that James released a bombastic album of stadium rock in 1992’s “Seven” and blew it, big time. But is that true?
“That’s a fair question,” says Tim. “But what happened to us was that, after Sit Down, we got big in America and each of our records has sold more and more. So, to us, we’ve just been on a forward trajectory. There’s not been a retreat. There’s not been a dip in general.”
“In Britain, we stopped playing. We chose not to play in Britain. We hadn’t played there for four and a half years until recently. We knew once we did that, then the whole thing would go underground. We needed to do that. We’d played in Britain for eleven years up to that point and we’d done too much. We then came to America. We’d never played in America until four or five years ago and we broke America.”
Emigration, though, is a carrot and stick process. If James were moving into new territories, both literally and musically, there was also a sense that the band had gone as far as they could in the UK. The band’s 1992 headlining appearance at Reading was a watershed.
“We could do not wrong when we were unknown, as far as the tabloid music press was concerned,” explains guitarist Saul Davies. “James were heralded as the saviours of pop. We headlined at Reading and did a shitty show. We fucked up, but one of the reasons we didn’t get it together was because we wanted to underplay the fact that we were this huge band and, maybe, headlining a major festival like Reading isn’t the place to do that-you know, just go out and do the fucking tunes and go away.”
“But, in our own heads, we were very conscious of that fact we’d become this massive stadium band. So you had this weird confusion between the excitement of doing something and a kind of creeping fear that you shouldn’t really be there.”
“So, we were slagged for giving a huge stadium show and then slagged for not giving a huge stadium version of Sit Down and just playing a version with some acoustic instruments. So, the press had us, they really wanted to have us.”
In truth, it was an awful show, virtually the total opposite of the Glastonbury set, a show that left many in the audience puzzled and even hurt. James, after all, were supposed to be a band you could believe in. Although there would, (and will), be plenty of stadium shows to come, James reacted by retreating and reinventing themselves, working with Brian Eno on 1993’s “Laid,” an album which combined the band’s trademark melodic strengths with a looser, improvised feel.
“The time I spent with Brian Eno was very special,” says Saul. “I hear the music through that experience. I really didn’t like “Seven.” I felt we had got caught in a few little traps, the way that we worked with eath other and the way that we related to each other as a band.”
“It was so exciting because someone from the outside, who we respected, came along and completely redefined the way we worked together. It gave us a new lease on life, new energy. All the staleness went for us. Suddenly, he’s in the room and it became really exciting again.”
But, if “Laid” assured the band’s success Stateside, things were maybe going just a little too well.
After an appearance at Woodstock 2 in 1994 and the release of the experimental “Wah Wah” album (typically perverse James behaviour, releasing an almost ambient album while on the verge of a huge commercial breakthrough), guitarist Larry Gott quit the band.
Tim, meanwhile, was recovering from a serious neck injury, which meant he had to have intensive medical treatment and perform live wearing a neck brace. Martine McDonagh, the band’s long-standing manager, and the mother of Tim’s son, left the James set-up.
So what went right? Far from destroying the band’s reputation, “Wah Wah” was greeted as a flawed but worthwhile experiment. Tim went away and recorded “Booth and the Bad Angel” with Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti. The band took some time off, before reconvening to lay down the basic tracks for “Whiplash.”
And, importantly, Tim Booth was learning to relax a little, freeing himself from the need to be involved in every facet of that band’s activities, learning to enjoy life a little: to the point where he can now say, “It’s a very rock ‘n’ roll band. There’s more stories here than Led Zeppelin.” He is (half) serious.
“Since “Laid,” my biggest thing has been learning to receive what a great life I have,” he says. “I was pretty miserable up to the age of about 28.”
Never have guessed…
“Are you joking? You’re joking. I wouldn’t know. Then, in the last few years, it’s been getting better and better. It’s a case of believing that it can continue like that, believing that I can have a happy life, not falling for the tortured artist myth and the bit that I have to end up self-destructing. Those have been the biggest things I’ve been trying to come to terms with over the last few years.”
This, remember, is a man who, looking at the example of Nick Cave during the Australian’s junkie years, said that, if he thought it would help the creative process, he would consider fucking himself up by taking Heroin.
But, Tim Booth. Happy? Well, why not? Maybe he has earned it. Think about the James of Sit Down and Gold Mother again, think about the band who had to cope with fucking up Reading big time. Think, in particular, about Tim Booth and the reason James connected with their audiences so well in the first place.
While the success of “Gold Mother” was largely due to its glorious guitar melodies, it was also due to the demons which went into its making. The very vulnerability which drew an audience was writ large in the album’s lyrics, with its tales of frailty and personal betrayal.
“Betrayal has been a big issue for me,” he explains. “There’s been at least one song a CD on it, whether it’s been me betraying somebody or me being betrayed. Betrayal is very common. I think in this culture at this time, nearly everyone can give you an experience of being betrayed, even on a day to day level of feeling that somebody has exploited you and taken advantage of you.”
“To me, these issues come up time and time in life until you learn to let go of them. That’s something all the time in my life. I come up against the clocks that are me all the time-what I can take and what I can’t take-and then you just go thought it. You just go, “I don’t have to do that anymore, I don’t have to be this guy who has insomnia.”
“I used to have chronic insomnia and used to feel very self-pitying, whining and neurotic. Now, a lot of the time, I get to that point and think, “Hang on, I don’t have to do this, this is bullshit. Do something else. Don’t go down that road. It’s about having choices and being more creative.”
James and Tim Booth long ago outgrew the popular British ‘New-Age’ view of them (which, in a recent album review, this journalist was as guilty of perpetuating as anyone). And that statement, of course, makes assumptions which James and Booth ever truly were that band.
Because, in surfing the Zeitgeist so well in the early 90’s, and being the first band to (almost certainly) unconsciously document the fears and neurosis’ of the post-Ecstasy generation, James inadvertently created a whole set of assumptions they have had to live with ever since.
Sure, Tim Booth mediated. (Although he now admits his interest might have been unhealthily close to a know of mystical escapism). Sure he wore, and wears, his heart on his sleeve. But maybe it is time to take a second look at James. Strip away the preconceptions and “Whiplash” emerges as a rock ‘n’ roll record which is adventurous, which James have always specialised in. They are also still with us, still making music as a band, a rare feat when you consider they formed in 1983 and once toured with the godfathers or indiedom, The Smiths. If, after that, we still want the old James, and that Tim Booth, perhaps it says more about our own need for someone to ease our own neuroses than it does about themselves.