The wood-gabled farmhouse is centuries old, picture-postcard perfect, and several rustic miles outside of Brighton, England. Who knows? Maybe Shakespeare himself once downed flagons of mead from its gnarled dining-room table. This chilly January afternoon, however, said table is hosting the members of classy pop combo James, with cans of Boddingtons bitters and greasy sausage sandwiched. For a few days, this multi-cottaged estate-and all the British food in it-belongs to the band, a rented rehearsal retreat where James will streamline the eclectic material from its new album Whiplash (Mercury). It’s a relaxed, casual atmosphere-there’s a steady stream of jokes and witty asides, vocalist Tim Booth is running around in flannel cow-print pajamas, and over lunch, guitarist Saul Davies strums tentative chords to bassist Jim Glennie, who ponders them and makes a few melodic suggestions.
Booth-after showering and changing clothes-calls this idyllic meeting to order. Everyone at the table agrees that the simplest, most straightforward Whiplash track is its closer, “Blue Pastures,” which follows Glennie’s skeletal bassline through Mark Hunter’s soft forest of keyboards and Booth’s gentle ruminations on mortality. “I’ll give you the Twilight Zone story on that song,” offers the singer, sipping some tea he’s just prepared. “We improvised that years ago onto 24-track, and I improvised a lyric, basically what you hear on that take. Then when we came to get this LP together, we improvised it once more and I did the rest of the lyrics in that second take. And I didn’t know what it was about-just someone going for a walk and lying down in the snow and they were dying. As far as I could see, that’s what the story was about. Then what happened is, two weeks before we recorded it, my best friend’s [spiritual] mentor wen tout on his favorite walk and laid down in the snow and committed suicide. So if you ask me what ‘Blue Pastures’ is really about, I think it’s exactly about him, and the reasons why he did it are in that song.”
Davies and Glennie are both staring wide-eyed, still spooked by this strange turn of events. Booth turns in his chair to address them. “Actually, I never told you this, but it’s amazing.” That same spiritual adviser, he says, also trained another friend: “A woman who was deaf, with whom I did some dance work. And I told her the story of the song, and she said she’d love to hear it. So we sat her between the speakers and turned it up full, and I sand her the words so she could read my lips. And, fuckin’ hell, it completely did me in-I was singing her the words and she could hear the vibrations and she was crying. It was the most astonishing thing, and she wanted to hear more of the record, so I ended up doing nearly the whole record like that. And it was devastating, re-experiencing what you’ve done again from another angle.”
Davies (who does double duty on violin for James) stops playing and sets his guitar down. He’s moved by his partner’s story. “It’s especially weird when you’re playing a record for someone who, in essence, can’t actually hear it,” Booth sighs. “They can’t hear all the things that people normally get so beguiled by when they hear a record, like, ‘Oh, I quite like ho those drums sound.’ Things that ultimately don’t really matter.”
Booth has spent over a decade studying “any method you could have possibly heard of” to heighten his innate psychic abilities. “When you make music,” he insists, “you tune into songs that’ve already been written. That’s what it feels like-the song’s been written, and you’ve got to re- discover it, which is why I don’t always know what my lyrics are about. But I know when I’ve written the lyric that’s meant to be sung. When Whiplash producer Stephen Hague asked him to change a few words here and there, Booth adamantly declined. “I just can’t do that, because there’s a complete sense to me that I’m given those lyrics and if I betray that, I won’t be given them any more.”
Booth wants the distinction made: He sees James, and creativity in general, as one of the most healing things you can do as a spiritual exercise; the rest of the group doesn’t necessarily feel the same way. A small discrepancy. But it’s one that literally saved them in their darkest hour, a bleak moment known in the James camp as Black Thursday. The Mancunian sextet had survived numerous lineup changes, even the Stone Roses/Happy Mondays “Madchester” craze in the late ’80s, to finally strike sales-figures gold with its sixth album, Laid (Mercury), a Brian Eno-produced masterpiece of intellectual, folk-jangles sunniness. This (and a surreal Eno-enhanced outtake disc, Wah Wah [Mercury]) led to an ostensibly pivotal movement: James playing the prestigious Woodstock ’94 festival, before a crowd of 300,000. The future appeared bright indeed.
“Then we went into the studio to start writing material for the next album, which would end up being Whiplash,” recalls Davies. “And suddenly, everything collapsed around us, and it happened to be a Thursday.” Slide guitarist, key songwriter and founding member Larry Gott announced he would no longer tour with James. Tim Booth announced his plans to go to New York and record his long-stalled solo project with film composer Angelo Badalamenti (the lush Booth and the Bad Angel, released last year on Mecury). And the U.K. tax man announced the unfortunate discovery of an overlooked James debt of roughly 150,000. “We realized that everything we’d taken for granted, even the existence of the band, was now in doubt and required serious re-evaluation,” Davies adds.
Black Thursday still sends a shiver down Glennie’s usually staid spine. “We owed all this money, but there was no money coming in, because the only we get money is from completion of the album. And we were only just beginning to start _writing_ song-starting and finishing an album was a long way away.” With the zenlike Booth away, pursuing both his album and dance/improv theater work in Los Angeles, James’ survival instinct kicked in. The musicians set up studio shop in drummer David Baynton-Power’s house, dropped by individually to record their ideas, and tinkered with every other number but “Blue Pastures” until all concerned were satisfied. What Davies terms “a completely different was of working for us.”
All of the traditional James ingredients (even an Eno vocal/keyboard/occasional co-production cameo) figure into the Whiplash mix: Booth’s breezy sandalwood acrobatics on pop gems like “Homeboy” and “She’s a Star,” Gott’s spiraling slide that propels both the dreamy “Lost a Friend” and the raucous juggernaut “Tomorrow,” and that certain aura of mannered grandiosity that flutters over every cut. But new flavors waft in: throbbing techno (the title track), heart- attack jungle patterns (“Greenpeace,” “Go to the Bank”), even industrial-strength riffing alongside fluid Beatlesque beauty (the brilliantly schizoid “Avalanche”).
Glennie says that “Greenpeace” is the most extreme example of James’ new way of working. “It came about through a little spindly jam of me playing bass, Saul playing guitar, and Mark playing keyboards-very pretty, very nice and cyclical. And Tim came over the top of this with a very sweet vocal. And then Dave had a vision and said, ‘Leave it with me.’ And we came in the next day to hear what you hear on the record.”
Baynton-Power beams proudly. “That creaking noise you hear is a marble cutting board rubbed up and down a brick wall. And Tim ran out of the room when that beat kicked in. That’s when I thought, ‘Ah, we’re onto something!'”
The secluded farmhouse, you figure, is probably one of the first peaceful moments James has had of late. But the muse still beckons: Davies and Glennie retire to the living room to finish their spur-of-the-moment song. Booth stays behind to conclude the tale.
“Black Thursday wasn’t as big a thing for me, partly because I walked away from a lot of responsibility.” A placid all-knowing smile inched across his face. “But I wasn’t worried-I knew James had to transform to survive. James in the past has been much more like a novel, songwise; you start pretty well, there’s a good middle and you peak at the end. But we’re now in a space where we though, ‘Well, why not grab people right from the start?'”
Booth gazes out the window at-ironically-miles and miles of rolling blue pastures. Then he, too, gets back to work with James.