Rock groups, it has often been said, are like marriages. Sometimes they end in divorce; sometimes well, rarely they live happily ever after. Then sometimes they just need to go through periods of separation so that those involved can remember what they mean to each other.
The easiest way to understand the past four years in the history of the British sextet known only as James, then, is to look at it as a much-needed separation.
At least, that’s how lead singer and chief songwriter Tim Booth looks at it. The rest of the band, though, has a different name for it, or, at least, for the moment when the separation began.
They call it Black Thursday.
That was the day founding guitarist and driving spirit Larry Gott said, “That’s enough,” and left the group to become a carpenter. That was the day Booth departed to pursue his own, more contemplative muse with the moody exercise “Booth and the Bad Angel,” a collaboration with David Lynch’s favorite screen composer, Angelo Badalamenti.
It was also the day that the U.K. tax man discovered that the band owed $ 150,000. It was the day that much of James didn’t know if it still had a future.
“You know, it’s funny, but I never saw it as Black Thursday at all,” Booth said recently by telephone from New York. “I thought it was just a great moment of change. The rest of the band thought it was a panic. ”
Booth, it turns out, had the proper perspective. He returned to James with a new guitarist, a rejuvenated spirit and a willingness to step aside more and let the others call the shots.
“Basically we needed that break from each other to come back to it with a new way of making an album,” Booth said. “Make it less of my thing, my lead, and put more focus on the band itself. I wanted less responsibility and they wanted more.
“Though,” he added, “they didn’t quite know that at the time. I saw that’s what they wanted, so I (left).”
What ultimately resulted from this reconfiguration was “Whiplash,” James’ ninth album and a marked departure from the languidness of much of 1993’s “Laid” and ’94’s mysterious experimentation with Brian Eno, “Wah Wah. ”
Instead of aching acoustic guitars, “Whiplash” chimes in with sonorous, U2-esque soundscapes. And where “Laid” benefited from Eno’s spacious production, the new record is informed more by the raucous approach of producer Stephen Hague (known for his work with the Smiths and New Order), though Eno served as an adviser.
“This album was done partly as a reaction to the tranquillity of ‘Laid,’ but I wouldn’t call it an intentional effort to do exactly the opposite of it, really. We tend to react to whatever bothered us about the last record, and ‘Laid’ wasn’t the sort of album we could tour. We wanted something more full and lively. ”
The initial strategy, hatched backstage at an otherwise dreary time for them at Woodstock ’94, was to cut an album almost exclusively of three-minute Beatle-esque pop gems.
“And if I had been holding the reins, that probably would have happened,” Booth said. “But I didn’t, and then Oasis waltzed in and did that idea anyway, so I’m glad now we didn’t go anywhere near it. ”
Instead, the band concocted a new approach: a more powerful sound wrapped around two of Booth’s constant themes, activism and spirituality. The former took shape in songs such as “Lost a Friend” and, especially, “Greenpeace. ”
“Their work actually is something that’s come in and out of our songs throughout our past,” Booth said of the conservation group.
“We’ve worked with Greenpeace for about 12 years, and to me, it’s the most important organization on the planet. And after all this time, all their efforts, things should have gotten better, but even though more people have the information about what’s happening to our world, the ideas, the progress, it’s all getting buried. I needed to address that. ”
But Booth says the deeper issues for him lie in spirituality _ particularly aspects such as meditation, shamanism, ecstatic states, trances and metaphysical healing. Booth, who turnedto alternative therapies after nearly dying of an inherited liver disease at age 22, says that though his beliefs and experiences have often been on James’ records, he tried to downplay it this time out, relying on his work with Badalamenti to satisfy his soul.
“It was necessary that I get that out of my system before we started work on this album,” said Booth, 33. “Sometimes I think I try to hard to force it into our music. Sometimes it fits, and other times it doesn’t make any sense. That was part of the change, learning to understand when it’s right to discuss it. ” Instead, that self-editing tack has led James to create some of its most rousing, anthem-like work, with potential hits in “Tomorrow” and “She’s a Star. ”
Booth added that what some saw then as near tragedy has now offered James a chance at renewal after more than a decade of making records.
“I have come back to this finally appreciating what James is all about,” he said. “I think we all have. Now it makes much more sense. And at the moment, we’re on fire.”