The land around here looks like nothing much at all, which is why it can be made to look like almost anything you like. The rugged red hillocks and dull yellow plains around the Andalusian town of Guadix are where you come when you need desert footage, and your budget won’t stretch to Arizona, Jordan or Australia. Sergio Leone came here to film his great spaghetti westerns; the sets for Once Upon a Time in the West are still collecting dust next to a nearby railway crossing. This weekend, a pop group called James are making a video here for their new single, a song called “Waltzing Along”.
“I hope this all works out,” says James’s singer, Tim Booth. “It’s my favourite song on the record. But you should have been here yesterday. We did some filming at the local brothel.”
The idea for the video is a vague narrative about a battered old convertible being driven across the badlands of mid-west America and picking up various odd characters as it goes. These will be played by the six members of James, a model called Rachel and two immense Turkish brothers, who are taking a couple of days off from their London chip shop. The role of the car’s driver was, at one stage, going to be offered to James’s favourite celebrity fan, the Formula One driver Jacques Villeneuve. Then it was to go to James’s semi-celebrity sometime producer, Brian Eno. They have eventually settled on an actress with an unnerving resemblance to Bet Lynch.
As video shoots go, it’s a relatively tolerable experience. Video shoots are usually terrifyingly boring ordeals for all concerned, long hours of sitting about doing nothing occasionally punctuated by being screamed at by agitated young men with megaphones and clipboards. Today, however, the sun’s out, there’s plenty to eat, the mood is genial, and everyone seems to be having something that looks startlingly like a good time. If James look, today, like a band that are enjoying the things that bands aren’t supposed to enjoy, it’s possibly because they know that they nearly didn’t make it this far at all.
James formed in Manchester in 1982, released a couple of winsome EPs for hip local label Factory, toured with The Smiths, and were regarded as fellow-travellers in Morrissey’s conspiracy of ascetic withdrawal – though you wouldn’t guess that from the now from the enthusiasm with which a few of the band demolish the contents of the hotel’s drinks cabinet after dinner. Two albums, Stutter (1986) and Stripmine (1988) came next on the American label Sire, from which the band departed rather acrimoniously. A live album, One Man Clapping (1989), which the band financed by volunteering for medical experiments, followed, and just about saved their career, landing them a deal with Fontana.
A hit single, “Sit Down”, and a bigger hit album, Gold Mother (1990) made James one of the biggest bands in Britain, and their T-shirts an era-defining fashion accessory. After that, James were widely perceived to have sold their souls to Simple Minds on the epic-sounding Seven (1992), bottled out of becoming vastly successful with the acoustic-oriented Laid (1993), and finally wandered altogether off the reservation with the experimental and largely incomprehensible Wah Wah (1994).
“We have always,” says Booth, “been about doing the last thing everyone expected, including ourselves.”
It got worse. Shortly after James appeared at the ghastly, mud-covered fiasco that was Woodstock II, founding member Larry Gott decided he’d had enough. So did James’s long-term manager, and mother of Booth’s son, Martine McDonagh. It seemed, as 1994 drew to a close, that the only people who hadn’t had enough of James were the Inland Revenue, who chose the moment to send in a bill for five years’ back taxes that the band thought they’d already paid. With the Grim Reaper knocking loudly on their door, James reacted with typical bloodymindedness. They vanished from sight for a few years, restructured their working methods to allow Booth the freedom he wanted to pursue other projects (he has since recorded an album with Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti under the name Booth & The Bad Angel), before emerging with Whiplash, arguably their best album yet.
Then, with credits due to roll after this happy ending, it all went wrong again. Tim Booth’s unique dancing style – think of a man with one foot in a bucket of water sticking a knife into a toaster – finally caught up with him. Earlier this year, Booth ruptured a vertebral disc in his neck, an incredibly painful injury that immobilised him in San Francisco for a month, and forced the abrupt cancellation of a major US tour. Booth is still under instructions to take it easy. Most of the interview proper takes place in a taxi between Guadix and Malaga airport the day after the shoot, hired at some considerable expense (it’s a 220km trip) so that Booth can lie down on the back seat.
The irony of the new album’s title is not lost on him.
“Also,” he elaborates, “the day we decided to call it that, our product manager at the label got whiplash as well. We should have titled it Great Wealth & Happiness.”
Booth, now 37 and a resident of both New York (where his fiancee lives) and Brighton (where his son lives) doesn’t seem much like the credulous new age mooncalf he’s often been painted as. (He is almost certainly the only Leeds United fan on earth who’s ever been called a hippy.) He does, granted, talk of his involvement with a group in California who teach a method of dialogue that is something to do with the boundary between creativity and therapy, and he also admits to training in movement intended to induce trance states, but he does all this very self-effacingly. He has, by the sound of it, been on a bit of a mission of self-discovery since fame came calling a few years ago.
“It was lovely, in lots of ways,” he remembers. “We’d been going seven years and nobody bought any of our records. While we always knew it would happen, when it did, it was a bit of a shock.”
It feels like a long time ago now, but James were massive. Sought after as festival headliners, able to comfortably fill Alton Towers in their own right, and fronted by a man who looked very much like he fancied Bono’s job.
“I’m glad to have experienced it,” Booth says now. “There are some really nice sides to it, like free tickets to gigs and football matches, and getting to meet people you wouldn’t have got to meet otherwise. And then there’s a side where you realise that you are in some sense public property, and I didn’t like that at all.”
That said, Booth denies that their decision to tour America for years and retreat from the bombast of Seven was a deliberate refusal of massive success.
“It was less conscious than that,” he says. “We just didn’t know what to do. We didn’t want to just play stadiums, and we realised we’d never really been to America, so we did that, and had to start playing to 200 people a night again. We didn’t think it through as far as how it would alienate people in Britain, and that was a bit distressing. I’ve been amazed, really, how quickly people have taken to the new record. I thought it would be much harder than it has been.”
Whiplash was Top 10 in Britain, and the first two singles both made the Top 20. Whether Booth likes it or not, the success he evaded the first time may not have given up its pursuit of him.
“I wouldn’t object,” he decides, eventually. “But I’d want to do it differently. And our fans are good for us like that. They’ve always been involved. I mean, there’s a James fanzine that’s been going for many years, and they didn’t like Whiplash at all, and they ran a big editorial lambasting us. Our own fanzine! But that’s absolutely as it should be.”
`Waltzing Along’ is out now on Fontana