With their new album already clocking up sales of 60,000, James are back with a vengeance. Nick Sorre visited co-producer and drummer David Baynton-Power at Foel Studios in Wales.
Sit down and I’ll tell you a story… James have been through a lot of changes in their fourteen year history. As a struggling four-piece, they made an impact on the trendy Manchester scene in the early eighties. They released two EPs on Factory Records between 1983 and 1985, before moving to Sire Records. They contacted Brian Eno in the hope that he would produce their debut album Stutter. Eno was busy, but it wouldn’t be the last he would hear from them.
James left Sire Records in 1988 and recruited drummer and producer David Baynton-Power, as well as a new keyboard player, violinist and trumpeter. The fuller line-up gave James credibility as a live act to be reckoned with. This led to a live album, and James’ signing to Phonogram and the release of Gold Mother which spawned the hits “Sit Down” and “Come Home”. Achieving better and better sales with each consecutive album, 1992’s Seven was a million seller.
An all acoustic tour ensued with Neil Young, which helped the James sound to become further refined. The band didn’t play an electric set for three months. On return from tour, James felt they were ready to re-approach Brian Eno. Having heard demo tapes of material the band were working on, he readily agreed to produce material with James.
The result of six weeks of writing and recording over forty songs was the acclaimed Laid album, released in 1993. At the same time, it earned James the Stateside recognition they had been yearning for.
Where did they go?
Until earlier this year, things had been rather quiet in the James camp. Singer Tim Booth embarked on a project entitled Booth And The Bad Angel with renowned Italian-American composer Angelo Badalamenti, putting him out of James’ composing equation for quite some time. Almost simultaneously, founding member of James, Larry Gott, decided he couldn’t go on touring. Coinciding with a realisation that they owed five years in back taxes, the band were on the verge of splitting. Baynton-Power recalls with posthumous humour that this time was referred to as “Black Thursday”.
Ever undetered, 1995 saw Baynton-Power set up a studio in his North Wales home. The band, with the absence of singer Booth, jammed and reflected, and emerged with a plethora of material, ripe for the renewed collaboration with Brian Eno. The main reasoning behind building the studio was financial. In David’s words…..
“It costs a lot of money to get a band as big as this into a studio, so I suggested that we could do a lot of the preparation in just one room. There’s all the equipment available, which doesn’t cost much to rent. So you can just sit in a house, which has the added benefit of allowing everyone to develop their sounds.”
This was evidently preferable to the standard rehearsal room experience which James have been well accustomed to in the past.
“When you’ve got a load of people banging away in a room there’s often not much interaction, and it just becomes a noise. It sounds great at the time, but then you listen back and can’t decipher what you were trying to achieve.”
To this end, James, and David Baynton-Power in particular became heavily involved in sequencing, initially employing a simple Atari with Cubase set-up, and then adding DA88s to the equation. This technology changed the working process for the band. The methodology of recording to digital multitrack and having the flexibility to edit the best takes into the finished product has been embraced wholeheartedly.
“We just stripped all the multitracks onto the DA88s” says David, “and set it up at home with a couple of samplers, Cubase, and a small mixing desk, and just sifted through the whole lot.”
He goes on to explain the additional advantages of recording every take.
“If someone’s just doodling on guitar or whatever, and you dash into the room saying ‘that’s great, play it again’, the response will be ‘I can’t’, so I guess my role on how the album occurred was to take the approach of getting absolutely everything on tape, and then having the job of piecing it all together to sound like a live recording. Which, essentially, it was.” Perhaps as a consequence, there are definite nods to the dance fraternity on Whiplash, but David maintains that this was not a conscious decision.
“All our albums have been a definite reaction to whatever we’ve done previously” he says. “We just felt comfortable with the ideas we were coming up with, which happened to be dance influenced. We didn’t know how it would turn out, but it just seemed to work.”
In with Eno
The recording of the album was a very natural process for the band. Having been afforded the luxury of spending an abundance of time thrashing out ideas before going into the studio with Eno and co producer Stephen Hague, the result is an album that is enticingly at ease with itself. The production process was equally re!axed; having collaborated with Eno before, Baynton-Power cites the partnership as “ideal, because he doesn’t turn it into an Eno production, he’s more of a guiding force without dominating.”
Eno also appears as main backing vocalist on Whiplash, to which he took a slightly unorthodox approach. Baynton-Power laughingly explains, “He’d just sit at the mixing desk, SM58 in hand, listen to the track and lay down some guide vocals. We ended up keeping a lot of them.”
David employed a similarly spartan approach for miking up his drum kit. His favoured 4-piece Tama kit was often miked with just a stereo pair.
“You just get a much livelier sound. Multiple miking can often sound a bit dead and clinical. You know, you listen back to classic old records with massive drum sounds, and they were recorded with just two mics. The only downside is that you don’t have the control at the mixing stage.”
This raw style of production appears to stem from the unpretentious approach Baynton-Power has to the task. On how he got into production, he simply explains, “I’ve always fucked around with mixers and studios; it’s really not a big deal.” So no top secret effects to get those huge industrial vocal sounds? “Nah,” says David, “That sound on ‘Go To The Bank is just a combination of Tim’s dynamic voice and one of those little Boss compressors.” Intriguing. On the question of which one, the nonchalant reply is “you know, the blue one.”
Top producer Stephen Hague was also involved, but according to Baynton-Power, he had little influence on the final product.
“Stephen was really keen to get involved with Whiplash, but he’s so busy that he didn’t have a whole lot of time to spend on it. And since so much of the groundwork had already been done, his input was limited. Anyway, he didn’t really want to babysit the whole album, he wanted to just pop in and see what was going on.”
David is in the rare position as a drummer to have production skills, and he finds this a major advantage in achieving the sounds he wants. “It’s about ideas really. When you’ve got a specific sound in your head, it’s certainly a bonus to be able to capture it. Instead of having to explain it to five other people, and convince them that it’s a good idea, and then get them to do it.”
Unusually, David records the live drum tracks after much of the other instrumentation has been committed to tape. “On a lot of the tracks, we’d have virtually everything on tape, and I’d just bash away until I get that groove. If you’re recording a guide track live, you might get a good feel, but you won’t be able to recreate it, so I prefer to do it after.”
There are dangers of working in this way, though, which David is fully aware of. Manipulating, sampling, and lots of overdubbing can be detrimental to the live feel which is so vital in James’ music.
“It doesn’t detract from the live feel at all”, he explains, “because what we do is write and rehearse loads of songs together. We all learn our parts, and play it as a band.”
Mastenng the whip
Recording at Foel studios was also an essential element in the mastering stage of Whiplash, as David enthuses. ..
“This is a great place to work, the atmosphere is superb, and the studio has one of the few Trident B desks in the country.” The culled equipment of the band members is installed at the studio, too, and includes some surprisingly modern kit for essentially a guitar based rock band.
Units such as E-mu’s Orbit and the Nord Lead feature heavily on Whiplash, along with the omnipresent samplers, including Akai SlOO0′ s and the E-mu 6400, yet David is a tad sceptical about editing sounds just for the sake of it. “You can fall into the trap of limiting your options. I just find that if you start fiddling around, you can lose the original ideas. It’s far better to stick with the sound you thought was great in the first place. Keep it spontaneous, that’s the key.
“We’ve always used stacks of synths, and we use them on stage, too,” David explains, “and I don’t think the audience realise that there’s a lot of pre- recorded stuff going on too.”
On the subject of tours, James’ recent tour of north America was cut short due to Tim Booth injuring his neck. There were rumours of substitute vocalist Michael Kulas filling the position, which were misconstrued by the press as Booth having left the band to continue his collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti. Patently untrue, of course, but it prompted the cancellations. Booth has fully recovered now and is on top form, if his country and western rendition of ‘Star’ is anything to go by. David has few qualms about the situation though.
“They were only club gigs really. Not many people knew about the tour anyway, and since we’re doing the Lolapalooza gig, and some festivals, people will have a chance to see us at some point.” Also on the bill for Lolapalooza are acts such as the Chemical Brothers, Orbital and the Orb, but David is confident that with the dance inspired meanderings of the Whiplash material, there won’t be a disparity with their show. James are versatile live, too, which stems from their willingness to tryout new material live. This has a number of benefits according to Baynton-Power.
“The thing is, you have the opportunity to hone songs you’re working on in a live environment. You can see the audience’s reaction, you can develop the song even further, and also, hearing the stuff in alive context rather than a rehearsal room is an added bonus. Because you’re playing at high levels and you’ve got huge monitors, the kick drum, for example, is just…” (punches his hand -very hard).
The live arena is of particular importance to James. Their shows are eclectic and highly acclaimed, and the band view touring as essential part of their progression. As David enthuses, “Getting up on stage is just so inspiring. You really lose yourself in it. Then you take the experience back to the studio.”
Keeping himself ever busy, Baynton-Power’s latest project is a female fronted dance-oriented band called Money. Collaborating with some of the members of James, David sardonically describes the project as “making music that we’re probably totally unqualified to make.”
But surely this at odds with the band’s foray into everything dancey? ”
Although we had some dance leanings on Whiplash it wasn’t really deliberate. This latest project is out-and-out dance. Half the band are involved in the project as writers and producers, and it just kind of stemmed from going to parties around here in Wales.”
The Money project were just heading off to Canada for their first clutch of gigs, and David is excited at the prospect:
“It’s really a kind of experiment, with the upcoming gigs we’ll have live guitars and everything, but within a dance act. And we’re funding it all ourselves as well, and we just want see where it goes. If it goes anywhere. It’s quite crossover, and the upcoming gig in Toronto will be mainly a rock audience, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Money is a completely external project to James, but I guess people will use that as a marker.” And some marker that may prove to be…