He’s the man who inspired Noel Gallagher to start a band, yet the front man of veteran band James is no fan-punching, hotel room-trashing wild man of rock. No, definitely not cool, by any stretch. And yet…
“THEY’RE certainly not cool,” says the James publicist as we wait for Tim Booth, the band’s singer and lyricist, who’s gone out to feed his parking meter. “They’re not cool in any shape or form.”
They may not be cool, but they’ve certainly been around for a while. The Best Of James album, released this week, charts a career which has lasted 16 years, during which time they have had a few notable fans. Morrissey once called them “the best band in the world”, and Noel Gallagher is said to have decided to form a band after witnessing a James soundcheck. Brian Eno, who produced one of their most successful albums has said, “Their best songs rank among the very best of British pop music.”
“No, we’re not cool at all,” laughs Booth, when he returns to the somewhat uncool venue for this interview, which is his sister’s small terraced house in Hammersmith. Booth is currently homeless and looking for a house in Brighton, where his eight-year-old son lives. “You don’t mind if I eat while we’re talking, do you?” he asks, coming back from the kitchen with a bowl of cereal. This is no fan-punching, coke-snorting, hotel room- trashing Wild Man of Rock, but a quietly-spoken model of politeness. And intelligent with it. Definitely not cool at all.
“The whole rock world is based around the myth of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll,” Booth observes over his cereal bowl. “But I think it’s a load of crap. It’s fine for a while, but there’s a point where you have to grow up.”
Booth is 38 and has long been considered in music circles as something of an eccentric, if not a downright crank. In particular, the press have mocked his alternative lifestyle, which takes in a gamut of New Age concepts such as tantric sex (“it should be taught in schools”), primal scream therapy and “shamanistic dancing”, which he teaches to drama students in his time away from the band. He even once spent three years as a follower of a strange, semi-religious cult which enforced celibacy and 26 hours of meditation every week. “I’m into using any method I can to unlock human potential,” says Booth, whose journey along the alternative highway began when he was hospitalised at the age of 22 with an inherited liver disease. Doctors told him there was nothing they could do, so he looked elsewhere for a cure and found it in acupuncture and colonic irrigation. “Once you start investigating in that way, things just turn up,” he says. “‘New Age’ is usually a journalistic term of abuse, but it’s becoming more and more the norm. I mean, the Daily Mail runs articles every day on it.”
He hails from a middle-class background in Wakefield, where his father worked in the wool industry. At the age of 13, he was dispatched to a public school in Shrewsbury, which he “loathed” and he was eventually asked to leave. He worked for a while in a brewery in Tadcaster and then found his way to Manchester University to study drama. Ben Elton was a near-contemporary and directed Booth in a couple of plays. (Later this year, Booth will once again be treading the boards when he appears in Edward Bond’s Saved for two months in Bolton.)
It was at a Manchester disco in 1982 that the other three founder members of James first met him and invited him to join their band, which at that time was called Model Team International. The change of name came shortly afterwards, James being chosen simply for its singular lack of resonance. “We liked it because it gave nothing away,” says Booth. “The first time we did a gig under that name, the promoter put ‘not a poet’ in brackets underneath.”
In their early years, James established a cult following and eked out a living in Manchester on the dole, occasionally supplementing their meagre income with payments for undergoing drug experiments at a local hospital (with the exception of Booth, who was rejected on account of his dicky liver). Only in 1990 did they finally hit the big time, with the release of their fourth album, Gold Mother, which contained the irritatingly catchy hit single, “Sit Down”. At the time, the so-called “Madchester” scene was in full swing and James were right up there with Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and The Stone Roses. They were certainly pretty cool at this point and, along with baggy jeans, the flowery James shirt was an essential fashion item, not to mention an important source of income for the band. Indeed, some cynics have suggested that they sold more T-shirts than they did records. Booth denies this, but he concedes that sales of the T-shirts “kept the organisation afloat”.
Their success was to be short-lived, however. If anything is predictable about James, it’s what Booth calls their “chaotic unpredictability” and their somewhat perverse desire to confound the expectations of their public. Hence, in 1992, their next album, Seven, heralded a new epic sound for the band and it was promptly panned by the critics as “stadium rock”.
The following year, they were back on track with the release of Laid, which broke them in the States, selling 600,000 copies. However, true to form, the follow-up, Wah Wah, a series of “ambient jams” from the Laid sessions, put them back to square one yet again. “Yes, we’ve managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on several occasions,” says Booth laconically.
Things hit rock bottom in 1995, when the band discovered they owed £250,000 in back taxes. A temporary split followed, during which Booth released a solo album. Then last year James bounced back once more with their Whiplash album, which spawned the hit single, “She’s A Star”.
And for once the success appears to be continuing. Early reviews of the Best Of James have been good, while the band’s new single, “Destiny Calling”, entered the charts last week at number 16. The single takes a humorously cynical look at the way the music business treats artists like bubblegum and includes the lines “Cover us in chocolate, sell us to the neighbours, frame us in a video/Clone us in a test tube, sell is to the multitude, guess that’s the price of fame”. Booth considers it realistic rather than cynical, but that’s what all cynics say. “It’s a huge, multi-million-pound industry and I know I’m a commodity,” he says.
His record company’s marketing department recently presented him with a 20-page research document, but marketing isn’t really Booth’s bag. “I read half a page of it and then I conveniently lost it,” he says. “I’m not interested. I never know what chart position we’re at. I only really care in terms of whether it can assure I can make another record.”
With his latest re-emergence, Booth finds himself in the midst of the new Britpop pack, surrounded by callow young wannabes who were barely out of nappies when James were first being hailed as the Next Big Thing. But he isn’t fazed. “We’re a major influence on Britpop,” he says. “I know that because a lot of the bands have come to us and told us. But we aren’t cool enough for them to do it in public,” he adds with a grin.