With a Best Of compilation zooming upthe charts and a brand new album simmering on the stove, James guitarists Saul Davies and Adrian Oxaal are in ebuillent mood, “Our songwriting’s a fairly confused process,” they warn. “It does seem to reap results, though…..”
“Let’s drive the car into the hotel bar and do the interview in there!” James guitarist Saul Davies might be weary from preparing live renditions of James classics Sit Down and Laid for Jo Whiley’s Radio 1 lunchtime programme at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios all morning, but his eyes positively sparkle at the prospect of ram-raiding the band’s Swiss Cottage hotel to create the perfect ambience for a TGM chat. “Didn’t Keith Moon do that in a Rolls Royce?” ponders his six-string colleague, Adrian Oxaal. “Yeah,” affirms Davies, “He drove it straight into the hotel lobby.” “Mmmm” remembers Oxaal, “then he got out and ordered a drink, as if nothing strange had happened…” Davies shakes his head. “That’s cool,” he mutters, struck with admiration for the legendary Who skinsman.
Fortunately for TGM’s police record, the duo decide that a more law-abidingly pedestrian means of gaining access to their swish digs is the best option – and once safely ensconsed in the hotel’s bar, talk turns to their chart-topping singles album The Best Of. Liberally sprinkled with hits from all their previous studio albums – from indie-dance classics Sit Down and Come Home from the breakthrough 1990 album Gold Mother through the galactic slide-heavy refrains of She’s A Star from last year’s Whiplash, The Best Of showcases a band that have been afraid to paddle their own sonic canoe wherever they damn well please.
Given the loyalty of their fans and the consistent sniping of the music critics – ‘folkie vegan Buddhists who caught baggy before they developed messianic stadium rock tendencies’ is about as many of the inaccuracies hurled at James that you could cram into one sentence – Davies was expecting widely diverse opinions about the compilation album. “It shows how stupid we are, though,” he laughs. “Because everyone thinks that now we’ve put out a Best Of, this is the end of the band – but we just wanted to do a singles album. Noone forced us to do it.”
Two new songs were included on the Best Of. One of them – Destiny Calling – sees James rocking with tongue firmly in cheek as they catalogue the comic realities of life in the pop world; the other track Runaground is a deliciously melancholic beast with a tear-inducing signature riff that spirals to a psychedelic conclusion.
“We’ve got 28 songs written for the next album,” reveals Davies.
“Rest assured, though, that you’ll only hear the best ones of those,” chips in Oxaal.
Davies : “Runaground is a fuckin’ serious piece of music. It’s more representative of the stuff that we’re doing at the moment. For me, the sonic melange I’m creating on that track and the lead guitar playing at the end is the best I’ve ever done. It’s simple and a bit unsure of itself, beacuse I didn’t know what I was doing when I played it. It sounds like a cross between New Order and Neil Young.”
“I quite like what I did on Destiny Calling,” counters Oxaal, “particularly the main riff and the lead solo. We tried doing it a different way to the way we did the original version in the studio and I came up with something really good. It’s nice when that happens – when you don’t have to struggle for inspiration.”
Collectively James have written galaxies of songs – yet the duo themselves still find it quite hard to fathom out their own songwriting process. “From my perspective,” proffers Oxaal, “it either comes out of nowhere or it rises from us having a jam together.”
Davies nods. “Our songwriting is a fairly confused process from anyone on the outside, and even to ourselves a lot of the time,” he admits. “It does seem to reep results, though….”
“One thing I’ve noticed recently is that early James songs were based on two-chord progressions. Then it moved to three-chord progressions – Come Home, Sit Down, How Was It For You? Since Laid, there have been more four-chord progressions and these progressions tend to follow fairly obvious intervals.” “E, A and B basically” chuckles Oxaal. “Yeah,” Davies elaborates, “but because there’s a lot of us and we have a fairly instinctive and musical approach, it sounds quite complex.”
This simple-but-deep musical approach is lost on many, including vocalist Tim Booth. “He hasn’t got a clue!” proclaims Davies. “During a song we’ll often play inversions of the basic chords and he’ll think we’re playing totally different chords and so he comes up with different vocal melodies. During a rehearsal he’ll say things like ‘Go back to the bit where you changed chords,’ and we’ll just laugh and go ‘We didn’t change them, you tit!'”
Oxaal only joined James a couple of years ago during the recording of Whiplash when the commitment of original guitarist Larry Gott was coming under question. Before his elevation to the major league, Oxaal played with indie hopefuls Sharkboy; he nabbed himself the James job because he and Davies (who himself joined James prior to Gold Mother in 1990) were childhood friends and had played together as teenagers in a pubescent combo called King Cobra and the River Men (‘I can’t remember any of the songs we wrote, thankfully,’ Oxaal laughs.) In those days, mind, Davies played drums. He credits Oxaal with teaching him to play guitar. “We used to go busking together in our hometown Hull. The thing was, I could only play the things Adrian taught me how to play – I couldn’t play anything else.” He shakes his head in disbelief. “It took me years to make that connection. It did!”
Both Saul and Adrian still hold Larry Gott in very high esteem. “I was always in complete awe of Larry – I hated picking up a guitar in front of him,” opines Davies. “He was a very special guitar player with a great ear for sonic activity.”
“How he managed to create the guitar part at the beginning of Sound will always be a mystery to me,” enthuses Oxaal. “It was something very unique to him.”
“I don’t know how he did that either,” admits Davies. “I think it was a combination of his guitar, his fingers and where he positioned his e-bow…..”
At this point in the proceedings the scene in the hotel bar is swelled by Michael Kulas, the Canadian backing vocalist who joined James a year or so ago (just to add to the confusion, Michael also plays guitar on some of the new tracks). How do the three split the post-Gott guitar roles? It turns out that although both Davies and Oxaal have strong improvisational skills, only Oxaal is capable of remembering what he comes up with. “I’m great at coming up with stuff when we’re jamming, but I always end up having to ask these two what it was I actually did,” Davies smiles ruefully.
Kulas, who wrote the intro riff to Runaground, describes his own guitar style as “very modal. I like running riffs of open strings in a twangy style. I also try and adapt to these two, because they have their own very different slant on guitar playing.”
Davies: “Basically, Adrian’s riff man…”
Kulas: “He feels it through the bottom of his freakin’ toes man. He’s got guitar coming through him.”
“I’m kind of ‘Byrds sonic boy,’ continues Davies. “And Mike’s ‘atmospheric sonic boy’. Mike’s very intellectual about his playing. Adrian’s a complete idiot, til you put a guitar in his hands….” “Not true!” objects Kulas, but Davies is already launched on his punchline. “Me though – I’m a complete idiot regardless of whether I’ve got a guitar in my hands or not.”