JAMES have been here before – on the verge of world-slaying success and then – doh! – their credibility-lovin’ frontman goes and spoils it all. So, can they make it a second time around with their new ‘Best Of…’ riding high? Read on…
Silently, without a stir to harm the karmic solemnity, we enter the meditation chamber. We step over a prone drummer, slumpled against the wall, deep in spiritual communion with his inner child. Beyond him lie a bassist and his girlfriend locked motionless in an ancient configuration that the druids called ‘spoons’. Further into the darkness we can make out the figure of a guitarist balanced torturously across two plastic chairs as if, through the enlightening quality of extreme discomfort, he may levitate at any moment.
In ten minutes’ time they will be called upon to offer up three songs in sacrifice to the Dali Jools Holland as part of his eternal televised quest to bore Britain into some kind of jazz-based righteousness. But first, they must be fully prepared in body, mind and spirit.
Yes, after getting heartily ripped to the tits on champagne and jazz fags the night before, James are having a kip. Bless.
But they are not complete. In his own separate dressing room deep in the bowels of BBC Television Centre, Tim Booth readies himself in isolation, far from the soul-polluting forces of cigarette smoke and decent conversation. Perhaps he’s reciting a mantra for one of the group, wire-framed guitarist Saul Davies, who cannot rest. He paces the corridors, seeking more booze, driven and twisted by the terrible secret that haunts his every waking moment. For Saul, unbeknownst to his slumbering band mates, has today revealed James as evil, manipulative fakers of Milli Vanilli proportions.
“When I wrote ‘Destiny Calling’,” he admits furtively, “I just stuck a capo on the guitar and played ‘She’s a Star’ twice as fast. When Tim started coming up with his ideas for the lyrics having a go at the music business I started pissing myself. He doesn’t know this, but that song is actually a very clinical piece of marketing. It’s recycling.”
He sighs and swigs, eyes skyward.
“If Linda were still with us, she’s be proud.”
EXPOSED! EX-BAGGIES in hit swap cash con! So James’ cocky, self-defacing satire anthem aimed at the cynicism of production line pop is actually less original than ‘Theme From Cleopatra’! Triple bluff! Game, set and match to the elf-faced cocktail god!
But then, nothing is what is seems in Jamestown. NME arrived at BBC HQ ready to toast the valadiction of some of Britain’s most dogged survivors and underrated triumphalists. A band who sniffed the big shorts of stadium USA, cracked under the pressure of terminal uncool, almost bickered themselves out of existence and then clawed their way back to Number One thanks to a startlingly fresh comeback album (last years ‘Whiplash’) and enough ‘Greatest Hits’ to stun a rabid buffalo. A band who have just completed a sold-out Big Sheds tour to the rapturous acclaim of mobile phone salesmen across the nation. A band only a few feet short of being on top of the world again. And climbing.
Instead we find ourselves chairing an internal debate that makes the Northern Ireland peace talks look like the Jo Whiley TV show. Just when James should be at their most ambitious, assured and elated we find them riven with insecurity and indecision, awash with the same frictions that forced them to spend the four years after the 1993 ‘Laid’ tour as far from each other’s armpits as possible. And it’s all Perry Farrell’s fault.
“Lollapalooza fucked us bad,” Saul recalls of last year’s US festi-jaunt. “The lid came off the things we’d been keeping the lid on for an easy life. Fundamentally, it’s avery difficult band to keep together. A lot of our problems come down to Tim. He’s a fucking alien. He can be such an arse sometimes when there’s no need and only an alien would do that. But he’s not always at fault and when he applies himself he’s got a good voice.”
Jim Glennie, sly-smiling bassist and one-man eyebrow crop, touches his arm.
“We’re seen as these yogic flyers,” Saul continues, “but I’m not, Jim’s not, Tim is. And Tim is James, publicly. I can’t stand it sometimes. The way he represents us is so one-dimensional.”
It’s a fame thing, a dream thing, an ambition thing, a fear thing and – in one particular case – a large dose of New Age hippy bullocks thing. And it has built barriers, driven stakes and opened chasms withing James in the past few months. And so, adopting our most slimy Tony Blair smile, we split the People’s Republic Of James into its various camps and hit the peace-keeping trail. First stop, Camp Michael…
I WENT TO THIS GROOP Dogdrill party,” Saul grins, plunging his filter coffee, “and they had bucking bronco women with their arses in the air. You get on them and you like you’re fucking this thing. I lasted for what seemed like an eternity, but I was told later that it was a second. So par for the course, really. Then they had an ice torse and they were pouring vodka into it so you had to wrap your gums around this ice cock. It was great!”
Camp Michael gathers around a hotel breakfast table in Swiss Cottage and proceeds to celebrate itself. The generals-in-chief are Saul and Jim, but they speak largely for the rest of the ground troops (brooding keyboardist Mark Hunter, affable drummer David Baynton-Power, balloon haired guitarist Adrian Oxaal and fresh-faced new boy guitarist Michael Kulas). These are men of extravagance and excess, men who are proud of their peccadilloes “but only the unmentionable ones”. They plot to bag as many free World Cup tickets as possible, shudder with the previous night’s hangovers and consider George Michael as the patron saint of their wild-living cause.
“It just reflects people’s narrow-mindedness, ” says Jim. “If it goes against society’s judgements and society’s rules then you go to a public toilet and get a buzz out of doing something like that. It’s seedy and scummy but that’s sex! It’s fucking great! It’s a reflection of society, not him.”
The polarities in James, however, reach far deeper than their stances on public Jodrells. For the first time since the early-’90s they’re faced with their fundamental crisis point again. The point where Madam Unit Shifter lifts her skirts to reveal a world of unlimited fame and possibility, of magastardom beyond their admittedly pretty wild dreams. And, frankly, it scares James shitless.
Last time, after the Simple Mindish bluster of ’92’s ‘Seven’ blasted them to within howling distance of the mega-league and ‘Laid’ became a bona fide stonk-on hit Stateside, they almost purposely bullocksed it up for themselves. They headlined Reading with an acoustic version of ‘Sit Down’ and a handful of songs they’d written the week before. They argued and fractured, the opposing ambitions in the group brought to the fore by thir fear of failure and success, the risk of losing credibility if they made the big push or sliding back into car mechanics if they didn’t.
A five-year stint in the wilderness later and Fame rears its ugly yet strangely alluring head once more. A Number One ‘Best Of…’ compilation. A fan-base moshing like your mam on trucker speed to all their fave stude classisc. The distant call of Wembley. An abyss, but the bunjee rope looks firm. Fancy a plunge James?
“I was trying to have a conversation with some of the band about how we’re gonna approach the next album,” Saul muses, “but they couldn’t take the idea that we just go for it, that we could really do something on this album that we haven’t been in the position to do since ‘Seven’. Instead of fourth on the festivals next year, we could be headlining, won’t have to share a dressing room with Space. We could probably make a record with 12 singles on it. Personally, I think it’s time to hammer it home.”
“We’ve always shied away from situations like this,” Jim continues, “turned inward and done something weird. We’ve done that sidestep too many times. Doing the bleedin’ obvious for us is so different. It’s like, ‘Do ‘Sit Down’ last? Can’t we do two really quiet ones after it?’ ‘WHY? Give them what they want! They’re gonna go out the door buzzing like bastards! That’s unusual for us.”
“It’s gonna cause conflict on the next tour,” says Saul with trepidation. “A lot of people are gonna drag mates along to Wembley going, ‘They were AMAZING last time!’ and they’re gonna hear a new album that may be quite weird.”
And here we reach the crux. To shit cash or not to shit cash? To get caught soggy and satisfied with your metaphorical pants down in public, giggling like an extremely rich hedonistic rock pig, or to live a worthy and limited career and gain belated respect when you inevitably pass away having achieved arse all. James, you see, are caught in the wide and hazy gap between George Michael and the lovely Lady Linda.
Jim drops his head and considers this ridiculous and ill-conceived concept for a second.
“Basically, yeah,” he decides eventually. “You’re spot on.”
“THAT WAS REALLY SAD actually,” Tim Booth whispers in his delicate half-lisp, crouched praying mantis-like on his chair. “It really caught my breath. She’s one of the people, like Diana, who tried to use the position they were in to actually do something, and that has to be commended. I was really upset. That sweet woman was here.”
In Camp McCartney, all is serene. Tim Booth carries his own atmosphere of calm around him, talks like a hypnotist in full swing and has the solid gaze of someone who has brushed past The Other Side (he died for a few seconds from a liver disease aged 22) and come out smelling of tofu. You are the closest to a Linda McCartney figure we have left, aren’t you?
For nearly a minute he laughs. Then pauses. Weighs up the correct response for a clear conscience.
Oh, come on, pal. You champion vegetarianism, don’t do drink or drugs, dabble in arts beyong your immediate shere (to wit: his forthcoming appearance in controversial slapstick child abuse caper Saved in Bolton) and, publicly, at least, you come across as a bit of a characterless hippy-dippy space cadet.
“I commend your bravery,” Tim glistens. “Hmm… Hmm… I don’t care to answer that. I don’t need to defend myself. I don’t fit and I don’t intend to fit. To me it isn’t just about success, it’s about how you carry it and how you live it. In most people’s cases it’s a cancer not a cure, it’s a nightmare not a dream. Most people cannot deal with it. That’s the challenge. Can you carry that energy? There’s a vortex to it. It’s litterally a twister and you have to respect it and have discipline. You have to be disiplined enough to be free.”
And he’s off, spiralling unprompted into internal discussions of Glenn Hoddle’s faith healer, his teachings of ‘ecstatic dance’ in Manchester, his former lives as Roman gladiators and humble beasts of the field blah blah oooohhmmm. It’s a little like being stopped by an Oxford Street monk who doesn’t want to sell you his guru’s book for 50p and wouldn’t much like you in his cult, to be honest. But, in describing his torturous inductions into Shamanism, he does eventually attain a mild state of pertinence.
“You have to really face your dark side,” he hisses, “your disowned self. You have to go onstage in front of a hundred people and act our your darkest secrets. It’s a good way of blasting anything you’re ashamed of. People can no longer kill you with those statements. ‘You’re a fake, you’re full of shit’. Yeah? Well I remember sitting on a stage in San Fransisco with a bag full of shit, bringing it out and covering it on my body going, ‘I’m full of shit’. How can you hurt me more than that?”
And thus NME’s sarky piss-taking slides from his back like water from the immortal mongoose of enlightenment. The twat. Still, such techniques can’t help relations within James, can they? Doesn’t your method of attacking your inner demons face on increase the tension?
“I like to plunge in and confront and that isn’t always the right thing to do,” Tim admits. “We’ve had some tense fucking times and it’s been the worst we’ve ever had in the past couple months. Survival is the key. I have quite a wild fury and my spiritual path is not about being a nice Christian person who turns the other cheek. Uh-oh, no fucking way. I’m not into revenge because revenge is no good for me.”
Saul says you’re an alien. Do you ever feel like that?
“Because I’m an alien.”
“I think the others blame me partly for holding them back before,” he continues, “and that invented a lot of anger. Saul has a really conscious awareness of marketing and I have a real fear of losing integrity. Those are two polarities. For now, I’m in the minority. They aren’t incompatible. Part of the excitement is the contradiction.”
Trouble is, Tim is the contradiction in James. As his band mates are slavering to capitalise on the glory of being the New Beautiful South, to race into the first class cabin of life and drown themselves in top booze, to live out their days as credibility-free but extremely rich and happy rock sluts for ever, Tim steps back, respects “the vortex”, measures his strength and worthiness to tackle it and then pisses off to Lancashire for two months to be an actor.
Meanwhile, the back-stepping has already begun. James’ new single ‘Runaground’ – the second of the two songs specially written for the ‘Best Of…’ LP – is a slow-burning alienation epic that is simultaneously their boldest and least commercial single since ‘Hymn From A Village’. And it was almost the new ‘Candle in the Wind’.
“I wrote most of that lyric on the day that Diana died,” Tim confides. “I thought of it that way, but God knows how the others would have reacted to that! But really it’s about the fact that I used to have relationships and leave a door open.”
And it is with an exit clearly signposted that we leave James hanging in the balance of their own contradictions once more. We may next see them through a flash of firework smoke from the far side of Shea Stadium or through the flames of an overcooked cheesburger across a fast food counter in Barnsley. But rest assured, we will see them again.
“We’ll carry on,” Jim states from the nerve centre of Camp Michael. “As long as people keep listening to it we’ll keep doing it. One day we’ll get up and it won’t be there any more. I don’t know what won’t be there, but we’ll just go ‘It’s gone, hasn’t it? Yeah it has. See ya’. It’s therapy being in this band, it really is.”
“Yeah,” Saul interrupts, “but a really dodgy type of therapy. You get charged loads to do it and it doesn’t really work but you think it’s doing you good. And everyone still tells you you’re a prick.”
Thus saying, Saul has not the slightest inclination to prick himself with hundreds of pins in front of an audience of baying Buddhists. Vive la difference…