After 15 remarkable years, numerous line-up changes and countless highs and lows, James are back. Pat Reid sits down to meet the survivors.
Tim Booth, singer with James, has got amazing eyes. Penetrating yet sympathetic, suggestive of both sharp intelligence and playful humour, they sum up the band far better than those best-selling “Ja” t-shirts you saw everywhere in the late 80s. With a new Best Of album to promote, Tim, along with guitarist/violinist Saul Davies, is on the interview treadmill in a London hotel. The pair’s personalities are contrasting, but oddly complementary. Tim is gentle, Saul is aggressive. Tim’s agenda is mystic and spiritual; shade-wearing Saul talks about “beer and tarts”. What they both have in common is a passion for James.
The band formed in Manchester in the late 80s, releasing weird indie-folk records and supporting The Smiths on tour. After years of struggle, they broke through in 1991 with the anthemic Sit Down single and the successful Gold Mother album. In 92 a critical backlash unfairly dismissed the fine Seven album as “pomp rock”, but the following year the Brian Eno-produced Laid made inroads for the band in America. After experimenting with electronic music, James returned last year with the strong Whiplash album, yielding the hits She’s A Star and Tomorrow.
Now, with the ‘Best Of’ album setting the seal on their past efforts, it seems an appropriate time to ask: how did all this get started? Tim’s EYES SPARKLE AS he thinks back to 1982: “Three 17 year-old scallies from Manchester saw me dancing in a nightclub while they were stealing my beer. When I went and confronted them they asked me to join.” The main thing Tim remembers from the band’s earliest performances is fear. James were petrified of playing live. And not only that, their own audience was distinctly heavy. “They had a fanbase of the 40 most aggressive people in Manchester,” Tim grins. “It was scary.”
The first few James gigs were supporting Orange Juice, then came the real test -Manchester’s Cyprus Tavern, by all accounts a bit of a hellhole. “About 40 people just sat there with their arms folded,” Tim recounts. “Giving me a real fucking stare. They were mates of Danny, the previous singer, who’d ended up in Strangeways for GBH, and they didn’t like some middle class student taking over his position…”
For Saul, the call to take up with James followed an eerily sirnilar pattern. “It was totally by mistake,” he insists. “I was in a club in Manchester on player’s night with these arses playing 12 minute guitar solos. Larry, the original guitar player in James, came up to me and said ‘Get up there, have a go’:’ It was another one of those portentous accidental encounters which so enliven musical history… “I don’t know why he did that,” Saul says, still bemused. “I’d never met him before and I didn’t know James at all.” In the event, Saul got up on stage and rattled off a one-note violin solo. A suitably entertained Larry invited him along to a rehearsal the next day. As the band improvised and Saul joined in, he had the distinct feeling that he was being auditioned: “I wasn’t taking it seriously,” he insists. “I thought they were pretty crap really.”
However, a week later when Saul was on stage with the band while an admiring Morrissey swooned in the wings, his impressions underwent a rapid re-evaluation. Not much of a fan of the music of the time, he had a crash course in the late ’80s Manchester scene. “James had taken the Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays on tour. When I joined, our support band was Inspiral Carpets. Suddenly I had a quick history lesson in what James was and what its place was.”
At this time, the band had been a cult attraction for five years, but had been unable to translate their popularity into commercial success. By 1989 they were so skint that they were reduced to testing drugs at a local hospital to pay for rehearsals. “We all went on the Enterprise Allowance scheme,” Saul says. “They gave you 40 quid a week to set up your own business, 17 quid more than if I was on the dole. But within a year we played at Free Trade Hall in Manchester, which holds about 1800, and it was sold out. It started to bubble up in Manchester, until by 1992 it became massive, and then we played Alton Towers to 35,000.”
CERTAINLY, WHEN SAUL JOINED in February 1989, James were about to enter a golden period. Hit singles and critical acclaim were their lot. That is, until the press turned against them. Today, Tim no longer reads their reviews. “1 know how the machine works too well,” he explains wearily. “and I just get tired of it. I decided four years ago not to read any more reviews of James. When Seven started getting very bad reviews it affected the new people a lot because all they’d had was real positivity. We became terrified of making anything that sounded ‘pompous’ -on some journalist’s definition of what that meant -so I found it a very negative influence on the band. You go back to Seven now, it’s a great record.”
It is indeed. But then, despite the detractors, James always have been touched with greatness. This is, after all, a band who won their first hardcore audience by resolutely upstaging an outfit as legendary as The Smiths on the Meat Is Murder tour.
“We’ve been an amazing live band,” Saul argues. “Which is why I hate it when we get slagged. Our Reading performance got slagged and we were brilliant. We were up against Cast and Suede and we were the only band that got everybody going. That’s what we do 30,000 people having a fucking good time.”
JAMES MAY HAVE CARVED a reputation as a near-definitive live band, but last year, Tim confesses, he lost the urge to perform. However, recording an acoustic set for joint release with the “Best Of’ compilation helped relight his fire. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he recounts happily. “It was very improvised. I told stories in between songs, just like the old days.” James songs do tend to accumulate a certain anecdotal weight over the years.
Like the woman who ran a mental hospital telling Tim that Out To Get You (from Laid) was the inmates’ favourite song. Or the refugees from a weird cult in the states who had a soft spot for Seven… “These kids had been born into a religious cult,” Tim confides, “they broke out when they were about 14. Born Of Frustration was their breakout song. They felt it gave them the strength to do it.” Wow. Obviously Tim’s devotion to spiritual matters really works for some listeners. It’s this desire to truly touch people that makes James so cherishable. “Obviously Sit Down did it on a mass scale,” Tim continues. “We went into hospitals and sang that song to a kid in a coma. A lot of people who’d had bereavements wrote to us and told us that it was their favourite song.” Saul’s thoughts on the band’s most famous song are characteristically sharp: “Sit Down obviously is part of popular culture,” he says.
WHICH BRINGS US TO the 18-track “Best Of’ offering which should restore the band’s place in the hearts of the populace. If Crowded House hadn’t already used it, ‘you know more James songs than you think you do’ would be an appropriate tag. “There’s 14 top 40 hits on it,” Saul says “and two new songs which I think will be successful. The second single, Runaground, will probably be our biggest since Sit Down. Everyone who hears it goes ‘Fuck, it’s gorgeous’.” Of course, in the reference books, James sit resplendent in fine company, sandwiched between The Jam and blues hero Elmore James. So do they ever sneak into WH Smiths and proudly survey their page in the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles?
“No, I’ve never done that,” Saw replies. “But the other day we were looking up to see who’d sold the most records. Up to 1989 The Beatles had sold 1.2 billion records. Then we read that Paul McCartney has 39 gold discs and I thought, Wait a minute – I’ve got nine!” He cracks a cheeky grin: “That’s not bad.” Tim prides himself on the band’s consistency over the years: “Even when the albums have failed as wholes,” he says, “you can see the integrity.”
What have been his highlights so far? “When we did the live video at G-Mex 1 remember thinking it was actually perfect. It summed up everything I wanted us to sum up. Laid was an amazing thing, just to work with Brian (Eno). And to tour with Neil Young in America. To have Neil Young’s respect at the same time as Brian Eno… We felt that was our kind of peer.” Tim tells a touching tale from the Laid sessions. While recording Sometimes, Eno had never heard the completed chorus. When Tim reached that part of the song the producer was clearly moved… “We get to the chorus and I sing ‘Sometimes when I look deep in your eyes I can see your soul’. I was looking at him when I sang it and he nearly fell over. He slumped into a chair and sat there with his eyes closed. At the end he said, ‘That was one of the musical highlights of my life’:’ Now that’s a compliment.
So, if Tim could go back and meet himself 16 years ago as the ride was just beginning, what advice would he give himself? “Relax,” Tim says simply. “Enjoy it.” By his own admission, the singer has often felt “too responsible” to simply have a good time in the band. Additionally, James have always been perceived as rather moral – and not at all hedonistic – figures. Tim argues that this is more a reflection of his lyrics thanan accurate view of his fellow James-ers. “They would much prefer to be seen as a hedonist band. James are like The Happy Mondays a lot of the time, and I’ve toured with The Happy Mondays, I’m not exaggerating.”
So how come we don’t know about it?
“We don’t tell the press,” Tim says, twinkling again.