Suddenly James are back from the indie graveyard. Nigel Williamson talks to singer and former wild man Tim Booth.
This time last year James were so out of fashion they seemed on the point of disintegrating. Yet the end of 1998 finds the former indie champions in the middle of a huge stadium tour after a renaissance year which gave them their first No 1 album in a 15-year career.
There have also been hit singles with Destiny Calling and Runaground, while a remix of 1989’s Sit Down scored all over again, and saw them cavorting on Top of the Pops with Robbie Williams. Their eagerly awaited new album is scheduled for April release and it promises to be as strong as anything they have ever done.
Lead singer Tim Booth is discussing this unexpected turn of fortune over a late breakfast at a converted studio in a former farmhouse in the heart of the Sussex countryside, where the band have spent two weeks rehearsing for the tour. He freely admits that the stories of James’s near break-up are all true and has no problem with the suggestion that they are in line for “Comeback of the Year.” Most artists offered such an accolade would insist that they never really went away.
“We did disappear. We went to America and we didn’t play here for three years so people had a right to be pissed off with us,” he admits.
“We had some very black days but we put out the ‘best of’ album and we turned a corner. It produced a wave of euphoria and it lifted us and the audience. We suddenly got a new lease of appreciation, which definitely fired us up.”
It certainly did. The lacklustre James that made an unpropitious return to Britain at the Reading Festival in August 1997 and the one that gave a performance of quite awesome energy at the Brixton Academy in April this year immediately after they had gone to No 1 might have been two different bands.
Somehow the reminder of their glorious past which the ‘best of’ album provided captured the imagination all over again. “We are one of those bands that gets overlooked because as a frontman I haven’t taken the big rock’n’roll loudmouth role,” Booth says. “We’ve always crept up on people. A couple of the old songs sound dated but, in the main, people were surprised how fresh they sounded. We write songs like German cars – built to last.”
Once revered as leaders of the “Madchester” scene, along with the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, they quite Britain in the early 1990s after the critics savaged their album Seven as pompous and overblown.
“We were steeped in the NME indie myth and then the indie police came looking for our blood,” Booth recalls. “We took it very personally. We were stung by it. That’s why we just buggered off.”
At the time they were one of the most successful bands in Britain, headlining huge venues such as Alton Towers. “We bought all that indie myth that playing stadiums meant you had sold out. So we went to America and the first gigs there were for 200 people. We needed that challenge because we didn’t want to be like Simple Minds and U2. When we finally came back here, we had to prove ourselves again. We are at our best when our backs are against the wall.”
Now the scene has changed, he says, and bands such as Oasis and Pulp have made it cool to play stadiums again. But there have been other more personal changes too. In earlier years Booth’s erratic behaviour was legendary. Wild-eyed and manic on stage, he became a leader for the lost and confused, a turbulent and troubled figure prone to depression and breakdown, at one point joining a religious cult which espoused celibacy. Today he lives contentedly in Brighton with his new wife and his son Ben from a previous relationship.
So has the famously tortured artist found true peace at last?
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” he says. “I have found a contentment in a relationship I’ve never experienced before. It’s really new for me, believing that it will last or that I am allowed such happiness. I’ll always be a neurotic person but I have never swallowed the idea of the tortured artist. The rock’n’roll myth is based on it and it is voracious. There is something fascinating about a person living their life on the edge in the public gaze. As a performer you feel this energy pulling you that way and it’s dangerous. You have to be very strong to find your own centre.”
Booth, who went to drama college with Ben Elton, has also branched out this year into acting with a role in Edward Bond’s Saved at the Bolton Octagon. He is thrilled because he has been nominated as best newcomer in the Manchester Evening News drama awards.
“In my student career I was in a few plays with Ben but I was no good because I had no confidence. I wanted to prove that I could do it, so I went to LA and retrained,” he explains.
Alongside his thespian tendencies, I can’t help noticing that reading matter for the tour includes Simon Heffer’s biography of Enoch Powell and the new Tom Wolfe. So is this a new mature James we are now witnessing? “This is still a very wild band, believe me,” he says. “As night creeps in, a transformation takes place.” Faith restored in their rock’n’roll credentials, it seemed like a good time to take my leave.