Ten years ago, there were three bands that really mattered – all from Manchester. The Stone Roses had brought an optimism and Sixties-influenced harmony back to the charts, the Happy Mondays had reintroduced swagger and danger, and James had … well James just busied themselves with crafting a succession of finely-tuned, beautifully weighted pop songs.
“We didn’t really feel part of Madchester,” claims singer Tim Booth, “we weren’t taking the same narcotics really…”
As their contemporaries imploded – victims of egos, substance abuse or their own success – James quietly got on with it, even, with 1993’s Laid breaking America. Through the Nineties they became a kind of pop fixture – a top 40 single here and there, an album now and then – one of those bands that always seemed to be around but never spectacularly so.
Then came last year’s Best Of compilation. Suddenly, it seemed James were cashing in their chips, saying look, here’s the result of 15 years in the charts, here’s 18 songs you know and love and probably didn’t even realise were all by us. Sit down. Enjoy. The album promptly hit Number One and sold more than a million.
“I think it really brought home to people that we are a big band in this country,” Booth says. There’s no trace of arrogance – he simply feels that after a decade and a half, James deserve to be recognised not just a “credible” band but as one that sells a lot of records.
“We’re artistically very ambitious and we’re ambitious in terms of getting through to a lot of people.” He pauses. “I think it’s an old-fashioned point of view now. I think the attitude behind a lot of modern music is that fame justifies everything. The quest for fame in most bands seems totally at the expense of creativity.”
But that’s why it’s called the music business. He laughs: “Well, it suits the record companies – certainly more than bands who have artistic goals.”
When the Best Of came out, it was viewed by many critics as a sign that James were calling it a day. In much the same way that a Lifetime Achievement award can imply there’s no more left to achieve, a Best Of can imply that there’s nothing of quality still to come.
Booth shrugs. The time was just right for that record, he feels, there was nothing further to it.
“By the time the Best Of was out, we already had some more songs written,” he says. “We’re perfectionists, our standards are really high, so we just keep working on the songs and going further and further over budget and trying out different ideas until we get it right.”
The result is the new single I Know What I’m Here For – resonant with the kind of funked up keyboard riff and clear vocals which defined so much of what was good about their Madchester period – and the forthcoming album Millionaires.
“We’ve ended up with a record that’s got five singles on it. It’s very unusual for us.”
Perhaps James have got a taste for million-selling records. Perhaps it’s time Tim became a proper rock star?
“You mean a traditional rock star?” he laughs. “I’ve been given quite a hard time for not being that. Part of my position is reacting to the rock world.
“I mean, it’s an adolescent fantasy. You can have whatever you want – as much sex, as much drugs, as much booze.
“You’re treated like a god and what you don’t realise is that you’ll end up being sacrificed. What I did was learn to develop my own values, otherwise it would have eaten me alive.” There have been changes to the way James work. The traditional creative process – get all of them in a room and jam until something interesting emerges – has been replaced by a more disciplined approach. “This is the first record we’ve ever made where we’ve turned up with chord structures,” says Tim, completely straight-faced. “To us, it’s totally new and original. I suppose to everyone else it’s how things normally work….”
Maybe they will learn how to be a million-selling act.