The also-rans became most-likely-tos when 1998’s Best Of compilation saw James scale unexpected chart heights. Suddenly the pressure’s on and the fault-lines are groaning within the most loosely bound band in Britain. “We lurch from one disaster to another,” they tell David Cavanagh.
If you squint hard enough at the Biarritz sea front, it’s just possible to make out the ghosts of Marcello Mastroianni and an incognito starlet in dark glasses and a white headscarf. Pursued by paparazzi, they are strolling to the restaurant for discreet cocktails ´ deux in the shadow of the white, five-star hotel and the casino. Then they’re gone. As the century ends, however, the famous French resort has a touch of the Southends about it. The hotel is now battered and cream-coloured, and the ritz of Biarritz wanes in comparison to the cachet of Cannes and the nightlife of Nice. The only invariant is the gluey and laser-like midday sun.
Among the party of Englishmen lunching al fresco opposite the topless beach, the talk is of another bygone age: the 1970 Isle Of Wight rock festival, which two of these men attended. Little Saul Davies, aged five at the time, was taken there by his parents. Peter Rudge, who was 23, worked for The Who. Later that year, Mick Jagger invited him to manage the Rolling Stones. As one can imagine, Rudge’s stories have an unfair advantage over those of his younger companions.
These days, Rudge is the manager of James, an unpredictable and enduring band whose fluctuating fortunes bring out his black comedy side. “I have this saying about James,” he confides. “They lurch from one disaster to another.” Saul Davies, now 34, is the group’s violinist, second guitarist and increasingly prominent creative force. James have never had a songwriter before — their music has always emerged from lengthy and democratic jamming processes — but on their new album, Millionaires, Davies has come to the fore as the key writer and catalyst.
Far from resenting this threat to the group’s equilibrium, his colleagues have given him their full support. As singer Tim Booth explained in the sleevenotes of last year’s Best Of “Whoever has the energy and drive leads the band until someone else is inspired and takes over.” On their 1997 album, Whiplash, it was drummer Dave Baynton-Power and bassist Jim Glennie who took control. Unlike most groups that succeed and stay the course, James are at once rudderless and devolved.
The Best Of (which sold a million copies and spent several weeks at Number 1) has been a hard act for them to follow. Although the compilation confirmed James as a topline singles act, it’s intriguing to discover just how many of its songs were conceived as potential singles: precisely none. Millionaires, on the other hand, has five and possibly six singles on it, which will keep the band in the public eye long into the year 2000. There is great deal riding on the album. Mercury, James record company, has held back its release until September to prevent it clashing with their aggressively marketed Texas album. But as the The Hush is already underperforming, the onus is on Millionaires to be the autumn’s big money-spinner. It’s a far cry from Whiplash two years ago.
THE LAZIEST RECORD James have ever made (according to Booth), Whiplash suffered from poor intra-band relations — Booth was working concurrently on an album with Angelo Badalamenti — and from the departure of guitarist Larry Gott, the group’s imperturbable mediator and father figure. Whiplash was supposed to grab back the American audiences James had wooed by means of conscientious touring three years earlier, while keeping their British fans on board at the same time. But as Rudge says: “You cannot write, record, produce and mix a record that’s going to be successful on Radio 1 and K-ROQ. They’re two different cultures. James missed the boat — they went totally UK. And Whiplash suffered as an album because of it. It sold shit.”
The single She’s A Star was a Top 10 hit in Britain, but three dates into a US tour, Booth hurt his neck and the remaining concerts were cancelled. Now, like Pulp, James don’t sell any records outside their homeland. “It’s the dilemma of most British bands,” Rudge notes. “Because inevitably you burn out the British market.” If The Best Of was a death-or-glory release, well, at least James are still alive. Everybody is friends again and sunning themselves in Biarritz, the Mercury budget just stretching far enough to enable the seven musicians to pose for promotional photos at this dissipated lido, in honour of an album tide that is both boastful and wistful; cocky and ironic. Millionaires? James are still considerably unrecouped.
NINE MONTHS before The Best Of restored the confidence Whiplash had undermined, James started work on the new album while travelling around America in two buses on the Lollapalooza tour. Dismissed as “faggots” by audiences that had come to watch Tool, they began to drink more and more. “Everybody got wrecked day and night,” recalls Booth. “We were meant to be writing the next record, so I’d go round each day going: Anyone want to do some writing? About once a week Saul would be sober — he was the only one sober in that whole period — so I’d drag him into the back of the bus for a couple of hours.” They wrote Destiny Calling and Runaground, which would appear on The Best Of, and a track called I Defeat, subsequently jammed into shape at RAK Studios in London. One of two songs from that period to feature Sinead O’Connor on vocals, I Defeat would narrowly miss the cut for Millionaires. The other song was luckier: Vervacious, jammed in Wales towards the end of 1997, was willed and bullied into being by Baynton-Power, who sat down with a multi-track digital editor and turned 20 minutes of exploratory sound into something cohesive and magical.
“We’ve always jammed,” Davies explains. “Nobody’s ever brought even a chord sequence into the room. It’s always served us really well — we’ve had no trouble making records — but it’s inefficient if everybody is spread around the country.” Indeed, the members of James have homes in England, Scotland and Wales. In December, as the snows came, all the equipment ended up at Davies’s house in Scotland, where, bored and ambitious, he wrote the first of 15 pieces of music on his own. James’s backing singer and occasional guitar player, Michael Kulas, who lives with Davies, cannot recall him having doubts about submitting these ideas to his bandmates. In fact, Davies was extremely worried about what the others would think, since it challenged the very ethos of James. “We thought jamming was the bees’ knees,” says Booth. “It meant that we wrote songs differently from everybody else and it was a part of our character. And we defended our character to the death. We thought it was a precious entity that needed protecting.”
Lead guitarist Adrian Oxaal, who replaced Gott in 1997, remarks: “Occasionally, they’ll talk about the old days and it’s funny to hear how naive and purist — and how committed — the attitude was. There’s more pragmatism in the band these days.”
Davies took his musical sketches to the Leeds home of Mark Hunter, the group’s modest and reticent keyboard player. Like Davies and Baynton-Power, Hunter joined James in 1989, and the three men have tended to function as a close-knit unit ever since. Until recently, they were paid wages by the group’s senior caucus of Booth, Glennie and Gott. When Gott left, the power structure of James was exposed as an anachronism (“Decisions were patently being made elsewhere by other members of the band,” Davies observes) and as of this year, for the first time, the Class Of 1989 have become equal partners with Booth and Glennie.
The choice of producer was Brian Eno, who had helped James make Laid and its experimental sister record, Wah Wah, in 1993. Eno is particularly highly thought of by Booth, and is credited with prodigious gifts of coordination and organisation by almost everyone in the James camp. Eno, however, could find only an eight-week window in his schedule. Just as work got underway at Hook End Manor in Berkshire in July 1998, Glennie started receiving anxious phone calls from Davies. “I said, Saul, we trust you and we’re there if you need us,” Glennie relates. Booth adds: “When you join a band, for the first two years you’re paranoid that you’re going to be kicked out. I certainly was — and I know that some of the others have felt the same. For Saul to step out of the block, I think, was psychologically quite difficult for him.”
Drinking lager outside a French café, Glennie admits he made little contribution to Millionaires. He and Adrian Oxaal seem to have been used the least, and as a result Glennie listens to the album with mixed feelings. “The Eno way of working didn’t get the best out of Adrian,” he says. “Michael’s perfect for it. He’ll sit there all day, not needed, smiling enthusiastically, on the edge of his seat, with guitars and various instruments round him. Eno goes, I need a bit of keyboards. Mike’s there. With Adrian it’s, We need a bit of guitar. Oh, I think Adrian’s either asleep or in the pub. He’s not a workhorse, not a jack of all trades; he’s a master of one. You stick him in front of an amp and give him a guitar and a wah-wah, and he’s a fucking genius.”
Like Oxaal, Kulas — an amusing and self-assertive Canadian — was brought into James by his friend Davies. Kulas can play a variety of instruments and will almost certainly increase his role on future James albums. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation,” he says of recording with the band. “It’s expected that at certain times somebody has to step up to bat for the team. Do a guitar part, or a bit of backing vocals, or whatever it takes to push it into a new area.”
One of Eno’s strengths is that he can see ways to move a song forward in both a linear and subversive fashion. Davies enthuses: “Eno is good at twisting a song, injecting some oddity that will allow you to still have a valid pop song but make it a bit weird.” Sure enough, on a song called If Anybody Hurts You (which was earmarked early on as one of the album’s set pieces), Eno corralled Davies and Oxaal to make up a two-man orchestra. “Adrian plays cello and I play violin,” Davies explains, “and Eno came up with this mad melody line. We recorded about thirty-six passes of Adrian and me being marshalled by Eno, who was standing there conducting, wearing a mad hat, with a banana sticking out the front of his trousers, going, This is giving me the horn! This is giving me the horn!”
However, when Eno’s egg-timer ran out, the album was very much unfinished. (“Not even 50 per cent there,” Rudge calculates.) Glennie wouldn’t have picked Eno in the first place. “We needed a nuts and bolts man,” he says. “Eno’s not like that. Eno comes in and farts about for an afternoon, sprinkles oofle-dust and disappears for a couple of days.”
Post-Eno, the album became irritatingly hard to complete. “We’d been relying on the captain, and the captain was man overboard,” says Booth. “The ship drifted for a while.” Some songs remained unrecorded because Eno hadn’t liked them. A tune called Afro Lover was produced by Faithless, and Steve Osborne rerecorded the song that everyone in James and at Mercury presumes will be the biggest hit of them all. A luminous ballad entitled Fred Astaire, it’s the album’s second single.
By the end of 1998, as James toured indoor arenas playing critically acclaimed greatest hits sets, things were overrunning and inertia loomed. “We’re not the hardest working band in the world,” Davies concedes. “We were in a rehearsal room for ten days before the tour, playing for an hour a day. Fucking lazy bastards. The crew were threatening walkouts if we didn’t work.”
FEBRUARY 1999, Metropolis Studios, West London. Booth is alone save for an engineer, working on a song called Confusion. It is sung in the voice of a man itemising his sexual conquests, of which he has made a list. In one verse he sleeps with a mother and a daughter in combination. Booth doesn’t rate the song and it will not be included on the album.
He decides to break for dinner. We walk to a nearby restaurant where Booth, serenely and persuasively, explains that he wants a takeaway. We are a restaurant, sir, they reply; we do not do take-aways. He protests politely. Minutes later, the restaurateur has instigated a takeaway service for one night- and one customer-only, wrapping the sumptuous food in tinfoil. On the way back to the studio, Booth points out the headquarters of the Ballet Rambert.
“Tim is not a rock star in the traditional sense,” Rudge will say fondly. “Rock isn’t his life. I think (R.E.M.’s Michael) Stipe is a good analogy. I always think Stipe looks like a loner in his own band — and Tim’s a loner in James.” Painted as the band’s sole intellectual — although he’s not the only member with a university degree — Booth professes to dislike tension in James while in reality being unable to resist it. The idea that he might one day leave is always at the back of everyone’s mind. “James need that edge,” Rudge says stoically “It’s what keeps them together. It’s what they get off on. They need to be dysfunctional. Tim needs always to think that he can walk away from this at any moment. But he never does.”
The heavy studio door at Metropolis swings open and a bald man enters wearing a thick winter coat, rubbing his hands warm. He looks like Yul Brynner in Taras Bulba, but he is Eno, returning to the James album to patch up Confusion before getting on a plane tomorrow morning. Booth reveals that Eno has passed up the opportunity to see tonight’s performance by Pina Bausch, the German choreographer. For Booth, that is a compliment. Eno sits there, with a blindfold over his eyes. “I’ve set myself a task for every day this year, he divulges. “Today I’m finding out what it’s like to be blind for one hour.” You can see why there’s such a long waiting list for his services. After a two month delay, the mixing sessions take place in April. James have two West London studios on the go: Metropolis and Eden. As of tomorrow; there will be a third, Olympic in Barnes. At quite some expense, they are not only mixing tracks at Eden but attempting to salvage, at Metropolis, the arrangements of two songs from a tape that has inexplicably disappeared. “Three very important… four very important tapes have gone missing,” says Davies. He suspects sabotage.
The album has been recorded on several different formats — including a digital facility called Soundscape — and an engineer named Ben Fenner is in Metropolis, staring at a computer screen like a police psychologist examining a polygraph printout for subtle signs of dishonesty. Fenner is trying to reassemble the intricate sonic map of If Anybody Hurts You, whose arrangement has vanished. It’s particularly ironic as Booth’s lyric for the song was specifically designed to ward off such catastrophes.
“My belief is that some of our songs have acted as self-fulfiling prophecies and charms and spells,” Booth says without a hint of irony. “So you call an LP Laid and suddenly your libido goes through the roof. And you call an LP Whiplash and you end up in a neck brace for two years. If Anybody Hurts You is very purposely a spell, a protection against anyone who is directing any negativity towards me or the band. ‘There’s a mirror with your name on…’ If you direct any shit at me, it’s going to come back at you. It’s like a very happy threat.”
With so much technology surrounding this album (Baynton-Power, at Metropolis, is studiously surfing a hard disk in search of dimly remembered percussion tracks), it’s tempting to think James are in danger of attaining perfection at the expense of spontaneity. The phlegmatic Baynton-Power sees computers as “a means to an end. It means we don’t all have to be in the room at the same time. We could make the next album by post if we had to.” For his part, Booth believes it’s a question of “putting as much detail and care and love as possible” into the music. “That’s what love of a song is,” he says. “Refusing to accept that a song is finished. Finding another subtle twist to put in there.” Or, in the case of If Anybody Hurts You, getting the bugger back.
A mile away in Eden, Davies, Hunter and mixing engineer Dave Bascombe are nearing a result on Someone’s Got It In For Me, a bombastic show-stopper with lavish Walker Brothers echo an mighty drums. It’s such a brilliant track that one half-expects everybody to cheer, slap palms an shout “That’s the one, baby!” when it ends. In ill silence, Bascombe suggests: “It’s getting there.” Davies nods his head slowly. Someone’s Got It In For Me is not the only song on the album to sound expansive and audacious. Vindicated by The Best Of James have brought dose of grandiosity into play “There’s a let’s-be-the-best-band-in-the-world thinking to it now, Davies acknowledges. “This time we’re in a much stronger commercial situation. This album is a really good response from us in some ways — regardless of how it’s been put together — to the pressure of having to follow up The Best Of. But the album is also quite strange and not unified at all in terms of sound or vibe. It’s not an Urban Hymns, and James fans will love it for that reason.”
IN BIARRITZ, BOTH Booth and Rudge let slip that James’s deal with Mercury will expire after one further album. If Millionaires is the record every one thinks it is, the band’s bargaining power will never have been higher. When Q tells Booth that there are strong rumours back home that James are about to split up, he groans impatiently. But there are always rumours, he retorts, and this year’s rumours are no more true — and no more false — than those of previous years.
“My only regret,” he says, speaking in a doubtless unconscious past tense, “is that we should have been bigger. There’s a feeling that we haven’t quite left our mark in the history books, or as big a mark as we would have liked to have left… But it’s Man United. It’s the eighty-ninth minute and Ferguson’s thinking, Maybe it’s not my year again. And then God puts his hand in, or whatever the fuck it is that happens. Some weird twist of fate that completely defies all rationality and human control. It’s called extra time.”