James were on the verge of splitting up last year. But they’re back with their best record yet. Simon Briggs reports.
James are the Manchester band that time forgot. Discovered by Factory Records in 1983, they toured with The Smiths, admired the Stone Roses, hung out with the Happy Mondays in the halcyon days of the Hacienda club.
Fast forward to 1999 and while ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr flits between guest appearances and former Mondays singer Shaun Ryder dreams up another illfated reunion, the inconspicious James are about to release the best album of their career.
“That’s pretty weird,” muses Tim Booth. “After 18 years, to make a record that might be our best yet. That’s something that no band has really done.” Millionaires more than justifies his confidence. Produced by the Midas-fingered Brian Eno, it kicks off with the pogoing whoops of Crash and closes with Sinead O’Connor’s spaced out vocal on Vervaceous, never missing an artfully distorted beat in 11 tracks.
Millionaires is a bold comeback for James, who were on the verge of splitting up last year. They released a Best Of compilation – often a sign of declining ambitions – and the temptation to take the money and run might have been all the greater when it shipped a million copies, knocking the Titanic soundtrack off the top of the album chart. Instead, this seven-man collective settled their differences – or most of them, anyway. “When you have a lot of friction in your life,” says Booth, “it makes for interesting music.”
In many ways James career mirrors that of American supergroup REM. Both bands were formed in the early eighties and spent a decade playing to student audiences before finally breaking into the mainstream in the spring of 1991.
REM’s Losing My Religion reached number 19 in the UK charts on March 16. A month later, James replied with their best-known song, the rabble-rousing Sit Down, which was only kept off the No 1 spot by Chesney Hawkes.
“Again, we were a hair away from splitting up before we released that record.” says Jim Glennie, the saturnine bassist who originally formed the band at school. “We were just stuck there on our own, hugely in debt, signed to a record company that had no interest in what we were doing. It was so, so depressing.”
“But the thing was, we knew we had this rather amazing song up our sleeves,” rejoins Booth. “When we jammed Sit Down, we couldn’t play it after 20 minutes because we were laughing so much. We knew we’d written something wonderful. And then when we were in one of our worst periods last year, we wrote Just Like Fred Astaire. And again, you just know you’ve got something great here.”
Fred Astaire is the showstopping tune on the album. A dewy-eyed ballad that captures the dizziness of a new romance. It skips along as deftly as its eponymous hero. But it’s more than matched by the disturbed techno-gospel of We’re Going To Miss You When You’re Gone, a song that Booth says he wrote “as a charm of protection, because there have been a few people wishing us harm over the years.”
“Songs are spells,” he goes on matter-of-factly. “They’re very simple mantras that people repeat and sing all day long. I was once cursed and this guy said the only thing you can do is make a mirror and send it back to the person it came from. So that’s why I gave the song that lyric ‘Here’s a mirror with your name on.’
If James are the British REM, then Booth is a dead ringer for Michael Stipe. He has the same enigmatic air, maintains the same distance from the rest of the band, and is, if anything, even more of an eccentric. He grew up in Yorkshire, then attended Manchester University before joining James as a dancer in 1983. “Singing very much came second. I didn’t like my voice for seven or eight years. My natural way of expressing myself was through dance.”
We’re standing around in the make-up room at Channel 4’s TFI Friday, where James are due to play Fred Astaire. Suddenly Booth starts to whirl his limbs like a sapling in a gale, then pitches his torso forward until his nose is virtually touching his knees.
“I still do loads of confrontational dance workshops,” he explains once he has straightened himself out. “I don’t like to use the term ‘New Age’ which is a dirty word, but you’re really looking for a psychological edge in yourself, looking to cut through your own bull****. I’m doing a whole month of it next summer. It leaves you a complete wreck in one sense, but a fantastic wreck. You’re completely blasted open and vulnerable and hallucinating and clairvoyant and telepathic, and just mad.”
Mad or not, Booth’s interest in all things spiritual has a direct bearing on the way James work. His lean, ageless face takes on a wistful look as he sighs, “The fact is that all the best music has been written by people who have been fairly wrecked. I was inspired by Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, but I felt let down when I realised they needed artifical substances to perform like that. I wanted to go to those places consciously, and the only way was through spiritual techniques – drumming, dancing, sleep depravation. It was 16 hours of meditation every weekend for three-and-a-half years.”
It can be no coincidence that James best albums Millionaires and 1993’s Laid, are the two produced by Eno, whom Booth describes as “a mystic, though he doesn’t like me saying that.”
“When we were jamming,” he continues, “he would write things on little sign boards and come up and show them to each musician individually and they’d be different things, Some of them would be incredibly abstract commands – ‘Play more wobbly’ Or ‘Insist’. So you have to interpret that in the middle of a jam. One guy got ‘Change key continuously.'”
Sympathetic handling is required, as James have never been enamoured of the recording process. When they first formed, their intention was to be a touring band who never put an album out.”
“We knew we were really special live,” says Booth, “and we thought playing live was the authentic test of a band. Still do, actually. But round about Laid, we decided we wanted to make great records as well.” And so it came to pass. Perhaps he does have supernatural powers after all.