He’s had knives pulled on him, he’s collapsed on stage, he’s even clinically died, but James singer Tim Booth is soldiering on. By Gavin Martin.
In their seventeen years together, James have become the most resilient British band of their generation. Emerging as fey indie outsiders in 1983, they surfed the Madchester wave alongside Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, helped inspire Noel Gallagher to form Oasis and enjoyed a stint as US stadium stars in the early 90s.
Last year’s double platinum Greatest Hits set highlighted an unerring knack for crafting brooding and exuberant pop anthems and the new album Millionaires stands as their most accomplished and musically rewarding to date.
But James history is filled with turmoil and near disaster as frontman Tim Booth has endured violent standoffs, numerous nervous breakdowns and a traumatic separation. On their last US tour he performed in a neck brace after nearly disabling himself in rehearsals. At 22, during treatment for lifelong liver conditions, he was clinically dead for a few moments.
Tucking into a plate of calves liver in his favourite Brighton restaurant the one-time celibate, Yoga-practising vegan explains he has had to learn to adapt to survive.
“My health is not always as robust as I would like it to be. I’m in a band with these guys who party continually. They’re as strong as oaks and I’m the fragile waif. I feel like the poncey middle class kid.
“I was off meat for 12 years but on long tours I’d find myself collapsing and losing three pounds a night, just getting weaker and weaker. When you dance as I do, you’ve got to have protein in big quantities.
“I started eating salmon. That was my compromise. I ate it every day for a year and a half. I couldn’t stop my body craving it. So I extended it out. Now I eat anything.”
He needs his strength. And not just for dancing, either. “We’ve punched each other out a few times. We kicked our first drummer out because he got violent and abusive with me onstage. The singer they had before me ended up in Strangeways jail on a GBH charge.
“But I’ve been lucky. When situations turn violent, I tend not to get hurt or show fear. Which is just as well as over the years I’ve had knives drawn on me, people threatening to cut parts of my body.”
Booth’s lifestyle remains at odds with the rock n roll excesses of his colleagues. In Brighton, he lives close to Martine, mother of his ten year old son. When they split, Martine was still managing the group. Booth shaved his head and often cried onstage.
“We made it work. We had to. The sort of arrangement we’ve come to is one that more and more people have had to make for the sake of their children.”
In Brighton, Booth runs a shamanistic dance class (“teaching people to get into trance states with dancing rather than drugs”) with his American fiancee. The latter is the inspiration behind the heady new single Just Like Fred Astaire.
Tim’s new found contentment has helped heal internal divisions within the band. He admits that in the past he’s judged his bandmates too harshly.
“People need to express their wildside and just because they spend five years doing it, doesn’t mean that they can’t change.”
Though he talks proudly about the band’s cult fans – including monks, American teenage escapees from a religious cult and “people from mental hospitals” – Booth has been accused of holding back from large-scale success. Perhaps that’s changing too.
“I always thought success was the death of any band. I don’t want to be someone who can’t go out on the street, but put me onstage and I am very competitive. I love to see a great band, like the Chili Peppers and Radiohead, but there’s so many who are masquerading as great bands.
“I stayed at Flea’s place in LA recently and, after seeing how much money he had, I came back feeling quite envious but in a positive way,” he says.
“I think we’re overdue Top 10 success in America. My feeling is that now we should just get on with it.”