James are one of UK’s biggest bands with 12 albums under their belt and a new album, ‘Pleased To Meet You’, released later on this year. Luckily I was able to catch up with Saul Davies, guitarist and violinist with James, during a busy schedule.
Interviewer: I understand you took a different approach to the creative process with the new album?
Saul: Well, we spent some time getting songs together early last year, working at someone’s house near London. We went there, set up our all our gear, starting writing and working through the songs again and again as a band, and then took those out on tour in October when we had a batch of about 20-25 songs to choose from. It was a very conscious decision to actually go and play the songs live and then go into the studio, rather than come from the studio and then go gigging, trying to reproduce what was there. So we did it the other way round, which is much closer to how we did things in the early days. The bigger and more successful a band becomes, the more they become stuck in their ways and it becomes more difficult to do things like that, so we thought it was a bit of a result. It meant we were able to go into the studio and make the album more quickly, whilst keeping the sound quite raw and less messed around with.
Interviewer: Was it slightly unnerving at the time, going out and gigging with songs that weren’t fully completed and established?
Saul: No, not really. We deliberately picked venues to play that we knew were going to be relatively comfortable for us. I mean, there was an element of fear, obviously, just in remembering how to play them all and being able to play them in a way that was convincing. Partly we were deciding which songs to continue with and which ones to discard through how we felt about playing them on stage and how people reacted to them. So there was the right amount of fear flying around for us to get the right amount of tension into what we were doing.
Interviewer: And how did you feel about the smaller venues? Did you prefer the intimacy?
Saul: Well really it was deliberate, I mean there was no way we could go to some of the large arenas and do, say, 12 new songs, you just can’t do that in a venue of that size. Whereas in a 1500-seater venue you can do that, I mean people are right on top of you, they’re not going anywhere, and you hold their attention by proximity as much as anything.
Interviewer: Do you still enjoy playing live? It must difficult sometimes retaining the same level of enthusiasm that you had initially as a band.
Saul: No, it’s not difficult at all because we don’t tour as much as we used to, so when we do there’s a really big buzz which in itself is a huge motivational factor. Sometimes you might not feel in the mood to do a particular show, but the moment you walk on stage with ten-thousand people shouting at you that all gets blown away and leaves your head completely. By the end of a show you just feel incredible, like you’ve just slept with Michelle Pfieffer.
Interviewer: Is the next tour lined up, or do you take a more relaxed approach to touring?
Saul: Well we know what we’re doing this summer. We’re headlining Guildford Festival, which is becoming a really cool festival, we’re doing T In The Park, City In The Park in Nottingham, then playing some gigs in Athens, Mexico and America. We’re also planning an arena tour in Britain for December.
Interviewer: On the new album you worked with Brian Eno again. Is he a perfectionist in the role of producer?
Saul: He can be but he’s also very able to let go of things when either it’s not working or it’s not working as he would like it. So he’s by no means a person who assumes all control in the studio, he’s really good at creating a situation within which people can do what they want to do or have to do when it comes to expressing themselves. He is by far the most creative person I’ve ever met, and it’s there in everything that he does from when he gets up in the morning at 6 o’clock till when he goes to bed at 2. He’s like the Margaret Thatcher of pop, living on 4 hours sleep.
Interviewer: But he doesn’t dominate the process?
Saul: Well, day by day it changes, and it changes song to song; he will have a very clear idea on some songs what the tone should be and what he has to bring to the process to make that happen, but all the way through people are throwing in ideas and making suggestions, maybe changing the way they’re playing certain things, so it’s quite amorphous. But he very seldom on this record, if at all, had to resort to shouting at us to get our finger out. It was a very seamless experience. I spoke to him the other day, and I know that he’s also made this comment in passing in the press, that he regards the way we made this record almost as the perfect process in approaching what we set out to achieve; it was relatively quick, quite free in many ways, and everybody felt they had a role to play which was pertinent to what they could do, or wanted to do or had to do. It was very positive, and you can hear it on the record.
Interviewer: Where was it recorded?
Saul: Some of it was recorded in a house near Gatwick, a place called “House In The Woods”, which is own by 2 wonderful Dutch people. We set up in a room and started recording, and we kept some of those recordings because they seemed to us to have a freshness about them which once we’d played the songs live quite a lot we’d lost. There was a naïveté about them that we couldn’t quite regain. And then the main body of the work was done at Ridge Farm Studios, a large plush place near Gatwick.
Interviewer: Speaking personally, which is your favourite song from the album?
Saul: There’s a track called “Space” which opens the album which I think is pretty close to perfect as we got for a while, and then there’s a track called “Alaskan Pipeline” which finishes the album which is gorgeous.
James’ Brand new single ‘Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)’, is due out 15.6.01, preceding their new album ‘Pleased to Meet You’, 2.7.01