December 2001, by PJ Anderson, © City Life
AS JAMES PREPARE FOR THE LAST EVER HOMETOWN GIG WITH LEAD SINGER TIM BOOTH, PJ ANDERSON TALKS TO THE FRONTMAN ABOUT 20 YEARS OF JAMES, THE PROBLEMS WITH CELEBRITY CULTURE, AND WHAT TIME DOES NEXT,
It’s not unusual for James to come home. It’s even the title for one of their biggest hits from the height of Madchester. But this Christmas, their almost annual date at the M.E.N. Arena will feel different. Because it’s their last. At least their last with Tim Booth and there’s not many who can imagine James without Tim Booth.
Frontman of James since they formed in Manchester in 1982, Tim released a statement last month saying he had decided to leave the band ‘after much deliberation’ having realised it was the ‘right time’ and he was leaving ‘on a high’.
James originally signed to Factory Records in 1983 and following their debut ‘Jimone EP’, their second release ‘Hymn from a Village’ topped the indie chart early in ’85. They then moved to US label Sire and released their debut album Stutter in ’86, including the live favourite ‘Johnny Yen’. But the more to Sire proved a mistake, the second album Strip-mine was delayed and the relationship between band and label soured. The band released a live album One Man Clapping on their own label in early ’89 before signing to Fontana. Their first album for the new label, Goldmother, shot the band to a new level of fame, spawning hits like ‘Come Home’, ‘How Was It For You?’ and their biggest hit in a re-release (and it has to be said, a watered down version) of their 1989 single ‘Sit Down’. This party-time classic eventually reached number 2 in March ’91, held off the top spot by Chesney Hawkes.
Subsequent albums, the trumpet heavy Seven, the Brian end Laid (arguably their best) and Whiplash, saw the band reach lofty heights and super stadium stardom. All of them went top ten with singles bouncing around the top 40, before a Best of compilation and Millionaires raised their profile once more. The band settled into a routine of short arena tours each December, coupled with a couple of festival dates, and released their last album Pleased to Meet You, in July this year.
So Tim, why quit now?
“Because it felt the right time. I honestly feel as if we’ve just made our memorable album ever. And Brian Eno says it’s the best album he’s ever worked on…”
Did you get that in writing?
“He said it in a Japanese magazine…”
Tim claims that he nearly left four years ago, and even alluded to the fact in a song. It’s true that James have never had it particularly easy. Some of their financial disasters were legendary, even at the height of their stardom. But when I put it to Tim that he actually enjoyed being a rockstar – he sidetracks slightly with his response; “In 1989, after reading Colin Wilson – who I no longer like incidentally – he said that the only regret he ever had was not taking full advantage of all the sexual opportunities offered to him. And I thought – why wasn’t I doing the same? And so for three or four years that’s exactly what I did…”
What I was alluding to was that James, and Tim especially, seemed to revel rather than repel the limelight and rock’n’roll superstar status – behaviour that seemed to equally repel and attract potential fans, making James more likely to inspire a passionate ‘love em or hate ‘em’ response than most other Manchester bands.
“Rockstar is a dirty word where I come from, so it’s difficult,” is Tim’s explanation of his sensitivity with regard to the whole subject. But there were, undoubtedly, moments when Tim would bask in the adoration. This he does concede; “When I’m looking at the audience,” he breathes, “I’m just in… ecstasy at some points. It’s because what happens is, you play your songs to people and their appreciation and enthusiasm lifts you to another level. The audience is like your battery. It can look like a rockstar thing, but when you become one with them, it’s a state of bliss.”
No-one can deny that James’ gigs almost seem like rallies, even worship. “For me that’s a mistake that an audience can make; in associating that feeling with that individual or with the band. That’s the problem with idolisation in pop music, or in celebrity. You know – we live in a culture where celebrity is probably the highest aim of the culture, and it’s got worse and worse over the last 20 years. Actually, it doesn’t matter how cheap what you’re peddling is, if you’re famous, you have an immense currency in this culture. It’s bullshit.”
And Tim’s keen to remind us that the audience was far from one homogenous mass: “I wouldn’t have the same judgement because I used to love the fact that hard men could come and watch this skinny guy who, in their world, probably looked like a faggot, singing pretty sensitive songs about self-doubt and self-condemnation and they would sing along with the lyrics. I am not an obvious candidate for them to accept in their world.
Tim as known for his infamous electrocuted-whole-body-wave dancing, not that he’s the first to feel Shamanic on stage. Now he’s even teaching ‘Creativity’ at Manchester Met, a system where dance and meditation lead to a trance state. It’s a reminder of Tim’s intense creative mind, which some might say borders on genius, and others, self-destructive extremes, “I wrote ‘Johnny Yen’, as part of me had swallowed the myth,” he agrees in part. “Some of me still can be a sucker for that myth.”
“I was convinced I’d go mad before I got to 30,” he continues. “I was convinced of it. When I got to 30, and realised I hadn’t, I was very surprised. I had some very strange psychotic states, but now I know how to ride them.”
So how scared are you of riding this one out? “I was scared about telling the guys,” he concedes. “But I was more scared about what the hell I was going to do; I had nothing to jump into – no other safety net. It was really… Oh my God!’”
Many would assume that the world is Tim’s proverbial oyster after the success James have enjoyed, but the order for the Lear jet hasn’t been processed just yet. “It’s easy,” he says, “for people to look at the history of James and say we should have been as big as U2… as if we somehow failed. I don’t see it like that. We’ve had a 20-year-career. We’ve made not one album I’m not proud of.”
So then, is Mr. Booth looking back fondly, or in anger?
“Some bands get one or two good albums, and then they burn out with drugs or alcohol,” he finishes. “… or too much money. I don’t think we’ve done that and nor do I live in some projected bliss bubble – that’s how I see it.”