At first, I don’t recognise Tim Booth. With his shaved head and pointy Errol Flynn beard, the former frontman of indie survivors James looks less like a million-selling pop musician than a pantomime child-catcher. The look isn’t exactly softened by his black combat pants and black sweatshirt: all that’s missing is a large net and a bag of candy. I’m not the only one who’s confused: after being introduced to Booth, our photographer, a self-confessed James fan, squints and says: “I didn’t recognise you without the hair.” “You say all the right things,” Booth replies despondently.
When he left James in 2001, it looked as if Booth had given up music for good. In a statement to fans, he said he wanted to leave while he was still on top and concentrate on writing and acting. He’s won a best newcomer award for his part in a stage production of Saved, written a screenplay and, most recently, landed a small part alongside Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman in Christopher Nolan’s new Batman movie – as a baddie, naturally. Yet even with this formidable workload, Booth found himself drifting back towards music. Now he’s released an album, Bone (so called because of the stripped-down production) and is steeling himself for his first proper solo tour of the UK.
“I think I’ll always write songs,” he reflects over lunch near his Brighton home. “Whether they’re for me and my friends or for public consumption, it’s something I’ll always do. Other people write diaries, I write songs. They always show me a lot about myself.”
Yet Booth insists that he never intended to make another album. “The plan was to sell these songs to other people. That was partly because in England I felt I always got such a hostile reaction with James that the songs wouldn’t get a fair hearing if I sang them. But as we went on with the demos, I guess I gave into the inevitable. I think I felt too attached to them to give them to someone else.”
One of pop’s great eccentrics, Booth has long been ridiculed for his alternative lifestyle, which takes in tantric sex, scream therapy and five-rhythms dancing (“a system of movement that takes you into your instinctive self. It’s like getting high without drugs”). He and his band once joined a spiritual cult that involved meditating for days at a time and enforced celibacy.
His interest in alternative healing and spiritualism stems from a spell in hospital when he was 22 after he discovered that he had Gilbert’s syndrome, an inherited liver disease. “I stopped breathing and nearly died,” he says. “It’s not a big deal if it’s diagnosed, though if it’s not and you’re eating the wrong foods and your liver can’t digest them, you go as yellow as a Belisha beacon. Being jaundiced creates a very strange mental state – very isolating and paranoid.”
As he found he was able to control the symptoms, his interest turned into an obsession. “I’m fascinated by the potential of what we are,” he says. “The original name for New Age was the Human Potential Movement, and it was for people looking to try and get the full potential out of human beings. I think everyone has a sense that we’re much more than we’re able to be. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as incurable illness. I believe that somewhere out there, there’s some method of curing everything, and if you get sick you have to find it. You might not find it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That’s my thesis. There has to be a purpose when things go wrong.”
It’s with a mixture of humility and self-assurance that Booth looks back on his 20-year tenure with James. He’s dismissive of the music press, which he feels built the band up only to tear them down. “In the music business, there’s always an allocated time schedule you’re meant to keep to,” he reflects sardonically. “Once you’ve had your time in the limelight, that’s it. After that, it’s like, ‘What are you still doing here? Isn’t it time you were somewhere else? Get out of here, you’re too old.'”
Is he still hurt by criticism? “Yes, I am. I know it shouldn’t matter, but it does. I think within us we all have a saboteur, a voice in us that readily seizes upon that thing. A friend of mine, Gordon Strachan [the former footballer and manager] said there could be 50,000 people at a match, with 40,000 really behind the team. But there was a row of old guys there who really hated him and he could hear them talking about him every week. No matter where he was on the pitch, his ears would somehow pick up on them slagging him off. I think that’s the nature of the mind; it gravitates to that stuff.”
The story of James is by turns triumphant and calamitous, involving internal disputes, record company clashes, tax bills and a ruptured disc for Booth. The band formed in 1982 when the 16-year-old bass player Jim Glennie found Booth dancing wildly at a nightclub in Manchester. Booth was a drama student at the university. He joined the band, then called Model Team International, as a backing vocalist but was soon promoted to lead vocals.
“They were a very hardcore band back then,” Booth says. “The first singer ended up in Strangeways. So did the first guitarist. When I arrived, I think they’d stolen their equipment. But they were great, they had a real fire to them. Then they asked this posh kid to front them, which was very bizarre.”
The change of name came soon after: James was picked for its innocuousness in an industry they felt was dominated by huge egos. “We saw the band as being about music and nothing else,” Booth says. “At the start we refused to do interviews or have our pictures taken. Once we agreed to a photo-shoot as long as the pictures didn’t show our heads. We soon wised up, though.”
Booth’s nickname in the band was Monty Moneybags due to his prosperous, middle-class upbringing. He’d attended a public school in Shrewsbury where pupils wore hats and carried briefcases. “Actually, everyone carried briefcases but me. I had this bag, a hand-me-down of my dad’s from the Second World War. All my brothers and sisters had used it; it had all their names on it, crossed out. The last was Penny, so that became my name at school.”
In the early years, James were heroes in their hometown – Morrissey declared them “the best band in the world”, while Noel Gallagher, then a roadie for Inspiral Carpets, is said to have decided to form a band after hearing a James soundcheck – but they were ignored further afield. After putting out two EPs on Factory records, they signed a contract with Sire, a move that Booth now describes as “really, really foolish. They had signed Talking Heads and done the first Patti Smith record, but by the time we got to them they had just signed Madonna. An English indie band was really not what they wanted.” After releasing two albums, 1986’s Stutter and 1988’s Strip Mine, they extracted themselves from the label through a loophole in their contract.
For the next two years they lived off the dole, occasionally earning extra money by acting as human guinea pigs for medical experiments in a local hospital. At the end of the decade, however, they found themselves swept up in the baggy tide alongside their Madchester contemporaries The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and The Charlatans. “Sit Down” became one of the anthems of the early Nineties, and the flowery James shirt turned into a ubiquitous fashion item among students and indie kids.
Their success, Booth says, was both a blessing and a curse. They began to rebel in concert, refusing to play any hits, while their next album, 1992’s Seven, was viewed as an ill-judged stab at stadium rock. The following year they secured the services of Brian Eno on Laid, a moodily experimental album that proved hugely popular in America and prompted the band to embark on a three-year tour in the US.
By the time they returned, their British fans had all but forgotten them. But that was nothing next to the nightmare that was to follow. Over the course of a year, Booth ruptured a disc in his neck, the guitarist Larry Gott decided to quit along with their long-time manager, and the band discovered they were broke.
“I got misquoted in an interview saying we had made millions out of selling T-shirts,” Booth recalls. “Bizarrely enough, a tax inspector read it and we were investigated. It was a complete disaster. We realised we hadn’t paid any tax for five years and our manager hadn’t made any provision. We were suddenly hit with this huge bill that nearly killed us. It took us years to crawl out of that hole.”
The band decided to take a long break, during which Booth worked on a well-received solo album with the composer Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet) called Booth and the Bad Angel. In 1997, James made a spectacular comeback with Whiplash, a boldly melodic album that yielded their second-biggest single, “She’s a Star”. A best-of album the following year served to restore both their confidence and their finances, shifting more than a million copies. Two more albums followed – Millionaires and Pleased to Meet You – after which Booth decided to call it a day.
He believes that adversity always brought out the best in the band: that, and his indomitable self-belief. Even now, however, he admits to being fearful about pursuing a career under his own name. “There was some safety in the collective of James,” he says. “Psychologically, I liked the protection. Even though it was me that took most of the shit in that band, I still had somewhere to hide.
“But I’ll stand by this record. I’ll stand by any of the choices I’ve made. You just have to get big in your own attitude again, build a bubble of positivity around yourself. Seriously, I’m ready for whatever they throw at me.”
Tim Booth plays the New Stage at Glastonbury tomorrow, and then tours. ‘Bone’ is out now on Sanctuary. The single ‘Down to the Sea’ is released on Monday