Interviewer : What’s it like being back together?
Jim : It’s good. We’re very busy. It’s taken me a bit by surprise to be honest. I’d forgotten how busy it gets and how quickly. But it’s going wonderfully well. I still can’t believe it, to be honest with you, it all happened so quickly.
I : What did make you get back together? Why now?
J : Larry, who was the guitar player and one of the major songwriters in James for most of the albums up to 96, he left the band and then in 2001 when we did the final tour, he came back and did a few songs with us on stage, just as a communal farewell if you like. And I’d not seen Larry for years up to that point. Me and Larry started playing again, we had a rehearsal room in Manchester, an old office that Larry used to work in and we used to go out there in the evenings in the centre of town and we were writing songs just for our own fun and pleasure to be honest with you, no great plans behind it or anything. And as it developed, and we got kind of attached to what we were doing, we started working with a few different singers we knew, just people coming in doing a few bits and pieces.. And we decided to do a proper demo, you know, a fully fleshed out batch of the songs. After we finished it, we went away and we both came back and said “I can hear Tim singing on this” and that was something we hadn’t considered up to that point. This was about 2 1/2 years ago now, an age away. I think we’d never thought about it because Tim had left and it wasn’t something we really thought was an option. We asked him to come up to Manchester and do some jamming with us and he said no. It was time he’d just had a baby, had just moved house and he was in the middle of finishing off his solo album.
So we thought ok, fair enough and we left it alone and carried on playing, again primarily for our own enjoyment, we were loving what we were doing. it was great fun and kind of going back to the way James used to write songs, which was going into a room with nothing prepared and just improvising. And just playing a lot for its own sake, not necessarily trying to write songs, getting a room and making a lot of noise, just because it’s good fun. And if you don’t get anything from it that’s usable, then fine, you’ve had a great time. And I think when you get busy, due to the success to some degree, that gets put on the back burner and is never a priority, to give you that space to just get in a room together and play for the hell of it, slips down the list of priorities. And because we had the time and space to do it, we were just loving it, and it reminded me in a way of why I was in a band, why I had been in a band.
So we loved what were doing, bits of pieces, bits of production, working with a couple of singers and things. It was last November and Larry suggested we get in touch with Tim again and I kind of felt at this point, well, I had a feeling he’d say no, I presumed he’d say no, that he wasn’t ready and didn’t want to do it ever, or leave me alone or I’ll get an injunction and change my number and move house or something.
I just presumed he’d say no, so what we decided was that if he said no now, we’d crack on, we’ll find a singer and we’ll get stuff out there. And he said yes, he said he’d come up, to get a rehearsal room and we’d do some jamming Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So we did, which was last November, and our manager got wind of this, that we’d all got into a room together after all these years and he rang Tim on the Saturday and told him that he and Simon Moran, the promoter, had got the April tour on hold. I’d seen Tim once in five years and it was the second day of being together, it was like “oh God, I wish we’d kept things quiet and see how it goes”. So it was a bit panicky really at that point. It was. I didn’t quite know what to do because I had no aspirations of a big James reunion thing. My idea was different really, I hadn’t really thought it through, I genuinely didn’t think Tim would come up so there wasn’t some part of a big masterplan to get Tim up and then reform James. Not at all.
So it was a bit panicky. Personally I didn’t want to go down the avenue of a big James reunion. I didn’t want to go back to where I’d been in 2001 for personal reasons and musical reasons and the rest of it. My idea, rather naively I suppose, was for us to just keep playing music, to keep our heads down, not tell anybody, not make any decisions about who were going to be or what we were going to be and then once we’d got a batch of songs together and hopefully they were sounding great and we were attached to them then we could sit down and have a chat about what we were going to do with them, what we were going to be called. But, of course, it never works like that, does it?
It just got taken out of my hands and got very silly and very busy very very quickly. It’s a nice problem to have, I just got a bit freaked out because it all happened really really quickly. For me, I wasn’t really sure that it was the best way of doing it. But you can’t hold these things back.
I : So is this about nostalgia or is it a new beginning for James?
J : It’s about new stuff. But in a way, that’s why I was shying away from kicking back in with the big tour. For me, I was massively passionately attached to what me and Larry had developed over the past five years, an old historical way of writing songs like we used to do in James, but better than we’d ever been in James because I think we’re better musicians now. There’s a fluidity to it, a looseness to it. And Tim locked into it really quickly, wonderfully so, and we’ve got hundreds of new songs. I think Tim counted them the other day and we’ve got a hundred and twenty things. So it’s about new material, it’s all about new material and my concern was that we’d get pulled back into this historical James if you like and this tour would seem like a retrospective. I don’t want it to do that. For me, this is a platform. To put it positively, it’s a platform to put us back into the spotlight for what we do next, a new album. And there will be a new album and that’s what it’s all about for me. It’s about new material, it’s about getting new songs out there. We’re an incredibly prolific band, but once the machinery kicks in, if you’re not careful you get very very slow. And historically the industry can’t, maybe it’s got better now, but it couldn’t handle more than album with twelve songs every two years. And that for us is painful, it’s painfully slow.
And for me, what this is about now, and I’m not taking anything for granted any more, because I’d been in James for a hundred years up to 2001 and had assumed I always would be to some degree, it doesn’t feel like that any more. I’d lost it. I want to get records out. I want there to be many James records that come out to be part of James legacy that we leave to the world if you like. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about getting more records out. New material. It’s about how exciting it is when Larry, Tim and me get in a room with a drum machine and start playing together.
I : Have you always been that prolific or is it the time away that has made you more so?
J : We’ve always been really prolific if we’ve had the time to play together. It’s just that in the past, more the last two or three albums of James, it just got increasingly difficult. We were all very busy, everybody was scattered across the planet, rather than Britain to be honest with you. It was a major Broadway production to get us together to do anything. It genuinely was. We’d have a big residential rehearsal room in the middle of somewhere, somewhere in the countryside, and we’d have people flying in from here, there and everywhere, all the crew sat there and a big monitor system dragged in and a big fleet of hire cars. It just wasn’t the atmosphere like now. Me, Tim and Larry have a weekend free, and bang we’re in Manchester in a little rehearsal room playing together. It’s dead simple, one phone call and we’re there. We did it in Brighton, Larry and me went down to Brighton where Tim is and it’s just dead easy. Really really simple.
I : So in many ways, it’s getting away from the massive band that you became and going back to the original?
J : I think we’d love to be a big band again and have that attention put on the music, but we let the business in to priortise things that actually mean the essence of James got diluted, the writing of songs, being in a room together and playing together as musicians. Writing sessions would be orchestrated, there’d be a week stuck in somewhere in a massive schedule where everyone was there, the band would be there and you’d have to write. That wasn’t the way we’d done it historically and it’s not the way we’re doing it now. It’s just not conducive to being relaxed, to having a good time and enjoying yourselves, it really isn’t. But there wasn’t enough time and I think that’s one thing we’ve learnt now, is that this is the essence of what we are and we have to make that time. We can’t get back into that where we get dragged back in. I mean it happened, I’m not blaming anyone for it. Just over years of being successful and having families and things, it’s not just the business, you have to push things to one side, you have to say no to things to give you the gaps to do this.
I : Do you worry that it may happen again though?
J : Yes, I do. I’m scared to death of it. And that’s one of the reasons I panicked I think. It suddenly felt like it was getting out of hand and we were back in the big MEN and I was very scared. I’m very protective of what we’ve got now, very protective of what me and Larry built up over those five years, incredibly protective, because I realised that’s what I enjoy most about all this. I love playing gigs, I love the travelling around and all the razzmatazz of it, but what I get satisfaction from, apart from the ego rush and the excitement of it all, what I get satisfaction from is what we do musically. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true and I don’t think we’ll let it slide again. We’ve been there and we’ve seen it slide and I don’t think we’ll slip into that again. I am worried.
I : It must feel good though to be able to come back at the same level at which you left. You left with an MEN gig and you’re coming back with an MEN gig.
J : Yeah, I don’t think anyone was more surprised or shocked than us to be honest with you. Simon Moran said he’d put us on at the MEN and we were like “are you sure? This is Simon Moran going bust” but we were shocked and stunned as to just how quickly it sold out. I don’t understand it. I don’t whether it’s just when you’ve been around for a long time, donkey years, and people assume you’ll always be there and then you disappear. People get a new found feeling, well that “if I don’t catch them now, well. I might not.” I don’t really know. I don’t know what created this, whether it’s a bit of a nostalgia thing, I’m not quite sure, because obviously when you’ve been together as long as we have, from the early eighties or something, people have got into James in different periods and probably an album has meant something special to them or there’s a certain time in their lives where we appeared and I think maybe these gigs have rounded all those people up. Everybody went “oh yeah James, they’re back? Cool, let’s go and see them.” I don’t know, I really don’t know.
Manchester will be a special night. It genuinely really will be. An emotional night, it will be for me at least. It’ll be wonderful going back. It was great playing there on the last tour, but there was this undercurrent of knowing that this was the last time we were going to play. It’s just the celebration of going back. We belong to Manchester, whether we like it or not, we are a Manchester band and they’re fantastic. To go back out at the MEN, it gives me goose-bumps now just thinking about it, to be honest, it really does.
I : You say, whether we like it or not. Do you mind being associated as a Manchester band?
J : No, not in the least. That was a flippant comment, I didn’t really mean it. As in we’re theirs and there’s nothing we can do about that. I love that and I think we’re their possession. They made us successful. They fuelled us when we needed it. When we had no money, we played Manchester, the gigs got bigger and bigger. I feel like we’re theirs and this celebration will be theirs, not ours. What we’re giving back to them is that we’re back here and we’re yours. I still live in Manchester and I know what it’s like being in James and being in Manchester. It’s wonderful. it really is. I can’t thank the people of Manchester enough. It’ll be a really emotional night for me, I’ll have to try not to burst into tears when I go on stage. I’m trying not to think about it too much. We’ve got stuff in between now and then that we have to do, a bunch of gigs to play and lots of songs we’re working through before then. But yeah, Manchester will be a special night.
I : In the live shows, are you playing both old and new material? Are they fitting together nicely?
J : They are actually. We’ve resurrected lots of old, really old, James songs that we haven’t played for thousands of years, such as If Things Were Perfect from the Factory days around 1985, Really Hard which we haven’t played for hundreds of years, Chain Mail from the mid eighties. A real mixture of odd things but that sounded wonderful, sounded really good. And then the new stuff, we’ve got four new ones we’re taking out with us. We’ve got a pool of about 35 songs now and there might be a couple more added. We’ve got a lot to pick from so we can shuffle it and change it around but it holds together surprisingly well to be honest with you.
I : Do you think you’re picking those from the Factory days because you’re now writing in the same way again?
I’d never thought about it like that to be honest with you. I don’t know to be honest. Basically, me, Larry and Tim sat down with a list of all the songs and we went through picking out the ones that sparked off some interest, either because we hadn’t played it for hundreds of years or we just personally loved it. We ended up with a shortlist of 40 odd that we tried to learn and play through and it was the ones that weren’t cutting the mustard that got left behind, but it wasn’t very many to be honest. I never really thought about it in respect of the way they were written. It was more the way we always picked songs and wrote setlists, we selfishly pick songs we want to play because if we want to play them, then those are the songs that we’d play the best. If a song gets a little tired and gets easy to play and you think there’s no places where you can shift it, then we tend to rest it, put it to one side. We like to play songs where we’re not quite sure what we’re going to do with it, a new one is great for that because everyone’s a bit shaky and you have to concentrate to really make them work. And also look to shift things, change things, move bits, add bits on, or, if someone does something different, look to jump in and follow it. That’s the type of area we like live, the uncertainty of it. Sometimes you fall flat on you face, but occasionally accidentally you bump into a moment of genius. And it’s exciting. It’s risky but it’s exciting. So the set just changes all the time, but really I suppose it’s purely us selfishly picking what we want to do and if we’re playing at our best, that’s the most we can give an audience really.
I : You said before that people got into James at different points through different albums. Do you have a particular favourite period that James went through?
J : I love Laid. I kind of think we’re picking up from Laid in a way now. That’s the last album that Larry did with us. We’d just come back from the Neil Young tour, where we supported him acoustically, where Neil was playing on his own in outdoor amphitheatres. We were playing acoustically and it’s the best tour I’ve ever done, the most enjoyable by far. It was absolutely wonderful. We were all really inspired by that and came back and did Laid. It was also the first album we did with Eno, which was a massive treat as we’d been trying to get him to work with us for years.
That was a very happy period. It was the last album proper that Larry did with us, he was involved a little bit on Whiplash after that, but things were starting to change at that point and I think were starting to dissipate actually.