By Nick Duerden, © 26 April 2007 The Independent
Never mind ‘Sit Down’ – James are standing proud, once again, after coming so close to superstardom in the Eighties. Nick Duerden meets the band.
‘In many ways, we were a very strange band, austere and monkish, with a great belief in our music but none whatsoever in the industry’
In a dark, nondescript room in central London, the only available light coming from a lamp of conveniently low wattage, three members of James sit recollecting the highs, lows and countless missed opportunities of a career that has spanned two eventful decades. Between them, Tim Booth (singer), Jim Glennie (bassist) and Larry Gott (guitarist) generate an awful lot of crows’ feet as they smile and laugh, often simultaneously but never, mercifully, at one another. The air of tension in the room is conspicuous by its absence, which is unusual given that tension was something they appeared to thrive on – until, of course, it destroyed the band.
But, six years on from James’ unofficial demise – prompted when Booth, incapable of communicating with Glennie any more, could no longer take the prevailing negativity and walked – they are back. Having reconvened in a rehearsal space a few months ago to find out whether they still had anything that could pass for the “old magic”, they immediately thrived and, thus encouraged, tentatively announced a spring 2007 UK tour. They then sat back to see whether it would prompt even a glimmer of public interest.
“The whole thing sold out in two hours,” Booth says now, failing to conceal the relief in his voice. “Thirty-five thousand tickets gone just like that. I think it’s fair to say we were greatly encouraged.”
But, as the singer is at pains to stress, this is no ordinary reunion, not just another example of a band coming together solely to cash in on a bank balance-assuaging tour. James, says Booth, still have much to prove.
“We have the seeds of 90 new songs, and that’s what’s been the primary reason for us to get together again: to make new music,” he says. “Admittedly, it has gone off on a slight tangent, what with the tour and record [a forthcoming repackaged hits collection], but we’ve accepted this as a practical necessity. It will finance the next record, and we need the finance because, as of right now, we are an unsigned act – quite possibly the biggest unsigned act in the country, much as we were 20 years ago. How’s that for symmetry?”
Back in the 1980s, James’ entire raison d’être was to do things their own way, irrespective of whether or not it hampered their progress (and it often did). Formed in Manchester in 1982 by Glennie and the original guitarist Paul Gilbertson (whose heavy drug use would see him expelled from the band), they came across Booth at a student disco one night in the throes of what looked like a St Vitus dance, arms and legs flailing, shaggy afro alive with self-generated electricity.
“The ideal front man for us in so many ways,” says Glennie, “because we desperately needed a focus. Without him, we were just a bunch of aimless scallies. Tim was our middle-class drama student with ideas and drive.”
Booth, a vegetarian who liked to dabble in spiritualism, brought a deliberately esoteric edge to the band, and suddenly James became interesting. Dubbed the new Smiths, they signed with New Order’s label Factory in 1983, but things did not proceed smoothly, largely because they distrusted everyone around them.
Booth says now: “In many ways, we were a very strange band, austere and monkish, with a great belief in our music but none whatsoever in the industry. If offers came along, we turned them down summarily: front covers, photo shoots, anything that smacked of cheap commercialism.”
To make ends meet, they subjected themselves to medical trials for Manchester’s Royal Infirmary, using the proceeds to fund small tours, where they rapidly earned a reputation as an unusually involving spectacle. This was due in no small part to Booth’s on-stage antics, which sometimes became so extreme that he would injure himself. On one occasion, he required immediate surgery after damaging his neck.
By the mid-1980s, the band had swapped Factory for the US label Sire, deemed acceptable as it boasted two of their favourite acts – Patti Smith and Talking Heads. But, again, this deal proved a frustrating one, and by the time they sold out their home city’s G-Mex Arena, just as Madchester was beginning to gather pace in 1989, they were without a contract once more. But by this stage, they had written “Sit Down”, their future trump card, and a rousing call to arms that would soon come to define them: “We knew that song would fly,” Booth notes. “It was just a question of when we would ultimately choose to release it. We were biding our time.”
Within three years, they had finally made good on all their potential. “Sit Down”, “Come Home” and “How Was It for You” were huge hits, and James now seemingly headed for superstardom. But behind the scenes, it was becoming increasingly strained.
“I was having real difficulty in dealing with the actual business of being successful,” Booth laments. “I’d recently suffered a relationship break-up, and I was becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the band, who had, shall we say, greater appetites than I.”
When he was 22 years old, Booth almost died from a liver condition. As a result, he has had to watch his narcotic intake ever since, something the rest of James quite palpably didn’t. “I would hardly ever take drugs, simply because my body couldn’t take it,” he says, “and that separated me from people [within the group] who were partying a lot harder than I.”
In 1993, they released Laid, which would go on to sell a million in the US alone, but after a year of touring, Larry Gott quit, which haemorrhaged the band, Booth says now, “much like it would U2 if The Edge had upped and left them. We were on the brink of becoming really big, and suddenly we were thrown into disarray.” He turns to Gott now, palms up in appeasement. “Don’t get me wrong, Larry, I’m not blaming you, but it was a blow.”
Gott shakes his head, his words heavy with regret: “I made a mistake. I realise that now. There was something unique about James that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. It’s just, there were things about you, Tim, that really annoyed me. Now, of course, I accept that these are the characteristics that make you the unique person you are, but back then I could never accept it. That’s why I left. I shouldn’t; I should have stayed.”
More members enrolled, others left, and James limped on. Booth took time out to record with David Lynch’s composer Angelo Badalamenti, and 1997 saw a brief revival of fortunes with the top-10 single “She’s a Star”. “But all through this time,” says Glennie, “our lines of communication were becoming worse. We just didn’t talk, ever.”
Eighteen months after perhaps their most elegant single to date, 1999’s “Just Like Fred Astaire”, Booth left. He wanted to go solo (releasing his album Bone in 2004) and also to start acting (in 2005, he appeared, briefly, as a crazed villain in Batman Begins). Glennie, meanwhile, refused to give up the ghost. He approached Gott, now a struggling furniture designer in Manchester, and they began to play together, largely for pleasure. But after the realisation that they were going nowhere as a duo, they dared contact Booth: “At first, he said no, like I knew he would,” Glennie says, “but later, to my surprise, he reconsidered.”
And so here they are again, back for more, and each member so deep into his forties that none are prepared to admit their precise age. They do look good on it, though: Gott wiser and more pragmatic; Glennie eternally youthful; and Booth bald and goateed, at once friendly and enigmatically detached. Asked whether, like so many of their ilk, they hope now to recapture a little of their lost youth, and the singer will point to Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and the Pixies, two recent examples where a reunion was not merely reliant upon memory but “proof of more petrol in the tank”. Plus, he adds, they are still fuelled by a hunger and ambition you’d expect from men half their age. He plays me a new song, “Chameleon”, which does indeed splutter with the vitality and aggression of youth.
“People have asked whether we are getting back together out of bitterness,” Booth says, “because we never quite had the success everybody expected of us.” He pauses for breath, breathing with a Zen-like serenity that comes direct from his diaphragm. “Why didn’t we become as big as U2 first time around? The whims of history, nothing more.” He smiles benignly. “But this isn’t about recalling our past, it’s about forging forward. We are James. We will not remain in the shadows.”