AFTER picking the blandest band name they could think of, James toiled away in the pop wilderness for more than a decade honing their distinctive sound before success came.
When they finally pierced public consciousness in 1991 with their torch song Sit Down they were denied the top spot for four weeks by one hit wonder Chesney Hawkes.
Not that the chart position mattered. Along with Born Slippy a few years later it tapped into the zeitgeist and was picked up as one of those beery vaguely desperate 90s anthems.
The song was written to remind anyone who has been buffeted by life that they’re not alone, was created in 20 minutes. “Bang, it was there, fully formed,” says bassist and longest serving member Jim Glennie. “We knew we had something special and immediate. It was played, people loved it and it took on a life of it’s own.”
Perhaps it emerged so fully formed because, by the time they wrote it in the late 80s, they’d already been buffeted a fair amount themselves on their journey to it.
Glennie went from the regular arrests on the mean streets of Moss Side to a religious cult, and went from being the next best thing with Factory to being so skint they were paid to test flu drugs in medical experiments.
The band formed in 1981 in Whalley Range, Manchester when Paul Gilbertson convinced best friend Glennie to buy a bass guitar and form a band with him. They practiced in the latter’s bedroom with Gavan Whelan on drums, whose frenetic drum sound became a trademark. Drama student Tim Booth was recruited when they met at a student disco.
When the band was signed to iconic Manchester label Factory Records and filled gigs, they promisingly becoming known as the city’s “best kept secret”. But then they mistrusted Factory, believing them to rate style over substance, and disastrously signed to another label, Sire. “We thought they were the baddies, which of course they weren’t, they were sweethearts,” says Jim. Radio 1 wouldn’t play them, even when they filled the G-Mex twice, the momentum disappeared and they ground to a halt. “We couldn’t see a way forward,” remembers Jim.
During that dark period he turned to religion for solace.
“I went to the Buddhists to learn to meditate. I was blended into this sect called Life Aware.
He meditated for three hours a day and six at the weekend; his biggest stretch was three 18 hour days.
“It was just really about self sacrifice and lots of meditation based,” he says. “It was no meat, no alcohol, and lots of brown rice and local produce. They discouraged going to bars and clubs. It meant that for a while they were pigeon holed as organic carrot chomping Buddhists in the music press. “It was quite insular and the food was really, really boring but it got me clean and gave me a healthy lifestyle.”
Religion came “as the natural progression” from all the recreational drugs he took, which he says, calmed him down.
“Between 18 and 22 I was a very different person,” he recalls. “I was a messed up, unpleasant youth from Moss Side. I used to fight a lot and as I got older got more unpleasant. I was brought up in Moss Side for God’s sake. I was just angry.”
He’s embarrassed to go into particulars. “I’d get arrested!” he says, only half joking. “I used to be so ashamed of what I used to get up to. Friends were involved in knife crime and were quite violent. “We didn’t get involved in guns, they weren’t easily available. The idea of that person absolutely terrifies me now.
“So many of my friends are in prison and I would probably have been banged up too.”
For his teenage son Jake it’s been different. Aged 19 he’s one of a new student generation discovering James.
“Since we split up in 2001 a whole bunch of kids got into Indie music that I don’t think know James apart from bits and bobs on the radio,” says Jim.
“We’ve arrived for the first time in people’s lives and we thought ‘hang on a minute instead of playing big arenas let’s take it to small places.’ His son, he says, is into ‘grime’, a gritty type of rap. “It’s just him and a few mates who get a couple of tracks together and hand them out to friends. He’s so outside the business, which is wonderful. I’m like, ‘well you need to get a demo done and send it to the record companies’ and he’s says ‘we’re just doing it for the fun of it’. ‘Surely not’, Jim laughs to himself.
This time around though, his dad’s band is also more relaxed. They got back together because missed the creative process of making music together.
The “sort of” split in 2001 – it was never actually confirmed – followed the departure of Tim Booth.
“At the time we were touring and we were suppressing a lot to get through it,” recalls Jim. “It stirred up a lot of emotion and we’d fly off the handle with each other if we weren’t careful. It hit me more afterwards when I started missing writing songs.
“I don’t think any band writes songs the way we do,” says Jim. ” Nobody brings in anything prepared and something starts to appear when we’re playing. It moves and shifts, it’s so nebulous. Tim sings phonetics and bits of sentences which don’t make any sense and we listen to each other and have jams between eight and 25 minutes long and then listen back and fit pieces together. It’s just such a buzz.”
The generation they’re playing to can create singles on their home computers and fly up the charts on downloads. Jim’s by no means grudging. In fact there’s a sense of private glee that the record companies, who he thinks have missed a trick with the download revolution. He doesn’t view the slog they had through rose tinted spectacles.
“It’s good for kids to struggle and work hard for what they get.” he says. “But I wish it had fallen a little bit easier to us.”
James plays at Liverpool University on April 12.