Reformed indie rockers James play Birmingham NIA on December 13. Singer Tim Booth talks to Ian Harvey about his school days in the Midlands and one life-changing concert in Wolverhampton.
In May 1977 a group of teenage public schoolboys from Shrewsbury School organised a trip to Wolverhampton Civic Hall to see one of the seminal events in rock history – The Clash’s White Riot tour, with support from The Buzzcocks, The Slits and Subway Sect.
It was a life-changing moment for one of them, Tim Booth, who would years later go on to perform on that very same stage himself as frontman with his own band, indie-rockers James.
Although he had a miserable time as a boarder at Shrewsbury, Booth – who brings James to Birmingham NIA on December 13, 2008 – remembers that chaotic night as a highlight.
“They hardly ever allowed you to go to concerts,” he explains.
“It was like the second punk tour ever and we’re taking a party of about 15 public school boys dressed in school uniforms to watch The Clash, the Subway Sect The Slits and The Buzzcocks.
“It was a riot. Chairs were thrown and it was completely amazing.”
After that it took a bit of persuading for the Shrewsbury schoolmasters to allow the young Booth to attend his next gig.
“They nearly banned us after that first one,” he says.
“But we convinced them that Iggy Pop was not a punk because he’d been around a lot longer. So the second gig we organised was four of us going with the choirmaster to see Iggy Pop at the Manchester Apollo.
“That also had quite an impact when he came out covered with blood and with a devil’s tail between his leg and I got punched out by bouncers at the age of 16 and was like totally in love with Iggy.”
Bradford-born Booth was studying drama at Manchester University when he was spotted gyrating in the students union bar and asked by bassist Jim Glennie, guitarist Paul Gilbertson and drummer Gavin Whelan to join their band as a dancer.
It wasn’t long before Booth was promoted to singer and chief lyricist and the band decided on the name James.
Catching the wave of the 80s “Madchester” music scene, James signed to Tony Wilson’s Factory record label, later leaving for Sire records and, via a series of line-up changes, going on to huge success in the 90s with songs like the anthem Sit Down, Laid and She’s a Star and albums including Gold Mother, Seven and Millionaires.
The band came to a halt in 2001 when Booth quit to concentrate on solo musical projects as well as scriptwriting and acting stints which included a part in the Christopher Nolan film Batman Begins.
But six years later James reformed to embark on a rapturously received tour which then led to the release of this year’s Hey Ma album.
About to embark on a British arena tour with James, Booth pauses when asked about his memories of Shrewsbury.
“I had quite a traumatic time at Shrewsbury School. I think quite a lot of my wounds come from their which has been quite good material,” he laughs.
“I think sending a child away against their will to be in an institution like that is akin to sending someone to prison. And unfortunately I wasn’t able to get out of that mindset and reap the benefits which I’m sure are there and which I’m sure some kids got from it.
“I just felt very alone in an environment which was very alien to me.”
His escape was music.
“Music became this incredibly important, liberating thing that the authorities were trying to stop me listening to and I think that had quite an impact on me becoming a singer by default, because it gave me something to fight against.
“We weren’t allowed to watch telly very often at all and I used to sneak down at night and put Old Grey Whistle Test on the TV and sit on the window ledge in case anybody came down so I could fall out of the window and get away and not get caught.
“We even moulded a key so we could break into the science laboratory and use their TV.
“I used to listen to John Peel down my bed with the radio set because you weren’t allowed to listen to music after 10 o’clock.”
Having just returned from an American tour with James, Booth pronounces himself “shattered but good”.
“On the American tour I think we were playing the best I’ve ever heard us play. It was the most enjoyable tour I’ve ever done, which is kind of bizarre, seeing how long we’ve been together.
“It was amazing. People drove thousands of miles and drove from south America as well and we played to 10,000 people in Mexico.”
James are famous for their method of auditioning song ideas in jamming sessions – an amazing 127 such improvised sessions producing the 11 tracks on Hey Ma – and Booth says they already have “50 or 60 songs” under way for an album they plan to record next year.
“Improvisation leads to some really amazing accidents,” he says. “If you’re a singer songwriter sitting down with a guitar, you can’t do that. In our view it leads to an honest, unconscious originality.
“Next year we’ll be more focused on a new album. We might do festivals but there might not be a major tour, so this could be the last chance to see us for a while. We’re going to throw a few things at this tour and have fun. It’s going to be a celebration really.”
With an ever-changing set-list – the band never performs the same set twice – there might be the chance for fans to hear some of the new material.
“I think we’ll preview at least one or two over different days,” says Booth.
Once off the road his thoughts will turn to the new James album plus a new solo album and the possibility of more acting work.
“There’s so much to fit in at the moment,” he says. “I’m on fire with the band and I’m enjoying singing again having had that break in having a child and acting and writing film scripts too.
“I had a two-or three year break from music which was really good for me. I’m just so loving it again, that’s where I’m at. I’m so busy I don’t know when the hell I’m going to fit any of it in.”
James play at Birmingham National Indoor Arena on Saturday, December 13, 2008, with support from Athlete.