Virgin Music interviews Tim Booth from James about ‘The Morning After’, ‘The Night Before’, ecstatic dance and why Simon Cowell has a lot to answer for.
Bob Fear: We’re here in the Fish Factory and you’re holed up here to record part 2 of the new album. How’s it been going?
Tim Booth: It’s going great actually, quite surprisingly. We gave ourselves five days to mainly improvise song arrangements and lyrics. We came crawling off a tour so we were pretty exhausted. But it’s gone great – I think we’re almost too exhausted to argue with each other, which is a definite plus and it’s helped with the process. We’re surprising ourselves, coming up with some really unusual takes on songs. One sounds a bit like Blondie, as we all went disco in the middle of the song, which is pretty unusual for James.
BF: You’re famous for your improvisations, working with producers like Brian Eno and trying things out. Is this process the same as that – finding mad, new sounds and going with them?
TB: Yeah, this is fairly similar to how we did “Laid’ with Brian. We did about four albums with Brian so each one was very different though. It’s quite acoustic, we want it to be quite low key. We are not wanting to make songs peak in the obvious places, which we are rather good at. So it is like trying to resist the chocolate cake, holding us back from peaks and troughs. It’s just looking for different ways to emphasize things, elongating parts we wouldn’t normally elongate and shortening bits you would normally lengthen, playing with our own expectations of ourselves. We’re doing it in a really calm way. This can be the most fraught part of James because everyone has a lot of ideas of how the song should go and can get very passionate about it – to the point of coming to blows. This time that isn’t happening, which is quite a relief.
BF: So it is a democracy in the James camp?
TB: Yes, that might be fair to say. Democracy is a bit too idealistic a word in this situation, but people are working together really well. People have certain jobs to do and they know what they are and everyone seems to be accepting their own roles.
BF: That massively contrasts the first mini-album, where there was a virtual recording process?
TB: The first mini-album was called ‘The Night Before’ – this one is called ‘The Morning After’. ‘The Night Before’, we wanted mainly uplifting songs. We improvised a load of tracks, stuck them on the internet. Any member of the band could download the song, do what they wanted, mess around with it, put it back on the internet. Then another band member could take it and run with it. We did it across continents and across cyberspace, essentially. Then there was this guy Lee ‘Muddy’ Baker who was our producer on ‘Hey Ma’. He’s a lovely man and a great mediator. He took all that and kind of made it into a presentable shape at the end of it. It was done in quite an Eno-esque, challenging way in order to bring something else put of us that we hadn’t had before.
BF: So the first time you heard each other’s contributions when Lee put them all together, or were you more involved in the production side of it?
TB: I would hear different stages from different people. Mark might have a version going and Larry might have a version going. You would just hope Lee would get the best out of both worlds, which he did, because he is very good at balancing. I was always optimistic about the process. Some people were quite freaked out within our band and management. The band has a lot of talent within it, it always has, really unrecognized talent. Mark, our keyboard player, is a very modest fellow. He is immensely gifted and he shone on ‘The Night Before’. That method of working in cyberspace really allowed him to come to the fore. Each member of the band could have his own band. We seem to be settling into a good place right now.
BF: The album is out now, I was just listening to it on the way over, naturally I love it. ‘Crazy’ is one of the standout tracks, what’s the story there?
TB: I had an undiagnosed liver disease all through my teens, it was inherited. I was bright yellow but nobody diagnosed it. So I just got on with it, even though I was a quite sickly child. It had interesting states of mind that went with it, a lot of insomnia, sometimes hallucinations. Definitely delusions, probably of grandeur, but more often than not mood swings and panic attacks. Also thinking you could hear people’s voices. I had that for ten years or so. So I assumed I was mad and I would one day be certified. When I got to 30 and wasn’t certified crazy I had a party. When it got diagnosed around 21 it got easier, as I knew what food to avoid, what drugs to avoid, what alcohol to avoid and it just became much easier after that.
BF: And now you live a much healthier lifestyle?
TB: Yeah, that’s what really led me into alternative health and that kind of world, it was purely necessity. I nearly died in hospital, I stopped breathing. The doctors said they had no cure for this and I didn’t believe that. I went out and got acupuncture and many more extreme holistic health systems than I would care to admit to. Some worked and some didn’t. It refueled an interest in meditation and that world.
BF: Is that where the ecstatic dancing comes from as well?
TB: Kind of. When I was sick dancing was the thing. I could express my rage and sadness and whatever I wanted through my dance. I always danced in a very strange way, even before I labeled it ecstatic dance. I had knives drawn on me twice by people who didn’t like the way I dance. This was before rave and people danced in a very conservative way and I didn’t. I used to throw myself around – that’s how I got in the band. They asked me to dance for them because they thought that would look interesting onstage.
BF: Do you still go to that space onstage now?
TB: Absolutely. That’s the real pleasure of it, if you can get there. When I was late in my twenties I found a system of Shamanic dance where you can go into altered states quite easily and come out of them. I learnt that, and learnt to teach that and it made life easier. I was staggering around in the dark before, it was very hit and miss and I’d often damage myself in the process.
BF: How was playing the Royal Albert Hall recently?
TB: It was amazing. It was phenomenal, but don’t tell anyone – we didn’t. We played the Albery Hall with The Smiths in about 1984 and I remember we couldn’t reach beyond the first 20 rows, or project to the back of the hall. It was out of our league at the time. It has only taken us about 25 years to get back there. The building totally adds to the whole experience, it’s like being in a coliseum. It was a great gig.
BF: And you’re looking forward to a summer of festival action?
TB: Yeah, summer festivals. We’ve got a secret thing happening as well that is going to be unusual, but I can’t tell you about it yet. And we’ve got a US tour, which I’ve been pushing for two years and finally we’ve got it. Then a Christmas tour as well.
BF: I wanted to ask, predictably, about your take on the current British political scene. Your songs have lots of political references, what is your take now?
TB: I was in America for the whole of the Barack Obama election and that was thrilling cinema, captivating. You can see in England they are trying to captivate the same excitement. Of course they can’t, it wasn’t going to be such a landmark election. We don’t have democracy in this country, it’s a complete sham. Unless you have proportional representation, it’s outrageous. America don’t have democracy either, they have lobbying, which is bribery by any other name. All the politicians are controlled by how much they are paid by the armaments industry, the medical industry, the oil companies. They are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by those companies so they do what they are told. Where the hell is a real democracy I don’t know – it certainly isn’t in America and it isn’t in England. I’ve been living away from England for the last few years. It is a country of opinion and the newspapers just stoke up people’s discontent the whole time. I’ve been in cabs recently and asked ‘what newspaper do you read?’ I’ve written down The Daily Mail and when they answer The Daily Mail I hold what I’ve written up. They moan the whole time – moan. The Daily Mail works on the basis that the past was somehow better than the present, which generally I don’t think is true at all. I wish England would stop moaning. I think it really comes from losing the empire, essentially, this time when we were the top dog, now we’re back to being a small island in Europe. It’s a bit hard for those egos who were brought up with visions of the empire to adjust. Anyway, I rambled!
BF: Does any of this inform you in the studio, or does it just bore you?
TB: I did enjoy the debate last night, but it’s such theatre. It’s all a movie, life’s a movie. With Rupert Murdoch’s control of the media and Simon Cowell’s control of creativity, it’s all a show and all a sham. They have the control. That enrages me sometimes, that whole X Factor thing where everything you do is about becoming famous. If your record sells a lot of copies it’s a good record – it’s the capitalization of art. Even Damien Hurst goes on about how much money he makes; that isn’t my idea of art. Not that he doesn’t have moments of artistic inspiration, but it just is breeding this idea that art is valued in money. It isn’t – art is one letter away from the word ‘hart’. For me the best art comes from the heart, not from the head. It moves people and that’s why you do it, it has to come out. We are dinosaurs in that sense, in this particular culture we are in at the moment. We are quite happy to be dinosaurs, we have a good audience of people that appreciate what we do and we’re happy with that.
BF: I very much appreciate it myself, your music is inspirational.
TB: We feel very much out of touch with the mainstream and out of touch with the cool NME London press. We know that we have nothing to do with that and don’t fit in that world. We just do our thing. We do our thing with belief and heart and integrity. And we have faith. I watched Leonard Cohen for 20 years when he was in the wilderness, nobody could give him the time of day and every critic slagged him off. Now those same critics say he’s the great god of lyrics. Brian Eno had the same thing when he invented ambient music. He told me he left for America because he was so fed up with the critics telling him ambient music was like watching paint dry. So he left for America where he met Talking Heads, and the rest is history. We just do our thing. Time may come back to us, the culture may cross our path again, we might suddenly become interesting to the culture. Or we may just be writing for the people who discover us. And that’s all we can do.
James new mini-album ‘The Night Before’ is out now, while volume two ‘The Morning After’ will be released on Monday 2nd August.
The band play the following UK dates this Christmas:
Thursday 9th December London – Hammersmith Apollo
Friday 10th December London – Brixton Academy
Sunday 12th December Birmingham Academy
Tuesday 14th December Leeds Academy
Wednesday 15th December Leicester – De Montfort Hall
Friday 17th December Glasgow – SECC
Saturday 18th December Manchester Evening News Arena