Manchester’s James have to have one of the worst band names out there as far as SEO goes, but you’ll have to forgive them for that: when they first started in 1980, Walter Cronkite was still on the air. And besides, it’s better than the band’s original name, Venereal and the Diseases. Tim Booth joined the band in early 1982, and later that year they would open for New Order at the Hacienda. Since then, the band have had a career filled with ups and downs that culminated with Booth’s departure in 2001.
After a much needed cooling-off period (more on that in a moment), the band reunited in 2007 and began working on new music. In 2008, the band released one of the strongest albums of their career and began touring abroad again, including a stop at the 9:30 Club which was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at the storied venue.
Armed with a new double album, The Morning After The Night Before, James are back on these shores yet again and playing the 9:30 Club tonight. We spoke to a very talkative Booth ahead of the show and discussed a wide range of topics including touring with The Smiths, opening for KoRn at Lollapalooza and a range of other topics.
How did the whole reunion come about?
I left in 2001. Jim and Larry had started working together and rang me in 2005 and I just said no, I wasn’t interested. Then in 2006, Larry was really persuasive that time. He kind of said things had changed. I left really because there were lots of addiction problems within James. So communication got really bad. The last few years had really gotten fraught with internal, dysfunctional family strife. Basically, it was like, if we can work through the stuff we need to work through and our communication can get better and we can relate to each other…I knew the music was not going to be a problem.
That’s interesting that you turned them down the first time. I’ve always wondered what those calls are like. “Remember all those bad things I said about you, I take that all back.”
Larry called as the arbitrator because he had left the band in 1995 or ’96 before the shit had really hit the fan. Jim and I had actually made up just before I left. We had had a few really rough years. But Jim and I have been together since 1981, so if you have a few bad years in such a long relationship, you’ve got to look at the big picture.
Your last album, Hey Ma, might be your best album.
We were very happy with it, worked very hard on it. We wanted to make a record where, if we were coming back, we wanted to make a really good record that stood up to our, what we considered to be our legacy. We had a blast making it. Most of the time. You know, records are always fraught with some tension.
Hey Ma is such a positive record — you can hear the energy in the songs, whereas your new double album is a little darker.
It is fairly dark, but the music doesn’t tend to be dark. There is some contrast going on. “Tell Her I Said So” is a song with a disco beat against a lyric about my mum dying in a [nursing] home. I hope the record isn’t so dark that it’s depressing. I think it’s an uplifting record.
I love this line in the band bio that says “James has always written uplifting songs about insecurity, disaffection and mental illness.” I think that is spot on.
Yes! [laughs] That’s great. Springing from the manic depressive.
But yes, there are definitely some heavy themes on these two albums. Are they double albums or double E.P.’s?
Well, they were meant to be E.P.’s, but in typical James fashion, we had so many songs that we didn’t want to leave them off and we wanted to give people value for their money. So we kept putting songs on the record and they became mini-albums. I don’t know what you call them. They are 30 minute pieces of work. Two of them put together. And they’ve been really put together over here. One album runs in its entirety and then the next one starts. I don’t even know how the running order sounds, I haven’t heard them like that yet. I’m sure the record takes on a different color.
I generally listen to it on my iPod and just press shuffle. That’s quite the conundrum these days. You bands spend all this time on artwork and running orders and then people just throw the music on their iPods and cut it all up.
I was just talking about this with someone. We used to spend two weeks working on the running order, because we feel like the running order is incredibly important. A great book, usually the narrative will not be in linear order. A good book will cut things up, cut perspective up. And we felt like running orders were like that. It can really change the way people hear a whole album by the way we do the running order. That’s partly why we split these into two mini albums. We felt attention spans are not tuned to albums right now. So we released two shorter pieces.
You’re close to 30 years into your career since the first incarnation of the band started playing together. You can’t have thought you’d still be doing this at this point.
No, not at all. Give it two years. I always gave it two years.
And the press has always painted you as underdogs or even underachievers. But now in 2010, it seems like you’re in a pretty good place in your career.
Yes. I think people expected us to have gotten bigger. And on one level I think we had the potential musically to be bigger. I don’t know if psychologically we could have held it. When people become as big as as Nirvana, or as big as Oasis, I don’t think human personalities [are] really equipped to deal with that level of pressure or fame and all the contradictions that come with that. I don’t think psychologically I would have done very well with that. I have a feeling we had exactly what we could stand. We walked away from a lot of big choices. Like the first time the record company begged us to release “Sit Down” in America as a single, and we refused. Yet it was the song that opened doors for us everywhere else in the world. We made a few choices like that where we made the choice to step back. Also, we came from a punk ethos, we were skeptical of fame. All the bands that we loved started to produce shit music when they achieved that fame. Most people lose touch at that point. They get so bogged down with promotion that they don’t have any time to write songs.
Way back in the day you guys opened for The Smiths, right?
We started before The Smiths.
Our bio on iTunes says we were influenced by The Smiths, but actually it’s the other way around. We called ourselves James and they called themselves The Smiths. They covered one of our songs and Morrissey said we were the best band in the world. They took us on tour with them when they got famous and they were so sweet and loving to us. But if there was any influences, it was the other way around. I’m sorry, I just want to put the record straight. I never say this because I don’t want to appear churlish because Morrissey was just a sweetheart to us, all the Smiths were. They tried their best to drag us on their coat tails and we did our best to not go. [laughs] They were just wonderful.
That’s mind-boggling for me.
It is pretty weird isn’t it? We were influenced by Joy Division and The Fall. I was influenced by Iggy Pop and Patti Smith. They were the two spirits that really affected me.
I also wanted to ask you about Lollapalooza 1997. That was the first time I had seen the band and it was such a strange scene with you on before KoRn. Obviously that wasn’t the right audience for you guys, which is putting it mildly. What do remember about that tour?[laughs] We had started to fall apart just before that tour. I had ruptured two disks in my neck…
Oh yeah, the neck brace!
I was in a neck brace. We called the album Whiplash and then I gave myself Whiplash. Go figure. We were having lots of internal problems and that tour became the tour from hell for most of the band members. Everybody was completely fucked on that tour except for me, I was lying on my back with a nurse looking after me. I remember the first gig they [the crowd] were heckling us and shouting “faggot.” By the third gig, I had managed to find these sparkling tops and a little sparkly skirt, so if we were going to be faggots, we were going to be faggots. So we dressed up completely in matching mirrorball tops. So they [the crowd] would shout “faggot,” and I would say “I appreciate the fact that you are attracted to me enough to inquire about the nature of my sexuality.” We would take them on and we had quite a good time playing with the KoRn audience. I would go walkabout in my neck brace, my cowboy hat and sparkly top and go sing to the people hurling abuse. And I didn’t go with anger, and they didn’t know what to do with me. The cameras would be on them and I never got punched out. I always expected to get flattened by one of these tattooed, muscle bound guys and I never did. They’d offer me drugs or give me a drink. One guy asked me for a hug. And what happened was KoRn started watching our sets from the side of the stage to see how we would deal with their audience and at the end of the tour they came up to us and said “You’re our favorite band, will you come on tour with us for the American tour we are about to do.” We said thanks, but we’d had enough. [laughs]
James play the 9:30 Club tonight with opener Ed Harcourt. Tickets are available for $27.50. Doors are at 7 p.m. See you there.