“What’s with all you English guys coming in today?” the coffee shop guy asked Jim Glennie, bassist and founding member of the band James, as we waited to purchase some drinks.
“I’m in a band called James,” he said. “We’re playing down the street tonight.”
“Did you guys have a hit in the ’90s?”
“Yeah, ‘Laid,’” I said, jumping in.
“Right on,” the guy said. “I’m going to check it out on my iPhone while you drink your coffee.”
James is a band I never thought I would see live. A fan since the early ’90s, I followed the band up to its demise following 2002’s Pleased to Meet You when infighting derailed the group. After reforming seven years later with Hey Ma (with guitarist Larry Gott in tow, he quit the band in 1995), James is now touring behind the excellent mini-albums The Night Before/The Morning After. Before a triumphant show at Portland’s Wonder Ballroom, I got to catch up with Glennie and Gott during a lively chat where we talked about setlists, androgynous album covers and politics. I’m very proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Jim Glennie and Larry Gott of James.
I’m sure a lot of people have said to you guys, “I never thought I would get the chance to see James in concert.” Is that something you guys hear a lot?
LG: Um… yeah! I think that was the overwhelming feeling here. Especially since a lot of people seemed to have discovered us since we last came here through the advent of YouTube and Spotify and things like that. The American audience has gotten to know James quite well and they’re like, “Oh shit! We get to see that lot again!” When we came back two years ago, there was a real resurgence, if you like. We heard it a lot on that tour because it was the first time we’d been here in a long time.
The group had also been broken up for six years. But you were gone for longer, Larry.
LG: Yeah, I was gone a lot longer. A lot longer. I’ve got a doctor’s note (laughs).
Jim, you and I just had that experience at the bar with the guy who asked if you guys do that song “Laid.” Does that happy a lot here in America?
JG: That’s common for over here, which is absolutely fine. The great thing about us is that every country we’ve had success in has a different song that is connected with the people. In the UK, “Sit Down” is a big tune and “Sometimes” is number one in Portugal. In Greece, it’s “Say Something.”
LG: In South America, it’s “Getting Away with It.”
JG: Yeah, very, very different songs. Which is great because you don’t have this weighty albatross around you. I think coming back to this tour – and hopefully we’ll be coming back around relatively quickly next year – we know that we would be rounding up a lot of people who knew James from the Laid period. Although we did a lot of stuff after that, it’s still a favorite for people. People are reconnecting with that and we are pulling them in and they are learning about the stuff we’re doing now. That’s fine.
You guys have 30 years of material to draw on when writing up a setlist. Do you tailor it to the location that you’re in?
LG: Yeah, we do to some degree. Like “Señorita” is a song that’s not often in the setlist, but if we’re playing in either Greece or South America…
LG: Yeah, Spain. That’s a really well-known song there, so we will put it in. So yeah, we do tailor the setlist. Things like “Sit Down” are an ace card to play at a particular point in the game. Depending on where you put it in the set, you can play with it in different ways because it has such a high expectation. Let’s say, in England for example, we might start the set with it. Me and Tim [Booth] walk through the audience playing acoustic guitar and voice. Then it becomes a big sing-along type of it. It’s an unexpected beginning to the show. If you save it for the end of the set, it becomes the big hit at the end of the set. Or you can put it right in the middle of the set. You can play a really slow, new song and then you give them the most well-known song. So, you can play with it. It becomes a juxtaposition. So in different countries, there are different songs that suit that same purpose.
So if you try that with “Sit Down” here is that akin to Iggy Pop jumping off the stage and the audience stepping away?
LG: (laughs) Not quite as disastrous but I get the connection.
JG: We’ve changed the set a lot on this tour. We’ve introduced loads and loads of songs like historical old ones that we haven’t played for thousands of years. Obviously lots off the new record. We’re playing about two hours. The main set is 17 songs with some encores. We added up yesterday how many different songs we’ve played on this tour. So far, we’ve played 46 different songs.
LG: In concert, so not including the soundcheck ones we haven’t played live yet.
JG: We’re probably at 50 then.
Who determines that?
JG: It depends on who writes the setlist. Me and Saul [Davies] did last night. Tim does it quite often, but he seems to have drifted out in the last few gigs at least. But then other members of the band start asking why certain songs are omitted the minute the list is written.
LG: I can’t be bothered (laughs).
JG: Last night was painful because there was at least six songs that people, both individually and collectively, were saying, “Oh, why is that not in there?” You just can’t play them all!
So who advocates what song the most?
JG: It just depends.
On your mood?
JG: Well, you just get fed up with stuff and that is why you change the setlist. Because when you play something and it starts to get a little bit stale, you rest it. Also, we like to put spikes in the set where we don’t normally do it. Spikes where you really, really have to work to make it work. If you play two big hits or two well know songs, you do know if you make some mistakes people will sing along and you will get away with it. You stick a new song in and it has 100 percent to compete with those. Or if you put in a song people don’t know, you’ve really gotta work. Because you reach a certain point in the set and you’ve gotta dig in and you gotta find all of your resources and all your focused attention to make that as good as the things to come alongside of it. And we like that challenge. We like keeping ourselves on our toes like that.
LG: Other variables can come into it, as well. Last night, we played in Vancouver. The set that Jimmy and Saul wrote turned out to be quite a challenging set for the audience. For the first two-thirds, there weren’t many well-known songs in there. Some great stuff and the crowd was with us all the way. They listened to the quiet songs. You could hear a pin drop at some points and they really responded. But when we played a song they knew really well, they really cheered whether they knew it or not. They won us over, do you know what I mean? With a challenging set. Then at the end there was a couple of well-known songs. Then for the encore, we had three songs we were going to do. The first one was another not-so-well-known song, but it’s a brilliant live song and we love to play it. But we went, “Nah, we won’t do that one.” But we put in something that they know. It’s like we treated them.
JG: It’s like, “We’ll let them enjoy this little bit. We won’t make them work any harder. Instead of them sitting there listening, we’ll just let them party now.”
LG: Let’s just have a party.
JG: We’re flexible still. When we’re up there, we’ll just stop and change things.
LG: We’ve changed things halfway through the set. We’d get halfway through the set and…
JG: It was just another dip, wasn’t it?
LG: We don’t want to go down that road. So we just pulled that out.
JG: Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it will be changed right before we go on stage and it makes it a real pain in the arse. It sets a really unpleasant tone before we go on the stage (laughs).
At this specific junction of the tour, which songs are you guys really excited about playing live?
LG: Of the new songs, “Dust Motes.” It’s just beautiful and fragile. It sounds wonderful. I just love playing that one. Of the old songs? “Laid.” I just love playing “Laid.” In America, I just love playing “Laid.” When you hit those opening chords, crowd just… You know, I don’t even realize I’ve played it, by the time we get to the end of it because I’m just feeding off what the crowd is doing. I’m looking around and see happy faces, arms held aloft, heads just thrown back.
JG: We get stage invasions as well, so we just have to go along with that. It adds chaos and mayhem to it.
Tim doesn’t do the adulterated lyrics on the stage here?
I remember when that song came out you had to change the lyrics for the radio.
LG: That was so stupid. That was really…
If you were singing about shooting someone, it would have been all right.
LG: Of course, it would.
JG: Yeah, sex: no. (laughs) Women having an orgasm? No! Enjoying yourself? No, definitely not!
LG: I do wish he changed it to “hums” instead of “sings.” She’s on top.
JG: He did once, didn’t he?
LG: (sings) “She only hums when she’s on top.” Everybody would have not gotten the joke.
JG: He did a few different ones when we did TV shows, changed it around a little bit.
LG: Yeah, but for the video, it was “sings.”
JG: Was it?
How about songs for you, Jim?
JG: The new stuff. The new stuff is exciting and a bit scary. It’s good fun. Plus some of the old stuff we’ve rarely played before.
LG: “Bring a Gun” off of Seven has come back.
JG: Yeah, we’ve played that twice on the tour, haven’t we? We haven’t played that for thousands of years. But yeah, stuff like that.
LG: You rediscover an old song. It says, “Play me! Play me!” But you never do. But then you play it.
JG: We played “God Only Knows” the other day. We played that once on this tour.
LG: Yeah, we played that in Salt Lake City. It’s one of the most religious cities. And there was a Christian rock band playing next door. It was that kind of vibe. There’s a Christian rock band next door, we’re in Salt Lake City, so we did “God Only Knows.”
So you have the lineup back that played on Laid. Can you briefly describe to me what you were wearing on the album cover?
LG: A banana. I was wearing a banana.
JG: I was wearing a stretchy miniskirt that was my girlfriend’s. Because it was stretchy I could get into it. And a fairly tight, chiffon, long-sleeved black top which was a bit of trouble to get into but it looked okay in the photo. That was about it really.
LG: He wussed out because what he wore was essentially a pair of black shorts and a black T-shirt.
JG: My girlfriend only ever wore black, so I was lucky! So I didn’t get all the bright, garish, old duncey look. I got the cute and sexy and sleek. I was quite happy with that.
LG: I wasn’t taking the thing very seriously at all so I set it up a little bit by wearing the ridiculous, flowery frock. I wore a straw hat as well.
JG: The thing is, the idea wasn’t to get an album sleeve at the photo shoot. That was just one idea at a three-day photo shoot. That was the steps of the Marseilles cathedral opposite a police station. So the fact that a bunch of English guys wearing dresses on the steps of the Marseilles cathedral. I’m amazed we didn’t get arrested. The reason we’re eating bananas is because we were starving. We had been taking photos for most of the day and our manager went out to get food and came back with bananas. That’s all he could find. So, it wasn’t a set-up photo shoot for the cover, at all. The idea was we’d put on our girlfriends’ clothes, we’d have a bit of a laugh and see what comes out of it. So it wasn’t like, “Let’s do the album sleeve. Now, what are you going to wear and how is that going to look here?” It was much more casual than that.
Now that you’re all back together again, has anyone floated the idea of revisiting that?
JG: The dresses?
LG: Andy [Diagram], the trumpet player, he always wears dresses.
JG: He was the only one not in that photo.
I meant recreating the album cover.
JG: Recreating the album cover? NO! No one has suggested that yet, funnily enough. Thank the Lord (laughs).
LG: Oooh, ooooh, I just involuntarily shivered.
JG: Did you?
LG: Who brought you? Who invited you to show up with these stupid, fucking ideas?
Do you think that anyone would want to see that?
JG: Us wearing the dresses again?
JG: I’m not quite sure. I’m not quite sure. It might look slightly creepy now with age.
(Larry Gott begins rolling a cigarette)
Does the cigarette rolling mean that we have to wrap this up?
LG: No, it’s just preparation. In this country, you never know when your smaaaaaall window of opportunity to have a cigarette shows itself. Usually by the time you roll your cigarette, that opportunity is gone. So I roll them ahead of time.
I’ve noticed in a lot of Tim’s lyrics, I’ve noticed a lot of references to movie stars that aren’t alive anymore. Debonair types like Yul Brynner, Richard Burton, Ava Gardner. Are you guys film buffs?
LG: Well, yes. Tim is probably a bigger film buff than we are.
JG: He’s done acting. There’s that side of him and he’d love to do more acting. So, I suppose to some degree, I think he is.
Love and politics seem like two big themes but they have become more explicit. For example, “One of the Three” is about a hostage situation but it also serves as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity. But now, the lyrics in “Hey Ma” are pretty overt. Does the situation in the world now dictate more overt messages?
LG: I don’t know. It’s always a tricky one, the idea of a protest song. If you do it poorly, it can be a death knell in some respects. It’s like using your art to ram your message down people’s throats. We have enough of that already. But on the flip side, the vacuity of modern pop music may make you say something serious. Not necessarily shocking, but at least something thought-provoking. And “Hey Ma/ The boys in body bags are coming home in pieces,” is thought-provoking and it’s shocking. I’m glad that he made that song. He feels a little uncomfortable with that song because he thinks it’s political, meaning he wrote it as a reaction to the Bush and Blair machinated hell and what they forced unwilling voters and the population into. I know in England, there was a massive demonstration that said, “Not in my name, Mr. Blair.” It was his reaction to that. But for me, it’s just a love song from a mother to her dead son. Whoever that may be. Whether he’s American, an English person or an Iraqi or an Afghani who’s lost her child.
It’s pretty fucked that your country waited so long for a Labour Party PM to get into power but then you get this guy who puts people into harm’s way.
LG: Yeah, that was a little bit shocking.
JG: Thatcher was so far right that you could be Tony Blair and still appear left wing.
Same thing here with Obama.
I guess Blair did help broker the peace in Northern Ireland.
JG: Ed Miliband. That’s a great left wing move. He was up against his brother David to become Labour Party leader. David was the clear favorite and he’s very centrist, very much a Blairite. His brother Ed isn’t. Ed is from the far left wing and Ed won. It’s a good start.
Another lyrical question. I notice in James songs there are a lot of interesting phrases that sound like colloquialisms but they’re not. Like “Cut the Herman free from the Hesse” and “Knuckle too far.” Things like that that people don’t normally say, but somehow you guys are able to pull them off and make it sound like they are part of the idiom. Does Tim use strange phrases like that?
LG: No, in everyday language he doesn’t tend to. But you’re right. When he is faced with the challenge of writing a lyric, he’s driven by stealing away from colloquialisms, clichés, normal rhyming couplets. He looks at his lyric and re-writes his lyric until he finds the more left-field or the more esoteric way of saying what he wants to say. He does tend to come up with these phrases. But they sound familiar, yeah. You’re right. Like “Dust Motes.” It’s not something in everyday language yet it is all the day around us. You get little floaters in your eyes, little things that you see when the sunlight streams through the window. It’s all those little dust motes.