James embarked on a North American tour in support of the U.S. release of The Morning After The Night Before, a unification of their two, U.K. released, mini-albums. The fifth stop on the tour was Boston’s Paradise Rock Club on September 25, 2010 and after being allowed to witness the soundcheck, musicologist DJ Ambient and I were able to secure some time before the actual show to speak with band members Tim Booth (vocals and lyrics) and Jim Glennie (bass). Without a quiet and comfortable place to conduct the interview within the club, we were kindly invited into the band’s comfy tour bus, and what ensued was more like a congenial conversation about James and the new album, rather than a formal interview.
It seems like you guys are more focused and re-energized, even more so than when you guys first re-formed for Hey Ma, do you feel that same way?
TB: Yeah, we do.
JG: I think Hey Ma sounded like a James record to me, like we were re-establishing ourselves, like we went back, to some degree, where we left off. And I think that kind of gave us the platform to look for something a little bit different this time. I think we tend to do that. Don’t we tend to react to the record we’ve just released?
JG: And I think this record’s a bit more like, okay let’s just push things a little bit, let’s kinda see where we can go with this.
TB: How can we shake it up a bit more.
It seems like the guitars are more part of it now. It seems like there’s a lot more atmospheric guitar effects swirling around in the background. Is that intentional or is that the way you guys wrote the songs or did it just kind of happen?
TB: I think what you’re hearing are quite likely not guitars. It could be keyboards, it could be trumpet, because they’re all messing around with effects and often the sound guys hear the record and they come to approach us and then they go, oh I thought that was a guitar, and it ends up being something completely different. So there’s a lot of effects that people are using and playing with all the time. Basically on Hey Ma, we were in a dilapidated French Chateau and each person in their room had their own computer and their own system and we discovered that nearly everybody could operate their own recording studio. So once we discovered that, it was like, how could we utilize that? So that was partly the thinking that lead to the next album. Which was let’s put it all on the internet and people can download it, fuck around with it in their own studios and then put it back on the internet and let’s see what happens.
So you guys didn’t necessarily all come together for this new record?
TB: You mean for the Night Before?
JG: Over here it’s just one record isn’t it.
TB: Yes, over here it’s one record. In our heads it’s The Morning After, The Night Before. The Morning After’s one record, The Night Before’s another. The Night Before was created, we did 20 minute jams, 40 minute jams, me, Larry (Gott) and Jimmy. We put them on an internet site, the band members could download them, chop them up, put them back on the internet site, download, chop up, put their parts on. And it just became this relay race that was going on. And then finally after we gave a two month deadline, Lee Baker took it and shaped them, with us overseeing it. So that’s half the album. The other half was done five days in a studio, in the middle of a tour, let’s play everything live.
So that was The Morning After?
TB: That was The Morning After. So the lower key songs were done in that way, and the more kind of “chakka!”, triumphant sounding epic songs were done on the internet.
That leads me to my next question, why two mini-albums?
TB: Two totally different characters and people’s short attention spans.
Although in the US it’s one album.
TB: It was always going to be put together, I think, in our heads, someway. But it enabled us to do the low key stuff too. We always have low key songs but we haven’t released an album of them since Laid. And it was like, well let’s do a little mini-album of all these really nice, slightly more mellow songs.
JG: If you listen carefully, a James record kind of goes up and down, and so we fall into that area of writing really, really easily and naturally, and most of the time we write with a drum machine and the drum machine is banging away. When you switch it off, someone will just start playing something and, very organically and naturally, drift into something lovely and very, very beautiful. But at the end of it you wind up with ten of these things and you say what are we going to do? And again instead of having one you’ve got many to put somewhere on the album, at the beginning or the end or something. And we thought instead of having to leave all these things behind, let’s try and make something around them, like that’s the body of the work. I think having two approaches to the songs and having two parts, with The Night Before a lot of the initial attention of a release of a record was on that record, at least we perceived it like that. So on the second one I think we felt we could just be a bit more like nobody was watching. We could just kind of throw things around and use more broad strokes and I think that that’s benefitted that approach as well.
We were touring and so were playing really well and you’ve got to get things together very quickly. You can’t go back and repair. You can’t go back and fiddle around or overdub, so it’s about people listening and playing and so things get a bit fragile, but it’s okay, it’s got a kind of nice, natural element to it.
What are some of the biggest obstacles you have to overcome to play these songs you made in the studio and actually play them live? Is that difficult at times?
TB: Some of them present themselves as more obviously going to work live. Some of them fall into place really effortlessly and some of them are real devils and take a lot of pursuing and sometimes we give up. We’ve always used our soundchecks to discover and to discover old songs and discover new songs and so this new thing we’ve got where fans can come and pay and see the soundcheck is playing to our strengths. I’m really enjoying this and it sets a really nice mood before we go on. It’s like you meet people.
JG: You’ve broken the ice haven’t you.
TB: In a humorous light way too. Cause I can get terribly nervous before concerts.
Get out of here!
JG: Oh he does yes, even after all these years.
TB: It somehow takes some of the edge off.
Do you ever forget the words to some of the songs?
TB: Oh yeah. But because it’s James and we’re allowed to improvise, if I forget the words I’m just improvising.
JG: Pretend it’s poetry.
TB: We make mistakes all the time.
JG: Things go wrong all the time. I mean lots of technical things as well but a lot of things can go wrong. Things break, things go out of time, the wrong song starts. We used to beat ourselves about that and we’d get very tense and uptight. Now it’s just kind of funny and we just realize, oh it’s real, things can go wrong.
TB: We actually think it’s part of our originality. We know bands who, before tours, they rehearse for three or four weeks.
JG: And the same set and the same songs
TB: Day after day and I can’t think of anything more dull.
JG: So destroying.
TB: We’re lucky we get a day or two.
That’s what I was going to ask you guys. Do you guys play the same songs every gig?
TB: We change every night.
JG: Every night, every day. Cause, you know we’re there every night
TB: It’s a pain in the ass sometimes
JG: It is, we’ll argue.
Like how can you really get into the song if you’re playing the same thing every night, every night.
JG: You switch off after a while or it becomes mundane, your mind can drift yet you’re still playing, and for us that’s kind of not being there. One of the things that fuels us is the fear. The fear we have to come and make it work. You have to focus, you have to concentrate. That’s why we wrote new songs or play songs that we’ve not played like in a thousand years, like “Jam J” we played in the soundcheck. I think we’re going to do that in the gig. What, 14 years do you reckon? (TB nods in agreement). It’s like that fear to make it happen and compete with the songs around it which everybody knows.
TB: And we’ll be looking at each other because we don’t know the cues, but that adds to the song. It isn’t a detraction, it isn’t amateur, we’re purposely putting one hand behind our back.
JG: You’ve got to challenge yourselves, you’ve got to keep challenging yourselves to pull the most out of yourself. It’s very easy to sit there and run through the same set of things people know or just cruise through it week after week, that’s just so destroying.
You played at this same place a couple years ago and I noticed than that you didn’t play anything off of Millionaires or what was the other one?
JG: Pleased To Meet You.
Was there a reason for that? Did you purposely avoid those?
Jim remembered you didn’t play anything off of Pleased To Meet You so there must have been a reason.
TB: Well, there’s probably a couple things there. One is, probably at that point maybe we had a few memories of making those albums that were not pleasant.
I see, and I don’t think Larry (Gott) was on those records.
TB: And Larry wasn’t on them so he’d have to learn stuff fresh if he were going to (play them). Millionaires, I don’t think we play much from Millionaires do we, I don’t think, very often, like anything for that matter.
JG: Don’t we?
TB: I don’t think so.
Well tonight I want you to play something off of Millionaires.
TB: We’re doing more and more from Pleased To Meet You.
That’s cool too.
TB: We’ve done “Fine”, not this tour, “Getting Away With It” will probably get played
TB: I can’t think of any others
JG: “Alaskan Pipeline”, “Vivacious” we played the last tour
TB: We did. We’ve got some of them down for next year.
DJ Ambient: My vote’s for “Go To The Bank”, I love that song.
JG: “Go to the Bank”!
TB: We’ve never played that as live song.
JG: We’ve never done that live?
TB: I think we may have tried but I don’t think we could do it to our own standards.
JG: Yeah there’s a few difficulties.
DJ Ambient: That took me immediately the first time I heard it, wow this is good song.
TB: Maybe we should look at that next time, that’s such a weird little beat. Mark (Hunter) wouldn’t have the stuff with him now.
I like how you were getting the crowd to sing the chorus to “Tell Her I Said So” during the soundcheck, but on the record it sounds like children.
TB: It is, yeah. Saul (Davies) went into his son’s school and recorded his classmates.
Who is Dr. Hellier? Is he a real person?
JG: You have to be careful now don’t you.
Based on a real person?
TB: Actually yes, with a changed name. What do you say? All characters bear no resemblance to anyone living or dead. I had a few experiences last year with surgery, not just for me but for a friend who underwent some cancer surgery. And it was kind of equating that with the weaponry used in Afghanistan where they are chasing the Taliban and they take out a wedding party in the process and that kind of love, that gung ho-ness about technology, they hype the precision of these things that end up not being that precise in the end. And there’s also something about American surgeons, I’ve noticed they all tend to be like James Bond, rather than in England they tend to be looked upon like healers. They aren’t making a million a year.
Do you have a particularly favorite James album or one that you’re particularly proud of?
JG: It changes around but I suppose Gold Mother and Laid if I was going to pick two.
How about you Tim?
TB: I don’t know. I don’t go back and listen to them a lot. I mean we literally could go years, and you only go back and listen to it because you’ve got some work to do, to learn a song, or you’re stoned and you think, I don’t do drugs very often, I wonder what it sounds like in this state. Which is about once every three years.
JG: Or somebody may come back on the bus and say I was listening to Strip Mine the other day, there’s some great songs on it, you should listen to this or they’ll individually go back to an album they’re inspired by and convince everyone to try it.
TB: And to play it live.
Believe it or not, a lot of people in the States haven’t heard of you guys.
TB: Of course
And every time I tell them I love James they always ask what kind of music do they play.
And I’m like, I can’t describe it. Do you have any advice for me on what I should tell them?
TB: In one sense, we named the band James, because we wanted a name that didn’t give away what type of music we play. That was one of our major arguments wasn’t it?
I heard that you named it after Jim (Glennie).
JG: Kind of, but we stuck with my name because we wanted a person’s name, that’s it basically.
TB: Because we knew that would literally confuse people and we think we’ve been successful.
It makes it very hard to Google and find your music online.
TB: Unfortunately it was before the days of Google. It’s unfortunate that we’re victims of the search engines now. It was very effective for us in the end.
JG: It’s good fun, people not knowing really what we are
TB: And we wanted it to be as variable as an individual, so it wasn’t tied to something.
I’m looking forward to the show.
TB: Good, it should be fun. I think we’re going to do quite a weird little set tonight. I feel a strange set coming on and I have a really interesting idea on how we can end it. We’ve never done before.
Well, alright, thank you very much, good luck tonight and have fun up there.
TB & JG: Thank you and take care.