In 2008, James released Hey Ma, an album that found the core of the band—Tim Booth (vocals), Jim Glennie (bass), and Larry Gott (guitars)—playing together again for the first time in 10 years. Hey Ma was an album rife with the sharp, melodic song craft that endeared James to audiences Stateside and in their native England, but with the band’s most recent offering, two mini-albums, The Morning After and The Night Before (released separately in the U.K. and as a double-disc set in the U.S.), James has stepped away from its more poppy, accessible sound into more experimental waters. Recorded in vastly different manners, one done long distance via FTP site and the other completed in one short creative burst in the studio, the mini-albums present two very different sides of James. Having wrapped up some touring in support of the release, Booth spoke with Under the Radar about the mini-albums, the resurgence of James, and his own musical future, which includes a new as-yet-untitled solo album due in the spring.
Frank Valish: Hi Tim. How are you? Are you still living in California these days?
Tim Booth: I am.
How many years has it been?
I wonder what your view is on your audience in the U.S. and whether you’ve found that the audience has changed at all since the big return that was Hey Ma. Have you found that you’ve been able to break new ground in the States since you’ve been back and touring a little more consistently?
It really varies from city to city. As I’m sure you know, we live in a corpocracy here in the United States, and it really depends on whether the corpocracy in each city decides to play us on radio or plays our music. In some cities, it’s still people who have been with us for like 15, 20 years, and then we get to Mexico and it’s teenagers and 20-year-olds. And it really varies from city to city throughout the United States too. In Salt Lake City you get the old diehards, and in Chicago and New York you get a really good mixture.
Is that at all frustrating for you after so many years? I imagine that things are still quite a bit bigger for you overseas.
Yes. It is frustrating, but at the same time we’re able to tour America and make some money out of it, so I’m not complaining too hard. The frustration comes because we know live we punch above our weight, but getting to a new audience to show them that, there’s a whole media system that every band has to get through and that’s really hard. So the frustration comes because we think we’re brilliant, and yet we’re playing to the converted a lot of the time. And that can get frustrating. But in different countries it really is different. We’ve broken through in Greece. They came to us quite late, so all our audience is in their 20s and 30s in Greece, and it’s the same in Spain. It really varies from country to country. So luckily we have enough variability for us not to get too frustrated and to just keep on making our music and love what we’re doing and try to remain committed and passionate. The thing for us is our longevity. Not many acts still remain vital and hungry when they get our age, but our mentors, the people we’ve always respected, the Patti Smiths, the Neil Youngs, have remained edgy. And that’s what we want to be and what we think we are, even if we may be living in a delusion of our own creation.
I wanted to ask generally about the new mini albums as they have followed Hey Ma. Specifically, to me, Hey Ma seemed to be the big return, very much echoing at least in parts the sounds for which you’re best known, whereas the two new mini albums seemed something of a departure. I wonder whether it was conscious on your part, to release an album like Hey Ma to reintroduce yourselves, and then really broaden the palette and let yourself explore a different muse once you were reestablished?
I think unconsciously conscious. I think we knew after that gap that we had to come back with something really strong. We wrote 120 improvised jams for Hey Ma, that we developed into 11 different songs, and I think that once we’d done that and proved it to ourselves probably as much as to anybody else, then it enabled ourselves to go, “Okay, let’s start experimenting again.” It wasn’t a master plan that we consciously laid out, but I think that’s how it worked. We felt we did the job we set out to do with Hey Ma, and then it was like, “Okay, now we can start really playing and seeing what more we can do.”
I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about, for lack of a better term, the overseas writing process that you did for The Night Before. It was cross continental, wasn’t it, the setting up of the FTP site and doing it long distance? That was a first for you guys, right?
Yes, we did the initial jam, put it on an FTP website, so each band member could download it, work on it on whatever system they had on their computer, and then put it back up on the website. They could explore more, just with their own parts or they could restructure the songs to try out their own ideas. We played this game of sort of pass the parcel for about three months, and then Lee “Muddy” Baker kind of tied it up from there. It was really a spin-the-bottle, roll-the-dice kind of game to see if it opened up some more creativity within us, opened up some more random elements. I think, the best creativity comes from our unconscious, without us even thinking or trying, and the conscious mind usually gets in the way, and the more you open yourself up to unconscious forces and chance and randomness, that’s when the great discoveries can take place. Brian Eno obviously taps into that with his tarot cards and Oblique Strategies. The tarot cards tap into that. The I Ching taps into that. It’s just sometimes we need shaking up and allowing random forces to stir the pot a bit for us. And that was what we tried in that one.
And then we went back to a different system for the other half of the album [The Morning After], which was to go into the studio but just give ourselves a really short period of time, to put the pressure on, because we work well under duress. We decided long ago, once we were in Olympic Studio, and we were paying about a grand and a half a day, and we recorded an album there, Brian Ferry was in one of the studios and he was in there for about a year and a half recording his album. And after a year and a half, he tore it all up and started over again. And we decided I think that those kinds of moments, we weren’t going to go down that path. It didn’t seem a very productive or mentally fulfilling path. The other metaphor you could use, I read William Goldman’s book on screenwriting, the guy who did Chinatown. He would take two years writing a screenplay, agonizing over it. And then he had an offhand comment in the book that the Coen Brothers, the fucking Coen Brothers, take two weeks writing a screenplay. And I remember thinking, “I’m with the Cohen Brothers.” It’s like, to me, if you’re in tune, it shouldn’t take that long. It should pour out of you. And that’s the beauty of the unconscious, the music, that direct contribution.
Do you find that when you go back and look over the product then later that there are more gratifying elements and also things that perhaps looking back you may have done differently, but given the circumstance and the way you chose to record the album, it’s good that it turned out the way it did?
To be honest, I never go back and listen to my music, unless I have to go and learn a song. So I haven’t heard it since we made it. I’ll listen to it in probably a year’s time. There’s definitely one song or maybe two we didn’t quite capture. There’s a song called “Make for This City” [on The Morning After] which I always felt would become a single. I thought it was one of the best songs of that batch we wrote, but we never quite got that in five days. It’s good, but that song has some extra potential. But songwriting’s like that. For this record we also jammed about 120 pieces of music, and we don’t get to work on more than 20 of them, but god knows what other things are in there. If we went back with Brian Eno’s ears, I’m sure we’d pull out a whole different kind of song that we could develop, but we hear it with our ears and that’s the way we go. You can only believe in choices in the present and after that regret becomes an indulgence.
I wanted to talk a bit more about The Morning After. The mini albums are very much separate entities. I wonder whether you could talk a bit about the inspirations behind the songs on The Morning After being that they are different from The Night Before and intensely personal and affecting?
Traditionally we always write, quite effortlessly, really mellow, quite dark pieces sometimes, and often we feel we can only put one and maybe two on a CD, without bringing the CD down. And The Morning After was where we said, “Okay, let’s actually do a proper EP of these songs,” and so we just saved up a few of those, and it gave us license to really treat them as a separate entity instead of just coming to discard quite a few and using only one or two. I think I had extra license to write quite dark stories really, because I joined a great writing group in Los Angeles, which has really been inspiring to me. I don’t live in Los Angeles, thank god, but there’s a great writing group going on there. And it really inspired me to take some more risks and to write more. And The Morning After I think bears the fruits of that. They’re more like stories. They’re stories based upon people’s lives that I’ve witnessed or have been in my life, or I can see where biography resides within them. But they are stories. There are a couple that are more directly personal. There’s one involving my mum, who is 90 and is dying in an old person’s home, and so it’s written really from her words. I got a call from the tour that my mum had a major relapse. She got very sick because of the medication they were putting her on. They put her on too strong opiates, so my mom suddenly, what people would technically term, lost her mind, while I was on tour singing this song every night. And she nearly died, nearly went, but instead is now in a very interesting land of half hallucination and half reality, where she thinks she played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet last week. A few weeks ago she was in Norway, and a few weeks before she was learning the chicken dance. So my mother currently resides in what is quite luckily, a quite happy hallucinogenic world, brought upon by State-approved opiates. And the song “Tell Her I Said So” was written really much in her own words about how she responded to being in a home.
The songs on The Morning After are so emotional and they are so affecting for me and I appreciate them in a much different way than The Night Before.
Oh, well, thank you. There’s something a bit more real about the morning after. In life, don’t you think?
And I wondered whether you can tell me a bit about your writing group.
It’s a very interesting guy named Jack Grapes. I’ll give him publicity. He has these great little techniques for hoisting you off in directions that you probably wouldn’t normally take. Very like method writing, but that does it a disservice. To me, he’s quite a Norman Mailer figure, late ’60s, ex-pugilist, very intelligent poet, and he holds very interesting classes, quite provocative, very exciting.
Have you done any more writing since the mini-EPs?
Yes. I’m finishing my own record now, with Lee “Muddy” Baker. We’ve written another record. We had a choir in and they were really the last bit of singing on the record. It’ll be out in March. So I’ve been finishing that and writing on that. But I’m also looking to write, I’ve written some short pieces, like stories, and I’m expanding that at the moment, and playing around with writing. In January, February, and March, I intend to do some serious writing, like four hours-a-day writing.
Do you have a title for the solo record?
No. We’re still messing with titles. I wanted to call it In the Temple of the Moon Princess, but everyone told me I can’t. I don’t know if you know there’s an author called David Mitchell. He wrote Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I think he’s the greatest living author. He’s like in his 30s, the bastard. You must read either Cloud Atlas or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. They will tear you apart. And “In the Temple of the Moon Princess” is a quote from one of his books.