Last year when I interviewed Larry Gott and Jim Glennie of James before the band’s set, I could say I never thought I would have the opportunity to see the band play live. A year later, I suppose I can say that I never thought that I would see James in concert more than once.
During a mini-tour wrapped around two Coachella appearances, James hit a few intimate venues along the West Coast, including Portland’s Roseland Theater. A few hours before the band took the stage, I had the opportunity to speak with singer Tim Booth. Although most Americans know James mainly for their song “Laid,” the band is up there with the Smiths and the Stone Roses in terms of stature in the UK, making this encounter a rare opportunity.
While Gott and Glennie seemed like a couple of fun guys who played in a band, Booth exuded a more seductive star power. As we sat for more than 30 minutes in the Roseland’s green room, we discussed walking out during an R.E.M. concert, cinephilila, dreams, politics and some of my favorite James songs. I have been a fan of the band since my teenage years in the ‘90s and meeting Booth did not disappoint as I found him both candid and open to my questions. I am pleased to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Tim Booth of James.
The thing that struck me the most the last time I saw James in concert was your dancing. It reminded me of Morrissey and Michael Stipe. It doesn’t seem recent frontmen dance like that anymore. What’s wrong with those guys?
God, I’ve never seen Morrissey dance. Not really. I don’t know. I always dance like that. Iggy was my man, really. Then Ian Curtis saw Iggy, I think, and Iggy was his man. I might not have ever seen Michael dance. Does Michael dance?
Oh yeah, for sure.
Does he? I got into R.E.M. around the Green tour. I went to see them at Manchester Apollo. Walked out after 20 minutes. Didn’t like it.
I didn’t like it at all.
What was wrong with it?
I’ll tell you what, they did one thing that really bugged me. It was the middle of a really intense song and Peter Buck went over to the bass player and they started talking and sharing a little joke. I thought, “God, I hate that.” Watching that as an audience, a little in-joke. That really threw me.
So that’s all it takes?
For me; I was very judgmental. Then Michael became a really good friend and I saw them loads and really loved them after that. It changed completely by the end. I told him that. He knew that (laughs). That I walked out on them at the Manchester Apollo and then ended up really liking them. I find that with the bands that I love the best, I often don’t like them the first time around. Patti Smith Horses, the first time I heard it I thought it was rubbish. Now I think it’s probably the best record I’ve ever heard. I don’t take my first opinions very seriously anymore or my judgments.
That’s a lesson we learn in life as we progress.
I think so. And in terms of moving singers, I don’t know. I haven’t really seen many new singers. I guess a lot of singers are talented enough to play instruments and I’m not. But I’ve never wanted to. I’ve always wanted to dance rather than hold an instrument that would prevent me from moving.
I remember seeing Lucinda Williams once in concert and she took the guitar off for a few songs. Then she stood there unsure of what to do with her arms.
I think if you play an instrument it becomes a very useful crutch to hide behind. But God, then you’ve got your Beyoncés and those kind of dancers which is another realm, isn’t it?
But do they actually sing and dance at the same time?
I think Beyoncé does to a large degree and then some of it is mimed where they’re dancing and then comes back in when they’re not. It’s that kind of control.
Do you ever find yourself winded?
Sometimes, not often. I’ve got canny and I’ve got amazing breath control. I can hold my breath for over four minutes. I’ve built it over the years. Skinny frame, but somewhere I’ve got big lungs.
You would be good in South America in the mountains.
Or diving for pearls. Those are my other star occupations if I wasn’t a singer.
Mountain climbing and pearl diving.
That’s it. From the ends of the earth. The troughs to the peaks.
Well, we’re glad you’re a singer.
Thank you. I think I am too.
I noticed in your lyrics in some songs a preoccupation with old Hollywood types. You reference Yul Brynner, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Richard Burton and many others. Are you a cinephile?
Wow! God, you know that is the first time I’ve ever been asked that question. You should give yourself a star for that one. Yeah, I am and I trained as an actor. Oh, and John Travolta but you wouldn’t really call him old.
That is why I didn’t include him in the question.
Very good. In England, when I was growing up, there were two television channels. Black and white TV to color TV but all you ever saw on the weekends were old movies. Like crappy old Westerns.
Was this the mid-‘60s?
Yeah, mid to late ‘60s.
Which movies come to mind, without thinking about it too much, as favorites?
Casablanca is still number one for me. I just think that’s an amazing piece of work. I love Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps with Robert Donat. That’s a beauty. Metropolis. Another couple of the German Expressionist movies like Nosferatu are amazing. I saw Gance’s Napoleon when they first restored it in a four or five hour showing in Leeds once with an orchestra which I really enjoyed. I love old movies. Although, when I try to watch them with my kid they look slow. They have to be really quick to hold him.
How old is your kid?
Have you tried Buster Keaton?
Buster Keaton not too much. Laurel and Hardy. He loves the Stooges. Some of the Marx Brothers. He loved Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. There’s a couple of those comedy-horror ones he loved when he was about five. Harold Lloyd, but not much Buster Keaton. So much pathos.
What is it about the old films that get you writing about them over and over again?
Well, I guess I’ve only just referenced them. It’s the iconic imagery. Looks and smokes like Ava Gardner and dancing like Fred Astaire. Because they are so far back in time they’ve become iconic. You don’t think of them as human beings anymore. You think of them as the image you’ve seen. Of Fred Astaire dancing or Ava Gardner smoking or Richard Burton drinking. That’s just the effect of time rather than my own cinephile enjoyment.
There are people who believe that when you’re watching a film, you’re no longer watching a person but a ghost. A piece of that person trapped on the celluloid.
As a kid, I just thought that we were in a movie and everything was just an illusion. I used to fantasize about it all the time. When we were driving in a car, I would imagine all the landscapes were being moved around me and that the car was staying stationary. I was always convinced there was some truth in that. And when you discover certain spiritual truths you may believe life is just an illusion. Everyone lives in their own illusion, usually based around their own belief system. Then the cinema metaphor becomes very easy to accept. I think that a holographic metaphor of existence is even now being scientifically validated. I think they are even doing some experiments in the next few years to test out whether life is a hologram. It’s one of the latest theories of quantum physics. Have you heard that one?
I’ve thought about it.
They are literally doing some tests next year to see whether it’s true. They also think it’s coming from somewhere on the other side of the universe.
That this is just a projection?
Yes, some kind of projection.
Well, there’s all kinds of theories about time not being linear.
Absolutely. I very much subscribe to those experiences of reality. I mean “Born of Frustration,” “I’m living in the weirdest dream/ Where nothing is the way it seems/ Nothing seems that real to me/ Nothing means that much to me.” I’ve had many periods in my life where life feels like you could put your fist through it easily.
I know songs like “One of the Three” really deals with duality whether it be the Holy Trinity or a hostage situation. I never quite know because I write as much as I can from my own unconscious. My unconscious creates the best lyrics. I don’t. In the last number of years, a lot of my lyrics come in half-asleep, half-awake states. I try to keep myself in that state when I finish a lyric. Literally, I will wake up at four or five o’clock in the morning getting some words and lie there, have a pen and paper handy and try to write them without waking myself up too much.
So it’s like channeling?
Channeling is the way I feel most artists experience. That can sound a bit pompous but I’ve heard some who write some pretty crap stuff say they are channeling. And I believe them. I think there may be some pretty crap muses out there for certain people. So maybe that makes it less pompous when you say you’re channeling. You acknowledge that’s possible. You can still write crap and it will be channeling.
Have you put anything out that you consider crap?
A few disjointed songs where I’ve gone, “I’ve not quite landed that one.” “Crash,” for example.
That one has the lyric, “Cut the Herman free from the Hesse.”
Yes, you get nice lines but you don’t get much more. And you go, “There was more to that one, I’m sure.” Hmmm… “72.” You’re good at the lines. I wouldn’t have known to quote you a single line from “Crash.”
You don’t play that one live anymore?
No. We know how good we are, so I don’t want to give you false modesty. I don’t think there are many bands out there doing what we do. Like last night, we did a mad setlist. Basically what we do is look at the setlist from two years ago and go, “Let’s try not to play hardly any of the songs we played two years ago.” So we didn’t play “Laid” and we didn’t play “Sit Down” and we didn’t play lots of songs we played two years ago. The first 11 songs were pretty obscure, some 1980s paranoid-delusional songs and we played a great set. But I do pity the poor bugger who comes along thinking he’s going to hear “Laid” and hear that nice Brit-pop band.
Last year when I interviewed Larry (Gott), he said that he loves playing that song. I had the impression that as a band it would be like, “Fuck, we have to play that song again.”
Yeah, I think most of us really enjoy it. What happens is every so often with those songs, they need a rest. You know it when it has become auto-pilot. “Sit Down” has needed a rest at times. “Sometimes,” “Laid.” “Out to Get You” is getting a rest at the moment. Also what happens is that a set leans on it too heavily. “Sometimes” and “Out to Get You” more than “Laid” are such the heart of our music.
“Out to Get You” has so many crescendos and valleys. It’s not as much as a confection as “Laid.”
“Out to Get You” is so seductive and it really allows Saul (Davies) to shine. Saul is very modest about his violin playing. It’s hard to get him to play a lot of violin. So when he does play something, he blows people away. “Out to Get You” is the opportunity where Saul gets to stretch his legs.
Larry also said last year that you guys rotate and sometimes fight over who gets to make the setlist.
I write the setlist.
You always do it?
I write them and Larry has a bit of chagrin around this because he doesn’t. Some nights Jim (Glennie) and Saul write them. Larry hasn’t written a setlist since we reformed and I think he gets a bit annoyed about that. He actually veers towards more greatest hits sets. The rest of the band wants the challenge. When we came on tour last time, he got quite upset about the setlists because we were taking real liberties. We had 60 songs and we were starting with songs that we would normally encore with and seeing whether we had the balls to carry the gig off. For the first few gigs he was like, “You can’t do this! We can’t!” Then after about 10 gigs he saw that we were going down better than we had ever gone done and he went, “Well, fuck this, this is brilliant!” Then the last two gigs we’ve done weird sets again and he has been storming. He has been brilliant. He’s been improvising on half the songs. Major improvisations and discursions. It’s been fantastic.
So it’s nice to have him back?
Oh yes, Larry’s amazing in the band. I wasn’t criticizing him. It’s just a difference of opinion in sets. Larry, I think, felt that we should give more greatest hits to people and the rest of us think we’re good enough to bring to people something they might not have seen before. That’s what we want to be remembered for rather than a band who just played their greatest hits over and over again.
Which songs do you feel like you have to sing, right now?
There’s one we haven’t gotten together yet, because someone in the band hates it. It’s called “The Lake” and it didn’t make it on Laid. Me and Brian Eno wanted it on the album and it got outvoted by everyone else. We played it on the orchestra tour and we did it the other day and it sounded really good. We might bring that one into the set in a few days’ time. It’s probably one of my favorite ever James songs. It never ended up on an album. It was a B-side. That was amazing.
I am really enjoying a song called “Riders” from the ‘80s. It was an amazing dream I had. I was 21 or 22 and I was very sick with a liver disease. I was close to quitting. Not as a musician, but life. I was always jaundiced and very sick for 10 years with an inherited liver disease. I had this book on alternative interpretations of dreams. I read the book and I was very interested. The last chapter was on Gestalt and I said, “Okay, if I get a great dream tonight I’m going to take it to a Gestalt therapist.” I had never done anything like that in my life. I had an amazing dream that night where I was sitting in a lecture theatre. Nick Cave was there and Jim Morrison was there and Iggy Pop was there, sitting alongside of me.
Lots of baritones.
Lots of baritones. Nurse Ratched from Cuckoo’s Nest was giving a lecture and her assistant was Jed Clampett from “The Beverly Hillbilles.” She said, “Is everyone understood?” I had just got there and I was so in awe of the people I was sitting with, like Hendrix was there, that I didn’t say anything. She said, “Okay,” and then passed around this steaming liquid and everyone took a sip and passed it on. Then I took a sip. She then explained that this is the juice, the juice that causes pain that all great singers need. It’s kind of metaphorical heroin.
Is it like duende? Nick Cave talked about that in a lecture.
Yeah, I guess. Then I said, “Hang on, I don’t want this.” She said, “It’s too late.” I said, “No, no. I don’t want it.” She said, “Come with me,” and took me to a back room. Jed Clampett brought this huge pair of clamps and put them in my mouth and ripped out this little alien creature that scuttled across the floor like a little baby octopus. I said, “Is that it?” She said, “Yes,” in a very unconvincing way. I woke up and felt as if my jaw had been punched. It was agony. That became the song “Riders” and I took that dream to a Gestalt therapist. That led me into meditation, alternative therapy and things that meant I could live with having a liver disease. That led me down that whole path. That night was quite a turning point.
You actually predicted one of my questions: to what extent does illness play into your lyrics?
I think a lot. I sometimes wonder if I didn’t have a liver disease whether I would be writing lyrics.
Weren’t you injured badly too?
Yeah. I’ve had a lot of bad health.
Well, you look wonderful now.
(Laughs) Thanks! Well, I do a lot of alternative things. I meditate and do yoga and whatever I can do to keep myself in shape. And I dance for hours, which is the best thing of all. So yes, illness has played a big role actually. I think a lot of the first 10 years of lyrics I wrote were often written from a jaundiced point of view. I used to hallucinate naturally and I thought I could hear people’s thoughts. I only later discovered that it was a physical illness. I always thought I was mentally ill. That took a while. When I got to 30 and hadn’t been locked up, I was most surprised.
Do you still reside in Los Angeles?
Topanga Canyon, which is very different. I live in the forest and it’s beautiful. I hate Los Angeles. Don’t tell anyone.
As a British person living in the United States, what little things have you noticed here that are so different than where you come from?
Well, in Topanga what is amazing is the community. It is a very beautiful community. People really look after each other. Fires come through there a lot, so I think people have to have everyone’s phone numbers. It leads to a bonded community. When we arrived, they had a pie party on our street and everyone bought a pie so we could meet everybody. A very, very beautiful thing that really wouldn’t happen in England anymore. The reason we came to America was for the land. You still got the most amazing wilderness and untamed land whereas Europe has been civilized out of existence.
A few things are really upsetting. Bureaucracy is incredible here. It’s like you’re such a country of litigation that the minute someone takes someone to court they have to add a new document into whatever you’re doing. So these documents build up and build up and build up so when you’re buying a house for instance, you have to write a book. Nobody prunes these things down. The bureaucracy in America is mind-blowingly awful. Your banks are much more crooked than in England. They find many devious ways to make money out of us, which is really a bit shocking. Banks you can generally trust in England except for their stupid investments. Your corpocracy. America doesn’t have a democracy, it has a corpocracy run by lobbyists as their frontmen. It’s shocking, really, really shocking. Very upsetting. I didn’t really know it was as bad as that. I thought it was exaggerated until I got here.
America is such an icon in a lot of ways to the rest of the world and people want to look up to it. And yet, your democracy sucks. George Bush lost the election and he managed to stay in power. Your Supreme Court is clearly another branch of the Republican Party. It’s not a court. How could anyone have respect for the law? How can anyone agree to pay their taxes when you know Romney is paying 15%? Your politicians are just so corrupt, it’s unbelievable. In England they got busted recently, the politicians, for putting through expenses, these tiny expenses. The country went into uproar. We’re talking about £100, a £100 there. They busted all these politicians and some of them got kicked out, some of them went to prison for tiny things. Then you see that even Hilary Clinton is getting hundreds of thousands a year from lobbyists and you’re like, “They’ve all been bought!” How can you call this a democracy? It’s a fix. It’s shocking.
It certainly is. You guys have sex scandals and you guys…
You have a few of those. Everyone has sex scandals. Everyone likes a good sex scandal. If you do put the negative stuff around America, put in the positive as well.
Everything is going in there as is.
Cool. I intend to become a dual-citizen. I love it here enough to want to do that. But some changes need to come.
We do supposedly have freedom of speech here.
Yeah, it should be okay.
You should be okay. Let’s get back to the music. I’m going to mention some James songs. Please share whatever ideas or reminiscences come to mind. The first one is my favorite James song. I actually requested you play it last time when I interviewed Larry and Jim and you didn’t. It’s “Alaskan Pipeline.”
We didn’t play it. We played it last year with the orchestra. We tried it a few times on our own. It’s so still. Most audiences don’t have the patience. If you were in a theatre where people were sitting down you can play it. A gig with a bar? You can’t play it. An outdoor venue? You can’t play it. The material has to suit the city, the venue, the band and “Alaskan Pipeline”…
So don’t expect it tonight.
Don’t expect it tonight.
Anything else you want to share about that song?
What do you want to know?
Whatever feeling it conjures when I mention it.
It was a particular relationship, most of it. Two, really. I think the best line is, “You mother me/ I son you.” I really like that one. It’s just communication between a mother and a son but also another relationship I was thinking of as well is in there. It’s about strong-willed people who just cling onto grudges and attitudes and won’t let go.
We all thought it was your final salvo with James. What a great way to go out as your last track on Pleased to Meet You. One more song: “Five-O.”
Is it too open-ended?
Yes, open-ended questions are harder to answer sometimes. I love that song. We’re playing that tonight. We played it the last couple of nights. It’s one of my favorites. We had a period where it was the real center of our set. Then we hadn’t been able to play it since we re-formed. We tried and it would fall apart. Until this tour we haven’t played it to a point where we felt it’s working now. God knows what it was. Some of it is about long-term relationship. It’s almost a manifesto. “You can trace my concerns/ Here’s a body of work for your inspection.” It’s like, “Come and take a look what we’re doing.” Then, “I can feel your faith/ Gonna make it mine.” That’s where you have a projected belief in somebody and somebody can take that projected belief and run with it. Then about marriage. I remember the first time I really fell in love with somebody and wanted to marry them and be with them. Then you have the insecurity that they’re going to die and you’re like, “God, I hope I die before they do.”
“If it lasts forever/ Hope I’m the first to die.”
Yeah, “hope I’m the first to die.”
Last year I suggested this idea to Larry and he told me to fuck off. I want to see what your reaction is. What if someone asked you to recreate the Laid cover now in a photograph?
I wouldn’t have a problem with it. That was a real interesting accident, I remember. I’d been doing some dancing with this great shamanic practitioner in New York called Gabrielle Roth and I had worn a dress for a few days and danced in it because it was easy to move in. We’d been dancing for eight hours a day or whatever. I came back and I remember suggesting to my manager that I might wear a dress in the photo shoot and she was like, “Don’t you dare!” So when we had a band meeting, I said, “How about the whole band wear a dress?” Everyone went, “Great! Let’s do it!” It just came from that accident. Then we were on the steps of Marseilles Cathedral having a photo shoot and everyone was starving. Someone went and got us a load of bananas. We were eating the bananas in between the photo shoot when someone just took that shot.
It’s a pretty iconic album cover.
It’s the only one we’ve got an iconic shot for. Until that album, we were very anti-image. We were really against how things looked. So we wore shit clothes, all of us. Me especially. Baggy clothes. We wanted everyone to get us totally for our music. I think it has cost us hugely. I look at Oasis and how they had such a strong image and the Stone Roses and the Smiths. I think, “Huh, we missed a trick.” At the time, it was a sign of our musical authenticity.
None of those bands are around anymore.
No, they aren’t (pointedly). Whatever they did, I don’t think they’ve got the same depth because they didn’t carry on as long. I think we’ve mined a different period. Even when we’ve been very fucked up as a band, we’ve still managed to pull off very decent records, which is always surprising.
Are there more coming?
Hopefully. We haven’t started yet.
This tour is built around Coachella, right?
Have you played it before?
I guess it’s kind of like Reading, but hotter.
I hope not. Reading is a bit of a corporate do. I suspect you are probably right, unfortunately. Have you been before?
No, I’ve been to other big festivals, but not this one. I’ve had friends who went and they said it’s hot.
Four o’clock in the afternoon. It could be quite hot.
Is that when your set is?
Yeah. We have this fairly blasting set planned too.
Well, you live near there. Just don’t wear polyester.
Yeah, Palm Springs, but the desert is hotter than where we are. Shit. Thank you.
NB: After the interview, Booth invited me to watch the band’s soundcheck. For the third song, he convinced the band to play “Alaskan Pipeline.” I got to hear it after all.