By Jude Dornan, © July 2012 Lancashire Evening Post
As James play Kendal Calling on Sunday, Prestonian keyboard player Mark Hunter told Jude Dornan how it feels to come home.
In 1989, Preston musician Mark Hunter was recording in a studio in Lancaster when the owner mentioned he knew of a band in Manchester who would soon need a keyboard player.
The band, he said, were called James and he himself was currently playing keys live for them but wanted to leave. So he told Mark to contact their singer, Tim Booth. Mark recalls: “He was a guy called Mick Armistead- he’d known us for a while. But he wanted to run his studio, he wasn’t really interested in being in the band and playing live.
“So he gave me Tim’s number and said I should give him a call because they needed a keyboard player – or they would once he left! So that was It, I called Tim up and arranged to go down and had an audition, well, a kind of audition. “I went into this room and they had this little drum box going and they said, ‘See If you can play something to this’- and it was what became Sit Down.”
When Mark joined, James had been in existence since 1982 but, despite a huge live following, the patronage of Hacienda boss Tony Wilson and support tours with The Smiths among others, they had so far failed to fulfil their potential. But Sit Down became an anthem for British youth, soaring to Number Two (held off the top by Chesney Hawkes’ One and Only hit) and ushered in the glory years for James after years of record company wrangles and band infighting.
Yet financial security didn’t immediately follow. Mark remembers: “The first year, a couple of the band were on the Enterprise Allowance scheme – and I was still signing on. When we were making Gold Mother (their first Top Ten album), I had to borrow the engineer’s car so I could drive back to Preston and sign on.”
Initially Mark wasn’t keen- but after years of local gigs, he was set on being in a “proper band.” He says: “I wasn’t really a fan. “My sister had, I think, their first EP and my brother had their first album. I didn’t know anything about them and wasn’t really that keen. So after I heard about this audition, I thought I’d better go and check them out and I went home and got my brother and sister’s records.
“But I was desperate to be involved in music and I would do anything just for experience. I wasn’t going to refuse anything, I would certainly go along and see what it was like. And going to the audition and playing with them, they weren’t what I was expecting. “Their first album, Stutter, it’s a very spindly very weird record. So I was pleasantly surprised when I turned up and thought, Oh, I actually like this! It’s a proper band AND I like them!”
He’d been playing in local bands since he was a teenager and even had a recording set-up jerry rigged in the spare room at home in Fulwood. He laughs: “It was this tiny little box room, probably about at the most six foot square and I had my little four track studio in there, just about had room for a pair of speakers, a little four track and a keyboard.
“We had wires running across the landing to my brother’s bedroom. We used to set up the band in there and I’d record them from there. We didn’t record many things in there.
“I was in a band called Ruby Lazer for two or three years, something like that. It was one of these things, you know, local bands, personnel keeps changing and it was hardly a full-time occupation.”
Mark formed part of James’s “Magnificent Seven” – the line-up which solidified the potential and created albums like Gold Mother, Seven and Laid, and a string of hits Including Come Home, Sit Down and She’s a Star.
His life changed beyond recognition and he found himself playing to a home crowd of thousands at Manchester G-Mex and, memorably, from the roof of Piccadilly Gardens. He laughs: “God, it was freezing, I think it was February or something, absolutely Baltic! I don’t know who’s bright Idea that was. I couldn’t feel my fingers. Every time the song finished, I was frantically blowing on them. But it’s all good fun.”
One memorable moment came at Blackpool Tower Ballroom when he opened the gig by emerging, apparently naked, playing the world famous Wurlltzer organ. He laughs, “It made my Dad happy, that one! Brought back memories of his youth.
“Obviously the Tower Ballroom is famous for it so I think it started out as ‘Can we have a go on it?’ And then when that was possible, it was, ‘Maybe we could use it in the show.’ And then it was, ‘Ooh, maybe we could start the show with it!’
“I think I looked naked, I just had my trousers on. It was like a Monty Python sketch. I haven’t done it since.”
In 2001, it all ground to a halt as James took what they refer to as their “long lunchbreak. Singer Tim Booth announced he was leaving on his website – but Mark says they all saw it coming. He says: “It had become fairly obvious. It wasn’t a shock really. “We’d kept it going for a while but just the different band member’s ability to get on with each other and work together became increasingly difficult.”
But in 2006, Tim Booth, guitarist Jim Glennie and Larry Gott met up in their old rehearsal room and found the magic hadn’t died. Producing several new songs in a couple of sessions, they tentatively decided they’d continue to work on songs.
Then someone told their manager – and within hours, he had G-Mex dates on hold. Mark laughs: “That sounds like our manager!”
But he says they’re all better for the break. He says: “That kind of length of gap, you do take stock, everyone gets a bit older and a bit more sensible and you just get a perspective on it that you don’t have when you’re in the middle of it.
“It’s very hard, when you’re reeling from the last argument, to be objective. But I think the hard thing is getting back together again and doing it for the right reasons and being creative again.
“But we’re a bit of an odd band and it’s hard to find an outlet for what we do other than In James. I mean, lots of us can go off and do side projects and different things. But in terms of James, it kinda has to be that. I think most of us needed it.”
Having played his home town just once during their first success, Mark finally got to return to Preston Guild Hall on their 2008 Mirrorball tour. But asked how the gig went, he admits: “I can’t really remember to tell you the truth! “There’s always a bit of a buzz playing a place that you grew up and where you used to go and watch gigs as a youngster. But as far as the actual gig goes, I can’t remember if we had a good one or a bad one or what, I don’t remember. My mum said it was great so it must have been, ha-ha.” Their slot at Kendal Calling on Sunday is almost the last thing they have scheduled. But James celebrate their 30th anniversary next year and Mark says a new album is in the pipeline along with some special events.
He says: “We’re trying to think what we can do to celebrate that. There’ll be some kind of special events going on – not sure what yet though!”
James headline Kendal Calling in Cumbria on Sunday. Tickets are sold out.