Following the much-delayed release of their career spanning boxset The Gathering Sound, Larry Gott, guitarist with the band James, met us in a Manchester boozer to discuss the reasons for releasing the box set and the future of James and the music industry in general.
So, The Gathering Sound, where did the idea of the box set come from? You’re still very much going as a band and it tends to be the sort of thing bands do when they’re splitting up or have split up.
The Gathering Dust (laughs). You know, it’s been so long since we started the process, because of all the issues, I’m a little big foggy. One, it was thirty years coming up so that seemed a nice round-off and we knew that the deal we had signed with the record company was coming to a close.
We were obligated to do two albums and the mini-albums counted as one and that relationship was reaching the end of its life. Various publishing deals were also coming to a close. It seemed like we were ending a phase in a business sense around the thirty year mark, and when it was first mooted we liked the idea.
We liked the fact we were still together and could get involved in it and promote it, that was a positive thing, rather than it being the end of life. It could have done us a lot of good. It helped to consolidate a lot of things, in my mind at least, reviewing the thirty year career was fascinating.
It is fascinating listening to the studio disc, because there’s songs on there that people have on bootlegs, like Jam 2 and Scratchcard, which are demos that were played live and then there’s the other songs that have never been heard that have been buried in archives for years, fully-formed songs like Count Your Blessings and Hedex, which you could have put out as they were at the time.
I don’t know why we didn’t. It’s mind-blowing the amount of stuff that we’d actually produced, not just the things that are on One Of The Three (a James fansite – www.oneofthethree.co.uk) , but all of those others that had names and characters and profiles that people had never heard.
With such a big collection, it’s inevitable that there’s a few murmurings about things that not on there, such as One Man Clapping (a long-deleted live album from 1989 with a number of songs unavailable elsewhere). Was there a reason that wasn’t included?
It’s not part of the record company’s remit. Everything else was either owned by Universal or was easily available. We’d love to do something with it for the fans, but it’s always difficult with these sort of things.
There’s not been any reissues of the studio albums with bonus tracks and extra discs other than the very limited 2001 versions which just had a few additional session tracks. Are there plans to do anything with the albums and all the b-sides which didn’t appear on the box set?
I can’t see any plans to re-release the albums at this point. I think the reason is sheer volume, the sheer weight of music that James has produced is huge. We had 12 albums to go on the box set, which created physical boundaries in terms of what we could put on there. We thought the USB stick was the solution to that (laughs)
The USB stick (included in the box set with all James studio albums on it, but which caused a two-year delay in the release) is actually brilliant though now it’s complete.
Yeah, it’s just a shame it couldn’t be brilliant quicker and earlier, it dragged on and on and was a real comedy of errors.
Going back to the albums, I don’t think the record companies are going to be part of the landscape in the future. The stuff that’s been released will get hovered up by some companies like BMG, Disney, I don’t know who, but someone will get all these classic recordings, or record companies will reduce in size and effectively just become a storage and licensing company.
They do seem to be spending more and more money releasing and repackaging older material rather than on new bands.
They don’t realize the folly in that. I don’t think it’s a business model and it’s a misguided strategy. The record companies don’t know how to extract the revenue from what they’ve got and those that do, they’re fighting them tooth and nail in the courts or they’re putting DCMA claims on them or whatever the next wave of stupid legislation that won’t make any difference does.
I think people have a fair grasp of what’s fair when it comes to the idea of sharing. You used to get a tape off your mate and you’d play it till it starting whirring then you’d probably go out and buy it, or you’d love it so much you’d buy it the next day anyway. There’s things like Last.fm and Spotify where you effectively rent music, that seems to be the current model, but until it’s happening in real time, it doesn’t really work for me.
It has to be something that supports the artist as well though with those formats.
I don’t know with how many grains of salt to take the stories, but you hear Lady Gaga has this huge massive hits with millions of plays and gets £125 in royalties. That means your average band will literally only get a few pennies. The other thing is the amount of music out there. Now anyone can put their music up, there’s less quality control.
At least with record companies you felt bands had gone through some sort of filter to make sure that if a band were signed that they’d gone through some process of selection. I think it’s going to get to a situation similar to the ’60s where DJs were the arbiters of choice. You’d listen to a DJ because you know you like most of what they play, their taste in music and you’d get into new bands that way. With the pirate radio stations, people would tune into certain DJs to hear their selection.
That’s not going to happen with the mainstream stations though. But there are places like Amazing Radio, where I know certain DJs are going to play new bands I won’t have heard of that I’ll love most of them, because I know those people’s tastes are similar to mine.
Those people are going to have a certain amount of power.
Going back to James, you signed a new publishing deal last year. What does that mean for the band, will it change anything?
Yes it will, it introduces us to a whole new set of publishers. The old publishers didn’t want to continue the relationship and it didn’t suit us particularly well either.
When we got back together, we put in some temporary measures as Jimmy and I had one set of publishers and Tim had another. All of that’s come to an end now.
At some point in the future, all our rights will return to us, but this is the best thing for now. In the meantime, we’ve signed the deal with BMG. We believe they’ve got a really good reputation for sync licensing which will get our music out there a lot more than it has in the past. The other thing is that they’re committed to recording, they invest in recordings.
It seems to be one of the ways it’s going – promoters, publishers are investing and record companies are not producing records any more. The artists are doing it at one level, then there’s the middle ground and this seems to be an approach many people are taking. If you’ve got a proposal for an album, they’ll listen to you, do the maths and work out what they think it will sell, they’ll offer you a certain percentage upfront to go and make the record.
In a way, it’s not a lot different from what Factory did. They’d pay for the recording and once they recouped that, then you split it 50/50. That was Tony’s deal and it was a fair deal.
How’s the James recording going?
At the minute, we did the session in Scotland in November. Those songs we made there and then into demos. Those demos are now doing the work for us, getting people round tables and gathering interest to move onto the next stage.
We’re also looking at producers that we’d like to be involved. The Night Before and The Morning After and, to some degree, Hey Ma, were very much home-produced. The record company did give us money, but it was a case of us making it the way we wanted to. I think we need to get a producer involved in this one and the BMG deal will work very much in our favour.
So you’re a while off releasing anything then?
We’d be a while off releasing a full album. I really don’t know if the album is going to work as a format going forward. I think it’s a bit anachronistic that musicians struggle to afford it and to be creative enough to come up with the classic album concept anymore, which is 40 to 50 minutes of really great music.
That means you have to start off with about 2 hours of great music and then edit it down. To get that amount recorded, the time, the logistics, the money is just not there, and at the end of the day, the only benefit at the end of the day is that it gets reviewed, and not even then everywhere.
Isn’t the problem though that the focus has shifted now to singles, or focus tracks, and there only needs to be two or three killer songs on the album and the rest can be filler. The singles sit at the start.
It’s like the film Drive. The soundtrack throughout that film is fabulous, but the focus is all on the one track that’s gone around the world and taken off. We’re focusing as consumer on smaller and smaller chunks of music.
But with technology, people are given that opportunity. You can shuffle and skip tracks. You can go from James to Lady Gaga if you want.
Exactly. It’s fitness for purpose. When you’re putting an LP on, it used to be a ceremony, even sometimes a hassle, and it’s a ceremony that a lot of us enjoyed. Taking that pristine vinyl out of its inner sleeve and putting it on your deck and then placing your trusted stylus on it, you’d give it your undivided attention although you might have a cup of coffee and a fag whilst you do. But the way we consume music these days, listening to it on an iPod on the tube. The focus is different, the music becomes a different thing.
You’re touring in April, without a release coming out. Is there a specific reason for that?
Laziness. Ideally, I would have liked to have had something out for the tour, even if it was only a couple of tracks. That might still happen, but it’s doubtful. It’s difficult with logistics and people living in different places.
Is it going to be a Greatest Hits tour with The Gathering Sound having been out.
It’ll probably be a mix. There’s a great deal of excitement about playing some of the stuff we recorded in Scotland
Which has always been what James are about live.
It has always been James. This time we’re in competition, if you can call it that, with Echo and the Bunnymen.
Once we were about to play a gig in Hyde Park, and there were discussions about the setlist, which are always ongoing. I keep out of setlist arguments, because I really hate them and I wrote a letter to everyone.
They all like football, but I don’t, I don’t really understand it or get it. So I wrote to them saying that if it was the European Cup Final and there were two teams in it, would you go on and field your team of best men, really well balanced team who are tried and trusted and play together and have the best chance of winning, or would you field a team of young untried players who had been showing a lot of promise. It caused an almighty stir. It’d be different in a pre-season friendly. I looked at Last.fm and looked at the ten most requested songs and said we should play them because of the audience.
The general public is picking the setlist. I got absolutely roasted. It’s a constant and consistent dilemma. We don’t have to do a different setlist every night, sometimes that might be boring if that becomes the norm. I’ve never been on a tour when we’ve done the same set every night. I can’t imagine it’d be very exciting.
What would interest me with James is that with most bands, I imagine, would just sound tighter and tighter as the tour went on. We’d be looser and looser and looser and taking more risks. If we were forced to play the same songs every night, we’d do them in completely different ways. We’d extend the end or do it acoustic or something.
With James, it’s about awareness and understanding each other. We used to take time after a hiatus to get in each other’s heads again. It used to take a while, it doesn’t any more. It can happen half way through a gig or on the second night, we can just dust off the cobwebs. We’re back into that area where we’re comfortable throwing each other curveballs and saying “Go on, cope with this”.
On your last American tour, reports were you were picking a song in the soundcheck and then throwing it into the set that evening, which is how you used to be. Which is why you got the fanbase you did, which is quite demanding.
Yes, they’re demanding, but they’re also very loyal and I like that. I don’t get why we’re not picked up in America in the jam band tradition. There’s these bands that people rave about and they don’t jam anywhere near as much as James do.
You came back and Hey Ma went Top 10. The two mini-albums went Top 20. There are bands that get a lot more attention than you that don’t have that level of success. Does that frustrate you?
There is a strange collusion of silence in the media about us.
Do you think that might be you, or the way you’re marketed?
It’s a combination. They’re the same thing. We don’t do ourselves a lot of favours. We don’t have the most visual cutting edge website, we don’t have an online presence ourselves that much, the band, as a whole, we only embrace modern technology as far as it suits up. There isn’t anyone like a Trent Reznor in our band who has embraced it enough and who can see it and exploit it.
We’ve all got old men syndrome. You can tell from my tweets that there’s this awkwardness. I don’t want to live my life online and there’s a lot of people in the band that don’t want to do that. We still think of it in that way that some people do, that being online is an activity that happens at certain parts of the day, like watching television. For most people, it’s just like conversing and talking. It’s a different way of living your life.
I was thinking the other day that if a guy walked into a dentist’s waiting room with a bright red beard and a bald head, remarkable looking, he would sit down and no one would utter a word and everyone would go about their business. Relate that to the internet, and someone in a chatroom or a messageboard said something as remarkable they’d instantly get jumped upon by people who would have said nothing in that dentist’s waiting room, because someone would have stood up to them. There’s that rule on the internet, that you’re always five steps away from being called a Nazi.
With it being thirty years since the first James release (Jimone EP on Factory), are you planning on doing anything special to commemorate it?
No, not really. There’s a lot of talk about doing things, but a lot less action. We need a kick up the arse sometimes. We’re all off doing other things and I’m getting creative stimulation elsewhere at times. We can be quite creative quite quickly though, we were very much so in Scotland, it all came together very quickly.
What are your plans past April?
We don’t make plans. We don’t plan very much.
Festivals? And another tour?
We will do some festivals, because offers will come in. One, we like doing festivals. Two, it gets us out there and three, it makes us money. It’s a fabulous way of spending the summer. There’s no structure, no big plan. There’s no talk of another tour just yet. I’m looking forward to the one with Echo And The Bunnymen.
It’ll be interesting with some of their crowd in there too as they are a fairly big band in their own right.
Of course there will be a bit of that traditional Liverpool / Manchester rivalry, there always is, that goes back to before the Manchester Ship Canal, but I wouldn’t imagine it will be a problem in any way. I think quite a lot of the crowd will have both bands’ albums in their collection and are going to be really happy about it. I’m looking forward to it.