“You’re having breakfast with me,” says James frontman Tim Booth from his home in Los Angeles. “Give me one second while I just grab some water. Actually, fire away with the questions. It’ll be fine. I can multitask on a good day.”
James has just released La Petite Mort, an album that was recorded in the months following Booth’s mother’s passing and a work that is imbued by the spirit of loved ones lost. The album’s lead single, “Moving On,” whose Ainslie Henderson-created video is one of the most moving pieces of short film you’ll see this year, is a tribute to Booth’s mother, and the rest of the album vibrates with both a love of life and a remembrance of those lost. For a band that’s been around for 34 years, La Petite Mort does not find James resting on laurels. With songs such as the seven-minute opener “Walk Like You,” the throbbing bass-led, electronic jam “Gone Baby Gone,” and the piano ballad “All In My Mind,” the album stands well against the band’s best work.
Booth took a few minutes to talk with Under the Radar about life, death, and La Petite Mort.
Frank Valish (Under the Radar): I understand that the new album was written in the months following your mother’s passing. I know when we spoke a few years ago, she was ill. I just wanted to first extend my condolences.
Tim Booth: Oh, do you know what? Yeah, thank you. But I think it’s almost like, they’re unnecessary. That’s part of what I discovered. It was a timely passing. She was ready to go. She had been ready to go for a number of years, and it was a beautiful experience. So condolences aren’t necessary in this circumstance. I did have another. The album is infused by her death but also by a friend’s death. And that one I will accept condolences for. That one hurt like hell. So I had those two opposite extreme experiences, which I think made it so interesting. It’s such a paradox, that death can be really a beautiful experience. It’s not something anyone had ever told me was possible. So I refuse your condolences for my mother. It was actually more of a celebration. But I’ll accept them for my friend. That’s one of the things I learned. Another thing was to just not wait anymore. I waited to say goodbye to my friend. I waited to tell her I loved her and didn’t make it in time, and that was really part of the problem. So I don’t wait any more.
How much of the writing of the album was done after the passings? Was it all written after them?
Yeah, just about. Some of the jams were done before, and I might even have got “Moving On” started; I think I even got the chorus. Time is very hard to pin down when you’re writing lyrics, especially when you write them from your unconscious. You can write a lyric before an event happens, or you can start a lyric before an event happens. It’s always quite shocking to me how that can happen. It can be quite prescient. I wrote a lyric once called “Blue Pastures,” which was about a man committing suicide, going off into the mountains, laying down in the snow. It wasn’t necessarily a negative thing, it was just he had come to the end of where he was at. And I wrote this lyric and was like, “What the hell is this? I hope this doesn’t happen to anyone around me or me.” Because often they happen to me, the lyrics, or they happen to friends around me. And literally two weeks before we released the song, my friend who I was living with at the time, her mentor went and did that, went and walked out into the snow in the mountains in the lake district, laid down and allowed himself to die. And they used that song at his funeral. His wife rang me to ask how I knew about him, psychologically, because I’d really written about him apparently in this song. I feel that if you can write from your unconscious, the unconscious doesn’t have a sense of time and can pick up on all kinds of things, and so often you surprise yourself with what you’ve written about. Often I don’t know what I’ve written about until about a year later. It’s a real process of discovery, the more unconscious you can write the songs.
On the other end of it, does writing songs help you process thoughts, emotions, events? Is it an unconscious processing of those things?
I think it is. A lot of the lyrics come when I’m asleep and I wake up with some of them. Or they’ll come in improvisation, when I don’t have time to think. I never write a lyric consciously, sit down like, I’m going to write about Robin Williams’ death, say. I can’t do that kind of song, because that’s too of a conscious idea. My lyrics come in a different way. Whatever’s percolating in my psyche at the time comes out. So when it’s strong emotions around two deaths, that actually gives me quite a lot of fuel and drive in my lyrics and allows me to write from a deep place without even thinking about it.
As your unconscious is working through things, it’s coming out.
I think so. The conscious mind now, scientifically, is known to be the tip of the iceberg. It’s our unconscious that tends to make a lot of the decisions, or preconscious decisions, where we see someone and we’re immediately attracted to them, and our mind only catches up later. We might be attracted to someone through smell, or the first millisecond that we see somebody, and these things are not conscious. They are under our radar. And I think our unconscious is operating like that the whole time and has a much bigger view of what our life experiences are likely to be or are going to be. And it’s a bit less stuck in time. Because you get stuff from the future and the past and weave them in ways we don’t understand.
How much of a learning curve has there been in your writing, this working with the unconscious and letting things speak through you? Has that been something that’s become easier for you as your career has progressed? Did you always write like that?
To some degree I’ve always written like that. But you get to trust it more. I can improvise lyrics to a song pretty quickly. Every so often you’re missing a verse and that can take a long time. Or you do a song like “Curse Curse,” and that’s different. That needed a lot of technical writing. I did that over months. Because once I got the first bit, which probably came some of it in the jams, the weight of the first bit determined what the rest of the song had to be like, and the rest of the song had to be as eloquent and witty, in my mind. That wasn’t an unconscious song, but the rest of the songs on that record, I think nearly all of them, are like that. But just trusting in how I write has got easier. It’s how I do most things. I dance like that too. I dance for hours, a lot, and it’s all about moving, whatever comes up into your consciousness. If you’re sad you dance sad. If you’re angry you dance angry. And I dance for hours. My kind of life is geared toward bringing out that stuff, to mining the unconscious. I think as an artist, you should live your life mining your unconscious, and going into places in the psyche that sometimes people try to avoid. Because that’s where the gold is hidden.
I wanted to ask about “Walk Like You.” It sounds like an incredible tribute to your mother. Was it intended as such?
No, not that one. “Moving On” was really. “Walk Like You,” if it’s a tribute to anyone it’s a tribute to my friend Gabrielle who died, because she used to be this great teacher of ecstatic dance. When people would come to her with their wounds, she didn’t go into pity or sympathy. She would look at them coldly and strongly, through their stories of abuse or other appalling stories that some people would come with, and say, “Well, I’ll be expecting great art from you. Or great dance. Or great writing.” It was like the deeper the wound, the greater the art she expected from people. So when you get to that section in “Walk Like You,” “Let’s inspire/Let’s inflame/Create art from our pain/Find a love that’s as deep as it’s holy,” that’s her philosophy in many ways. And the song is really a warning to children not necessarily to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Basically we are all brought up to follow in our parents’ footsteps, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously. It’s what we do, and it’s around teenage and just afterwards that we start to question which values of our parents we want to walk on with and which ones we don’t. It’s very much a song of teenage discrimination, of hopefully having a choice, not to be necessarily like your parents and make the same mistakes as your parents. So the song is really about that, and the solution is creating. Creativity is the answer. Creating dance. Creating song. Creating art. From the pain you experiences. Because everybody does to some degree have cracks in their childhood. And if they don’t from this life, they seem to come in with stuff from somewhere else that needs working on. My solution tends to be more creativity rather than say therapy. I’m also trained in a therapy, but the therapies I’m interested in is close to being creative anyway.
I really appreciated the complexities in that song, how you talk about the parent-child relationship.
Thank you. Because we live in a universe of birth and death, love and neglect. Those are the paradoxes that all of us at some point will experience. We’re made of stars and we’re made of dirt. I was trying to get that all in that song. We can be these great philosophical beings, and we can be reactive assholes too. And it’s kind of like, yep, they’re all true. Another paradox.
You mentioned “Moving On.” Can you tell me about the video for the song? Is that something that you had a lot of input into from the start in terms of concept?
Ainslie [Henderson (animator/director)]. We loved his work. And we had a load of video scripts come in, one from him, more from others, and none of them were that good, including his. But we knew his work, so we were like, “Oh shit, why has Ainslie sent this script in?” So I rang him up and talked to him about my mother dying and what the song was about. And the key that he got from that hour of intense phone conversation, where I think I was crying on the phone in the backyard in London, because it was a bit fresher then, was my saying that my mother’s death felt like a birth. I asked him, “Would you write another script, because we love your work and we still want to work with you.” The next day he was out and he passed a shop where there was a ball of wool. And he was listening to the song on loop on his iPhone and he heard the “Time always unwinding” lyric as he looked in the shop window and saw this ball of wool, and he thought, “Ah.” He wrote the script the next day and sent it to us, within two days of me having that phone conversation with him. At that moment actually, I was having a meeting with my manager, where the band okayed that if Ainslie’s video was going to cost more money, which it would, because it would take him three weeks, the poor bugger, of working 14 hours a day, that we as a band would pay the extra for the video, which we’d never done in James’ history. And as I was talking to my manager, this incredible script came through, which is exactly as you see it. Which is one of the best videos I’ve ever seen. And I wept, trying to read it to my manager. My manager read it and he couldn’t finish it. And that was it. We were sold. Everybody in the band went, “Holy cow, this is amazing.” It just got nominated for Best Video of the Year award in the AIM Independent Music Awards. It will be nominated for other awards. I’m convinced he’s going to win something for this.
I imagine it tapped into your feelings pretty well.
Yes. Absolutely. Death isn’t a death. There’s no ending. There’s got to be a recycling of some sort. And for me, it felt like a birth. That was what the gut feeling was.
I don’t know why I share this and I know we are running low on time, but a few years ago my grandmother passed, and I was with her at the end as I understand you were with your mother, and it strangely for me felt like a gift.
It’s profound isn’t it?
And I wasn’t expecting that.
That’s amazing. And I’m so glad for you. I would advise anyone to move heaven and earth to get to their parents, to people who they’re close to’s bedside. Because it’s like being at a birth. You know you’re watching a profound experience that we all are going to go through, and it’s remarkable if you can let go and love them. And let go of your loss. Your loss is that they aren’t going to be in your life anymore, which of course usually overwhelms people, but they can’t actually see what is going on. The person doesn’t have that problem when they go, most of the time. I died when I was 21 of a liver disease. I stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated, and my memory of it was how peaceful it was.
On a bit of a lighter note, I feel the need to ask about the album title, because certainly it has other connotations. What was behind your choosing that as the album title, such a serious piece of work and then this phrase that has these other connotations that might not be quite so serious?
We were aware that the album, if you talk about it, sounds like it’s going to be a heavy album, like it might be a depressing album, because death in the West is seen in that way. And we needed to find a title and artwork that put it in a different bracket. So the artwork is very Day of the Dead. It’s psychedelic Day of the Dead. It’s a skull in amazing colors. I think it’s great artwork. Day of the Dead is much more about celebration of life than it is about death in many ways, in terms of how we see it in the West, that loss. For the album title, we wanted something that had a reference to death in it, but we wanted it to be uplifting or playful. The tone of the album, if you put the lyrics and the music together, it’s a very life affirming album. So to call the album Death: a) It won’t sell, and b) It would be misleading. We went through a lot of titles. But Le Petit Mor, it’s got death in the title, but it’s playful. It suggests something else. It’s curious. It makes people go, “What the heck is that?” And la petite mort: Is death a little thing? Is it just a change transition to something else? But also la petite mort means orgasm; it means the state after an orgasm where hopefully your egos dissolve momentarily. A song like “Curse Curse” is definitely about sexuality. So is “Frozen Britain.” So we kind of went “Oh okay, let’s take this title and get people asking questions.”
I do have to say that I’m kind of obsessed with “Frozen Britain” and that line, “Make a boy out of me.” It seems imbued with a lot.
Tell me. What?
Just the idea of innocence and, to me, going back and turning the phrase “make a man out of me,” flipping that on its head.
I also put that in because I figured I’m too old to be made a man out of. And what I see, my image of that song, is an older man who is really dead, dead to his life, and falls in love with somebody, and it wakes him up. She’s kind of saving him in some way. But actually what he wants from that is not to be made a man of. He wants to be made a boy of again. He wants that sense of wonderment and excitement and innocence.