Death is all over James’ new album, La Petite Mort (out Sept. 16 in North America), but you wouldn’t know it from a cursory listen. It’s a triumphant experience, one that manages to support a billowing, seven-minute opening track and bloom into the sort of album where it seems a gospel choir could be around every corner. This never quite materializes, but for an album partially inspired by the death of frontman Tim Booth’s mother and another close friend, La Petite Mort teems with life. Then again, the French phrase traditionally refers to a fleeting, post-orgasmic state of unconsciousness, so this “little death” isn’t so bad, either.
The generation-old British act certainly comes correct when frontman Tim Booth proclaims, “We are not a heritage band.” If this means deleting “Laid” or “Sit Down” from the set list for a year, then so be it. Visiting Billboard’s office, Booth and bassist Jim Glennie make it clear that James is much more concerned about the present.
You’re in New York City, with a show at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade planned. You’ve worked with the label before — how did this performance come about?
Tim Booth: I don’t really know. We do have a longstanding connection with them, with Geoff Travis in particular, ‘cause he signed us. We were working with Sire, we were working with Geoff Travis… He’s reputed to have the best ears in England for years. I mean he signed Arcade Fire and Antony and the Johnsons…
Jim Glennie: The Libertines, it goes back… His judgment calls on bands are amazing, even stuff that’s not been successful, Geoff’s incredible. But he’s just — I hate to say this — he’s a terrible businessperson.
TB: Don’t say that! Well, he’s had his brushes with bankruptcy, let’s put it that way, cause he’s a passionate music man, basically…
JG: And he constantly invests the money that he gets from things which are successful into things which he absolutely passionately loves and thinks should exist, to the point where financially, it becomes risky. He doesn’t get that balance right, and if you get that balance wrong over a period of time, then things are going to go wrong. And they have done for Geoff, unfortunately.
TB: Obviously we were on Factory for a little while, and they wanted us to be there longer so we were there with the Tony Wilsons and the mavericks who come into all this for passionate music and then business is the afterthought and signing a contract is, “Oh! We haven’t signed a contract.”
JG: I mean, very incredibly idealistic. Factually, I’m not quite sure where Geoff’s head’s at… you don’t get that balance right, then you just can’t sustain it, like Factory didn’t.
4AD, Rough Trade, that whole group of labels (the Beggars Group) has done a lot better than Factory did as far as finding the balance. They’re still around and putting up a beautiful store in Brooklyn that I can walk to from where I live…
JG: A record store, still selling actual vinyl!
TB: Obscure music, too. The one in London is like a library. It’s like going to an old fashioned, Harry Potter-type magical library. You think you’re gonna find a wizard around every corner.
I read heard that album opener “Walk Like You” originated from an hour-plus jam session. What role does improvisation have in the band?
TB: We improvise our songs; everything we do is improvisation. And then what we do live is pretty improvisational. We have about 90 songs that we can just kind of pull up. We might write notes that are scattered all over the stage to remind us what we’re doing. But we essentially change the set every night. We’re not one of these bands who treat it as a theater performance. We’re not a heritage band. We’re not living off our heritage; we’re living off our future and creating a future. Springsteen I think showed the way — really with Wrecking Ball — that you can make an album as good as anything you’ve ever made at any age you want. We come up against that kind of glass ceiling attitude of age which you just have to smash through, which we do when we play live. That’s why we’re still vital and dangerous.
In a recent interview with Spotify, you say you found yourself approaching “Laid territory” on “Curse Curse.” Do you try to avoid these things or just go where the writing takes you?
TB: I met them when they were 16 and they’d stolen their equipment, a poor Manchester band. None of us could play; we go in a room, five hours a day, four or five days a week, and jam. Make a racket. We did this for seven years. That is training, it was an apprenticeship. We had a rule in the band for the first few years that no one in the band was allowed to take lessons. Because if you take music lessons, you’ll end up playing like everybody else plays. So we learned very primitively how to play. We weren’t even trying to make songs — I mean we were very slow at making songs in the beginning. We had one year rehearsing that amount of time where we made one song in a year. We threw out any song that sounded like anyone else’s song. We were very rigorous. We were like, “Nope that sounds too like them. Chuck it out.” So one year we made one song. And then we didn’t give a shit. We were living off nothing for seven years before we became famous, and we didn’t care — we were having a great time. We saw from our live gigs which were building and building. That kept us going, that made us go, “Oh we’re on to something here.” Wait, I’ve forgotten your question?
So everything we do is from jamming. And weird songs get thrown up in jamming, things you couldn’t consciously think about. No one comes in with chords or ideas. I never sit down to write about anything. You start jamming and we start bouncing off each other. It could be one note and we’re off… “Curse Curse” is the only song since “Laid” that’s come out where it was kind of playful and a bit witty. I got some of the lyrics while I was singing it in that jam and it was like, “Oh, this has to be, I have to now write the rest of the lyrics.” Cause you can’t write a funny lyric or a comedy lyric ‘cause you can only hear that three or four times and then you’re done with it. Wit is a different thing, only a few people can pull that off, you know, [Pulp’s] “Common People” — that great song — a few other people… Leonard Cohen pulls of wit all the time, but that’s fucking work. “Curse Curse” I had to work quite hard on, ‘cause I tried to have humor in it, but not make it a one-trick pony. And it’s the first time probably since “Laid” where it had that mischievous, playful sexual edge, you know? Where I’m comparing sex and desire with also this sport, the sexual congress people get when someone scores a goal or has a touchdown in sport you know? Where everyone gets like in ecstasy [laughs] and its like “Yeeeeeeaaahh!”
So how did death impact the new music?
TB: We’ve got this new album where my mom died while we were writing it. One of the people I love the most in the world died, so there’s a lot of death in the record, death and birth. ‘Cause my mom died in my arms, age 90, and it was beautiful. And nobody tells you that that’s possible. It was actually a beautiful experience that felt like a birth. Check out the “Moving On” video. This animator made it — I told him the story of my mom dying and he did this animation that now they’re taking in hospitals in the U.K. to show to dying children. ‘Cause children ask, “What is death?” This animation has captured something so universal and beautiful about death and birth. Check it out.
JG: It’s the best visual thing that we’ve ever been involved in by a country mile.
TB: Rigor mortis can set in at 30. It can set in at 20. And it’s like how do you stay alive? And the song on this album — what I got from these deaths (and I lost a couple of other people, too) — was in “Quicken the Dead.” And the lyric is, “Don’t let me choose an easy life with death once removed, aneathatize the blues, domesticated.” And it’s an uplifting chorus, “Don’t you know we’re already dead,” and it’s like, live your fucking life as if death is on your shoulder. Because you don’t fucking know. And so kiss the people you want to kiss, tell the people who are around you you love them… ‘Cause I didn’t get to say it to my friend… and that’s what this is about for us. It’s like an affirmation of life, an affirmation of being present, but allowing death to be there because it can help you live.