Just before heading off to play New York & his native U.K., Tim Booth of James talked to QRO. In the conversation, the singer discussed the band’s new album, La Petit Mort (QRO review), improvisation, the paradoxes of life & death, touring from Peru to Portugal, changing set lists every night, fans old & young, getting younger, shaving his head (again), their caped, crusading fan, and more…
QRO: Why just the one-off in New York (Tuesday, October 21st at Webster Hall), and no further U.S. dates?
Tim Booth: Financially, I don’t think we felt could do it. We’ve got a pretty tight schedule, promoting. The next chance comes next year, to tour next year, but, at the moment, this is all we’ve got.
QRO: You’re going to be touring the U.K. in November – and then two dates in Portugal. Why those two Portuguese dates, and not a larger continental tour?
TB: I live in the States; I live in California. So when we get together to tour, we tend to try to keep it to three-week blocks. Some people have families to get back to. So we do everything in blocks, in general. We’re coming back to Europe in March. We try to do it to fit with our lives.
QRO: Is it hard to get everyone together? There’s seven band members plus support staff…
TB: It depends who’s organizing. It kind of suits us to do it in these blocks, ‘cause you never get too tired, the more you do it in these little blocks. You use every little bit of our energy, and then collapse at the end, as opposed to doing two-to-three months, and pace yourself according.
QRO: Your last time playing in the Western Hemisphere was in Peru at the end of August – how was that?
TB: That was great. We were playing a festival – it was an old festival; it had been going for twenty-thirty years. It was like a farmer’s festival, by the sea.
Peru’s a great country. It’s always great to go to South America, I think, because it really takes us out of ourselves, culturally, in a positive way.
QRO: La Petite Mort is named after death, concerns the subject – yet it seems pretty bright. Was that intentional, or just where the songwriting led?
TB: The lyrics are light. I had two people who passed that were close to me – one was my mum, and one was Gabrielle [Roth], one of my closest friends in New York. My mum was dead at age nineties, in my arms for her last breath, which was a really good experience – unexpectedly ecstatic experience. And then Gabrielle was just the opposite, which is probably the more usual death, where you don’t quite get to say goodbye, get there in time – much more devastating, in many ways.
So I had these two big experiences that infiltrated a lot of the lyrics in the record, whether it infiltrated in more subtle ways than just death, it infiltrated in new beginnings, people waking up thinking that their dead; just stories around that. Generally, I think we have a very positive attitude about these things – you can see in the video for “Moving On”; it illustrates the story behind the lyrics. Watch that video, you really get– we’re really happy with it, really proud of that piece. Our best video to-date.
The other side is that generally we love contradictions, need to complete knotted-up lyrics, often being introspective. We’ve always liked that paradox – I think paradoxes are the best ways to approach life, any kind of obsessions or weird-isms; whatever statement you make about life, the opposite tends to be true equally. We kind of like to put in paradoxes – ‘La Petit Mort’, it means ‘a little death’, but it also means an orgasm.
QRO: Is there an ‘Emily’ of “Emily come to bed” chorus line to “Frozen Britain”?
TB: I haven’t met her yet. I hope there is. I’m sure she’s out there, waiting…
QRO: How did making Mort compare with making The Morning After and The Night Before (QRO review)?
TB: For this one, we got the backing of a major, BMG, and Cooking Vinyl, who are an independent, and it was the best of both worlds, really. They really got behind us, financially, and we got to work in a grown-up studio in London. We got to record with all the sort of technology at our disposal, whereas the other albums – Hey Ma, we built a studio, D.I.Y.
The others were much more how most people do it nowadays – do it in your bedroom, with computers, sharing files. But this was very much like an old fashioned record, where we get to work with a producer, work on the songs up on our own, and then record with more technology at our disposal.
I think paradoxes are the best ways to approach life, any kind of obsessions or weird-isms; whatever statement you make about life, the opposite tends to be true equally.
QRO: Do you prefer doing it the ‘old fashioned’ way, with a recording studio and a producer?
TB: It really varies, to be honest. Sometimes making an album can be like pulling teeth. In a professional way, not quite realizing the songs you wanted. That can happen.
But this record, we really enjoyed it. Generally, we had a great time, living in London for five month. Max Dingel was a really patient, wonderful producer, who took our sound and really mixed around our sounds in a positive way; took us on a lot of little adventures.
So we were very happy with the outcome of this record. But I wouldn’t say that it was down to the method we did it, because sometimes we’ve made records as a band in posh studios and it was a horrible experience. It just worked out that way – you just can’t quite tell.
QRO: Why did you do two ‘mini-albums’ previously, The Night Before and The Morning After?
TB: Well, in the past, we’d come up with these really mellow tracks that didn’t fit on an album. Because we like albums to take them on tour; we can’t have too many mellow songs, when you’re known as a live band.
So we separated two albums into a kind of more mellow record, The Morning After – The Night Before would be a slightly more upbeat kind of thing. But it didn’t work out like that, because the minute we started working on some of songs for The Morning After, they kind of ‘uplifted themselves’, just by the structure. So it didn’t work out quite the way we’d had it – we’d had it like a hangover record, and it didn’t quite turn out like that.
QRO: In some earlier records, you would often add lyrics after much of a song was already made. Do you still do that, are you in earlier in the process, or is it a mixture of the two?
TB: When we improvise, I often get some lyrics in the improvisation. And then when we rehearse something to record, I’ll have lyrics by the time we record. But, sometimes I’ll go back and change a pronoun, but usually the lyrics are pretty set by the time we finish it.
QRO: With decades worth of material, how do you all pick songs for the set list?
TB: We probably have about eighty or ninety songs a soundcheck away from being ready for a gig. So we’ll pick a song that evening, or during soundcheck, and see how it flies, and if it flies, okay, we’ll play it in the concert.
And then we, as a group, we’ve got rehearsal schedule, schedule for the next tour, we all put forward songs that we’d like to, about eighty or ninety, and we learn them. So that gives us extra capability.
And then on the night – we literally change it every night, depending on how we’re feeling, what the idea the audience has, what day of the week it is; playing on a Monday night is totally different than on a Friday or Saturday; Friday or Saturday, people want to celebrate, Monday, they kind of want to hear music, they might take longer to fire up. So we change the set list every night, with that in mind.
I think that’s why people come to see us many, many times – they know they’re gonna get a different concert every night; they know they gonna get to see something they can’t expect every night.
We’re communicating with a group of people who we’ve never met before, musically, through a new set, and that’s our guiding principle. We don’t go with these bands who play the same set every night – our thing is to keep it fresh and open with life.
QRO: I suppose the NYC show & U.K. tour will focus on La Petit Mort…
TB: Well, we want to. When you’ve got new songs, the most exciting thing is playing new songs. So yes, of course, we’ll be playing eight off the new album, and a lot of the songs were purposely made to be played live; we think of them as very much ‘live songs’. Yes, we’re definitely looking forward to doing that.
QRO: You all release more and more material, but I suppose the set times don’t get much longer – does it become harder with each new album, as you’ve got more material but not necessarily more time?
TB: In a perfect world, we’d be playing four hours a night, but unfortunately my voice wouldn’t hold out like that. I sing across about two full ranges, which means I can’t sing for about two hours without the voice getting damaged, being unable to hit the high notes.
So yes, it’s a problem, but it’s a great problem. I think that’s why people come to see us many, many times – they know they’re gonna get a different concert every night; they know they gonna get to see something they can’t expect every night.
QRO: At shows, do you notice fans that you suspect are from different ‘eras’ of James, like those from the early Manchester days in the eighties, the ‘Madchester’ nineties, and/or since the reunion?
TB: Yes, I notice that. It’s really exciting – especially when you see new fans come. You know, it’s great to play to old fans, but this record is definitely been getting more attention from a younger audience.
The last time we played Manchester, we played to the youngest audience we’ve ever played to in Manchester in twenty years. And in different countries, we get different age of audience in each country we go to. And we love that – we love that we’re crossing over, and it isn’t ‘age-ist’…
Music is music. If you put your music out, and you love it, and you’re passionate, and you work your ass off on it – you will get more people later.
We’ve got some really good videos out, “Moving On” and “Curse Curse”, and they’re probably two of the best two videos that we’ve ever had made for us. And we know that those videos are doing well around the world, when you see the young people turn up and go, “Who is this band?”
We are confident enough in our abilities and our arrogance that we know that we’re a live band. Generally, once people come see us, they come back. So it’s fantastic when we get that experience.
QRO: The ‘reunion’ has now lasted longer than the ‘break-up’/‘hiatus’ – does that feel like something that happened forever ago, or does it still feel like you all just got back together?
TB: Forever ago. It feels like a long time ago now.
And it was totally necessary. It was a finish – it wasn’t a hiatus, which was great, because it mentally allowed us to feel like we’d stopped. Which was really good for us, I think. And then when we came back, it was like we could appreciate it more than we ever had done.
QRO: Are you already thinking about the next album?
TB: Mmm-hmm. When you first rang, we were in the middle of writing a song, and we couldn’t stop. It was one of those songs that was growing and growing, which is why we’re a bit late, sorry. When we start jamming, we just have to see it through. So yeah, we started writing for the next album.
When you first rang, we were in the middle of writing a song, and we couldn’t stop.
QRO: James stared over thirty years ago – does that fact ever amaze you, maybe make you feel old?
TB: It does amaze me. I realize it’s like a marriage, really, in some ways.
Does it make me feel old? I like the quote, not Bernard Shaw quote, but the quote about age, where, “Everybody has to grow old, but you don’t have to be old.” I kind of think we’re pretty used to our energy to life, and that’s the important thing. That keeps us fresh. So I don’t really feel old in that way – in some ways I feel younger.
When I was younger, when James started out I was celibate, meditating every day, two hours a day, sixteen hours every weekend. I think for the first seven years of James – no alcohol, no drugs – I felt older then than I do now, in my attitude to life. Now I’m a little bit freer, a little bit wilder. So I feel it in reversal. I’m very lucky.
I had very bad health when I was a kid. I had an undiagnosed liver disease. My health got better and better as I get older. So I think I’m aging in reverse in some ways.
QRO: When did you go for the shaved head & goatee?…
TB: For the first time, probably around twenty. And then around twenty-eight, and then I finally committed to it around thirty-eight. I was an early adopter.
QRO: Do you at least wish you had a more Google-able band name?…
TB: I never think of it, but I see your point. That’s probably a very good marketing question – I never think of marketing…
QRO: Finally, as someone who appeared in one of the Christian Bale Batman movies, what you think Ben Affleck wearing the cowl?
There’s your headline, “BATMAN LOVES JAMES”…
TB: [laughs] That’s weird. I’ll choose it when I see it.
I did like the Christian Bale ones, they were fantastic – I doubt whether they’ll be topped. That will be quite a hard number to follow, I think.
My third day of filming, they scar me up for about two hours every day. The third day, Batman was in there, Christian Bale. And he stays in character. He gets dressed up, in his make-up, and walks over and stands over me, rather threatening, and he goes, “Are you Tim Booth?” And I go, “Yes.” “Of the band James?” “Yes.” “Your music really changed my life.”
I was sitting there thinking, ‘Wow – Batman loves our music!’ That was really nice.
There’s your headline, “BATMAN LOVES JAMES”…