Since their return in 2007, the British art-rockers-formerly-alterna-rockers have rekindled the creative spark that made them so beloved in the early ‘90s. “We’re wanting to look forward and play music that is as good if not better than anything we have done before,” explains frontman Tim Booth.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
With more than three decades of music on their resume, you wouldn’t blame Manchester’s James for taking the well-trafficked reunion tour route, alongside so many of their peers. Their biggest single in this country, “Laid,” from the 1993 album of the same name, was practically on the syllabus of every college-aged kid in the early ‘90s, so they’ve earned the right to hit up the summer festival circuit, offering up a greatest hits playlist show after show.
Funny thing is, the band, having already weathered a tough six-year break up beginning in 2001, has no intention off simply looking back. Since their critically-praised 2008 album, Hey Ma, the band has proved to be remarkably relevant, turning out some of their best music… well, ever.
Their latest, La Petite Mort, covers some heartbreaking topics – in particular the deaths of singer Tim Booth’s mother, as well as a close friend – but contrasts them beautifully with music that is borderline celebratory. Over the years, this feat has become a hallmark of the band: taking deep lyrics and pairing them with an enthusiastic backdrop.
Fresh off a tour in the UK, Booth was kind enough to get on the phone recently and talk through the new record, the band’s break up and reunion and growing older in an industry geared towards the young.
BLURT: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I know doing interviews are not the reason anyone gives for starting a band.
TIM BOOTH: It’s been quite interesting being interviewed on this record because the questions have been deep. I haven’t felt much like a politician on a campaign because the topics are so emotionally pregnant. It’s been really quite good to talk about this stuff.
That’s an interesting place to start. One of the things that struck me about this album, lyrically you talk about some very serious issues here. Death is brought up in a number of these songs, but it’s not necessarily a sad album. Was there a conscious decision to make it a little more optimistic?
There were two things. One was my mother’s death at 91, surrounded by loved ones. She wanted to go earlier, she had been in a care home in Yorkshire and she kind of died in my arms and it was really beautiful; it was an ecstatic experience. I’ve never heard anyone describe death like that before and it was a shock to me. I didn’t think that was possible, such a beautiful passing. And secondly, I had the death of a friend, one of the people I loved most in the world and it was almost the complete opposite. This person dies younger and had an illness they had kept from me and I didn’t get there in time to say goodbye and it was devastating. I had two polar experiences and I think many people experience that second extreme rather than the first.
Another thing that happened, James naturally works against lyrics. We do that as an impulse, we’re not here to depress folks and very much our impulse was to celebrate life. We like these kind of paradoxical contrasts of uplifting music and heavy lyrical matter. I think that’s basically what happened, having the experience of death that was really beautiful and the natural change inclination to put two different ideas together.
Did you ever catch yourself, on this record in particular, thinking you might be sharing too much of what you just went through?
In writing (the lyrics) I never think about it and I know other people do sometimes get embarrassed about my candor, but I don’t even think about it when I’m writing because I have a duty to write the best lyric I can possible write and the more truthful I am the more it seems to touch people who love the music. And if it embarrasses people who can’t handle that level of directness and emotion then they’re not the right people for this music. In the end, I’m writing for the people who need to be written to. We had so many people write in response to these lyrics about the loss of their parent, their loved ones, their children, then you feel like you’re doing something that’s important – voicing things that don’t often get voiced. So no, I don’t often think about it.
You and the other members in the band have certainly earned the right to tour under the albums and songs you have recorded over the past few decades. Is it important that you continue to write new music?
Yes, we’re not a heritage band in that we’re not really looking back. We’re wanting to look forward and play music that is as good if not better than anything we have done before. Because of our age there’s a glass ceiling on us so it’s harder to get a hit. In England it’s a closed shop unless your music attracts 16-to-25-year-olds. It’s an ageist glass ceiling which I see as no better than a sexist or racist glass ceiling.
Our feeling is that we’re looking forward all the time. When we got together it was never to play the old hits. We’ve got like 17 hits, so we can bury them or change them up, fuck around with them. “Sit Down” is the biggest hit for us in this country (the UK) and we won’t be playing it on this tour. We took it out for a year or so, so it will be fresh again and we can reinvigorate it. Springsteen is the one I think who has done it really nobly. Wrecking Ball was really a fantastic record and he keeps moving forward. There’s a belief that with aging you can’t be vital. Vitality is not a prerequisite of youth.
The band split up in 2001. What was it that made it possible for the band to reunite and work on new music?
I left the band in 2001 and we absolutely swore we would never play together again. It wasn’t really healthy for us all psychologically. We got very dysfunctional towards the late ‘90s though we actually started to heal some of the wounds on Pleased to Meet You (the band’s 2001 album). I felt like we should go out on a really great record and I was so scared of us falling back to where we were psychologically in the late ‘90s and it just wasn’t healthy; there was a lot of addictions and it was difficult to communicate and we came back really because everyone had cleaned up and everyone had six years to reevaluate what we were and we all knew we still had some good music in us.
To me, the biggest issue was could we change as a family. When you’ve been together 32 years the band is a family, it’s more than most people’s fucking marriage… We came together and we had changed. We all love each other and love what we do passionately. This is an amazing band and it’s a real joyful band to be in right now.
Having been together more than three decades, what has changed about the band in terms of how you get together to write music?
In many ways it’s the same. We’ve done it in different groups of people, but the methodology is the same. But the fact is, no one really writes a song and brings it into James. We get into a room and improvise with each other. That improvisation is our philosophy; our belief in creating things in the moment, unconsciously.
It’s the way of tapping into a creativity… there’s something about in that magic that’s uncontrollable and I mean that in the most positive way. The unconscious mind is where the great source of creativity lives.