The James singer shares his life lessons ahead of Dubai Jazz Fest
As the singer of Manchester band, James, the past 35 years have seen Tim Booth living the quintessential highs and lows of life as an artist and rock star. Ahead of his band’s performance at this month’s Dubai Jazz Festival (Feb 24 to 26), he spent an evening sharing his life lessons with Esquire Middle East.
When we started James in the 1980s we didn’t want our music to be influenced by anyone else. The only bands that I really loved back then were ones that didn’t sound like us. My favourite band was The Birthday Party. I saw them probably 10 times, and they only lasted for two years before they imploded. I love Nick Cave now but to this day, he hasn’t been in a more ferocious band than The Birthday Party. They weren’t beyond Iggy which is saying something.
Seeing Iggy Pop when I was 16 was a huge awakening. Iggy was such a contradiction. He had this masculine/feminine thing. It was like he would fight you but he was also wearing eye makeup and gold leather pants. So I loved that ambiguity. I watched him throw himself around and dance beautifully and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I can do that on stage.’
The way I danced used to get me in trouble. I’d go to clubs in Manchester early before anyone else was there so I could have the dance floor to myself. This was pre-house, and people danced in a very set way. I literally had knives drawn on me many times but I never got stabbed.
To become self-realised individuals, we have to get into conflict with the culture we live in, otherwise we just end up doing what everyone has done for the last thousand years. That’s why, growing up, I loved writers such as Doris Lessing, who was amazing, Robert Anton Wilson who was this crazy psychedelic writer, James Joyce, Albert Camus… Patti Smith’s album Horses changed my life during my teenage years. There was David Bowie’s transgender thing. These artists were very important to me in giving me a sense that there were people out there who were ahead of the curve, and suggested other ways of living.
I got very sick quickly in my late teens when I tried drugs because I have an inherent liver disease. I realised I had physical limitations and that probably saved my life. So many singers in bands at some point get themselves wasted by addiction. So my illness served me well in that sense as I have never been able to go down that route. My quest became, Can I go on stage and be free, like Iggy Pop or Nick Cave, but can I do it totally sober? That has been my particular challenge and my pleasure.
When Western medicine gives up on you then you look at the alternatives. I turned to eastern medicine, not in some kind of new age belief in that it was better, but because I had no choice. I started meditating every day for long hours, I tried homeopathy, acupuncture and Chinese herbs, and eventually found things that really helped me and made me live with it in a very functioning way.
Sounding original has never been a problem because we write through improvisation. When you improvise, you can’t control it. Someone plays a note, I respond with a vocal. The thing shifts on its own accord and we might do 100 improvisations to choose 12 or 13 songs. We never had the expertise to say, ‘Let’s make a hit song’. They either fall from the sky or they don’t. And lucky we had long periods where they just turned up.
We recorded “Sit Down” twice and the first time we released it, it did nothing. So we recorded a more aggressive version a year later and it went number two and sat there for about six weeks. R.E.M. had a hit with “Losing My Religion” in the interim and suddenly the radio jumped on the indie thing, which shows how you can’t control it. It’s all about luck and timing; we’ve written some great hits that haven’t made it because they came out at the wrong moment.
I didn’t go to raves because they seemed so drug-based and not something that I could do. But by around 2000 I was getting into dance music, and I used it when I DJed as a dance teacher. It was really good for me, because when you try to seduce a room of people to dance and really express themselves, you have to step outside the genre of music that turns you on. But I also use classical music or Tibetan, Mongolian throat singing… really any genre. We teach on the weekends to dance eight hours a day. You really get to other states, the same as meditation and there’s a call for this; it’s growing as a movement, like with yoga 20 years ago.
In any culture through history you see the importance of dance. It is one of the basic forms of self-expression; you can see it in a child. In this culture, most people only dance when they’ve had a couple of beers or something stronger, but this is taking it back to the roots. Actually, if you do this, you end up feeling fantastic – endorphins get created and it becomes a journey of discovery, a psychological or spiritual path, as any art form that you take to its extreme can be. That for me is interesting.
I’m a very lucky person in that I get to do things that I love. I’ve done some acting. I was in an indie move, I was in Batman Begins, and I did some stuff for the BBC. And they are things that creatively stretch me and get me to play and get me back to my child-like qualities. I’m writing a novel that is coming along really well. I’m working on a game I invented, that a promoter is going to put on L.A. in a few months, a party game and it could become an app. I kind of follow my intuition and if I am lucky enough it leads somewhere.
The comeback of James has been very enjoyable. We took it so seriously the first time around and it was fraught with tension. When you become very successful, your life goes down a wormhole. It gets scary for a while and it takes a lot of grounding to get hold of that energy. Since 2006 it has been such a pleasure because there has been less pressure. Plus we are older and realise how lucky we are with this. I’ve always done what I wanted to do, and to be able to make money making music that you passionately love after 30 years in the same band… what a blessing!
I’m full of awe and respect for Bruce Springsteen. He’s not my natural taste in music, but no one has a bigger heart on stage than that man. He influenced twice in really important ways. The first time was when I was 18. I was dragged to see him reluctantly because I was into punk. But that gig made me realise that it isn’t just tortured artists who have the fire in their belly. And thank God I saw that, because otherwise I would have probably killed myself by now. The second instance was in about 2005 after he’d reformed the E Street Band. I went to see the gig in London with great trepidation thinking that they would be crap, but instead it was one of the top five gigs I had ever seen. They’d found a way to reinvent their material and it was magnificent. It showed me that you can reform and it not be about money. A year later James approached me to reform, and if I hadn’t seen Springsteen do it with dignity and artistic credibility, I think I would have said no.
My mother died in my arms, aged 90. It was like a birth and it was also beautiful. The song “Moving On” from our last album is about that time, and also the death of one of my best friends. We approached Ainslie Henderson, an animator friend of ours, about doing a video. I rang him up and kind of overwhelmed him with these stories. A day and a half later he sent a script and I burst into tears. It’s a remarkable piece of work and it’s now shown in hospitals for dying children because they often ask about what death is like, and adults don’t know what to say. It’s a higher accolade than you could wish for as a songwriter or as a band. We will never do anything as good as that ever again. You can’t plan something like that, it’s just one of those things that falls from the sky.
The media tell you how appalling the world is, so we think everything is getting worse. But actually if you see the statistics, you look at Hans Rosling’s [Swedish doctor, academic and statistician] website, he does these statistics on mortality rates, literacy rates, on death rates, women’s rights, and he shows over the last 150 years, in every country in the world things are progressing. So I see those messages from corporations and news channels as being a part of the old-school trying to control and rule us through fear, because if you got a lot of fear, you need weapons, you need to spy on your people, you need a state apparatus. And to me it’s a conspiracy of keeping people acting from fear rather than positivity and love. But I am pretty positive that these changes are happening naturally within our consciousness. There has been an empathetic raise of consciousness in the West and certainly in a lot of countries.