The music world is a harsh climate. Its inhabitants, though a hardy breed, face the cold, bracing weather of public opinion and struggle to find sustenance and success in the saturated soil of modern rock. For bands who’ve been around for a while, all it takes is a change in the wind for them to grow tired and lifeless. James is a survivor. Formed in 1982, its members have put out album after album, and after a brief death when vocalist Tim Booth left in 2001, they rose again to fight for life in 2006, and have since gone on slam out three more albums.
Jim Glennie, the bassist and apparent namesake of the band, makes it clear that James had been his job for almost his whole life, and the albums they’ve made follow a path of progression. “You become different people – I’m not the 15-year-old boy I was anymore, I’m a fifty-year-old bloke with kids and grandchildren! Those albums reflect those massive changes, from this spindly sparseness on Stripmine to the more experimental period to the anthemic period where we had some success, then disappearing off to the States. I think that had a big influence on us.
“I never felt like we were gonna be in it for a long time – it wasn’t something that existed beyond the record we were working on. It never felt any more concrete than that. We’re still excited by what we do and we’re still finding new ways to present our music to people. Since we got back together in 2006, we felt like we were kind of under the radar, but after La Petite Mort [the band’s 13th full-length release] something shifted and a lot of people heard us for the first time. So, you kind of circumvent the industry, when you play a gig and there are loads of young people there – people get into you each time you do something, and that’s really exciting.”
This, in a way, is the real strength of James as a band. They have managed to hit their stride creatively in a career spanning 30 years and still boast a sizeable fan base to support them. Over time, their sound has morphed and won them supporters in many places. Brian Eno, the pioneer of ambience, is one such fan, and was involved in the production of a number of James’s albums mid-career such as Laid, Wah Wah and Millionaires. He is often credited with inflicting his ambient tendencies onto the band, and I wondered what influence current producer Max Dingel, an apparent Pro-Tools master and sonic perfectionist, had over the recent albums. “I think La Petite Mort was kind of a shift sonically for us and that was implemented by Max. We wanted to push things a little bit, and Max was the perfect person. He concentrates massively on the sounds – it’s about crafting the sounds and creating space for them. I think he’s given us the kind of grit and the power that we get live, but the difference is in the way he crafts the songs. Some of us weren’t so sure about the process, but I think the success of La Petite Mort has validated it. And also we love it, we kind of grew into it, so it seemed like a no-brainer to do another one with Max to kind of pick up where we left off.”
Their new album Girl at the End of the World, out on 18 March, promises to be as intricate as their previous release, La Petite Mort. Having been written entirely in Scotland, the solitude seems to be the only thing that carried through: “I don’t think Scotland specifically had an effect on the songwriting, it was more that we were locked away in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands in January, minus ten outside, and that could have been anywhere – Alaska, Newfoundland, Scandinavia, anywhere freezing would’ve had a similar effect on the album. It was something we needed to do, we locked ourselves away and spent all day writing, and that became the core of the album.”
In terms of tracks, ‘Girl at the End of the World’ promises a mix of straight-up pop songs and some structurally looser ones. “I love the big journey songs. I love the tension – the ones that don’t just go verse-chorus-verse-chorus, but the ones that go part-A-part-B-part-C-part-D, and I’m really looking forward to playing them live. ‘Girl at the End of the World’, it’s just a simple little pop song – I only join in on the chorus, but I love the directness of it.”
On the subject of live activities, Tim Booth’s serpentine swerving and seductive stage presence are renowned, and I ask whether the band has anything special in store for the upcoming UK tour. “We’re a bit shambolic when it comes to organising things. We tend to have a lot of ideas last minute that we try and implement and then cobble things together into a show. It’s going to be a lot of this new album obviously, we’re desperate to play it to people. I think we’re going to shift around some of the tunes we play and work on some back catalogue things, but we’ve got so bloody many to pick from!”
Although James has never quite dominated the musical landscape they reside in, as some bands do, they have maintained an impressively consistent trajectory on the path of British rock. They are career musicians – long-distance runners that make the music they love making, humbly and wholeheartedly. Girl at the End of the World hopes to be as big-hearted as the rest of their catalogue, and with refined production and a wealth of experience to draw from, it should build well on top of the success of La Petite Mort. They have survived for this long. Thankfully, it doesn’t look like they’ll be giving up the gun anytime soon.