It’s hard to believe James are in their fourth decade of making music. But then this is a band that have outlasted 1980s indie, Madchester baggie, Britpop and countless other musical fads and fashions in that time. And that’s their secret. People have tried to lump them in with prevailing trends, but James just don’t fit in neatly anywhere. They’re out there on their own now, like they have been from the beginning.
“To be fashionable is the death knell,” says guitarist Saul Davies. “We had a brush with the Madchester scene but did everything we could to avoid that. We were sort of part of that but nothing to do with it musically. We were always just completely contrary. We had more in common with The Fall. When I joined in 1989, we were seen as this very odd band who would never get any recognition beyond the north west.”
Things didn’t quite turn out like that. In the 1990s, James hit the big time with singles like Sit Down, Come Home, She’s A Star and Born Of Frustration, and have sold more than 12 million albums worldwide. None of them are household names or instantly recognisable, but they’ve got a large and loyal following.
James’s new album, Girl At The End Of The World, recorded with producer Max Dingel with input from Brian Eno (“he always brings something contrary or unusual to the process”), has just been released and it’s James doing what they do best, their own thing, irrespective of whatever else is going on. Allied to the eccentric lyrics and catchy hooks are dance beats and euphoric electronica.
It’s an accomplished album from a band still at the height of their powers after all this time. But that doesn’t mean it was a doddle to make. Not by any means.
“Bands talk about that difficult second album but it’s the trickster 14th one that’s the real ************,” says singer Tim Booth on recording Girl At The End Of The World. As with their last album, 2014’s Le Petit Mort, the new long player was recorded in the Scottish Highlands with the band retreating to an 18th century coaching inn and setting up the creative environment they needed.
“There was no deliberate plan to make it dancey,” says Saul. “We just got in a room together and made some noise. We often write to a drum machine and set it at 120bpm with a kick drum keeping time so that makes it quite dancey. You end up with beats and pulses. The dance elements were more buried in the last album but they’re more overt now.”
Saul has recently moved up to the Highlands with his family and, having spent most of his childhood in Scotland, felt very comfortable to be back recording north of the border.
“As you get older you gravitate towards where you’re from,” he said. “The north of Scotland, you either get it or you don’t. It’s not for the faint-hearted but it’s not as isolated as you might imagine. You do have neighbours and there is a real sense of togetherness. You look after each other, the landscape can be brutal but the people are really cool.”
Singer Tim Booth describes making the album as “a collaborative process allowing ample room for improvisation, intuition, skill and dumb luck.”
Saul says making it in the Highlands was “a chance to get away from any distractions. You can just get your head down.”
Tim reckons the process can be chaotic but the band embrace that and the happy accidents it can throw up. Besides, Saul says, the band are in a pretty good headspace these days.
“We’re just in our 35th year as a band. People say it’s weird that we’re getting better but I think that’s true of us,” says Saul. “Live, we’re a very consistent band, we give our best on stage.
“We’ve been working at it long enough. That’s what kept us going. James can be very skittish, unpredictable but we’re lucky to have made the mistakes we did.”
These ‘mistakes’ include refusing the cover of NME back in 1985 when Morrissey was saying James were his favourite band. They also refused to put their huge hit single Sit Down on the US version of their Laid album as they’d already released it Stateside which must have affected sales.
“We have ideas around fairness and treating fans well, not exploiting them” says Saul. “We treat our fanbase with respect. That’s why we haven’t ended up playing on ******* cruise ships.”
That fanbase will be turning out in force for James’s forthcoming tour with the date at Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion followed immediately by three nights at separate venues in London. A lot of the tour had sold out weeks before it even starts.
“We’re really looking forward to the whole tour and to be playing some of the smaller venues on the coast,” says Saul of returning to the Cliffs Pavilion.
“It’s a nice tour for us, it’s basically sold out, so the venues will be packed to the rafters. We’ve sold more tickets on this tour than we’ve ever done.”
Still going strong, still doing their own thing.
James play the Cliffs Pavillion, Southend, on Tuesday, May 3. The album Girl At The End Of The World is out on BMG Recordings now. Find out more at www.wearejames.com