Back in January, Even The Stars spoke to Tim Booth of James for Louder Than War magazine, published in the March edition. This is a more complete version of that interview than the one published due to space constraints in the magazine and sees Tim talking about the making of their recent album Girl At The End Of The World.
Girl At The End Of The World is James’ fourteenth studio album. Their tale is a long and curious one, starting when three teenage football hooligans accosted a student Tim Booth in a Manchester University cellar and took them on a road via Factory Records, two albums in the wilderness with Sire Records to assuming the mantle of the biggest band in Britain with the chart success of Sit Down in 1991. They were always too angular, too stubborn and inventive though to follow the path mapped out for them shunning stadium rock for the acoustic tones of Laid and the improvised Wah Wah.
After a short break, they embraced electronica with Whiplash, shot back into the limelight with a million-selling Best Of and two further albums Millionaires and Pleased To Meet You before calling it a day in 2001. Ahead of their time, they reformed in 2007 insistent on releasing new material rather than resting on their substantial back catalogue. Hey Ma came out in 2008 and was acclaimed by fans as a career highpoint and they’ve subsequently released two mini albums The Night Before and The Morning After in 2010 and La Petite Mort in 2014. This month sees the release of Girl At The End Of The World and we caught up with front man Tim Booth to talk about the making of the album.
Like its predecessor and much of James’ work, Girl was written during intense jam sessions at founder member Jim’s guest house in the wilds of Northern Scotland.
“We wrote it up at Jimmy’s place again in the Highlands. We did it in January and February last year, completely cut off. We had a slight difference this time round in that we hired Swiss Ron (tour tech and eighth live member of James) to be tape editor for Jimmy and me.”
“Usually if one of us wants to edit songs we have to hijack someone who can operate the technology like Mark and he works his arse off and we feel really bad about it. We hired Ron so we could do more editing and be more efficient. We would produce three weeks of material, hours and hours of jams and plough through them for months, but this time we came out of there with tonnes of edits of short-listed songs which was unusual for us.”
“I think for the first time no other songs were added later. We were working on everything whilst we were up there. I was pretty conscious about setting beats fast and danceable. We asked ourselves what about the last record we’d like to carry forward to this one and I liked the grooves. Jim’s become such a groovy bass player and so that’s really tempting to keep pushing and it draws Mark out, although this time he didn’t need any beckoning. There’ll be no stopping him in future, he’ll turn into a huge egomaniac.”
Following those sessions James were reacquainted with Max Dingel who produced La Petite Mort and during the sessions Brian Eno dropped in to help out with the album’s second single Nothing But Love.
“We sent Max the demos after the Scottish session, he loved them, really got them. Our record company and management weren’t too sure, our demos are usually just for us. Famously Geoff Travis asked us when we handed him the Gold Mother demos whether we were taking the piss, testing him, but they were unlistenable.”
“With Brian, I just phoned him up. I thought we’d got stuck on a couple of songs, one was Nothing But Love, the other one that didn’t end up on the record we’ll save because it’s really good, but we didn’t nail it. He did a lot on that other song, but on Nothing But Love it’s just that arpeggio that’s unmistakeably Brian. He would have done a lot more but he ended up working with someone else as he got an offer that he couldn’t refuse. It was great to work with him again, he’s a beautiful man.”
One of the most exciting parts of the James live experience is that they thrill in revealing new songs, road-testing them often in unfinished form to gauge audience reaction. This time round though, only Nothing But Love had been heard by the James fan base. Tim however has no concerns that the songs will stand up in their live set.
“I genuinely think nearly all of them will work. I suspect we’ll be playing most of them live. I think there’s some really killer live songs, I think Bitch will sound great live and something like Waking, which isn’t a traditional James song, has a lot of room for trumpet to have fun, there’s a lot of joy in the music, it’s very uplifting. I can see us doing nearly all of them live.”
Not road-testing songs meant that fans weren’t exposed to the development of the songs and lyrics. It’s a complex process involving many rewrites and often very different subjects being addressed. Dear John, mooted as a future single being a case in point.
“That’s the only song I’ve ever written a completely different lyric to and been stuck between them. The other is about child abuse in the Catholic Church. We were all split. I’d never done that before, where I was totally happy with both lyrics. Usually I work out what direction it’s going in. This one I sang both and handed both in as I didn’t know which was the best of the two and neither did anyone else. That was a strange one for us, a very different process as I think lyrics write themselves so I didn’t know what to do.”
“I’ve got this great app called Scrivener that I’m using to write my novel. Some lyrics definitely came straight away like Move Down South. We hadn’t even decided to move up north at that point and it was strange as when we did, I couldn’t understand the lyric, but then when we decided to move back it made sense.” (Tim and his family moved from Topanga, on the outskirts of LA to San Francisco and back again during the album’s recording.)
“I’ll write a song six or so times and then do a compilation and see if something’s being suggested. There are certain lyrics where you get them very quickly, Girl I got on the second take and came pretty formed. I knew what that was about pretty quickly. And, just as we mixed it, Jimmy was coming round a corner and a guy was speeding straight for him and four cars made space for him at the last moment, seconds before they collided. I’m assuming that song was about that incident.”
I’ve got a microphone and often I’ll just jam lyrics, I don’t know what I’m singing about, really random making stuff up with the music in the background. I improvise, I jam along to their backing track and go looking for extra lyrics. I still wake up at four in the morning with lyrics in my head.”
“There’s multiple versions of lyrics on Scrivener. Tracks like Born An Arsehole, Jesus, Feet Feet Feet and Nothing Is Real which ended up with different titles and Bouncing, Animal and Poodle Jam which didn’t make it on the record. The last one I got a lyric in one session, a really punky song that I really like. They have completely different lyrics to what we ended up with, they can really shift.”
The aforementioned Move Down South is one of what James call their journey songs. “It was a strange one that Mark grabbed and made into what it became. A lot of that song is his arrangement of an hour-long jam where it goes from part to part to part. We love journey songs in James, we’ve always gravitated towards them, they’re more intricate, you can express yourself more. You know they’re not going to be singles so you can be more extreme. Once you get a song you know is going to be a single, a big song, it can make you a bit safer with it.”
Attention is one of the album’s most dramatic moments; a song of several very different sections and wild changes in pace. This came from the rather disjointed and accidental way it came together.
“That was an hour and twenty minute jam. There’s two bits of singing there, one ten minutes in and the other an hour in and I had no way of joining them together and so what I did was fade the keyboard and then fade the other bit in. I thought we’d find something, but people loved it so it stayed that way. It was originally a lot slower and Larry accidentally speeded it up when we were playing it back and people liked it so we ended up doing it that way once we found the right tempo. It was a difficult one though, half the band wanted it slow, half wanted it fast, we’re usually a lot clearer in our demarcations, but this one was right down the line.”
Do you lose songs sometimes because of that?
“Some of us thought the speeding up had really fucked the song, but it’s turned out wonderfully. Sometimes a song goes down a completely different route like the song we did with Brian. We’d come to a stop, down a dead end, he added some amazing things to it and it was this big song, as big as Nothing But Love, and couldn’t break it out of its shell, but Brian did that and we couldn’t then follow it up, so we held it back hoping we can work back with him. We’d gone off on this big procession as we do and then, bang, there’s a cul-de-sac. Nothing But Love was one, some people thought it wasn’t a single, Jim and I right from the start thought this was the big song on the record. My only concern is that it is classic James and the album we’ve moved into a different sonic area, there’s only that and Girl that’s in that area. I love the song, I’m more excited by the dance grooves.”
Tim then goes back to Attention, clearly one of his favourites on the record.“The second half of it, I thought that lyric (“this is you, this is me, underneath the manzanita tree. By the fire we are forged, we are baked, we are shaped”) couldn’t stay. People in Europe won’t know what a manzanita tree is and they’ll go “he’s singing about fire again” as I do that a lot. What happened though is as we moved back to Topanga, a father of twins at my son’s school died and the kids went to the principal and wanted to do a native American fire ceremony over four days. The twins would sleep by the fire and we’d sit there in silence for three hours or sing. It was the most profound response to death I’d seen. At the end the fire dies out, the kids and the wife and the parents were there and it’s devastating, an astonishing community response to support the kids in their grief. People would hang the names of people they’d lost and were missing on the tree – I put Gabrielle Roth and my mum on that. Those kids will be profoundly changed by that experience. I know I use fire a lot and was prepared to be slagged off for it, but that’s what that lyric is about.”
There’s a song called Alvin that’s sung in French. Tim’s modest about his command of the language.
“Kind of French, you’re being very generous. I’ve forgotten why I sang it in French, I’d never done it before and it stuck.”
It’s got a lot of Laid about it which Tim acknowledges.
“It probably had a chance of being a single until I decided to sing it in my awful French but it ended up like that. It was a whim, I’d never sung in a foreign language. It was a way of twisting it, it’ll be a bugger to learn. I have no satisfactory answer for it.”
Alvin is also quite short as are a few of the songs on the record. Tim explains that this was something they intended to do in the recording process.
“There was a conscious decision to keep the songs shorter. Waiting is two minutes thirty, Girl is three, Alvin is two minutes twenty, but then you do have Move Down South which has the potential to be even longer live and Attention which would have been longer had we not speeded it up so much, 20 bpm is a lot.”
The single To My Surprise has a video that has a tale of corporate and political greed and a system that just makes the rich richer and leaves the rest behind. A lot of the ideas in it came from Tim, and he tells us that this is partly down to him having lived in America for the best part of a decade.
“Moving to America politicises you more. It’s more frightening. It could boil down to a choice between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. He had a breakthrough moment in the last debate, he got labelled as the politics of anger and he embraced it, very cunning politically. There’s a good 20-30% of Americans out there who are very angry, in the centre of the country who haven’t had their way, been ruled by a black President, which consciously and unconsciously has riled them. It brings it out of you here, there’s always been that side to me, but it’s more much in your face here. It’s much more right wing, the Democrats are like the Conservative party, so what does that make the Republicans.”
“I got to get input to Kris on the video for To My Surprise. It says so much about the world, the more frightening side of the world. He worked his arse off for it, once we were on the same page, they were working through the night, he kept adding detail, although he had a happy ending, so I changed that.”
May sees James embark on their biggest tour since they reformed in 2007. They’ve just signed a three-album deal with BMG so it seems like there are high expectations of this record, something which Tim concedes.
“The record company and management went from being sceptical of the demos to thinking we’ve given them far more songs to work with, that they can put to radio, that we can make videos for than we did last time. They think we’ve made a much bigger record so accordingly they’ll give us a bigger budget, but it’s hard to say obviously. I think To My Surprise has done more for us than the first track last time Frozen Britain, it’s more unusual and interesting and I got to input to a brilliant video.”
We then asked Tim what he expects James to do after the May tour has finished and he looks to go back to some of their favourite places as well as exploring some new ones.
“We’ll do summer festivals then we’ll see. I’m really hoping we’ll go to South America again, I’m hoping we’ll get some big support slot with a huge band and get to go to places we’ve never been before. We’ll go fishing. Greece and Portugal are very important to us, I’m sure we’ll still go there. We’ll hopefully get together and write at some point.”
Outside of James, Tim has released two solo albums – Bone and Love Life – as well as having appeared in a Batman film as well as some independent productions, but he explains now that his focus away from the band is on becoming a published author.
“I’m writing a novel which is a big undertaking after James. I’ve no idea, I’ve written seventy five thousand words of a first draft, I’m nowhere near finished, it needs a lot longer. It’s terrifying writing a novel, you need much more peace and quiet, I can’t write it when I’m travelling or doing James stuff. It’s a real dive deep inside yourself that has to be sustained across a desert of length.”
“Because La Petite Mort became all-consuming, I didn’t do anything on it for six months and I thought I’d blown it, but I managed to get back into it and I came back after making this record in September and it’s suddenly falling into place and the characters are writing their own scenes. Again, I’ll drag myself out of bed at four in the morning and two characters will do a thing that I hadn’t planned and then someone else walks into the room. It’s great, it might not be great to anyone else, it’s doing what songwriting does, has a life of its own, you’re collaborating with the characters and it has a life of its own.”
There’s a very evident belief in Girl that you get from talking to Tim (a belief that became real when the album hit number one in the midweek charts before having to settle for number two behind the phenomenon that is Adele).
Even when I suggest that this record wasn’t as immediate as most of their previous ones, he isn’t fazed at all, considering this revelation and coming back to it later. “I’m not concerned that it took you a few listens to get into it. Patti Smith’s Horses took me a number of listens to love it. I’m really excited by the dance grooves and I think this is one of the strongest records we’ve written in a long time.”