English rock band James originally signed to the iconic Factory Records in 1982. They have since gone on to produce a string of massive hit singles, including Sit Down, Come Home, She’s A Star and Born Of Frustration. Now, 34 years on, they’re touring in support of their 14th album, Girl At The End Of The World.
Lauren Foster catches up with the band’s violinist and guitarist Saul Davies…
James’ 14th album, Girl At The End Of The World, was released earlier this year. For those who haven’t listened to it yet, tell us a bit about the album…
Bands always say that their latest record is the best one they’ve ever made. I’m not saying it’s our best record ever, but it’s certainly been met with a really warm and positive response, so I would say it’s a good record. For us, the album before, La Petite Mort, was a real watershed moment. It was a different kind of record to anything we’d made before. I think A Girl At The End Of The World accompanies that record; it could almost be a double album in some ways, although they were written at different times. There’s nothing on this latest record that was written previously. This one has got a more electronic sound, which pleases me because I have to play less guitar – less is more, ha ha. I think it’s a really interesting record. It’s quite a typical James record because stylistically it isn’t one thing. Some bands make a record on which, in a good way, all the songs kind of sound like they’re from the same band, and that’s great. When you hear a Suede album or a New Order record, they make great records but you know that’s what it is and you have that particular type of mood or sound in your life for 40 minutes. I think we always make it a little bit more difficult for our listeners because we’re not consistent in that way. Our records kind of lurch from one thing to another. It’s very much a sign that we make records that we ourselves like. We won’t omit something from a record because we don’t think it fits the tone of the record. We’ll only omit something because we think it’s shit. At the same time, if we like something collectively then we’ll put it on a record, even if it slightly disturbs the balance of that record. That’s what we do, really – we make quite unbalanced, weird pop records.
You joined James in 1989. What was it like becoming part of an already-formed group?
I’d never been in a band as such. I’d done little bits and pieces but I hadn’t really been in a proper band, so I didn’t really have any preconceptions about what it would be like. Also, the band was going through a massive flux at the time. Gavin, the original drummer, left, and Dave, our current drummer, joined at the same time as I did. Shortly after, Mark the keyboard player joined. Then Andy the keyboard player joined, so it was very much in flux – a watershed period for the band, I suppose. Dave is a very different kind of drummer, so it became more muscular and more direct. Gavin was more skittery and odd. I joined at a point where the band was changing from being a very, very indie, very scratchy, low-fi thing to something a little bit more muscular – not that muscular, let’s face it, but something a little bit more dreamy. Gold Mother – the first record we ever made – has got some more reflective moments on it, like Top Of The World and a song called Crescendo; they’re more expansive. Other influences were coming in too – the post-punk thing, the skittery rhythm thing. The Orange Juicey type stuff that they’d been doing was giving way to something else that was a little bit more solid. I must’ve contributed to the process; I was there.
You were discovered by band member Larry Gott at Manchester’s Band On The Wall. What did you play on the night to catch his attention?
We laugh about it sometimes, how moments in people’s lives define how the rest of their life will be, and how, as you approach that moment in time, you have no idea that that’s what’s actually happening. I say this to my kids. You’ve got to try everything because you don’t know what the domino effect is going to be. I’d left Manchester by then. I was living in the south of England, working down there, and I went back up to Manchester for the weekend and went to Band On The Wall. We used to go to Band On The Wall all the time because it was cheap to get in and full of loons. Larry was there, and his mate asked if anyone wanted to get up out of the audience and play something. I had my violin with me. I hadn’t wanted to leave it in the car because it could’ve got nicked. Larry’s mate said, ‘Tell that bloke there to get up, I wanna hear what he can do’. So I ended up on stage, playing. I found myself just getting shoved quite reluctantly onto the stage. I couldn’t really hear anything and I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it worked out well. I played one note, I think it was a G, and I just played one long note for about a minute, which I thought was quite cool. Larry also thought it was very cool. The thing is, I could play properly, but it’s only when you get to the point where you can play really well that you play less. So he obviously thought, ‘This guy must be really good because he’s chosen to play only one note’. Either I was fucking useless and could only play one note or I was near genius.
And you were offered the job on the spot?
Yeah. I had lots of people come up to me, about eight or nine people, asking whether I wanted to be in a band, and I was like, ‘No no no, I don’t want to be in a band’. Then Larry was like, ‘Do you want to be in a band that’s signed to a major record label?’, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I do actually’. The next morning, I went into a room with Larry, Jim and Tim and we made a racket together. Although it was just a jam, it was also an audition. We were just making noise together, but they only wanted to work with people who could improvise, who could just get in a room and make a noise that might have some coherence about it, without it being the form of improvisation that commonly people think of. Anybody can do something flash, whether it’s football or whether it’s music. It’s a different language when you get together in a room and communicate through music; when that music is meaningful. In our case, it’s usually about finding simple things, finding parts of a jigsaw that fit together to make something which, further down the line, people will hear on a record or at a gig.
Where was your first gig with James?
Within 10 days of meeting these guys, we were on tour. I know we played Hull University and Newcastle, and the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, which is now a hotel. The Mancs have got no sense of their own history. How can they just turn The Hacienda into flats, the Free Trade Hall into a fucking hotel? The city will come to regret the fact that those landmarks don’t exist. They can’t even be visited. You can’t go to where The Hacienda was. You can’t come over from Seattle with your kids on some musical pilgrimage, to see where all that late ’80s, early ’90s British indie music you loved actually came from. The Mondays did the Hillsborough gigs. I went to both of those gigs at The Hacienda – legendary cultural moments – and now the place where they happened has gone, so there’s no reference to them other than the anecdotal history. The scousers did it with The Cavern – knocking it down, then building it again down the road and saying, ‘This is The Cavern’. Well no, it’s not.
Why do you think James have managed to survive for so long, through so many scenes?
Because we genuinely weren’t really part of anything. We knew that at the time, in Manchester. I remember doing lots of interviews in the early ’90s, especially after Sit Down kicked off. Obviously other bands around us were doing brilliantly well and gaining international recognition – The Roses and The Mondays and the rest of it, The Smiths to some extent. The media was very keen to find a capsule and try to lump everyone together. There were those things going on in Manchester, that’s absolutely clear – and it wasn’t only then but later on as well, with Oasis and all the rest of it. We’ve always said that we’ve got nothing to do with those other bands. They were bands we took on tour, they all supported us. All the bands, to some extent, looked after each other. We all went to each other’s gigs. I remember going to The Mondays’ sold-out gig at G-Mex. I went there with Jimmy and got on his shoulders. It was brilliant – we were down the front, just going mental. Similarly, the year before, we’d sold out two nights at G-Mex and I remember The Roses and New Order being there. James’ real gig was supporting The Fall. If James wanted to be anybody, it was The Fall in ’82/’83 – although that would be hard to imagine, listening to our music and listening to Mark E Smith. It was about clever, gobby, working-class lads sticking up two fingers to everybody, and some of it became real pop music. The attitude was all the same – that feeling of being very alienated and very northern. Everybody knows about all this stuff.
That’s why, to some extent, we still have a voice, because we have this incredible fan base that weirdly has grown. We’ve sold more tickets on this tour than any other UK tour. It’s also weird because it’s not like we’re becoming more mainstream; it’s not like we’ve suddenly made some big pop record. We haven’t suddenly become a band looking to have mass appeal, but we’re certainly finding a wider appeal. One reason why that is, in truth, is that we’ve had unbelievable support from 6 Music, and that really does help.
Are there any songs you’ve grown to dislike over the years?
No, not really. We’ve got quite a big catalogue. We play everything, so it’s really nice when we get to the point where we go, ‘Actually, on this tour, what we’ll do is give songs X, Y and Z a rest and bring in some of these others that we haven’t played for a while’. We’re constantly chopping and changing our set. In that process it’s really nice when we reach the natural point at which we want to leave a song behind – not because we don’t like it, just because we feel we’ve probably gone as far as we can go with that particular tune for the time being. When our fans start to expect a certain thing, I think it’s right that we change it. That way, we can keep ourselves and everybody who’s into us on their toes a little bit. So for example, we’ve got a big tune called Getting Away With It. It’s a massive live tune but we’ve played it quite a lot on the past couple of tours, so we won’t play it this time. There’s also a song called Come Home, which was always a massive tune for us, but we probably won’t play that. We probably won’t play Laid or Sit Down either. We’re taking out all our biggest hits and replacing them with other big songs that we don’t play as much, like She’s A Star, Born Of Frustration, Sound, Say Something. These are all huge songs, Top-40 songs. She’s A Star was a massive song for us but we almost never play it. So we’re thinking we’ll do something weird with it on this tour by playing it with violin and cello and piano. That sounds like it could be sugar-coated nonsense, but because we don’t play in tune very well, it’ll be slightly underlying, which will be great. It’ll probably sound more like The Tindersticks than Elton John, I would imagine. We’re constantly trying to change things around, simply because we get a little bit bored with it. The obvious one is Sit Down. Other than when the tune first came out, when we were promoting it, we’ve never actually felt obliged to play it. We’re very aware that some people are coming to see James for the first time, so we’ve got to get the balance right between playing our new record, giving people songs which they’ve perhaps forgotten about and also playing to the gallery, but not doing it in such a way that we feel like we’re playing on some fucking cruise ship.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen to the music industry over the years?
I think that’s simple – buying has gone to streaming. For some years, as sales were declining, everyone was like, ‘What’s going to happen in its place?’ and it’s clear now that, in 2016, streaming is the industry. The industry is basing itself around how to maintain a business around streaming. The other thing I would say is that it’s gone from the record being the thing that makes money. In terms of paying your bills and all the rest of it, as a musician, that’s what you do, but now the only way we can make money is by playing live, so that’s a big difference. People used to lose money playing live, but that was a way of driving sales of records. Now people stream stuff, listen to it, then go and see the gigs. Consequently it’s knocked away a lot of the complacency that the industry had about itself. I think now a lot of the people left in the music industry – the people we work with, for example, BMG – are real music fans who’re dedicated not just to having a viable business – which means at least breaking even if not making money – but also to the genuine old ideas. They want people to hear our music. The same week we released our record, they released the Primal Scream album. They want to get this music out to people, not because they think they’ll make money out of it but because, culturally, they sense it’s important that bands’ music, as long as it’s good, gets heard.
James are opening Glastonbury festival this summer, playing the Other Stage at 11am. It must be such an honour to be asked to open one of the best-loved and most prestigious festivals in the world…
Of course it is. I think the trick for a band or an artist is to let the punters and the media get caught up in the euphoria that exists around those kind of events, especially Glastonbury, then turn up, play and keep level-headed about it. We’ve played at Glastonbury four times before but not recently. I think the last time we played was ’98. We’ve always done really well at Glastonbury and we’ve always really enjoyed it. I think there’s something quite nice about us playing at 11am – apparently there’ll be 40,000 to 50,000 people in front of us, which will be great. I suspect it might be a little bit overwhelming to know that, not necessarily in front of us but around us, there are 175,000 people! I might find that a little bit claustrophobic. What some people find very special, I might personally – and this is not a James perspective – find overwhelming. I’m talking to you while looking out of my window in the middle of the highlands of Scotland. I quite like solitude and not being around people. But of course it’s an honour to play Glastonbury. The festival has its detractors but, rightly or wrongly, it has a really important place in British culture. It becomes a focus for the whole of the summer, and to be involved is fantastic.
And finally, what are you looking forward to the most about being back on tour?
We’ve done three or four warm-up gigs with this new record, so we’ve kind of learned it and know what we’re doing. We’ve got some rehearsals coming up next week which will cement that. I can’t wait to be armed with a mood; with some lights around us and a mood in a room. There are three or four songs off this record which I’m genuinely looking forward to playing because so far, when we’ve done them in these tiny little gigs, there’s been something happening. I think some of that is our audience going, ‘I can’t believe they’ve done it again, this is great’. That’s the feeling I get. If you love a band, there’s always some trepidation around a new record because you’re wondering whether it’ll be as good as the last one. So it’s always a relief to find out that it is. That supercharges the room a little bit, and that’s what I’m looking forward to the most.