Tim Booth plays two songs – Lullaby and Sit Down – accompanied by Saul as part of Patti Smith’s Innocence and Experience evening at the Meltdown Festival in London.
Tim Booth does a short radio tour of the US.
I have an instinctive aversion to conducting phone interviews. The medium is fine for quick research, or immediate answers to pressing questions, but when it comes to a proper conversation, it’s a poor substitute for a face-to-face meeting. On the telephone, you can’t look into each other’s eyes, you can’t read each other’s body language, you can’t be seen smiling or nodding along, you can’t tell whether someone has finished a point or is merely pausing between thoughts. You can’t offer to get the drinks in, pour a cup of tea, share some biscuits, touch each other’s arm for emphasis – or point to something or someone in the background either for emphasis or good-natured diversion.
All of which is why, when I felt so motivated by Tim Booth’s solo album Bone as to request an interview – only to discover he was not coming to the States for publicity – I initially suggested conducting an e-mail Q&A. I thought that, being such a poetic type, Tim would be sure to give good copy. In my usual manner, however, my questions turned into essays, and after those essays made it to Booth himself, word came back to me that we should conduct the conversation by telephone after all. Looking again at those overly elaborate questions, it was obviously the only logical process. It did make for an unusual situation, however – possibly the very first time one of my subjects has known, down to commas, full stops and parentheses, exactly what I intended to ask them.
Still, though it prevented me coming up with any surprises, it also meant that Tim knew where I was coming from, and we established a rapport so quickly I even forgot my dislike of the phone format. We talked for well over an hour; unfortunately, the more we talked, and the more relaxed Tim became, the quieter his voice dipped, and there were several words and phrases from the later part of our chat that I simply could not make out during the transcribing process. Given what Tim says about his lyrics, their multiple meanings and how open he is to their (mis)interpretation, I was tempted to just guess at those particular missing words… but that wouldn’t be fair. And as you can see, it’s hardly as if there was much dead air between us.
As for an introduction to the man himself, well, I could fill several pages with my love for Tim Booth’s work, as front man with James for almost twenty years, and now as a solo artist. I initially viewed James as a poor man’s Smiths (especially so when seeing the two bands together in early 1985) – and I lost the group for a while towards the end of their lifespan, which I now regret. And though I remember a show of staggering intensity at Irving Plaza around 1993, I also recall that they were such a familiar presence on the British festival circuit that even Campbell got to see them twice before he could walk! Still, many of their albums – Gold Mother, Seven, Laid and Millionaires, in purely chronological order – mean so much to me that rarely a month goes by when I’m not inspired to play one or all of them.
It’s easy to fall in love with Tim’s voice, and James knew how to pen a good tune or two, and they were masters of the emotive arrangement too. But it’s Booth’s lyrics that have most engaged me over the years. Tim sings about God, Nature and Sex with the poet’s love of words, the mystic’s desire for peace and the seeker’s quest for answers. There are times when he describes our existence with such joyous beauty that I’m happy to be alive; there are other moments when he questions our human morals with such intensity that I wonder if we shouldn’t all be struck by lightning. And while he continually calls upon the existence of a higher being – “I believe” may be the most common refrain in his canon – he’s equally fascinated by our uncontrollable hormones. ‘How Was It For You?’ and ‘Laid’ must be two of the most honestly horny singles ever to make it to daytime radio.
On these lyrical levels, it’s no stretch to call Bone Booth’s finest work to date, especially as it seems to have more of an overriding theme than any James album. It was the words to Bone that inspired me to ask for the ‘face’ time in the first place. If you haven’t heard Bone, it might make sense to read my review before diving into the interview. It should at least help set the scene.
Tim Booth: Is this Tony ‘Trojan Horse’ Fletcher? He who asks a question within a question?
-Tony Fletcher: Ah, that means you’ve seen the original written questions I sent. Well, it means you can probably see where I’m coming from on a few things, particularly about the new album. I don’t know how it’s been received but I haven’t been able to stop playing it.
Fantastic. That’s what we thought would happen. In England, we couldn’t get arrested. But the press hasn’t reviewed us – we haven’t had any press come to our gigs, and our gigs have been amazing too. And then we go to Portugal and Greece and it’s like the second coming. It’s fantastic.
-Do you have a thought on that? Is it just the British obsession with the latest trend?
Yes. There’s a timing to all these things. It’s like Morrissey, he did seven solo albums I think and got less and less attention and then suddenly there’s a wave and it’s his turn again. The English press is very cyclical. James just finished and James weren’t very popular with the press. They hated us really – we were still selling out stadiums and they couldn’t do anything about it. And so for a while it will be the same for Tim Booth until it comes round again.
-I was reading one of your online interviews, and this whole notion that (the James album) Seven was slaughtered at the time. I remember reviewing that album for a daily paper here in America, and raving about it, not realizing that James were meant to be unfashionable at that point. I thought it was you finest moment to date.
Because we went on so long, I really got the cyclical thing of it and I never took it personally after a while. I knew Seven was going to get panned, because Gold Mother had been received so well and we’d broken through on it in Britain. And you know in England you’re not allowed two in a row. And I just knew it. And then I did walk into that dumb thing on ‘Born Of Frustration’ where I did those ‘la-la-las.’ And I hadn’t heard Simple Minds. We recorded it, and Mark and Saul from James took me into a room before we mixed it and played me Simple Minds, and I went ‘Oh, fuck.’ They said ‘Do you want to change it?’ And I said, ‘Well, I honestly came on this unconsciously.’ And Iggy Pop did la-la-las, which I’m much more likely to have been influenced by. So I left it in, because I figured, James had a rule – no conscious influences are allowed, but you’re allowed unconscious ones. And I think that’s where we suddenly got hit on that record, that ‘James are trying to be Simple Minds’ – in that one moment on that one song. And it was like, ‘Aren’t you even listening to the record?’
-And there was so much else on there.
So much else.
-You were able to win it back over a period of time. But though I hope you’re not looking at my questions, so that there’s still an element of surprise here, you’ll see that I asked: For all the commercial success James had over the course of almost twenty years, did you come away at the end of the band feeling, We didn’t quite get that respect? Or was it enough that you got that respect from the fans?
It depends on what day you catch me with that question. Most of the time I’m… I really don’t know. I literally stopped reading the press for the last seven years. And every so often band members would stick something in my face and say, You’ve got to read this. But I actually refused to read stuff, it didn’t help and it was a mindfuck and it seemed irrelevant to what we were doing. To me, there’s one intention: you make the best record you can possibly make in that time, at that time, with the people who are around you. And that’s it. The more expectation you have on that, the more you’re likely to fuck it up. No critic’s going to say something to me that makes me go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s it.’ If it hadn’t happened for 13 years beforehand, I figured it wasn’t gong to happen (with Bone). I mean, my manager…
-Pete Rudge… (who once managed The Who)
…He said to me recently, and I think he was trying to guide me for the next record, he said, “The press didn’t like your lyrics again, Tim. They don’t like the way you keep having to write these songs about God.”[We both laugh, knowing that many of my questions are about how much I like Tim writing songs about God.]
And I know what that means, it also means Peter doesn’t writing these songs about God. Members of James didn’t like me writing these songs about God. I don’t write songs about God in any religious sense, because I’m not a member of any religion. I write about God in terms of the biggest question: is there any intelligence or meaning behind life? And I use that word very liberally. And that fascinates me as a question and I can’t put it down. If that’s a real pain for you Peter, go manage someone else. I write about the stuff that’s bugging me at the time I’m writing. Whether I’m in love with someone or something, or some idea, or some way of life, or whether I’m repulsed or discovered some part of myself that I’m really having a hard time with, I’ll stick it in a song in some way. Whatever’s big in my life ends up in my songs.
-And usually it comes back to a few themes.
Yeah, you had me down (laughing). But I do have to say: you said this one thing [in your written questions], ‘I can divide your songs into three. There’s the personal and then the social and then God.’ And it’s like, Hang on, what other categories are there in life but from those three? You’ve just described the whole spectrum of human existence!
-I guess so. (What I wrote was: Along with God and Nature, your other pet theme has been sex.) And I don’t mind jumping right in on the deep end on those… I didn’t know the British press didn’t like Bone, I came to it from the perspective that here’s someone whose lyrics have always fascinated me and I think they’re stronger now than ever. I think artists are fully entitled to cover the subjects they cover best. It seems that your questions and potential answers and philosophizing are stronger than ever. That was my visceral reaction without knowing whether that was meant to be the critical reaction to the album or not.
When you say I’ve written about them before, I cringe a bit. As an artist I would love to not be writing in some of the areas that I’ve obviously gone back to, but I can’t escape my own biology. And clearly those are the things with which I’m still wrestling. I look at a lyric and if a lyric has got energy, and if the energy is a truth … you can feel when a lyric’s dead and when a lyric’s alive. So if I’m still writing about the same thing but I look at a lyric and say, ‘it’s still alive,’ I can’t then go off and start again and try and write a completely different lyric for the song. It just doesn’t work like that for me. That somehow would not be true to my unconscious. My unconscious writes the best lyrics I write, and I have a weird relation with it where I feel I have a duty to be as truthful and as accurate as possible. And feeling that if I betrayed that, I would lose that communication.
-When you’re talking about the subconscious there, are you talking about the lyrics writing themselves? Are you saying that sometimes you’re not aware of what you’re writing until it’s written?
Absolutely, nearly always. The turning point was probably round Laid. Until then I’d had great trouble, with some songs taking a couple of years. I was a real perfectionist about lyrics. But when we did Laid and Wah Wah together in that same six-week session with Brian Eno, I would improvise on tape and Brian would say ‘That’s great, you’re not touching that.’ On some songs I fought back and said, ‘No way, you’ve got to tell me that beforehand, so at least I can try and improvise decent lyrics.’ And on other songs I went with it. I knew I had to come up with this new method of writing lyrics in order to do it in that kind of time span. And I remember we were doing ‘Lullaby’ and I stood in front of the mike. They had a piece of music, I had no melody, no words, I improvised I think six takes. I asked them to burn it onto cassette, went into another room, and wrote down from the cassette what I thought I might be singing. We made sure that the vocals were quite quiet, so some times I could hear what I was singing and got some great lines and other times I got some great sounds that suggested lines. I wrote out the words, I had maybe five pages of words. I went through each one, just underlining the ones that stood out, I stuck them together – and they were a complete, homogeneous, whole lyric about somebody I knew, and I had had no intention of writing about them. It completely made sense about their lives, and they’d been abused, it was like, Fucking hell, It was one of the best lyrics I think I’d written. I always knew stuff came from the unconscious, and I can be very quick. But this was like a new way of writing, that whenever I got blocked, I improvised it, did 4 or 5 takes, wrote out what I thought I was singing, and almost always in those 4 or 5 takes I can get a whole lyric.
-Is an experience like that part of what fuels the belief that something is watching over you, to coin a phrase of yours?
Yeah. I remember I wrote one lyric about a guy going to commit suicide by going on his favorite walk and lying down in the snow and allowing himself to die. I forget what album this is on. This was in two takes, which was really unusual. That was really odd, that was quick. All of a sudden I looked at it that – gone out on his favorite walk, laid down in the snow. She took the CD to his widow who played it at the wake. She wanted to talk to me because there were lines in there that were so about him. That to me is like, I’m really moved, I obviously had a purpose…
-What was the song?
I’m terrible with names, the last track on Whiplash maybe? [Yes: it’s ‘Blue Pastures.’]
-That’s quite an extreme situation.
I had other weird ones when I was younger, but they’re too whacky. You read any lyricist, like the Beatles or whatever, they say they didn’t write their lyrics. The whole muse thing in Greek mythology, that’s a myth with a power behind it, and the power behind it is because there’s a truth in it.
-Getting to this God stuff, I never got the sense with these dozens of James records that you were ever preaching – to anyone. I’ve always had the sense that you have a certain, let me get the word right, satisfaction that you may have got a belief system that’s further down the line than others, but you’ve never tried to put that to someone. So you could sing ‘I believe that someone is watching over me’ but I never get the feeling, Oh Tim Booth is trying to convert me, because I never know what you’re trying to convert me to. (He chuckles.) I’ve heard Tim Booth is a Buddhist, I know he went through the Life wave thing when he was younger, he’s always searching, but I’ve never seen it written down that you are this, or you are that.
I’m not a member of anything. I’ve got nothing to sell you. I have things to me which I guess to me are vague answers. But they usually throw out more questions than I had when I started. And I guess what I’d be selling is, Don’t take a wholesale belief off the peg, because I think everybody’s spiritual path or understanding is every one individual’s spiritual path or understanding. If it’s going to have a genuine root, it’s got to come from your own life, your own passion, your own bliss. Caroline Myss said your biology is your biography (she’s a medical clairvoyant), and she said it’s all in your body. It dictates your whole life, how you see the world, everything.
-Healthy body, healthy mind?
More than that; she actually looks at the body and can see the energy entering it, and see where it gets dissipated. For example that energy should be going towards your liver but you’ve never forgiven that sixth grade teacher for slapping you round the face for doing art in the back of the geography class. You’ve got to forgive him because it’s actually damaging your kidneys. It’s really specific.
-On a very basic level, I’d have thought we’ve come far enough as humans to acknowledge that stress will cause back pain.
Even allopathic medicine acknowledges that. Ten years ago, they weren’t acknowledging that. They’re so fucking slow.
-It is incredibly slow. People can get cancers from emotional pain. They can allow their negativity to make themselves sick. Some of that to me is proven, so when you’re saying that your biology is your biography, you would need to have your body in a healthy state to move forward.
And the only reason I would jump in on that is because I think her meaning of biology is a little bigger than just ‘healthy body.’ Because there’s energetic components to the body that are outside our normal understanding.
-You’re talking about things like auras.
I hate to put those words on it. But I do believe. Like this week I’m doing an acting course, and the course is done by a woman who works on the premise that the body stores body amour. Basically as kids we’re born as wild little creatures and we have to be civilized by our parents and that process is very painful and we develop body amour to hide our fears and our anger and our rage, and she’s teaching us to go into that body amour, get really raw and then do a speech. It’s an amazing process. It’s a healing process… You see, I’ve been doing this kind of thing for twenty years…
[tape flips] …and I keep doing that stuff to stir up the psyche. And I think then that stuff gives me great material to create from.
-When you put it like that, there is a danger of coming across as the suffering artist, i.e. ‘I need to go to scream therapy to produce lyrics that make me a worthwhile artist.’ I assume that’s not your intention.
No. And you can hear from talking to me on the phone that that’s not how I live. I’ve dealt with the tortured artist myth in the past. And in England you have to deal with it. This kid Pete Doherty from the Libertines, he’s about to be crucified in this country. And he’s walking towards it with arms open. It’s a route favored by many great rock’n’rollers, God bless you Kurt Cobain, and I don’t swallow that myth. I’m furious at that myth actually, and furious at the people that support it.
-Embracing the drugginess?
Yeah, embracing the self-destructiveness. I met Kurt Cobain a couple of times. He was a fragile, sweet man, very scared.
-People get their vicarious thrills through someone else’s pain.
And then people worship that, which is equally bullshit.
-The thing I was getting from Bone, maybe more so than any James album that preceded it, was the line that comes up in ‘Monkey God,’ that “Everything’s connected.” It seems like the whole album is about how nature and man are connected… Am I correct to see that as an overall theme on the album?
Yeah. I’m probably more happy with that song than any thing on the album. Yeah, and that song is – that’s a definite question song. What the fuck are we? We could be these complete animals, we could be this divine creature, and there in lies the amazing choice of man. You know, we’ve had Auschwitz – it may not be going on as much in America but we’ve had programme after programme on Auschwitz from the 60th Anniversary. I remember hearing about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. I don’t know how old I was. But it was the moment I lost an innocence…And the first time I shaved my head I was about 22 and I’d watched something on the Holocaust.
-I feel like there was someone who said, famously, “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.”
I haven’t heard that one. And I would disagree. I think there’s more need for poetry than ever.[It was Theodore Adorno, who is commonly perceived to have said exactly what I quoted to Tim, that “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz”. With some further research on the web, I came across a more precise account of his words. According to this Jewish literary site, ‘Theodor Adorno, who wrote that “After Auschwitz writing poetry is barbaric,” subsequently admitted that “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.'”]
-So you are saying that this is your strongest guise, and you’re still asking the same question: are we biological accidents or divine creatures, or something in-between? You’ve got that line “God’s pitch shift way out of time created an ape…” and I couldn’t figure out if it was trying to be Creationist or Darwinist!
Yeah. In my own personal belief system, I would say there has to be some intelligence behind evolution. I look at life and I’m gob-smacked that people can believe that there isn’t intelligence behind it. There’s just too many patterns, too much beauty and too much structure in a snowdrop to not imagine there has to be, and I’m quoting myself, “Who put brown owl eyes on the butterfly’s wings?” It’s like, fuck. To me there just has to be. What the nature of that intelligence is may be a little bit more than a question. Because it doesn’t seem to be always as nice and cuddly as some of the images of God that we like to comfort ourselves with, and it doesn’t seem to be as human as many of the images we comfort ourselves with. (Chuckles as he says it.) But there’s something going on, as far as I can see.
-I’ve never got beyond my own perspective – and I’m comfortable with this – of God being nature and nature being God.
To a large degree I think that’s probably about as… I don’t think the mind can do it. Joseph Campbell says, ‘If you can say it, it’s not true.’ If the closest you can get is a metaphor, that’s fine. I also think you can get a state of bliss by following your passion. If your passion is gardening or having babies or your relationship with your partner, if you love someone very much, that’s your spiritual path. That’s as close as we get to God.
-I’m not making my statement purely from the idea “who put brown owl eyes on a butterfly’s wing.” I’m saying that if I could worship anything that I felt was divining our future, it would be the planet. I.e. if we mistreat the planet, put it out of whack, it will and come back on us. Nature itself has given us all this beauty and if we don’t respect it will punish us: that’s scientifically proven to me, it’s not even a spiritual belief. If we destroy the planet, it will speed up the process by which it destroys us. I’m just saying that’s as far as I’ve been able to get and I’m comfortable with that. But anyway… with your music, you can sing “Who put the brown owl eyes on the butterfly’s wing?” and then you can take it some steps further and I always appreciate that you’re not trying to put it on someone. I’ve always sensed that you’re saying to people “Your path is whatever you choose, I’m just making observations.”
-Within that, I love that line on ‘Monkey God’, “Houston there’s a problem here: someone’s cut a hole in the sky.” It amazed me that no one had come up with that line before. You could read layers into that, Houston is the oil capital, and we’ve put a hole in the sky through pollution. I’m not reading too much into that, am I?
No. But that is often how unconscious lyrics work. Some of the best lyrics I’ve written usually have about three layers in them, and I don’t know where they’re coming from. But you aren’t reading too much into them – at the end of them, when I’ve written them, I read them and say ‘Fucking hell that’s good, how did that happen?’
-So you can be as surprised as the listener?
-I was enjoying ‘Down To The Sea’ as a back to nature song, and then at the end of the year, the massive Tsunami disaster happened. And I’ve been listening to Bone, thinking, well we can be trying to worship nature, or we can be campaigning against them cutting a hole in the sky, and yet this can still happen. And it’s not the result of any of that. (Of mankind.) And suddenly a song like ‘Down To The Sea’ took on a whole new meaning, I found myself listened to that thinking of hundreds of thousands of people being swallowed up by the sea.
Yeah. I’ve been listening to… Bill Bryson, A Short History Of Nearly Everything. I got it on tape, just this amazing, great book, about how this planet has been created by a series of impacts, volcanic eruptions, wipeouts in various forms. One eruption would have an impact that would wipe out 75% of all species, and then there would be another impact that would wipe out 90% of species. We’re due one.
-But none of that makes you question that there has to be an intelligence because there’s too much beauty in a snowflake?
Oh yeah. And I don’t think it’s personal. If I get wiped out, I don’t think it’s personal. To me, that’s the other side of it. We’re part of a cycle. We take it personally. Some days I think we’re divine, transcendent, and then other days I think we’re some kind of virus that is fucking up the planet and the earth will shake us off, have an eruption. Like when you get ill, your body will try and throw off this virus. What might that be that the planet throws off this virus that is destroying us? According to Bill Bryson, I think it’s that 99% of all creatures that have lived on this planet are now extinct.
-You were saying that unfortunately you couldn’t get arrested with this album…
-Is any of this that you’re going over peoples heads? Musically I don’t know why that would be the case.
No. To be honest, people didn’t know we had a record out. The record company were, I’m thinking of a word – frugal – and also the press didn’t really give it time. The record company should have gone with ‘Wave Hello’ and they instead went for ‘Down To The Sea’ in the belief that they would get Radio 2. And the head of Radio 2 is a Jehovah’s Witness and objected to the lines “Find God shoot him up, learn how to die.” And that was the end of the record. You only get one bullet.
-You ended up doing this independently. It was your label.
-Was that out of choice, rather than that no one else at a big label would take you on.
Well, we didn’t look too far. We waited till we had the record finished and then it was like, Who wants it? Sanctuary are very hot right now, so we thought we were doing the right thing. It’s always a lottery.
-And at this point you haven’t come round on the cycle. There’s this frustrating thing in music that sometimes if you stay out there and stay creative and keep making music it can work against you.
Yeah, familiarity breeds contempt.
-And you think there’s some of that at work here?
Yeah. But I’m not really interested in talking about it or trying to second guess it. I’d much rather defend myself against some of your other accusations!
-That’s fine. What I would ask though is, are these people providing a barrier between you and a public that I’m sure is out there?
To a degree, except that the time we played and you came to see us, at the V Festival, and you couldn’t get in the tent… That happened at Glastonbury, that happened in Scotland. Then when we went on tour we sold out. People were starting to go ‘Hang on a minute.’ It was spreading by word of mouth. James took seven years, it was all word of mouth. We never got played on the radio during that time. We just slogged away. I’m too old for that now, I’m not going to do that again. But I’ve got an amazing band and a fantastic live show, I can say that and I will say that, and what happened was word of mouth started taking over and we were selling out the gigs. And that was what James did. By the time we got our first daytime radio play, we were selling out 10,000 seater venues. I mean, fucking hell, what do you have to do to break the door down? So I’ve never taken anything for granted. I’ve got that siege mentality. For me I just make the best music I can make. When I do a gig, I do the best performance I can try and do for the people in the room at the time. For me, that’s all I can do.
-It’s unusual for me to be in this situation where someone has seen the questions… But which of these ones about the lyrics did you most want to respond to?
A quick one, the thing in ‘Bone’ about bombers. [My original question started: “On ‘Bone,’ you have the line, “One makes bombs in Palestine, nothing to lose except his life.” This to me plays into a popular cliché that certain people with a claim to political independence have the right to kill innocent civilians, that somehow it’s justified if he takes his own life in the process.” I elaborated quite a lot further.] That song (‘Bone’) is an attempt to see life through the impersonal nature of something like a redwood tree, which has a 2000 year life span. And the human life span is very unimportant from that perspective. So there’s loads of descriptions of different human life, absorbing the various emotions, making it quite emotive. “One gets high upon the cross,” the idea where that came from is that a redwood tree has been around since the time Christ was crucified. So it was an attempt at looking for that impersonal thing, it wasn’t a particular comment upon, it wasn’t romanticizing people blowing themselves up with a bomb. The only aspect of it I guess is that I give a reason: people who blow themselves up with bombs, the two things that they have is either, one, a ridiculous religious faith that they think they’re going to be born again with 44 virgins, or a complete hopelessness that nothing else is going to get anyone’s attention.
-Although I think there’s a third aspect, that a lot of them are convinced by people who won’t give up their own lives…
Some religious fucker who convinces them that is the case.
Yeah, I’ll go with that. It wasn’t glorifying that. But at the same time I think it has to be understood … not the religious response – that’s a good piece of brainwashing – but the other aspect of hopelessness…
-To me, you have the right to take your own life, if you’re that unhappy with it and you want to make your point. I don’t agree with taking other people with you.
So you’d be a Martin Luther King follower rather than a Malcolm X follower. [Perhaps I needed to clarify: I don’t believe in taking innocent ciivlians with you. I’m not a pacifist; in fact I have a violent hatred, which I have to constantly keep in check, for those who believe others peoples’ lives are disposable.] Obviously, Martin Luther King or Ghandi are closer to my own beliefs, but I still can’t judge that. I don’t know what it’s like just to feel that there is no change or hope open to you.
-That’s working on the premise that there are no other avenues open to you. I.e. there is no other way to make a point other than blowing yourself up. Which to me is a belief system of itself. And my take on that is that most of that comes from religious-quasi-military zealots who say, ‘You do this and you will get your reward… And by the way I’m not going to do it because I’m needed here on earth to conduct this battle and take it to the next level.’ Which I see as an act of cowardice. It’s the same as history’s Generals sending troops into the Somme. ‘It’s not my job to go in there, it’s your job to go in there as cannon fodder.’
I probably agree with you personally where you’re coming from. But I guess that brings us to the other question, about the line (in ‘Discover’), “I’ve been the Nazi, and I’ve been the Jew.” I believe if I was born into the wrong family at the wrong time in the wrong country in a different period of history that I could have been the Nazi in a concentration camp. And likewise, I could have been the Jew in the ghetto. To me, it’s … I mean, personally, in my own life, I’ve gone back to past lives. I don’t write about that or preach that, I don’t even know if they’re true. And the guy who I’ve worked with, who I think is the best, when I’ve asked him straight, ‘Do these have to be past lives? Could they be just some kind of insane imaginative stories coming out of my unconscious… ” he’s said ‘Yes, I don’t know… I can’t say that.’ What I do know is if they do come out of your imagination… they come out so strong either you might vomit or you might be absolutely broken and astounded by something. And it’s so physical, so in your body, you can’t help but feel it’s real. It’s like, How could this not have happened? I couldn’t make this up. I would say, You couldn’t act it. As an actor, I would say you couldn’t act it.
-Who is that person?
-I don’t know if I was so clear on those notes. I didn’t have a problem with that line. It was more the shock factor: it was more the fact that that word (‘Nazi’ – especially when juxtaposed with ‘Jew’) still has that incredible ability – as it should do – to put your hair on edge.
The irony is that right now there’s a program about Auschwitz on TV. And I want to go off and watch it. My wife is a Jew. My baby is therefore a Jew. My partner went to Poland a few years ago, to Auschwitz and came back and coughed for three months, a terrible deathly cough. You know what I mean? It’s very close to home. So those issues come up.
-Did you have other people say…
You should have heard the German reviews! They wanted to know what I meant by that line. But often when I explained it, they’d really think about it.
-That’s why I enjoy this process. Because there’s other lines I feel like I’ve got the right intent. And then suddenly it’s like, oops, this one has come at me left of center.
I also love the fact that… I don’t care if you get your own thing from that lyric and it stirs up a whole hornet’s nest in you. And you can project that on me: I don’t care! I don’t really know where that lyric came from anyway. It was a good piece of writing. And a good piece of passion inside.
I’ve had a lyric like that for about 14 years, looking for a home. It’s a line that went “the horror of experiments on animals that bruise, reminds me of how clinically they massacred the Jews” and I looked for a home for that lyric for years. Because it overbalanced every song. And maybe that line (“I’ve been the Nazi and I’ve been the Jew”) over-balances that song too. Maybe it’s one of those lines that’s just too big for a song (laughs), but what the fuck!
-On a much more joyous level, my wife and I had a baby over Christmas, and ‘Eh Mamma’ took on a completely new meaning over the last few weeks. Because I was initially listening to that thinking, Okay, it’s an Oedipal love song [“Heaven knows there is no God above like Mamma”] which I guess it still is, but then it became, oh hang on, it’s a baby love song.
Originally it was totally a baby love song. And then I got these lines that were just too perverse (laughs), it had to get twisted a little bit, and I’ve still left, obviously, the whole Oedipal thing in there. “I’ve been working out all day I’m a skin and bone man…” And the lyric used to be “I can’t really work my body, I can’t really work my mind, Heaven is a breast, the one on the left,” and something else. It was really about a baby not being able to use its body. And being absolutely in love with its mum.
-You’ve got what, two kids from over the years?
Yeah. And both live with me. I’ve got an 8 month old.
-But the album was out…
…Yeah, I wrote that before the baby came along. It (the lyric) was obviously out there somewhere! I wrote the song ‘Gold Mother’ about the first baby, and that was written about four months before she gave birth! I don’t think time is important in those situations. There are certain events that take place in your life that are like a nuclear bomb and they have a fallout both backwards and forwards in time. You can feel them coming.
-That’s a really interesting observation. And I would prefer that you write a song like that beforehand as opposed to trying to be the umpteenth pop star/rock musician who says “I want to write about what it’s like to have a baby.”
‘Gold Mother’ ain’t your traditional rock star’s baby song. It’s a series of contractions, that was the musical idea.
-Well that gets us into that other lyrical theme. I have to say I’ve followed James in and out over the years, the point being to say I’m not an obsessive fan. What I know of you is that you have been in stable relationships but you seem to write these incredibly sexually powerful carnal songs that are always looking outside that relationship. They’re looking at one night stands at people across the underground train, that kind of thing. Is that your outlet for sexual energy that you have to otherwise contain in a stable personal relationship?
(Laughs) The way you phrased this as a written question, I was going to tell you to mind your own fucking business. But you’ve phrased it in a more polite manner here, or a less dubious manner… I’m almost happy to leave you not knowing. The way that Bill Hicks was best when you didn’t know where he stood, that was why he was so dangerously exciting. Because one minute he would seem a really spot on liberal intellectual and the next moment he would be a nasty fucker who was just a barbarian. And he really wanted you to not know. And I like the unsafety of that. And that may be my comeback way of saying that – I don’t feel the need to sell that part of my life. I don’t feel the need to sell ANY part of my life to sell records. But obviously the nature and the quality of your questioning is such that as an individual that if I met you I would tell you, but this is going to get published and that’s different. Also I’ve got nothing to hide. Which of course sounds that I haven’t… So I’ll leave it there. There’s no way out of this one is there? (Laughs.)
-I think what I was probably getting at is that I’ve been continually blown away over the years by the sexual power of these lyrics.
There’s also something here about sometimes people put me on a spiritual pedestal. And I fucking hate it.
-Which is why I wanted to say that I haven’t been obsessive and that there’s periods where I haven’t really listened to James.
…But they also hear that I’m a spiritual person, that I’m a Buddhist – and I’m not a Buddhist – and there was a documentary called Face The Music in which I got about half an hour to talk about spirituality. And I made clear that this is all bullshit, I’m still a human being, I’m struggling with all the same things that everybody is struggling with. And it shocks ME to find that the person I’m with, that I’m still madly in love with after nine years – that I still want to fuck other people. It was such a shock, like, shouldn’t these feelings have gone away now? And then finding that they haven’t. And they probably won’t till my dick falls off. And that that’s part of the human condition – the male human condition, I can’t speak for the females – and I can be fascinated by that.
-Part of what I’m getting at then is that you have the ability to write about that whereas other people might suppress it.
Other people might suppress it because their woman might find that hard. I have the most amazing woman and she totally gets that. It’s a big issue, and I think also I’ve never been really monogamous until now. My God, part of me believes that monogamy is totally natural to men – I can’t speak for women – but I have a lot of gay friends, and the stories they tell me about men’s sex with men, sounds a lot of the times like male-on-male sex is sex at its most direct, and it’s pretty impersonal. Sometimes they just want to fuck. And I know that feeling, and part of me misses that. I’ve kind of answered your question here. I’ll probably stop there! But I’m fascinated by that. And they tell me that with gay women it isn’t the same. That the voraciousness is not there. And I wasn’t totally aware of that. But the gay men I know, even the ones who are in stable long-term relationships, every so often they go off to a fuck club. And I sit there being a little bit jealous about that, going, ‘Fuck, that sounds good, having sex with complete strangers, how exciting! Jesus. God! That would scare the life out of me, it would be wonderful.’ And I like having the life scared out of me.
-So how long have you been living in Brighton?
-I think I put in those questions that I always go there when I’m back in England.
It’s as good as anywhere in England.
-It is, isn’t it? Almost frighteningly so. Almost every other musician I meet these days lives in Brighton.
It’s actually the transport meeting point for the next launch off across the sea to the States, to the west coast.
-To the west coast?
Yeah. You move down and down England and end up in Brighton and the next step is to California.
-Are any of them making it?
Yeah, I am.
-That’s far enough along that that’s a firm statement?
Yep. It’s a migratory trail.
-So are you leading the way?
I know others who are doing it too. I think it’s an unconscious thing. I think it’s like that thing in Close Encounters, where you’re drawn there, you don’t know why. It might not be California for other people, but I think once you get to Brighton there’s no where back within England you can go. You have to leave the country.