James have been around so long they’ve reached the point where they mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Everyone knows at least something about the band who have sold over 26 million albums worldwide. Their rise to fame in the 90s, their work with Brian Eno, and their perhaps unfair comparisons to The Smiths, along with lead singer Tim Booth’s dance moves have gelled into a career that has spanned over three decades. But as is often the case, there’s a lot more to their story than the accepted narrative.
The Mancunian legends epitomise the classic rock n' roll mantra of fake it till you make it, toiling away for nearly a decade, suffering from too much exposure too soon, and bouncing from one record label to another before finally breaking through. As cliched as it might sound, the one thing that’s stayed constant for the band is a dedication to and belief in their music.
This is what has allowed the band to leave all but a select few of their contemporaries by the wayside. While too many bands have fallen victim to resting on past accomplishments, James have always looked forward, searching for new sounds to explore and holding creative progression above all else.
While in hindsight this restless creativity may have cost the band some points in pop posterity, it has also allowed them to stay together and keep doing what they love, which is no small feat.
With a new EP recently released and a full-length album coming out in July, I caught a busy Tim Booth on the road in his adopted hometown of LA and asked him all about the band’s dedication to the next thing.
Gigwise: The title track on your new EP is called 'Better Than That.' To me a common theme that runs throughout James' output is constant progression and reinvention. Is this something you were thinking about when you were writing the song?
Tim Booth: Yes. I mean it's always a bit difficult to talk about lyrics because I write so unconsciously sometimes. But I think it's about saying to life, 'come on then, hit me.' I was paddle boarding in six foot waves and it was terrifying because I'd only been once before and after a while of being smashed by these waves I was going 'come on, you can do better than that.' It was this kind of feeling of when life brings you something that really breaks you open, you go to the next level, next square of your life because some challenges that appear on the outside to be awful actually end up being the things that develop you. So I think I was thinking of that on this song. That we need to wake up. We need to shake up.
G: Is this idea of needing to shake up a personal statement or more of a social or political statement?
TB: It works every which way. The [upcoming] album has a few songs that are very focussed politically. I think the political and the individual are connected in ways that we don't even understand. The shake up that's happened with Brexit and Trump is manifesting in peoples’ relationships, manifesting in peoples’ workplaces, in the MeToo movement, in Black Lives Matter and so on. It's having an impact everywhere and for good reason. That's why the album is called Living In Extraordinary Times. 'Better Than That' is probably a very unpolitical song, but it’s still got some reflection of it on a personal level.
G: You mentioned that you write unconsciously. I wanted to ask what do you think is accessed when you're in that half dream state?
TB: For me, I write a lot of my best lyrics at like 4 am. I wake up and I can't sleep because I have a song lyric going in my head and I get up and write it down, which leads me to another and another. It's all done fairly without thinking. The thinking, conscious, analytical brain is less than five percent of the brain. Ninety-five percent is unconscious to us. So it figures that the rich stuff is in the unconscious. The creative and dream aspects are in the unconscious part of us. I really spend a lot of my life trying to get to those parts of myself because I think that's the role of the artist.
G: Your music and especially your lyrics are well known for being quite earnest which is interesting because I feel like a lot of lyrics these days are veiled or ironic. I was wondering if this is something you think about?
TB: Yeah, I think you have a point and I think sometimes my earnestness has gotten in the way of James being cool (laughs). I think you could find a lot of humour in the songs too though. I do take the piss out of myself as well. That's the real flaw of earnestness, taking yourself too seriously. But veiled, cool, you know it depends. I mean 'This Is America' just came out and that's pretty earnest, although it has a lot of humour to it. I mean the video is full in your face earnest and is genius. So it depends really.
I personally think all great music has to reveal some of the vulnerability of the person singing it. It has to have a level of sincerity to it. Music can be cool but there's usually a personal aspect to whatever's written, even if the person doesn't realise it when they've written it. You know, Beyoncé’s greatest album is Lemonade, come on. And it's pretty earnest in many ways. It's got different ways of approaching the same subject, but it's a personal statement and it's powerful because of that. So yeah I understand that cool and rock n' roll have gone hand in hand since eternity. I'm not really into that myself, but I totally understand it.
G: What do you think of the state of rock n' roll these days?
TB: I wouldn't be presumptuous enough to make a great historical critical statement on rock n' roll, that's your job and I'll leave it to you. There are artists that I love and think are brilliant but I wouldn't exactly say rock n' roll at the moment, I'm not hearing it so much in the rock domain.
G: Throughout your career every now and again you find Christian references in your lyrics.
TB: I'd question that. Yes there are some songs I can say that's true on, but what songs are you thinking of?
G: Well for instance you talk about dancing like Jesus on 'Broken By The Hurt.'
TB: Oh right. We live in a culture in the west that has broadly come from Christianity. People and the culture and artists and women and minorities have been oppressed by it for thousands of years. So that's in the background and they're archetypal reference points that come into the song lyrics.
When I was younger I was brought up Christian, I had it force-fed down me, I had to go to church everyday for about five years. I rejected all that and in some of the earlier songs you can find some pretty full on rejection of that Christianity. Now it's more a background issue for me, it's not really something I think about too much. The dancing like Jesus line is more of a metaphor for the movement of somebody writhing in pain. That dancing like Jesus doesn't come without pain.
G: One thing I really like about James is your falsetto. How did you start singing that way?
TB: I don't know, I just think it was there from the beginning. On very early songs I'd go into falsetto if I couldn't hit the notes. I like falsetto because it has a bit more vulnerability than a person's normal voice. I liked it certainly in the 80s and 90s because it suggested a femininity to my voice. I always quite liked challenging sexual stereotypes, so the vulnerability of the falsetto is a man singing high. I like men who are vulnerable, I think that's a really great thing.
G: To my ear your last album Girl At The End Of The World was influenced by electronic music. With your Better Than That EP, though, it seems you've moved away from that sound. Was this a conscious decision?
TB: No. And it wasn’t electronic influenced on the last few albums, it was more that we have this genius keyboard player who has always been very quite and whenever we jam and write songs he always likes it when we can't hear him. On the last two albums we just really turned him up on every improvisation and whenever we would write songs. Every situation we went into we forced him to go loud and we just kept on going with that.
I love a groove in a song so we encouraged our drummer to look for them and Jimmy, our bass player, has got very sexy in the last few years, so he started doing these kind of sexy grooves, which was unusual for us. But it wasn't really conscious, it was just turning up our keyboard player and Jimmy getting sexier.
G: Yeah I wanted to ask about the bass as well which has gotten a lot louder over the past few projects.
TB: Yeah, well he used to play the bass very high, almost like an acoustic guitar. There are very few bass players who do that, he was a very melodic bass player and in the last number of years he's gone deep and sexy (laughs). It's probably some reflection of his personal life, but you'd have to ask him that.
On this record we've been working with Charlie Andrew and Beni Giles, who are both drummers. There are lots of interesting rhythms on the album. For instance the track ‘Hank’ has this sort of ferocious kodo drumming. And there's some electronica on the record, but it's different from what’s come before. It comes from being fascinated with rhythms that are sort of slightly off kilter. It's less obviously dance music than the last record but it's still got that dance element, you can still move your hips to it.
G: When James came back from hiatus you were very adamant that making new music was going to be central moving forward and that it wasn't going to just be a celebration of past achievements. What is it about new music-less reunions that rub you the wrong way?
TB: I don't want to be mean here, but you only have to watch the Pixies to see it. I have no problem with celebrating the Pixies for a couple of years because they were an amazing band who were totally under-recognised at the time and they changed music. I think they were more responsible for grunge than Nirvana. But then after four or five years you could see the band were bored with repeating their greatest hits and it took away from the enjoyment. You can't stay still. As people we're growing and changing all the time and that needs to be reflected in the music because music is communication, it's a conversation. And the conversation needs to change from year to year. If you're standing there doing the same thing you did twenty years ago, you're standing on a soapbox delivering a monologue. But if you're responding to an audience that's in front of you this year in Korea as opposed to California or London, you're responding and communicating and it because a language that is mutable and changeable.
That's what we want from the music and that's what we do live. We improv every night, we change the sets every night and that's a big part of what James is about, it's really our ethos. And I don't want to do it if we change from that.
G: When you're jamming and writing songs do you have the public reception in mind or is it more about it feeling right to you?
TB: I never have the reception of songs in mind. We go into a room the four of us and put on a drum machine. Maybe the turning on of the drum machine, we might often veer towards faster songs because we know we're going to be playing them live and we love playing songs live. So there might be that aspect of 'oh let's do a faster one' because we can do slow songs till the cows come home but we’re not sure it’ll work in a live situation. That might be the only aspect in which we take into consideration how the songs might be used.
But we then just jam and we see what comes out. We follow each other. You know, one guy goes left, we all go left, one guy goes right, we might go the opposite direction, you never quite know. It's a thrilling process and in a way is one of the most enjoyable processes of being in James. We book a place for two weeks and we jam six hours a day. We might jam three or four songs on a good day and then we go back and listen to the jams and start editing them into vague song structures and seeing if we have a song in there. That's the second process. And then we go into the studio once I've written lyrics and record with a producer who might bring a whole different skillset to the equation.
G: When you make it to the stage of recording in a studio, is it a quick process where you pretty much know where it's going or do you bring that free-spirited attitude into the studio as well?
TB: It's pretty free-spirited. We have a trumpet player who might come up with a whole load of ideas that we might want to accommodate, so the song might have to move in a different direction because of that. We have a guy who plays cello and guitar, so a song can keep on transforming right to the last second. And every so often right at the end we go 'oh I have this other great idea' or we're about to go on stage with it and we change it live to how it was recorded. The songs are always open to evolution. They're open-ended creations that never really get finished.
G: Tell me a bit more about your upcoming album. How did the creative process play out on this one?
TB: The album comes out in July. It's with Charlie Andrew and Beni Giles. Charlie won producer of the year last year and Beni is going to be a famous producer in a few years. They were fantastic together. And they brought a lot of rhythmic ideas that stimulated the hell out of us. We feel this is one of our real breakthrough albums. With the two of them working, it reminded us of working with Brian Eno. It was that feeling of ’wow this is amazing.' We didn't have a cross word the whole time we worked together, which is very rare in album making. It was fantastic.
REMAINING MAY TOUR DATES
SATURDAY 19th MAY Blackburn, King Georges – SOLD OUT
SUNDAY 20th MAY Halifax, Victoria Theatre – SOLD OUT
TUESDAY 22nd MAY Middlesbrough, Town Hall – SOLD OUT
WEDNESDAY 23rd MAY Oban, Corran Hall – SOLD OUT
FRIDAY 25th MAY Scunthorpe, Baths Hall – SOLD OUT
SATURDAY 26th MAY Common People – Southampton (co-headlining)
SUNDAY 27th MAY Common People – Oxford (headlining)
FRIDAY 29th JUNE Rock In Rio Festival - Lisbon
FRIDAY 13th JULY Latitude Festival – Suffolk (headlining 2nd Stage)
SATURDAY 14th JULY Bilbao BBK Live - Spain
FRIDAY 27th JULY Kendal Calling - Cumbria (main support)
SATURDAY 11th AUGUST Party at the Palace – West Lothian (headlining)
THURSDAY 30th AUGUST Electric Fields – Dumfries and Galloway (headlining)