James - Tim Booth on Not Being a Heritage Band and Why They Were Never Big in America - Improvisation is Key | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, October 17th, 2019  

James - Tim Booth on Not Being a Heritage Band and Why They Were Never Big in America

Improvisation is Key

Aug 05, 2019 Web Exclusive
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British stalwarts James refuse to be hamstrung by the label "heritage band" and just play their greatest hits. Currently on a U.S. Summer toura double bill with John Hughes favorite, Psychedelic Fursfrontman Tim Booth explains the randomness of how they might pick their set lists. It never fails to include deeper cuts, newer songs, and whatever might take their fancy mid-concert. His rationale makes perfect sense; it is to guarantee that spark and frisson in their live performances. No one can accuse James of phoning it in.

Longtime fans of the band have come to understand they probably won't hear all their favorites. To be fair James were formed in Manchester back in 1982, and enjoyed an endless slew of hits in the UK throughout the '90s"Sit Down," "Come Home," "Laid," "She's a Star," and "Destiny Calling." Apart from the chart success of their singles, they were prolific in the '90s, releasing six studio albums with gems such as "Say Something," "Tomorrow," "Sometimes" and "Born of Frustration." It would be impossible to cover them all in a normal set anyway.

In 2002, Booth left James to pursue a solo career and acting roles in Hollywood (including in Batman Begins). Seven years after their farewell tour, Booth rejoined the bandseveral sold out concerts followed attesting to the band's unwavering popularity. The band then released a new album, 2008's Hey Ma.

In recent years, James have released La Petite Mort, Girl at the End of the World and last year's Living In Extraordinary Timestheir 15th studio albumthis trilogy of latter James albums have built on their strength and ability to write songs that still strike a chord with listeners. Back in 1997, "She's a Star" captured that moment our adoration of Princess Diana reached its fevered peak. She would die a year later in a car chase involving the paparazzi. "Destiny Calling" was an excellent commentary on the decade's preoccupation with youth, celebrity, and consumption set to a rousing, pop format. Their latest album speaks to the rejection of Trumpism. Not surprisingly, younger fans without much knowledge of the band's past glories have now joined the fray.

We speak to Booth from his home in Topanga Canyon about why James have never been as big in America as some of their contemporaries, their willingness to make space for women and up-and-coming producers in the confines of their band, and why it sounds like Booth might be dissing his heroes.

Celine Teo-Blockey (Under the Radar): You've had some amazing sold out tour dates all over the UK lately.

It's been a lot of fun. We were actually playing in Greece with Iggy Pop. And in March we were on tour with The Charlatans; we had a great time. It feels good when you've been in the game for 35 years and you do tours and they still get sold out. We now see kids, young adults, and older folks in our audience. But nobody leaves a James concert satisfied.

I imagine it's because we all have many favorites.

We have 250 songs or maybe more and people come absolutely determined to hear their favorite ones and nearly every night people leave unhappy [laughs]well that's not exactly the case but we do curate it and change the set every night. Most people are very happy with what they get. But you do get the diehards, they come convinced they'll hear "She's a Star" and they let you know about it.

How did you guys manage to hook up with The Psychedelic Furs?

I think Richard [Butler] was leaving us these nice messages now and then, at venues both our bands would play. And then we wrote him a nice note saying, "Let's get together some time." And he came back to us and said: "Let's play America together!" We're only going to play for about an hour each but they are very kindly calling it a joint cultural tour.

American audiences don't appear to be as familiar with James as they do The Psychedelic Furs?

They had some massive hits linked to movies. We were a bit bloody-minded about America. At first, we didn't want to let the labels release our music there. But when we finally did and decided to tour, we were very committed. Then, I ruptured two discs in my spine and had to wear a neck brace. Plus there were some label politics that went on which meant when the album was released, we did alright here, but we didn't get as much support.

And here I was thinking you missed out on being big in America because you wanted to see a guru [from the Lifewave cult].

[Laughs] Yes, The Smiths invited us to tour with them on their first big tour in America. But two of us were deep into meditations, no alcohol, no drugs and there was this opportunity to see this guru. So we turned down our first American tour and our guru didn't turn up anyway. [Laughs] At any rate, I don't think we were quite ready for America. I joined James as a 16-year-old, we needed that longer period of time to master our craft. We finally got to the States nine years later with "Sit Down" and that was great! Then grunge happened. Once grunge happenedyou know that wasn't quite us.

Am I right in thinking that there is a female member in your current touring band?

There is, she's coming only for some of the dates because of a mix up with the visa.

Was it the music on this particular record that required you have another player on stage?

Yes, the rhythms in this record are quite complicated, one person wouldn't be able to learn it all and play it live themselves. First, we had Deborah Knox-Hewson, a 25-year-old, she walked into the room like she'd been in the band forever and owned it. Then she had to go off and do something with Netflix. She recommended her best friend, Chloe [Alper], who we had met a few timesshe plays and sings too.  She's been with us for about a year.

It's great to see a band like Jamesof essentially seven menmake space for young women to come up.

I think if it was just a political move it wouldn't work. But as a band we've always been open to new possibilities and having two amazing women tour with us, it has worked so well for us as a band. They've both been wonderful. It's like something we've been missing and we've been shocked. I don't think you can plan these things.

And you've also given opportunity to a pretty unknown producerBeni Giles. How did he come to work on Living In Extraordinary Times?

Basically, how we write our songs is we jam. Saul [Davies], Larry [Gott], Jimmy [Glennie], Mark [Hunter], and myself we go in a room, stick on a drum machine and we jam. And we do that about six hours a day. And it's actually the most amazing, joyous moments of James that we experience in private. We might have six or seven jams in a day, some of them might go on for an hour, some for 15 minutes, and we record them. Then we get back to them and look to see if within them, there are potential things that we can work on and that might become a song. On the last few albums, I wanted to get things done quite quickly so I hired different engineers to work with me. I am crap at technology. I need an engineer to help me mark out what I want to track. If I want to make a bassline work with a guitar at a particular point. So we had this young guy, Beni, who was an engineer and I tried him one week. And he was lovely, such a nice man. And I did realize he probably knows a lot more. He had a lot of potential. So we had this song "Heads" and one day I said to him, "Beni do you want to fuck around with this jam a bit, the drum machine gets really boring." We use a drum machine in our jam sessions and as a result the sound itself is flat. So Beni played around with it and came up with something fantastic. So we kept locking him in a room. "Heads" it's a jam I love, but we locked him in a room for six hours and he had things like knives and forks, and he'd drop ice on the floor while recording, or drummed his fingers on table—that's the rhythm that inspired the song "Hank."

You had approached Mercury Prize winning producer Charlie Andrews to work with you but he only agreed after seeing James live. Was he hesitant at first? Is it safe to say that you knew your live show was the secret weapon, the clincher?

I loved that first alt-J albumAn Awesome Wavewhich Charlie produced. I think it's this generation's OK Computer. So I was keen to work with him. I think the truth is most people get sold on James when they see us live. That's the point. We're a live band, we've always been. And we improvise each night: we don't know what songs we're doing but it brings out the best in us. Sometimes we haven't really rehearsed a songand we like that! It forces us to improvise. All these gigs that happen night after night where bands repeat the same songs, in the same order, with the same one-liners. The singers have to stand at the same point on the stage

Often due to the lighting design.

Yes, because that's where the lighting has been programmed to hit, at that moment. I write our set lists with lots of bracketsif this song doesn't work, we can do this other songit's a mad set list that can go off in many ways. Saul might even say during the set: "Tim can we play this?" Then it's, "Oh yeah okay, let's do this one, instead of that"then we're really screwed and totally off the map! So it changes every night and the audience can feel that: you can chat freely to them, it's in the lights, the songs, and our communication with them. Of course, sometimes gigs that do it the other way can transcend anyway. I went to see Leonard Cohen on his tenth gig after he had left the Zen monastery. It was a show in Manchester it was mind-blowing! Then I saw him a year later and it was the exact same show, the identical same speech he did between songsfrom such an intelligent witty man, I have to admit, I was a little saddened but it was still a great show. I don't mean to be dissing my heroes here but it's like when I saw Pixiesafter seeing them two or three times, I wanted more. I wanted to see them let it rip. People expect Jamesat our age-to be a heritage band, to play the hits and go through the motions. And we're not like that. The first time we toured America it was with Neil Young. He was a wonderful inspiration to us. It was a solo show. He stomped around the stage trying to figure out what to play nexthe was a joy to beholdand he became the example of what we wanted to do.

I always imagine when you hear that drum machine, is it like Pavlov's dog you guys immediately start jammingdo you play an instrument too? 

I don't play anything at our jam sessions. I wait. Trance for me is what happens when the mind stops and the unconscious takes over. 

"Many Faces" off your latest album has been getting quite a reaction from live audiences. You said that even "Sit Down" didn't get that sort of reaction, why do you think it's struck such a chord?

A lot of this record was written with Trump coming into power and I live in California, so at first, he was all over this record. And it was really upsetting me, particularly all the racist things he was saying and about building a wall. His vision of making America great again was really about "Make America White Again." It was with that backdrop that we were jamming and started to write the song. And we immediately knew how strong it was. When we did it on our first tour, grown men would burst into tears in front of me. It was really something because the song wasn't even released yet. By the fifth or sixth gig in Scotland the audience left the auditorium singing that song, even though we did that song half way in the set, and we dropped in other songs afterwards that they knew well. You could see people singing those words, their faces...it uplifts people. It's a bit like "Sometime""Sometimes when I look in your eyes and I see your soul"there's something secular and spiritual about it. When you start singing that it's like a mantra, and in this time of great upheaval when you hit something that's the truth of things, it is powerful. It's like looking at a blue sky and seeing birds, or the sea and seeing fish, things begin to merge into one. It's about focusing on our similarities than our differencesthere's this unconscious knowledge that we all share. This song gives you that feeling of being in unison. And the indigenous people got it right: this land belongs to nobody.

While we're on the topic of politics, you were great friends with Morrissey back in the day, does it seem strange to you how his current political views are so far-right, the antithesis to yours?

Fame does weird things to people. In the early '80s, he was a sweet man: tender, insecure, funnythat was the man I knew. I haven't spoken to him recently so I can't comment on his views. But I don't recognize him anymore from the reports in the media.

www.wearejames.com

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