James - Tim Booth on “Living in Extraordinary Times” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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James - Tim Booth on “Living in Extraordinary Times”

The Personal and The Political

Sep 20, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Tim Booth is right. We’re living in extraordinary times. James’ new album, its 15th, the title track from which this line is taken, illustrates the concept through songs that alternate between the band’s most personal and most political in recent memory. Living in Extraordinary Times opens brazenly with “Hank,” an incendiary percussion-driven diatribe pointed directed at Donald Trump’s White House with lines such as, “White fascists in the White House/More beetroot in your Russian stew” and “Jim Crow rules in the crack down/Bend the knee stand your ground.” “Many Faces” is a response of sorts to Trump’s border wall ideology, featuring mariachi horns and Booth singing, “There’s only one human race/Many faces/Everybody belongs here.”

Alternately, “Coming Home (Pt. 2)” is a sequel to the band’s 1990 song “Come Home,” written about the difficulty of being away from his children while on tour. “How Hard the Day,” however, might be the most intense, emotional track on the album, a song about pain and suffering set to a dark minimalist backdrop. Yet, the album’s penultimate track is the buoyant rhythm-based song “Better Than That,” which encapsulates what’s always been the best of James in exuberant melody and hopeful, insightful lyric. Living in Extraordinary Times is ultimately an album that transcends, another James classic to add to the list.

James’ frontman Tim Booth took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with Under the Radar about the personal, the political, and what it’s like to live in extraordinary times.

Frank Valish (Under the Radar): Were the percussive elements of the record resultant of some of the political content you were bringing to the band lyrically, or was that a separate desire of yours, to go in a more percussive direction with this record?

Tim Booth: We’ve been heading toward a more groove based direction on the last two records, and we brought in a new engineer [Beni Giles] who was helping me edit the jams-all the songs come from improvisation. So I just said to him, “Can you have a go at fucking around with the rhythms of this track?” Because we improvise with drum machines, it’s really flat. I think he responded to some of the lyrics. “Hank” is very martial and war-like. “Heads” has got really good aggression to it as well. But I think he was responding to the whole track, and yeah, he was the guy who was really coming up with a lot of the rhythms. And then when he brought Charlie [Andrew, producer, who also plays percussion and provides drum/synth programming on the record] along, Charlie kind of grounded some of the rhythms. A lot of them were created before we started working with Charlie. But they’re both drummers, so I think the album ended up having this very drum-based vibe to it that we hadn’t had before but we’d been looking for for a while.

Despite the positivity in “Many Faces,” I also hear some resignation, like when you say, “We’re afraid of change and that’s just how it is.” I wonder, with all the craziness of the past couple of years, does a resignation set in for you, and if so how important is it for us to fight that?

No, I don’t think so. I think the song is really uplifting at the end. That bit in the middle I think is truth-based though, and especially Republicans, who are creating based upon some ideal 1950s white America. That’s the Make America Great Again. It’s really make America white again. And that kind of romantic view they have seems to exclude most other races. So they’re afraid of change, and that’s just how it is. I think most people are afraid of change. We are. I am, to some degree. But my life is a lot of change. There’s change all the time, from moving around, touring. When I go back to L.A., I’m teaching dance, doing movement work, taking people into trance states, I’m teaching meditation. So my life has a lot of change built into it. But the end of that song is so uplifting. I don’t really think there’s much resignation in it. It’s really making it very clear that if you just look at differences between human beings, we will end up destroying the planet. We have to look at the similarities. We have to recognize that everybody belongs here and that there’s many faces.

I don’t know how much you follow the day-to-day of the administration, but for me it becomes an over saturation of nonsense, and I personally have to fight against being resigned that this is what we’ve come to. I wonder whether you personally feel any of that.

Yes. Well, that’s a really good point. If you look directly at Medusa, you turn to stone. I get my Trump information through the comedians, because I find that tempers the poison and makes it more palatable. So in the second verse of “Hank”“Our weapon is a stand up, a jester prancing like a fool”I’m referring to [Stephen] Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee. And in a way, that’s the best way to digest the news, unfortunately. Trump is so good at throwing smoke bombsLook over there everybody!on a daily basis. It’s quite astonishing really. And I agree, you shouldn’t look at it too long, because if you can’t function, if you get to that place of overwhelmed, then you’re not much use to the resistance. We need to separate. And I do, I get overwhelmed by it sometimes. I get really obsessed with it. Each day I open the paper and go, “So there’s anything interesting today. Has it started yet? Come on for God’s sake. What the fuck is taking so long.” So I understand that, really. But we have to function. We have to have a life too. The song “Extraordinary Times” is about how living in the moment is one of the answers. But I guess living in the moment can be very selfish too. It’s like trying to find some damn balance between having a life that’s fulfilled and ecstatic and full of love and joy and also having one foot realizing that a lot of people need help and there’s a lot of shit going down and we’ve got to try to stop it.

Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to write “How Hard the Day,” because that’s such a powerful song on the album?

Hmm, interesting. I can’t really tell you, because all the lyrics come from my unconscious. I improvise lyrics at the beginning and I usually get some lines that end up in the song and then I improvise some more and then I go through them and look at the lines that I like and go, “Oh, this song seems to be about this or this song seems to be about that,” and shape them accordingly. I was in a pretty bleak period at one point last year, and that song is reflective of that. I had resistance to the song. Usually when we do a bleak lyric, we often have uplifting music, and vice versa. And that one does sound quite bleak to me, which is unusual for James. James usually wants to leave you uplifted by the end of the day. And that song has got quite a bleakness to it. But I put that little irony in the lyric in the chorus, “I rub my nose in the dirt and it hurts.” There’s some aspect of self-punishment going on, like so much of our pain is anticipation of something awful that’s about to happen, and often those things don’t happen and we waste our time worrying about things that don’t actually take place. I put that in the chorus to make it a little bit more humorous and a little bit more observant than just a song about pain.

I also wondered whether anything changed about the way you approached being an artist relative to the sentiment of “Come Home” and “Coming Home (Pt. 2)” since “Come Home” was released in 1990. Did anything change in the way you approached being an artist in the time between those two similar tracks?

Interesting. No. We’ve been writing for 35 years through improvisation, trusting the unconscious over the conscious. The conscious mind is 5% of it, and the unconscious 95%. And I find the unconscious to be the rich place, which I get to through trance or meditation or through meditative journeys, so I’m interested in that process of tapping into the unconscious. That seems to be where my purpose is in life. Tim Booth is stupid. But Tim’s unconscious can write some pretty good lyrics sometimes. And I’m very happy with that. It’s the same process we’ve always done. We just stumbled upon it accidentally and it keeps us fresh, because no one is controlling the songs. When you have the usual singer/songwriters, they run out of juice after a number of years. But we never know where the song’s going, because the keyboard player might take it one way, the bass player the other, me the other, and Saul the other. So it’s this thing that’s being pulled out of shape all the time, and the accidents are often the best bits. So no. I wrote that lyric in the sense of going home. I wrote a lot of the lyric and thought, “We should call this ‘Coming Home (Pt. 2).’ It seems to be connected, and how cool is that, that you can have songs connected across 25 odd years? There’s not many outfits that write a sequel to a song 25 years later. Movies, books, all those things have sequels, and prequels, but not songs, so it seemed like a fun thing to call it.

But did you change the way you decided to tour or the typical artistic promotion, tour, album, writing, promotion tour cycle?

Ehhh, no. I mean, yes. I won’t be away from my son more than three weeks at a time now, which is still too long, but that’s kind of how it is in James now and it wasn’t when I wrote “Come Home.” So that changed. But we still love making music. Like this album coming out. A week and a half ago, we set up a studio and started recording a whole set of new songs, improvising new songs. Because we love that process. We go in a room with nothing and we come out with these little things that are communicated to us through our unconscious and none of us know how we’ve done it. And we love it. It’s probably the best bit of James in some respects. Because it feels like we get into a meditative groove between the four of us. There are some days when it’s like we look at each other where it’s like, “Holy shit, what the fuck is going on?” It’s really sort of like magic. And personally, how I enrich my life otherwise, is I go back and I teach dance to 100 people in L.A., people going into alternative states through dancing and meditation, teach workshops and live in Topanga, and live in a really different world than my band. A very kind of healing world. Very different from this James world.


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