INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Filter OCTOBER 13, 2008 - by Adam Pollack
SIT DOWN NEXT TO ME: JAMES RECLAIMS ITS THRONE
Say what you will, but the second British invasion offered much more than the mop-tops-in-suits of the first incarnation. Not that Jagger, McCartney and company weren't impressive in their own right, but in the early '90s, the wave of Brit-based hooliganism that overwhelmed grunge rock and its lumberjack wardrobe was truly inspiring. Pearl Jam and Hootie (Lord, banish thy memory) may have had the record sales, but the limeys had the cred, the outfits and an unlimited supply of cool bands with catchy tunes.
Led by Madchester ruffians The Stone Roses and everybody's favorite feuding brothers, Oasis, the world was soon listening to the cheeky pop gems of Pulp, Blur, Soup Dragons, Auteurs, Denim, Supergrass, The Verve and Radiohead. Also caught in the Britannia tsunami was James, but unlike its contemporaries, this perennial underdog resisted cookie-cutter classification. For starters, by 1990 James had already experienced more highs and lows than the typical signed-after-two-gigs (Menswear) or claiming-to-be-better-than-U2 (Gene) band du jour. Beginning with its formation in 1981, James struggled through Smiths comparisons, flavor-of-the-month idolatry and wonky record deals so regularly that by 1988 the band was already being dismissed as a "has been." But then came the hits. On its 1991 self-titled full-length, James exploded on the mainstream by producing three U.K. Top 40 tracks shortly following the album's release, with the smashing wallop of a sing-along Sit Down following close behind. Suddenly, Manchester's best kept secret was unleashed on the world, and phrases like "has been" and "washed up" were reserved for the likes of the Brothers Gallagher.
The abrupt success was sweet for a band constantly fighting uphill battles. When Tim Booth and Jim Glennie began playing together in the early '80s, they became co-architects of the Britpop milieu, opening for the likes of The Fall at The Haçienda and attracting the attention of Tony Wilson's Factory Records. Early EPs were full of promise, but ongoing disputes with Factory personnel and original guitarist Paul Gilbertson thwarted James' full potential... as did subsequent sidesteps. Amidst record label troubles, the band jumped ship and joined Sire Records in the hopes of salvaging its torn sails, but the change proved to be another misfire. Sire quickly lost interest, promptly withholding support in the way of investment and distribution. However, despite label woes and changing guitar players (Larry Gott stepped in for Gilbertson), James developed a solid fan base through constant touring and devotion to its craft. Gigs became rituals for the faithful, and while permanent mainstream acceptance eluded them, word of mouth spread like a virus. One thing's for certain; they sold a hell of a lot of T-shirts.
James' second decade was a whirlwind of activity, as radio finally understood its genius and long-time band idol Brian Eno signed on as de facto producer. The band toured the world and by the end of the twentieth century, James had sold millions of records. Having recently celebrated its silver anniversary, albeit with a hiatus for most of this decade, James is one of the few survivors of a musical renaissance that resulted in as many rehab visits as number one hits. And with a sterling new album, Hey Ma, the backing of a capable record company, and long-time fans eager for a sing-along, James is back.
A CONVERSATION WITH TIM BOOTH
After seven years, you've returned with a new album and tour. Has this reunion been in motion for a while?
It started in earnest about two years ago. Jim had called a couple of years before that and I was never interested in getting together, but after a while I agreed to come to Manchester. Instead of having a business meeting with managers, we just got together in a rehearsal studio and mucked about for a few days.
It seems choosing a studio as a meeting place tipped the scales towards playing again...
The language we communicate in best has always been music. So yeah, besides talking, we tried a few other things and all of a sudden we had thirty pieces of music. The level of communication within the band when it comes to writing is effortless; things get a little harder when it comes time to hone the songs into polished gems, but some of them come in no time at all. Bubbles on the new album was like that. Upside too.
James achieved a significant level of fame in the early and mid-'90s with massive album sales and huge concerts, yet you've managed to keep it all together for the most part.
To be honest, we really weren't interested in the level of fame of Madonna or someone like that. We weren't in it for the fame... ever. So, we never had that experience of having to hold on to our celebrity. For us, it was always about playing and making great music.
Certainly our choice of making a record such as Wah Wah, which was all improvisational jamming, right after our biggest record and at the height of our fame, was - in the scope of celebrity career moves - suicidal timing. But, that's what we wanted to do and it was definitely for the best in the long run.
You've had your share of ups and downs with various members leaving and the band breaking up in 2001. What kind of place are you in now?
A really good one. It's a fantastic time at the moment. Honestly, I didn't miss James during the time we were split up. Between my acting and solo work and writing, I'm a cottage industry. I've written three screenplays, one of which was optioned. I've got a solo record in the can, which who knows when it will come out, and I've got to spend a lot of time with my family over the last few years.
In 1999, NME reported that James was settling into middle age. What are the critics saying now?
I stopped reading reviews years ago. The U.K. is the only place where music press is tabloid based - they cover music the same way the American press covers film stars, so there's really no point in bothering with what they say. What has kept us going over the years is how other bands have honored us and praised us. So many bands have always encouraged us and that's what's made the difference. The list is endless: Coldplay, Oasis, everyone. The press has gotten it wrong from the beginning. When they said we were influenced by The Smiths, that wasn't the case at all. They were influenced by us - just ask Morrissey.
Tony Wilson and Factory Records obviously played a big part in the band's early days. Tony's death last year must have been a sad occasion for those who knew him...
We've dedicated the new record to Tony. He was so sweet. We heard about it while we were on tour in Edinburgh and played a new song for him that night. I regretted not staying with Factory, but back then we thought they were the big record company. It wasn't till we got to Sire that we realized what a big record company actually is.
Another close collaborator has been Brian Eno, right?
We're the luckiest band in the world. Working with Eno is an absolute pleasure. Everyone asks us - Michael Stipe for instance - how did we get Eno? It happened after Seven; I sent him a handwritten note with a cassette of some demos from Laid and I guess he just loved it and one day he called me up. There wasn't any meeting with managers or anything; he just called. We talked for half an hour about everything from porn to perfume and then he said he wanted to work with us. And now it's been nine years. I think he got hooked on our way of working; the fact that it's so improv and jam oriented. He's so graceful in his approach and draws out a different side of you. I think part of why we've lasted so long is that he wants to be involved... you're not going to walk away from a Brian Eno project.
Is there an era of music to which you feel especially connected?
The '70s fed me the most, going from Patti to Iggy into punk. Those are the roots I come from. I suddenly got the power of words and music coming together with [Patti Smith's] Horses. But also, three years ago was one of the best years of music that I've ever experienced, which was Arcade Fire, Antony and The Johnsons, Martha Wainwright, Joanna Newsom... I kept going, "Holy shit, this is a good fuckin' year."
The Pixies, Arcade Fire, Talking Heads: those were amazing live bands and totally off the wall, totally uncool in a cool way. It was like with The Velvet Underground; they were never hungry or pushy for success. We thought that if you make great music, someone will pick up on it in the end, and you saw that with all these bands. The Pixies were never going to be like Nirvana because they didn't have a singer who looked like that, but I'd say they were much more important than Nirvana in terms of music. I think Kurt, God bless him, would have said the same thing.
Looking back at the last twenty-five years, what are the songs that you are most proud of?
Sometimes comes straight to mind; that was the one that hooked Brian. We kept it from him initially and when we did play it for him in the studio he just sat there very quietly and said that it was one of the musical highlights of his life.
When we wrote Sit Down, we couldn't stop laughing 'cause we wrote it in twenty minutes and we knew we'd written a big song. And there's a song called Lullaby on Laid which was the first time where I learned the technique of writing in which I do six or seven passes improvising lyrics and in the end, I have a finished lyric. It helps me to work very quickly, and my subconscious writes better lyrics than my conscience ever could.
A CONVERSATION WITH JIM GLENNIE
So now that James is playing together again, how has the time away been for you?
At first, I charged 'round like a headless chicken for six months doing busy work. It took me a good year to eighteen months to figure out how to enjoy things in a different way. I definitely slowed down a lot. I mean, I still stayed in music, but it's been kind of nice seeing family and friends and doing boring everyday stuff. I thought I'd miss gigging and traveling and staying in nice hotels and all that stuff, but it wasn't that at all. I was missing songwriting; having songs come from nowhere. When I started writing with Larry [Gott] again, I realized that this was what I missed - the buzz of sitting around with a drum machine and creating something magical. I realized that was why I was in music.
Mainstream acceptance was a long time coming. What kept you going?
One thing that's always sustained James and why we've managed to keep at it this long is that we're kind of bloody-minded in that we have confidence that what we do is great. If the industry struggles with that, that's its failing as far as we're concerned. I'm inspired by bands like The Doors and The Velvet Underground, who had success come to them. We were never that concerned with what the industry thought we should have been doing musically.
What was the most difficult thing about cutting the new record?
There were all these questions of who was going to be involved and whether it was going to be a James record and how was it going to relate to the past. We did know that when we got together, it was going to be about new music. We had no interest in just trundling around, just playing the hits. So, that first weekend of rehearsals we knew we were going to do something; it was just a question of what it would be. But then, by the end of the second day, our manager had rung Tim up and got a tour on hold for the end of April, including playing the M.E.N. Arena in Manchester which holds sixteen thousand people. I just freaked. It was so against what I thought we should be doing. I thought we should be playing for months before those decisions were made. Instead, on the second day of bleeding rehearsals, we had a tour booked, for Christ's sake. I got a bit panicky, but Tim and Larry were convinced it was the best thing to do, and in reflection, I guess they were right. But, I tried quite hard to stop that tour from happening [laughs].
What has working with Brian Eno taught you?
One thing we all learned came from him jamming with us, which he does in rehearsals sometimes. He would always play these really basic keyboard lines and sounds because he wanted to limit the options; with unlimited options you never decide on anything. He forced us to use our creativity to come up with something really good instead of always looking for the perfect sound or line... clever man.
Brian is a busy man and wasn't going to indulge us in the studio for six months. He set up a tight six week schedule, so that was a bit daunting. But then he did something that initially seemed ridiculous - he decided to record two albums at once. The other body of work was our improvisation, which we saw as a work in progress but Brian instead treated as finished songs. We got a second studio at Reel World and we had this mix engineer called Marcus Strauss to work on these improvisations. We'd work on these jams and then they would go straight to Marcus and he would mess around and stick effects on them. We just had fun and we ended up with the two records. If anyone else besides Brian Eno had suggested that, we'd have thought they were mad and not done it. With Eno, you put your confidence in and just go with it. He was such great fun to work with.
The record business has changed so much from the time when James was last in the spotlight. How is that going to affect how things work for you in 2008?
The industry is so different now, even since 2001 - let alone back in the '90s. But for us, it's good because so much is geared towards playing live. There are new festivals opening up and we're a live band, so in that aspect, it's wonderful. In regard to sales, yeah, the labels are struggling to sell hard copies and I don't know how that's going to pan out for us, but I think the Internet is a great thing for music. I think the industry has completely and utterly shot itself in the head with the way it's tried to approach people downloading music. The current music scene is so healthy and vibrant. In 2001, every kid wanted to be a DJ and now everyone wants to be in a guitar band, which is wonderful. You don't have to bump into an A&R guy at a record company - you can build a career around the record industry through MySpace and your website. And I think that's got to be a healthy thing. How the record industry finds a way to capitalize on that is another thing. The fact that they've struggled against that for ten or fifteen years is just ridiculous. It's so, so silly. The best it could ever do is take people to court for downloading.
Besides the fanfare of the early and mid-'90s, when there were tours with Neil Young and loads of radio play, America hasn't seen much of James compared to Europe and even South America.
I think the plan is to come over later in the year. Tim has been spending a lot of time in L.A., so that would make it easy for Larry and me to come over and do some writing, or in the guise of writing [laughs]. We know we've got a fan base there, but in the past it has been a bit difficult to bring a seven-piece band plus managers over to the States.