“We Love Being The Underdog!” James Interviewed

Tim Booth is looking to the future...

Even after all this time, James remain a force to be reckoned with. Time has only toughened their veracity, and emboldened their dogged determination to try out new ideas. So far, it seems to be working – recent album ‘Yummy’ delighted fans, a song cycle blessed with an energy that would shame bands four years into their time together, left alone forty.

Hitting the road once more, James will cross the Atlantic later this year, playing a co-headline tour with dear friend Johnny Marr. Singer Tim Booth is leading the way – the imperious voice amid the maelstrom, he’s helping guide the band into fresh pastures, and towards new heights.

He has a few of his own projects in the pipeline, too. A noted actor during a 00s spell in Hollywood, his first novel will be published later this year, accompanied by a flurry of special launch events.

So, it’s all-go. CLASH caught Tim Booth on the phone for a quick catch-up.

The record has been greeted exceptionally well…

It has! We’ve been doing this so long that once we’ve made a record, and I know it’s good, I’m happy to let go of it. I never used to read reviews, but because I’m now on social media – primarily due to the job – I’m now more confronted with people’s opinions! And it is what it is. But it’s been a good ride, a lot of good will has come with our way. It started with the Ivors last year when we won that award, and it’s continuing.

You’re on a terrific run, and each project feels very fresh. James as a band always seem forward-facing – where does that come from?

Fear of death. (laughs) No, I think there’s some truth in that! It’s about always wanting to challenge yourself and never accepting the person behind you. 

We write a lot of jams to make an album, and then as songwriters we choose which ones to work on, to demo. A lot of songs get left behind that are probably very good songs but they maybe sound like ‘old James’ or they don’t seem to break any new ground. And we don’t want those – we want the ones that feel like, for us, we’re moving forward. I was asked the other day if I was content… a good question! I don’t think I am. I have quite a healthy discontent that always make me want to do more, to try something different, to communicate a bit better, or in a different way, and that keeps driving me forwards. I have this feeling – conscious or unconscious – that my life should be an artist’s life: slightly unstable, your bags are always packed, because anything can happen at any moment. If somebody invites you on an adventure you should go on it! That, I think also feeds into my lyric-writing… it gives me something to write about. As opposed to sitting at home with my cat getting fat!

You’re renowned for your jamming process – have you overhauled that over time? Or does it remain the core of the way you make music?

It is. We’ve honed it, not overhauled it. Since we came back, we now jam to a drum machine – that way the rhythm is perfect, so quite a lot of the original guitar-playing or keyboard-playing ends up in the song itself. You know, in the 80s we would record on a cassettes and it would sound like a fucking racket… and then we’d record from cassettes to other cassettes… and in the end, only the band could hear it! We once handed in some demos to Geoff Travis – Rough Trade, best ears in the business – and he said “I thought you were taking the piss with these demos because they sounded so bad!” But we knew what they were! Brian Eno is the only person who could listen to those cassettes, for hours, with his headphones making meticulous notes. He won our respect on day one because he did that. He’d say, “I spotted one, four hours in, 15 seconds worth… it would make a good song!” And that was his baptism with us.

The thing about the jamming is that we talk about it in interviews, but nobody understands it because you’re not in the room. When we went through a period of auditioning drummers, we’d get them in and improvise, and at the end they’d say “oh what was that song?” And we’d say, oh it doesn’t have a name, we just made it up. And they’d say “oh, you’re trying to intimidate me!” 

We recently had Chris Atkins in a room with us, making a documentary, and he said at the end: “I know you’re jamming, but I don’t believe you because there are bits that sound like a complete song”. There are bits where we’re hovering and fishing, but some bits do sound like a song. Until you’re in the room with us, you can’t really understand it. We’re thinking about doing three gigs – Glasgow, Manchester, and London – where all we do is improvise. And we’ll put on the ticket “purchase of this ticket might not lead to entertainment… but it’ll lead to something!”

What makes this album distinct from your broader catalogue?

Well, first of all we kept closely to the demos… which we didn’t do on our last three records. And also Chloe’s backing vocals are really interesting and original. People underestimate backing vocals, but hers are intelligent, playful, and they fit us. It’s this Kate Bush, 80s playfulness that added some accessibility to the songs.

James have had so many ups and downs – moments when you had to fight to be heard, and others with the spotlight directed on you… which is harder, do you think?

It’s harder when you’re fighting to be heard. When you’re in the spotlight you have momentum, and opportunities open up. That’s good for you. It’s a good feeling when you’ve got the wind in your sails. We’ve sold more tickets on this tour than we sold in the 90s when we were so-called famous. It’s good to know that you aren’t going to be made redundant any time soon. Especially in this culture where – since the 90s – it’s been about money, and success, and number ones. When I was younger it wasn’t so much about that. The Velvet Underground sold 20,000 copies in their lifetime. Iggy was my hero but he didn’t sell many records. Success in that way didn’t mean much. We were aiming for longevity, and to be great live – because playing live is a litmus test for authenticity, and you can’t fake that. We still have that old school mentality. 

There was a great Guardian piece about Britpop recently, and you popped up in the intro – yet you always felt sightly adjacent to those terms. How do you react to the term ‘Britpop’?

We felt quite honoured by some of those bands because they told us that they were at certain key concerts that we played that influenced them. From blur to Bernard Butler to Oasis. So, in a certain way we felt honoured. But we didn’t see ourselves as being a part of it, necessarily. The first time round it was us and the Smiths. The second time round it was the Manchester thing. The third time round it was Britpop. Everybody wanted to put us in a category… but we’re pretty uncategorisable, I think. Hopefully in the way someone like Talking Heads were – even though they came out of that CBGBs scene, they were always their own thing. And we’re the same, I think.

Speaking of the Smiths, Tim, you’re about to go back out on tour with North America – one of those wonderful co-headlining tours!

Oh wonderful is the word! I’m really looking forward to it and Johnny’s just a beautiful man. We’ll play very well together, drive each other, hang out… it’ll be great.

I mean, Johnny is an artist. It’s different. If you have that attitude then you want to experiment, you want to change, you want to keeping on growing.

We’re told there’s a book on the way…

I’ve really been writing it for over 10 years. I’ve been the singer in a band where I couldn’t really take drugs or alcohol because of my liver condition but I’m in an industry that encourages it. What other business provides a rider at the workplace? And encourages edge-walking? Being in that industry – well, I make music adjacent to it, and have witnessed lots of rise-and-falls, lots of addiction… I thought, well, if I write about a fucked up singer in a band I would have a lot of material to draw on without having to go and do lots of research! (laughs) That was my starting point to a degree. To try and communicate to people what it is to make a song and to be creative. What it is to do a performance, what it is to get lost, what it is to fall in love and trying to have a relationship while you’re travelling. It’s all those different aspects. And it’s a dark comedy.

There’s a run of intimate book launches planned – do you feel nervous ahead of it?

No, I think this’ll be fun. We’re doing one in London, then one with Gary Neville in Manchester. It’ll be fun – it’ll be unpredictable. 

You mentioned social media earlier – I’ve always felt James run their social media in a community-minded way, it feels very warm and reciprocal.

The honest truth is, I don’t read anyone else’s Twitter. I don’t really do social media. So for me, it was about responding to the people who write to me. I kind of feel obliged. If they’re going to write things in, most of the time I’m going to try to respond in some way. There’s an amazing James community out there, and when they get us they come dozens of times and they know they’ll get a different gig each night. They appreciate that, and they encourage it in us. It’s a great support group. These aren’t the fans who want us to play ‘Sit Down’ they’re the ones who want us to play new material. And it’s really great to have that level of support. I mean, they got us to No. 1 with a fantastic organisational push. It was very sweet to witness.

There’s a number of tour dates coming up, and each show is totally different. The way James approach some songs is totally different to a concert five years ago.

For some of them. Some of them we can’t actually tinker with. ‘Ring The Bells’ is great live but it’s an interlocking Rubik’s cube… you can’t improve it. ‘Sometimes’ you can’t mess with too much. ‘Sit Down’ we actually extend and subtract night by night. I mean, we’ve got 18 hits – luckily – that we can rotate. If we’re bored by a song, we drop it or change it. That’s the rule. And it feels good to have those choices.

It was great to hear those songs in an orchestral setting, like last year’s ‘Be Opened By The Wonderful’.

Yeah it was very exciting. You’d think, as vocalist, I’d be able to catch a rest because there is so much more going on but actually it felt more intimate, and more focussed. We requested the audience didn’t use their phones, and they didn’t – it stayed in their pockets. So it meant the focus was so much more intense, but in a great way.

Quick side question: you have acted before… could you do this again, do you think?

I think if the right part came I’d take it. I was actually sent a script last week to look at. If it’s right, I’ll take it. I moved to LA and I had a great agent who would get me in the door for some good films. Once I moved to LA I was a very small fish in a big pond, so I let it drop after a while. I’d be relieved to get back into it if the right part came.

To finish, are you anticipating visiting the studio any time soon, or is the focus on touring?

The focus is on that, yes. We started writing new material already, and I might start on a new book soon. We’re always open to some crazy opportunity coming our way, and we’ll be like: OK, that could be good! With the Johnny Marr tour – we’ve wanted to go back to America for a while, and this is a great way to do it. It’ll be a really harmonious tour. 

We love touring, but also with younger bands, or festivals with younger bands. We don’t like heritage festivals. It’s like, where are the new songs? Compared to playing alongside a great young band, where you’re really being tested in a new way. That’s why we love playing festivals – we love being the underdog, not headlining, and we love taking on a new audience who might not like us. We have delusions of brilliance that mean we think we can win round people who aren’t our natural audience, regardless.

‘Yummy’ is out now. For all James tour information visit their official website.

Related: Secrets I Can’t Keep – James Interviewed

Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Paul W Dixon Photography

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