It's 3:45 on a Saturday afternoon at 99X. It's fairly quiet as the
disk jockey simply known as Jill cues up the next disc. All serenity is
quickly dispersed as three members of the British band James arrive at the
studio. Herded in by bustling management and followed by a small entourage,
this faction of James looks tired. Hungry and tired. "Could someone possibly
fetch some coffee?" asks Saul Davies, who is shrouded in dark glasses.
"Some food would be nice," adds Jim Glennie. Vocalist Tim Booth seems to shake off his sluggishness and sits in one of the three chairs next to the soundboard. His two band mates follow.
Their exhaustion is easily justified. James has its nose to the grindstone at the moment promoting their new album Whiplash. A few small, warm-up gigs in Britain were followed by a series of club dates in Washington and New York. After the guys chat with Jill and choose a diverse set of music to play on the air, they'll make their way to the Roxy where they'll perform the last of these intimate shows. And then it's back to New York in the morning where they'll get ready for an appearance on Letterman.
"It's a good, quick show," Booth says of Letterman's program. "With some of the shows in England you're sitting around for eight hours. It's tedious. But on Letterman, you're in there, you play live, and you get out. We didn't get offended by the fact he didn't talk to us. He stuck his head around the door and said, 'Hi.' The only grind I had with him the last time we played was that he wouldn't let me wear a dress. He was worried he was going to lost his Bible Belt following."
Glennie, Booth and Davies shuffle through the discs Jill has retrieved for them and simultaneously attempt to eat lunch. This potpourri of music includes artists such as Beck and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. "Where's the Dolly Parton?" jokes Davies. The band seems much more interested in playing other people's music than listening to their own this afternoon. This, however, doesn't reflect the rest of the world.
Whiplash, which was released worldwide at the end of February, shot to No. 5 on the British charts just after it came out. Its sales are doing comparatively better than their 1993 smash Laid. When asked which album is the strongest musically, Booth shakes his head. "That's impossible," he says. "Laid was quiet, mellow and delicate. Whiplash is more in your face, aggressive, playful and uplifting."
The new album contains 11 tracks that vary from radio-friendly pop to hypnotic grooves to dance-floor rave-ups. Produced by Stephen Hague, Whiplash also included some input from Brian Eno, who was involved with Laid and the improvisational double-album Wah Wah. The band says they've learned a lot from Eno, but his role in Whiplash was fairly minor. "It's great working with Eno," says Davies, "but I think we ought to stop overplaying this thing because that also says in a way that we're slaves to what he does. And it's not that way at all. Four years ago, when we made Laid and Wah Wah, it was an immense learning experience for us in terms of how we can make music. A lot of patterns and cliches were questioned by Eno. So we took a lot on board [Whiplash]. A lot of the weirdness on this album that you would associate with somebody like Eno is us. He's a genius. We're not, but we're naive, and we've got a lot of energy. And I feel Whiplash is like a first album for James in some ways."
Glennie agrees. "I think Brian didn't really need to be there," he says. "I think he worked through a lot of the conceptual stuff when we were doing Laid and Wah Wah. But this time around it's like how we implemented that. There was no need for him to sit there babysitting us. And how we applied that kind of space and freedom we found was our angle on it and our input."
Promoting this music obviously requires a world tour. It officially starts off in England, and James is scheduled to make it back to North America next month. Although touring can be tough, James tends to leave an impression on audiences in more ways that one. In fact, Booth says when they were playing in New York in support of Laid the crowd in the balcony was dancing so hard the floor fell through. "It nearly took the head of our record company with it," he says. "He was literally about 10 yards away from it when it came down."
After finishing their live interview with Jill, Glennie, Booth and Davies hop into a rented Lincoln Town Car headed for the Roxy. Although their bellies are now full, their hunger to record more music is extremely apparent. "Yeah, touring is great, but you want to get stuff out to people," Glennie says. "You want to move on. We want to get on with a new album as soon as possible. Maybe next year."