Biography: James

by Simon Glickman

Personal Information
Members include David Baynton-Power (joined band c. 1988), drums; Tim Booth (born c. 1964), vocals; Saul Davies (joined band c. 1988), violin; Andy Diagram (bandmember 1988-92), trumpet; Jim Glennie, bass; Larry Gott, guitar; Mark Hunter (joined band c. 1988), keyboards; Gavan Whelan (left band c. 1988), drums.

Career
Group formed in Manchester, England, and signed with Factory Records, releasing singles and EP Jim One, 1983; signed with Sire Records, 1986; signed with Rough Trade Records, 1988; signed with Phonogram, 1989; contributed to Velvet Underground tribute album Heaven and Hell, 1990; appeared on WOMAD tour, 1993.

Addresses
Record company--Mercury Records, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019; 11150 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 1100, Los Angeles, CA 90025.

The mercurial English band James came out of the fertile early 1980s Manchester postpunk scene, along with such celebrated groups as the Smiths and Joy Division. Though they built a solid an base in the United Kingdom, they struggled for international recognition, changing labels several times and frustrating journalists with their playful image-shifting. Combining an acerbic wit with honest yearning, the band's vision--which a writer in Musician called "eclectic, theatrical and introspective"--kept James relatively underground for many years, though their followers remained enthusiastic.

It wasn't until their 1993 album Laid, written and recorded under the aegis of inventive and storied producer Brian Eno, that James broke through to a larger audience in the United States, thanks in large part to the album's title track, which singer Tim Booth described to a Los Angeles Times interviewer as "a silly little catchy pop song." At the same time, critics acknowledged the band's increased maturity and depth. The members of James have clearly weathered their shifting fortune by remaining focused on what mattered most. "There were times when we felt like there was no place for us," bassist Jim Glnnie recalled to Musician's Paul Zollo. "We'd start feeling down, but then we'd walk into the rehearsal room and songs would appear. Wonderful songs. That's why we kept going. It's why we kept faith. It's the main reason we're still here." As Booth insisted in Melody Maker, "We're here to discover."

The initial band members of James--guitarist Larry Gott, Glennie, and drummer Gavan Whelan--started playing together without a singer. Booth related to Zollo how he was recruited: "The band had only been together about a year since they first stole their instruments and they saw me stuttering in some nightclub and asked me to dance onstage with them. Dancing has always been my main release from life."

The year was 1983; the Manchester scene, populated by a number of uncompromising alternative bands that carried the torch of punk rock, was among the most closely watched on the underground music circuit. The pervasive mood of these groups- -particularly the stark Joy Division, which became New Order after thesuicide of lead singer Ian Curtis--could be fairly described as gloomy. James, on the other hand--named by Booth after the innovative Irish writer James Joyce--sported bright colors and explored happier themes. "Yeah, everyone was wearing black and being really po-faced," Booth recollected to Paul Lester of Melody Maker. "And we were dressed in yellow, red and green. We looked like Smarties [candies], or kids' show hosts! But it was all very tongue-in-cheek and deliberate." The band's popular T-shirts eventually became some of the most visible on the music scene; their independent merchandising empire has received almost as much attention as their music.

It was also in 1983 that James was signed by Factory Records, Joy Division's label, and released the singles "What's the World" and "Hymn from a Village," and the Jim One EP. Fellow Manchester popsters The Smiths covered "What's the World"; Smiths vocalist Morrissey was one of James's biggest and earliest fans.

By 1985 the band had moved to Sire Record, which released James Two that year. Their disdain for the publicity machinery of the music business created a sense of mystery about them, but it also fed a burgeoning rumor mill. Because Booth practiced abstinence and told journalists he chanted regularly, the U.K. press misidentified the group as Buddhists, and many of their casual, tongue-in-cheek comments were either taken too literally or misconstrued by gullible or sensationalistic music writers. As a result, as Booth related in Melody Maker, "We got more serious in interviews [because] we realized it was too risky being flippant." But the larger problem for the group lay in expanding their listenership.

James approached producer Eno when they were preparing to record their debut album, Stutter. They'd been impressed by the producer's work with bands like Talking Heads; unfortunately Eno was booked up and couldn't take the project. They ended up instead with guitarist-writer Lenny Kaye, whom they identified as their only other choice. Released in 986, the album still couldn't take James out of relative cult status. The same was true of its highly praised follow-up, 1988's Strip Mine.

Disappointed at their relative lack of career movement, James left Sire in 1988. Whelan departed, and in addition to adding his replacement, David Baynton-Power, the remaining members recruited keyboardist Mark Hunter, violinist Saul Davies, and trumpeter Andy Diagram. "We've found some new musicians that we all agree on at last," Booth explained in Melody Maker, "with the right attitude for James. We've got more versatility now, more power. Before, our songs were a bit skeletal." With a fuller sound, the group soon became, in the words of Musician writer Zollo, "among the most charismatic live acts in the country. In concert their power derives from an intricate yet rock-solid rhythmic foundation, over which Davies weaves colorful violin lines while Hunter fills in the gaps with keyboards, accordion and melodica. It's also an ideally plush setting for the plaintive, motional voicings of singer Booth."

After releasing an independent label live album, One Man Clapping, James signed with Phonogram. It was with their 1989 album Gold Mother that the group saw some real sales, thanks to the hits "Come Home" and "Sit Down"; the latter song reached the number two position on the U.K. charts. Next came 1990's James; like its successors it was released in the United States by Mercury.

1992 saw the release of Seven, another step forward in the band's quest for international popularity. A million-seller, it was the last recording with Diagram, who left the group--"amicably," in the words of a record company press release--that same year. James was poised to break through to mainstream American listeners, particularly as the 1990s began to look like a decade of commercial viability for alternative bands. Joining rock legend Neil Young on an all-acoustic tour, James refined its sound; "we didn't play electric again for three months" after the tour, Booth told a Billboard intervewer. "Our ears were sort of tuned to that level of subtlety."

The group then contacted Eno again. "I sent him a demo tape of the stuff we were working on, with a letter saying, 'Come on and play with us'--you know: `We'll have some fun, we're ready for you now,'" Booth recalled in Rolling Stone. "And he rang me up about 10 o'clock one morning, and we had this discussion about cyberpunk and fine wines and culture; and then he said he'd really like to make the album."

The group's admiration for Eno's production had only deepened. "The reason we like Eno is that he doesn't seem to stamp his identity on things," Glennie reasoned in an interview with Glenn Gregory of the L.A. Village View. "In the past, on the things he worked with, he has pulled the best out of people and produced great albums, but they're not 'Eno's style.' I think it's the same with this [album]. He makes you work and play to your strengths." Working with Eno for six weeks, the members of James wrote, recorded, and mixed 40 songs. The rsult was not only their 1993 album Laid, but a collection of what Booth described in Billboard as "mainly improvised stuff." Eno had listened to the band's jams, Booth averred, and declared, "People would like to hear this." The group, however, decided to wait until Laid was sufficiently marketed; Mercury aggressively promoted it and helped push the group to the next commercial level.

The album itself includes a number of soulful, introspective songs, but Eno picked the lighthearted song "Laid" for special attention despite the band's relative disdain for it. "We've been brought up on the kind of maxim that pain is deep you know," Booth admitted to Richard Cromelin of the Los Angeles Times. "It's a Western false concept. Very English, very European, I think--suffering for your art. And when something comes as easily and as simply as `Laid,' you kind of don't take it as seriously as some of the ones that you have to bleed for."

With an infectious melody, bouncy rhythm, and relatively comical lyrics abou sexuality, the song began to show up on radio playlists; soon MTV put the video in its "buzz bin," and James was suddenly a player on the commercial rock scene. Critics raved about Laid: a Musician reviewer called it "what must be one of the best albums of the year. In fact, it sounds like music we'll still be listening to in 10 or 20 years. Laid is gentle without being wimpy, smart without being snotty and moody without being morbid." Gregory of the L.A. Village View labeled it "probably the band's most mature and creative album to date."

After more than ten years on the music scene, James had truly arrived. After the release of Laid the group appeared on Peter Gabriel's international WOMAD tour and enjoyed increased attention from U.S. concert audiences as well, playing "Laid"- -with some suggestive lyrics altered--on TV's Late Show with David Letterman. Despite the increased visibility, however, James retained its original sense of mission. "The idea is to move people really, and to move them in diffeent ways," Booth remarked to Cromelin of the Los Angeles Times. "To upset, to agitate, to uplift, to give people happy endings now and again, but for the whole trip to be a happy ending." Ultimately, he went on, music is "magic, and we try to keep connecting with that spirit of music rather than get sidetracked into any other cul-de-sac about power or money or fame."

Selected Discography
"Hymn From a Village," Factory, 1983. Jim One (includes "What's the World"), Factory, 1983. James Two, Factory, 1985. Stutter, Sire, 1986 Strip Mine, Sire, 1988. One Man Clapping, Rough Trade, 1988. On Phonogram and/or Mercury Gold Mother (includes "Come Home" and "Sit Down"), 1989. James, 1990. Seven, 1992. Laid, 1993. With others Heaven and Hell (appear on "Sunday Morning"), Imaginary, 1990.

Sources
Billboard, October 30, 1993; February 19, 1994. L.A. Village View, October 29, 1993. Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1994. Melody Maker, May 5, 1990; December 8, 1990; November 9, 1991. Musician, February1993; November 1993. Rolling Stone, April 21, 1994.

Sources
Additional information for this profile was provided by Mercury Records publicity materials, 1993.

~~ Simon Glickman


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