Bands should ask themselves three big questions once in a while.
For starters: do we still matter? Secondly: what's the point? And
crucially: what difference do we make?
Most acts will admit that they're just along for the jolly. Music
provides them with a laugh, a few shags, a nice earner. But for a tiny
amount of groups, there's a crusade worth fighting. They want
*betterment* of some kind. That's what James fought over in the past, and
you want to see if they still wear the scars with pride.
So when you meet the core of the band, still cackling over their
"pervy" NME photo shoot (drummer Dave Baynton-Power, guitarist Adrian
Oxaal and keyboard player Mark Hunter are apparently still, erm, tied up),
that's the important poser. How do James justify themselves these days?
Singer Tim Booth suddenly turns stern. For the past few minutes he's
been charming and carefree. He's been walking the line between flippant
and serious conversation, but this question bothers him, and the good
humour falls away completely.
"We don't have to *justify* James," he snorts.
Jim Glennie, bassist and only original member remaining after Tim,
rises to the question.
"But hypothetically, if we have to justify ourselves..."
"No!" Tim insists. "But we *don't*!"
So why are you in a band? What's the point?
"World peace," says Jim with a straight face. "And global unity."
What are you bringing to the party after 14 years?
"Great music," Tim decides. "To me, it's about heartfelt music- 'cos
most people blow out bands after two LPs and we've managed to keep it
going for a few more than that. It's looking for depth and looking for
real connections and real communication."
"We still enjoy it," Jim enthuses. "And we keep changing and moving on
and challenging ourselves...and finding another area that we get bangin'
songs out of. We haven't played for two-and-a-half years. It's scary,
and on-the-edge again. For us, it's still vital."
Tim, Jim and guitarist/fiddle player Saul Davies are loading up on
poppadoms in a balti house on London's Brick Lane. The background music
consists of old faves (Deep Purple's "Sweet Child In Time", *The
Godfather* theme and Jim Reeves' "But You Love Me Daddy")- all played in a
Bollywood style, with masses of strings and wailing voices. This is
surreal enough to usher us into the warped story of James, '83-'97.
In the beginning, they were scatty, sacred fools, livening up
Manchester. Each member appeared to be playing a different song to the
other. Fold melodies were stretched beyond recognition, gone wild and
raggedy. Their early releases on Factory Records typified the adventurous
style of the label and the city's post-punk esprit.
James became fellow travellers with The Smiths; railing against
meat-eaters and the phoney glamour of the video age. They made the cover
of the NME before most people had heard of them. Tim, like Morrissey,
claimed to be celibate and aspired to a kind of gender liberation- away
from set distinctions of masculine and feminine. He also danced oddly and
"Yeah, we looked like a right bunch of losers in those days," Jim
remembers, with mock embarrassment as we mention the facial hair,
waistcoats and Victorian pill-box hats of those formative times.
"Granted, you *are* right. We couldn't afford a stylist."
James echoed U2 in their aim to escape the conditioning and compromise
of adult life. The Irish band called their debut LP "Boy," and James
wanted theirs to be titled "Lost Innocence," before settling for "Stutter"
In short, James were a classic indie band of the age. They survived
crappy business deals to triumph during the Madchester boom of '89; ranked
alongside former support acts the The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, their
flower-power T-shirt a top accessory. The James anthem, "Sit Down," was
cherished by rock fands and E-heads, a call for friendship a
Smiley-suffused nation. It was ace.
But James fell out with Brit fashion again sometime after 1990's "Gold
Mother" LP and a mad finale to the year at Manchester's G-Mex. The music
became grander afterwards, losing some of the twitchy, village ambience of
old. Oh well: America thought this was just great. Their sixth album,
"Laid," sold 600,000 copies there.
James' last gig thus far was at Woodstock '94, before a potential
audience of 300,000 people. Typically, they played obscure indie tracks
and songs from the then unreleased free-jam album "Wah Wah." Still, the
crowd went suitably bonkers, and marvellous prospects seemed to be opening
for them once more. Nobody figured that Black Thursday was looming
"We didn't know that was Larry's last gig with us," Saul muses,
remembering how original guitarist Larry Gott decided that touring and
family life were incompatible. "He said, 'I don't want to be in this band
any more.' Then our accountant said, 'I don't know if any of you can
*afford* to be in this band any more.' Everything collapsed around us."
Martine McDonagh, the band's long-standing manager and mother of Tim's
son, Ben, had also left the camp, and Tim was ready to make his album,
"Booth And The Bad Angel" with Angelo Badalamenti. He was also suffering
from an injury that forced him to wear a neck brace onstage- something
American concert-goers had loved. However, poor Tim had to spend 8,000
pounds on various treatments afterwards.
The band was practically done for, until Jim, Saul and Dave made off
to the latter's home studio near Wrexham on a rescue mission that
developed into the new "Whiplash" LP. Later, Brian Eno and Stephen Hague
duked it out as producers, and jTim passed by, leaving vocals on a
multi-track tape to be mangled and uncoiled by the other musicians. Booth
was free to work with Badalamenti, happy with his new-found freedom.
Everybody seems pleased with how it came out- free from the indecision
and deadening democracy that stalled the experimental "Wah Wah" for ages.
By the time *that* artefact was released, U2 and Eno had steamed through
with the like-sounding "Zooropa," which made James seem silly and after
the fact. Not so this time; Tim reckons the new LP sounds "triumphant."
Heartstrings are soundly plucked on this record as Tim sings of long
roads and good causes on current single, "She's A Star," rubbishes the
cynics on "Greenpeace" and mocking capitalism on "Go To The Bank."
Booth's voice is never better than when he's aggrieved or beseeching-
offering up a vision of something that's going to give the old karmic
wheel an extra spin. Some of the techno experiments of "Wah Wah" have
even filtered through, offsetting the charge that the band are liberal
tub-thumpers, a Simple Minds for the '90s.
So maybe James have accidentally managed to catch the *Zeitgist* once
more; now that emotional, cause-carrying rock is again acceptable in this
post-"War Child" era. Now that every record company has signed up a band
in the Radiohead/Longpigs vein, it's only a matter of time before acts are
claiming that there's *always* been a "Joshua Tree" element to their
music. In short, is anyone ready for a New Sincerity revival?
"Sincerity is such a shitty word, isn't it?" Jim figures. "It implies
a lack of humour- that you're po-faced. But I also think sincerity means
that you're putting yourself on the line and you're giving your all. I
don't think there's anything wrong with that. It's easy to undermine what
you do- by slightly taking the piss to avoid being criticised. But I
think that's a cop out, musically."
So what's the mood of the band like now?
"It feels like we're victorious, almost. After "Laid," we thought,
'Let's have a really up album.' There were a lot of miserable songs we
didn't put on the record because we wanted to tour it. So many of the new
songs are in-your-face, with a f--- you attitude."
The closing words on the record are "into the deep." It's from a song
called "Blue Pastures" that imagines some care-beaten individual crawling
off into the snow to lay down and die. Bizarrely, a week after recording
the lyrics, Tim discovered a friend's mentor had actually chosen this
method of suicide; taking a favourite walk into the Lake District at night
and expiring slowly from the cold.
"That's what songs do sometimes," he supposes. "That was a brave thing
to do. It's not mucky and it's you taking responsibility for your own
life, because you take a long time to go that way. He'd tried it before
and he woke up in the morning and the snow had thawed. That's how they
knew he'd done it on purpose the second time."
James don't sound ready to expire just yet. The mission is incomplete,
the missionaries haven't lost enthusiasm for the job. Which is where we
came in, really. Given that Tim refuses to justify his band, we have to
answer the questions ourselves.
Do James still matter? Yes, kind of. And what's the point? Well,
they make fine music, and float important ideas around. They restate the
value of the alternative and make the outsider feel less alone. The new
regime even has time for a right old laugh. And a final query: have they
changed *anything* at all out there? Sure, James have made a bit of a
difference. You'd miss then if they hadn't existed. It's time, once
more, to fetch them in from the cold.