Dominic Utton sits down with James to talk about the 'Madchester' fallout, a few humbling experiences and getting back on their feet in the UK...
Although having come to prominence as part of the "Madchester" scene at the end of the Eighties - alongside bands like the Charlatans, the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays - the career of James has been less straightforward than that of most of their baggy contemporaries. Formed as early as 1982 after bassist Jim Glennie invited a dancer (then drama student Tim Booth) he spotted in a Manchester disco to sing for his band, they released a couple of EPs on the seminal independent label Factory, before eventually achieving a brief and sparkling success with singalong folk-pop singles such as "Sit Down" and "Come Home".
Despite being revered in their home city (Morrissey: " James are the best band in the world!"), and despite in "Sit Down" having the anthem of 1990, they never really emerged from the shadow of their fellow Mancunians. "We tried to side-step that Madchester thing really," says Jim Glennie. "We were worried that if you come in on a wave you can get dragged back out by it. . . but, I mean, I loved that period. We took the Happy Mondays on tour, we played with the Stone Roses. . . we weren't shunning that time or anything, we loved it. We were just a bit scared it would work against us in the long run."
For a while it seemed it did. Several of James' peers survived the Madchester fallout: the Charlatans came back with the superb Tellin' Stories, Happy Monday's Shaun Ryder formed Black Grape, John Squire of the Stone Roses achieved commercial (if not critical) success with the Seahorses, and the same band's singer Ian Brown recently released a solo debut album Unfinished Monkey Business. In comparison, James looked to have gone the way of the many also-rans.
Until, that is, the end of last year, when they burst back into the pop consciousness with "She's A Star", an infectious, soaring blend of guitar pop and vocal harmonics that recalled the whirling optimism of their best Madchester songs. Now the success of that single is to be followed this month with another release "Destiny Calling" and a Best of CD.
Jim Glennie is cautious about how the public might react: "People tend to think it means the band is going to split up, which was something we didn't even think about. But we'd spent four years slogging around America, and when we released "She's A Star" we wondered if anyone over here would be interested - and then it entered the charts at Number 9 and it was like, bang, we're right back in there. So we decided to get things moving a lot quicker, and the easiest way to do it was to get the Greatest Hits out."
It's a surprising album. Surprisingly chiefly for the number of hits they've had, for the number of songs you'd forgotten about, or forgotten where James songs. Songs that on reflection were actually all rather good. From the angular folkiness of the Factory released "Hymn For A Village" through the anthemic "Sit Down" and "How Was It For You?" to the lush confidence of "She's A Star", the CD is fascinating in the way that only a Best of CD can be - charting as it does the band's musical evolution.
Jim agrees that the James sound has changed, but rather resents the folk label: "Folky? Do you mean adopting a mock muso-journo-whine spindly indie-folk-music?"
Erm. . .
He laughs. "Yeah, we have changed a lot. 'Hymn From A Village' sounds so, kind of, young and naive and scritchy-scratchy now. It sounds like we're purposely trying to make it sound like a demo - although we weren't at all. . . And then later we went through a phase of dragging loads of technology on board, samplers and drum machines and stuff. . . Now I think it's almost kind of breaking it back down again, to the bare bones. We're recording new things very quickly, keeping them fresh, keeping them a bit raw, not overcooking things. In a way it's getting back to the principles of the early days."
Does this mean there's more new stuff to come?
"We're hoping to get another album out for the end of the year. That was another reason for the Greatest Hits - it's the easiest way to get back on course: get a greatest hits out, two singles off that and straight into the next album. . ."
With all this obvious enthusiasm for new material, one cannot help but wonder exactly where James have been for the past three years. Prior to "She's A Star", their last real hit was "Laid", back in '93.
Jim laughs again. "Funny you should say that - it was 'Laid' that kicked things off in America. It just took on a life of its own over there, it was completely played to death, so we thought right, let's capitalise on this. We went over there supporting everybody, trying to gradually build up a support of our own - but the place is so bloody big it does literally take years. It was strange. It was humbling. We left on the back of the success of 'Sit Down', doing laps of glory around Britain; and suddenly we were back in places where nobody knew who we were, or supporting Duran Duran. . ."
"Oh yeah, them and lots of other cool people too. People would ask us, do you like Duran Duran's music and it would be like laughing I think they're very good at what they do. . ."
The new CD is to be backed up with a small British tour in April - playing two dates in Manchester as well as one each at the Brixton Academy, Glasgow Barrowlands and Doncaster Dome. The band are excited at the prospect. "It's going to be mad," says Jim, "it's going to be a huge big celebration from start to finish. James gigs tend to be celebrations anyway, but with this being wall-to-wall hits, it'll be especially mad. It'll be brilliant."
James' new single 'Destiny Calling' was released on March 2. 'The Best of James' CD is released on March 23.