It's been a turbulent 16 years for JAMES, but somehow they've survived, and now they're releasing a greatest hits album. VOX asks 'How was it for you?' and hears tales of shamanic dancing, altered states and tour bus madness.
ONLY IN pop music is longevity imbued with such heroic glamour. When talking about bands who've managed to stick around for more than three hit singles and a patchy debut album, people use the word "survivors", as if these musicians had endured major surgery or nuclear war, rather than the rigours of the tour bus and the television studio. You don't hear people referring to long-standing bank managers or builders as "survivors". Pop, if it hasn't yet eaten itself, is renowned for eating its own.
James, 16 years into a career of remarkable transformations, from hippy dreamers to indie idealists to baggy superstars to stadium heroes to experimental weirdos to near oblivion, are certainly survivors, although, as they'll tell you, it was touch and go for a while. It seems they've always known the score - right back in 1985 they released the song 'Hymn From A Village', where Tim Booth attacked pop music and its "songsmith crooks" for unforgiving vapidity - "Oh go and read a book/It's so much more worthwhile" he spat, righteous with the knowledge that James were outsiders in the musical world. Thirteen years later, heralding a new 'Best Of' compilation, James are back with 'Destiny Calling', a single which takes a mellower look at the lot of a band, all with a self-referential nod and an arch smile.
"So we may be gorgeous/So we may be famous/Come back when we're getting old..."
It seems James, having seen every inch of the rock machine, are feeling almost affectionate towards the old beast these days.
"I'm not naive enough to be disillusioned with pop music," smiles Tim Booth. I understand the machine, and it's very predictable. I can also accept and enjoy it as well. There's a lot of luxuries in this job that I love, and the song isn't condemning them, it's right in the middle of it all, laughing."
"She likes the black one/He likes the posh one/The cute ones are usually gay..."
The audience at James' acoustic showcase in Whitfield Street studios, off Tottenham Court Road, are laughing too, at the dissection of the pop world. James' entrenchment in early-80's indiedom, living in poverty in Manchester, funding their band by offering themselves for drug experiments, is long past. Early albums 'Stutter' and 'Strip Mine', a string of Hieronymous Bosch metaphors, medieval imagery and sparse folk instrumentation, sound like they sprang from a tarot pack. Saul Davis, James' present guitarist, who was recruited just prior to their breakthrough album, 'Gold Mother' in 1990, recalls their image in Manchester at the time.
"I though they were the weirdest bunch of fuckers I'd ever met in my life. James felt raw at that point, it was a strange little thing, very self-contained; a little family. It wasn't obvious what the rules were, it felt different to anything I'd ever been in before, quite clean, quite pure. I bought "Strip Mine" and hated it - it sounded so light and skippy, urgh. I went home and told my flatmates that a band called James had asked me to join them, and they'd seen them at Glastonbury in 1985 and thought they were the best band in the world. Things started to sound better through those ears."
He wasn't the only one to have a change of heart. With the huge success of 'Sit Down', flowery James T-shirts became ubiquitous anywhere there was indie disco. They bought the design for 50 quid from local Manchester eccentric Edward Barton, and the merchandise soon became as much an icon of the 'Madchester' baggy era as Joe Boggs flares and pudding bowl hair cuts. Baggy was never their bandwagon, though - they might have come from Manchester and been friends of Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets, but they didn't belong to the hedonistic, ecstasy-driven maelstrom that was rising up from the city's clubs. Compared with the hooligan beats of the Mondays and the dance-tinged grooves of The Stone Roses, James were dependent on a more traditional folk-rock idiom for their songs.
Ironically, it was this tendency that was to undermine their victory. After seven years awaiting success, it seemed a very short honeymoon period before the country - at least, the press - decided they'd had enough of James, and 'Seven', the follow up to 'Gold Mother', was dubbed 'stadium rock' with the righteous horror people usually reserve for crimes against horses. Instead of triumphantly capitalising on their years of indie creed, they were kicked in the teeth and marked down as underground traitors who'd sold out their weird folk edge for global gain. Compare the angular rhythms and jerky passions of 'Gold Mother's 'Come Home' and 'How Was It For You?' with the dour grandeur of 'Seven's 'Ring the Bells' and 'Sound' and the difference is marked. "I heard you calling through the drumbeat," sang Tim on 'Hymn From A Village', pleading for a "strong primal" music that would reach past rock'n'roll production and into people's hearts. With these new songs, it seemed unlikely that even a crowd of 30,000 people would be able to make themselves heard through the epic sound. Unsurprisingly, that's not how Tim sees it.
"What happened was we became famous during the making of that record", says Tim. "We were going to produce it ourselves, but we couldn't because we kept getting pulled out of the studio to do press. So we got Youth in, because he played us PM Dawn which he'd just done, and it was a fantastic-sounding record. The idea wasn't to go rock at all, it was just the most exciting music. But journalists decided to see the songs a certain way - and do you know where that came from? One chorus - the "lalalalalas" on 'Born of Frustration'."
So it wasn't an attempt to expand the sound in keeping with your expanding market?
"That's a joke. We'd been playing those songs live for a year, and the band were becoming more confident. On 'Seven', everyone found their place - it's one of my favourite records."
All the same, the cool reception of 'Seven' was to have far-reaching effects on their career.
"There's not a country in the world that's as judgmental as this country. Me, Jimmy (Glennie, bassist) and Larry (Gott, guitarist) had a lot of ups and downs with the press and knew we were due that backlash, but the new guys - the ones who'd just had good press - they were freaked. Tabloid culture is the primary culture here and when we get interviews by European or American journalists, they say how do you deal with the crap. What happens is, you get quite paranoid and think, shit, they don't like us any more, even though we'd just played to 35,000 people at Alton Towers. It's ridiculous - and totally wrong. We had so many offers to tour America and we took them and didn't come back for about four years."
SO WHILE the Britpop explosion took hold and America became the new Evil Empire, James were AWOL in the States, out of sight, and as out of mind as you can be when you're selling 600,000 copies of your fifth studio album 'Laid' across the USA.
"Our biggest problem was that we got off on America so much, and that was seen as a betrayal. In America, you can get what you want any time of the day, and we were blown away by that. Our mistake was that we didn't come back for a few years, which was negligent of us," shrugs Tim, as if they'd forgotten to cancel the milk. "The next thing you know, you're accused of being anthemic, the indie police come around and you're shot for crimes against indie."
This might be said with Booth's serpentine smile, but it can't mask the sharp hint of bitterness. There's a persistent sense of a band who feel that this far down the line they shouldn't have anything to prove, but can't help proving it anyway, who might loftily dismiss the machinations of press and industry, but still want their credibility back, still need the recognition for what they feel to be their massive influence on recent British music. Tim mentions James' unlikely fans, the bands that owe them a creative debt. There's a mention of how Tricky used to come and watch them every night from the side of state at Lollapalooza, how he's expressed an interest in touring with them. A reference to a book about Oasis where Noel, then a roadie for The Inspiral Carpets, cites seeing James soundcheck as the reason he formed a band. The story about Neil Young asking them to support him in the US and their rapturous reception from his notoriously partisan audience. The way Brian Eno approached them to work on 'Laid' and the experimental dance set 'Wah-Wah' and not vice versa. The memory of Radiohead supporting them around the time of 'Creep' and how Tim "never saw them making such a great record, but it's wonderful. I'm really happy for them to now have that success."
There's little perception of James being and influential band in Britain. They've left behind no clear legacy, unlike neon vapour-trails of The Stone Roses or Happy Mondays. They don't appear in the lists of the greatest albums ever. But ask Tim if he sees the band as being influential and he nods with utter conviction.
"I know it. Major Britpop bands have shown us their signed James T-shirts."
Why James have survived when most of their contemporaries have faltered is a mystery. Their early hero Ian Curtis is dead. The Smiths, who took the young band under their wing, long gone. All those baggy bands they were lumped in with have either mutated or been forgotten, Shaun Ryder becoming the Mr Creosote of pop excess, and the jury still being out on Ian Brown, while the Inspiral Carpets - who apparently lifted 'This Is How It Feels' from a James song with Tim's approval - remain a footnote. But, as Saul says, last year survival was a subject tactfully avoided. After 1994's Woodstock, they were near to splitting up, their exhaustion from touring providing the fertile ground for nascent personal emnities, while Larry, third original member along with Tim and Jim, left to be with his family.
"When we look back at it, we realise we were so close to breaking the whole thing open. We'd sold 600,000 copies of 'Laid', we were so close to really selling, but we couldn't carry on. It's like your wave doesn't make it to the beach and you have to wait for your tide to go back out and come back in again."
With new musicians Adrian Octal (guitars) and Mark Hunter (keyboards), they recorded last year's 'Whiplash', and uneasy mix of their free-form, Eno-inspired experiments and - in singles 'She's A Star' and 'Waltzing Along' - the wide rock panoramas of 'Seven'. This time, they feel their return will be uncompromised by such disruptions.
There's a belief that James never fell prey to all the excesses that eat bands from the inside out.
"I could tell you some stories," says Tim, waggling his eyebrows, "but I won't." With Saul's encouragement, they tell the tale of Lollapalooza where, due to serious injury, Tim was in a neck brace, while the band were just in trouble.
"It was the most horrible tour ever," shudders Saul. "If any bands read this and they're asked to do Lollapalooza, say no, because it will destroy them. It destroyed us."
"We had two buses, a party bus and a peace bus for me," says Tim. "I was fucked, I had a helper with me the whole time because I couldn't walk properly. But I actually had a good time. I learnt how to use a computer and got through it. The party bus... [he pauses portentously] went into Happy Mondays cartoon mode and disappeared for a couple of months. It went out of control."
"It's difficult to know how to phrase it, 'cos you get into trouble," sighs Saul. "It's not the enclosed space or the fact that it is all men on the bus. It was to do with wanting to get to the heart of it... wanting to fuck America up the arse and wanting to fuck each other up the arse, wanting to push each other into a situation where it was undeniable we had gone into madness. It was like Hunter S Thompson - let's crack open the ether and see what happens," he says, with melodramatic relish.
Tim grins. "We were playing like demons."
Quite literally, according to the rock jocks who came to see Korn and were greeted with the sight of six fey Englishmen in dresses and mirrorball shirts. As Saul says: "A 40-minute set at Lollapalooza isn't the best time to think: 'Hmm, lets do some improvised jazz." James had taken a bite out of America and suddenly, America was biting back.
"The third day in," says Booth, "25,000 people started shouting 'faggots', so on the fifth day we got dressed up real faggy and we were ready for them. I used to work on lines to put them down and Saul would stand there in his little dress and go: 'I want you to suck my cock' a number of times and they just shut up. What I did, which I'd never do in England, was walk off stage and go sing to this huge guy who was heckling us and he was so embarrassed 'cos all the people were watching him. After 20 seconds, he said: 'Will you give me a hug?' And I thought, 'Wow, this is interesting."
IT SAYS a lot about Tim Booth that he wouldn't wander offstage in England, but in a land where people carry guns, he's quite happy to make advances towards potentially dangerous thugs. He's a curious mixture of charm and steely professionalism, with a pragmatic spirituality that's far away from platitudinous new-age bleating. There are reminders, too, that this man was once a student of drama at Manchester University. At the video shoot for 'Destiny Calling', in a bizarre studio complex in London's Mile End, Tim is required to remove all his clothes for a shot. VOX offers its sympathy - it's cold enough for another remake of The Thing and anything other than head-to-toe fleece is and invitation to hypothermia. Tim, however, takes the comment as meaning 'How embarrassing for you to be naked', and is quick to assert that he has no problem with it at all. You can just imagine his student productions. He might come across as pretentious, were it not for his way of saying "that sounds really pretentious" after particularly elevated statements.
"Tim needs protecting, he gets a lot of flak," says Saul. "He confuses people by being honest. No one's ever really got the point of him."
And that would be?
Saul pauses. "He's and alien, a fucking alien. He's on the fringes of life. He just doesn't conform to any of the rules. That to me is rock'n'roll." He laughs and shrugs. "OK, he drinks chamomile tea..."
Jim Glenn gleefully tells a different story.
"Everyone thinks Tim goes to bed at midnight and drinks weird herbal stuff, but he's in league with the devil like the rest of us. He's the bad boy of rock'n'roll. He's the worst, honestly."
Given the fact Tim is a pop star, Jim's story is much easier to believe. There's an obvious difficulty in reconciling his 16 years in a rock'n'roll band - a famously filthy profession - with the idea that Tim is an ethereal, otherworldly being. After all, this is the man who sang "don't need a shrink but and exorcist" on 'Born of Frustration'. Did the idea of self-destruction ever appeal to him?
"That's what 'Johnny Yen' [from 'Stutter'] is about. When I was younger, I swallowed the tortured artist myth hook, line and sinker. What I decided early on was that I wasn't going to do it. I wanted to go to that level of pain, that level of madness and survive it, and do it consciously - not with drugs."
Basically, Tim Booth gave God and ultimatum.
When I was 21 I have myself a year to find out if God existed," he says. "I decided that if I didn't get any proof, I'd throw myself into the tortured artist role and burn myself out. I wanted proof and I found it in that year. Once you reach that point, there's a point to living, so I was no longer going to become the suicidal dickhead."
He's cagey about the nature of this life-changing experience.
"You can't explain meeting God. It's not religious, but I believe in spirit. As much as I can say, I discovered it through meditation. It's about going into altered states. I do that a lot through dancing and movement and love-making. Other people touch that stuff on drugs. But there's a price to pay with that one and you can't stay in those roles, you just stagger around like a drunkard till next time."
Aware perhaps of the pervasive image of himself as the serious, high-minded singer slapping the wrists of his over-exuberant band, he adopts a more reasonable tone.
"But that's just my way - because the band hates being presented as this sober, meditative thing. It isn't. And I drink now and then, I even take drugs now and then. I don't write it out of my experience. I don't have any moral judgement on these things."
The extremes Tim is drawn to are beyond the blaze-of-glory excesses that you would expect. At the acoustic show, Tim expresses his delight at letters he's received from asylums saying how James are the patients' favorite band, or from "a cassock of monks" from a progressive monastery, saying how much they enjoy the band's music. The next day he talks about his work with "shamans and lunatics", the classes he teaches in going into trance states through dance.
"You can have a lot of fun doing it. The teacher I work with has shown me that. I've worked with a lot of male Shamans and it's all about pain endurance. This woman says that's very much a macho idea of shamanism; her idea is it can involve great pleasure. We dance for days and get into amazing states, then she frees different areas of your psyche to get in touch with spirits. I think people get it through dancing anyway, they just don't label it - it makes it less pretentious."
There are those who see rock'n'roll as a continuation of shamanism. Does Booth find it easy to fit James in with that side of his life? Isn't it hard to sustain some kind of spirituality in the world of a touring band?
"It's become and overused word, especially in rock'n'roll, usually it's an excuse to take drugs and justify it in cultural terms. Having said that, there is definitely a continuation. At a rave, with people dancing - that's a shamanic thing to do. They're using Ecstasy to help them, but they don't need to."
Did Booth ever succumb to those temptations?
"There's a vortex in rock'n'roll which is very dangerous. Basically, if you achieve success, you can have anything you want. You can have unlimited drugs, unlimited alcohol, unlimited sex, and unless you learn discipline, you just become a big appetite. People think that's heaven, but you have to be disciplined enough to be free. I only went into excess for about 2 years. Then I checked out of it."
James, though, still show no sign of checking out. "Tell us when our time is up/Show us how to die well/Show us how to let it all go..." sings Tim on 'Destiny Calling'. What would it take to split them up now?
"Either becoming uninspired, or a sense of, oh look, we've done it now. Which would take massive success. It's almost like we're sitting here waiting for the finishing post, and until we find it, it's hard to know where to stop."