“People think ‘Surely James were biggest around Sit Down in the 90s?’ Well, we’re bigger now.”
If James singer Tim Booth’s claim seems unlikely at first, then their new album Girl At The End Of The World has just matched the No 2 peak of three of their past albums (90s discs Gold Mother, Seven and Millionaires.)
The self-confessed “awkward Mancunian band who never fitted anyone’s pigeonhole” are also set to play to 150,000 people on their marathon tour in May – more than any other tour in James history. They then open the main Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury on June 24.
“We aren’t fully appreciated, because the media goes with cool”
So it’s no wonder that Booth has plenty of anger at the fact that James have been in the margins ever since their debut album Stutter 30 years ago, back when Morrissey was pretty much their only mainstream fan.
“We still feel outsiders,” spits Booth. “There’s a large part of the cultural media that only looks at music made by people younger than 28. We don’t like that. We don’t like sexism or racism and we don’t like ageism either.
“We know that if a young band had made our new single Nothing But Love that it’d be a smash hit. But because of the way the media is set up, it’s virtually impossible for us to have hits now, unless a miracle happens.
“We aren’t fully appreciated and we aren’t seen for what we are, because the media goes with cool – bands who are less vulnerable and more obvious.”
And it’s true that James have always been unfashionable. Even when they had hits like Laid, She’s A Star and the all-conquering Sit Down they certainly didn’t belong to rave, grunge or Britpop.
But it’s that outsider spirit that drives the band on, determined to prove doubters wrong. “We’re bitter we aren’t appreciated sometimes,” admits the shaven-headed frontman. “But that bitterness drives us, makes us go ‘Well, we’ll just have to make even better fucking music.’ It’s an inspiration!
“And it’s working for us. We aren’t very cool, we don’t play the game, we sometimes won’t play our big hits for a year in concert. But James have made it through for 35 years. Our heritage says we have to take risks, and that’s why we’ve survived.”
“Brian Eno turned down millions to work with bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and REM to work with us for a pittance”
If Booth’s words look angry in print, he says them with a smile. He may not be a typical bloke, but he can’t half swear for a Buddhist. Brought up in Bradford before he met his bandmates at Manchester Uni, he’s also a Leeds fan, which must be fun in an eight-piece Manc band.
And Booth is right about James taking risks. Fourteen albums in, and Girl At The End Of The World essentially sees James discover rave music. It starts with two minutes of pounding keyboards before Bitch’s self-mocking vocals kick in.
Like previous album La Petite Mort, the new record was written in the Scottish highlands. “It was three weeks of no internet and hardly any phone signal,” recalls Booth, 56. “It was isolated and lonely. It’s the band basically speaking in tongues, a completely made-up language that only we understand. The only respite was to take myself off to go hiking up a mountain in the sleet and snow.”
Booth talks excitedly about setting the band’s drum machine on a fast tempo in order to encourage its fast pace (“I’ve danced in James for years, but we don’t always give ourselves the best music to dance to”) and off the throbbing Attention began as a ballad before “some people in the band speeded it up to a mega-fast, comedy Pinky & Perky speed”.
“Most people get stuck and become parodies of themselves when they get old”
But he later admits that Girl At The End Of The World was “the hardest record we’ve ever had to make”. He’s reluctant to expand further, explaining: “The turmoil is how bands like Oasis sell themselves. But we protect ourselves in James and close the wagon train.”
However, Booth may well be referring to guitarist Larry Gott, who is on sabbatical after not joining James’ tour in 2015. Is Gott still a member of James? “I think you’d have to ask him that,” says Booth tersely.
Booth is much happier talking about how Brian Eno helped them on the new album. Although produced by The Killers associate Max Dingel, Girl At The End Of The World’s recording saw Eno join James in the studio for the first time since 2001’s Pleased To Meet You.
“Brian says it quietly, but he does say that James are his favourite band,” grins Booth. “So many bands have come up to me going ‘How do you get to work with Brian Eno so much? We’ve been trying for years!’ And these are big bands like REM and Red Hot Chili Peppers who would make Brian millions, that he’s turned down to work with us for a pittance.”
Influential U2, Talking Heads and Coldplay producer Eno has “the best mind I’ve ever encountered,” according to Booth. “There’s no such thing as a problem to Brian, only exciting ideas that need to be looked at. He’s so positive and playful.
“Sometimes, sure, we’ll go on a dead end with Brian for hours, but then he’ll just go ‘Nope, didn’t work, let’s turn around and go this way.’ I feel so happy to see him every time and it’s still a love affair with Brian.”
Booth also admires Regina Spektor, saying he was unable to write a song for three months after he first saw the New Yorker in concert. “When I’m hit by music, I’m really hit by it,” he enthuses, adding he “wept and shook” the first time he saw Sufjan Stevens play, deadpanning: “He was even better the second time.”
But Booth admits he’s not completely immune to writing off ageing musicians himself. “When I saw The Rolling Stones, they were awful, a pantomime,” he sighs. “Most people get stuck and become parodies of themselves when they get old. It’s the same as before, but not as good. But it’s not about age, it’s about being alive. Leonard Cohen, Abdul Ibrahim, you still go ‘Holy cow!’ at them.”
So how do James avoid becoming a parody? “Because we make songs from the subconscious. It’s five songwriters moving all at once, and we don’t control it. We’re less predictable because none of us know where we’re going.”
It’s at this point where Loaded’s interview with Booth takes a turn for the sinister. We’ve spoken to plenty of singers who say their lyrics were trying to tell them something about their lives, but none have been able to demonstrate it quite so precisely as Booth.
He explains how Blue Pastures from James’ 1997 album Whiplash was about a man committing suicide in the Lake District by laying down in the snow and refusing to get up. Before the song was released, it’s exactly what a friend of Booth’s then-girlfriend did. The song was played at his funeral and his widow phoned Booth, asking how he knew her husband was going to kill himself.
“I don’t sit down to write songs about an event,” he states. “I’m fishing around and I believe the unconscious has access to the past and to the future. They’re all the same to the unconscious, so a lot of my songs tend to come true.”
Which, yes, does sound a bit like mystic bobbins. But it’s hard to deny Booth is onto something when he describes new song Attention. Booth lives in Topanga in the Californian desert with his wife Katie and their 11-year-old son Luka.
Attention was written when the family moved north in California to the affluent Berkeley suburb, but they moved back to Topanga eight months later, largely because their son was unable to settle in Berkeley.
“I’d written this song with a chorus mentioning a manzanita tree,” recalls Booth. “I thought to myself ‘What the fuck? No-one in England will know what a manzanita tree is. It’s a shitty chorus reference.’” Booth tried to write alternative lyrics “20 times”, but kept coming back to the same lines. They described a couple sitting around a manzanita tree watching shooting stars by a fire and “By this fire we are shaped”.
Shortly after Booth’s family moved back to Topanga, the father of twin classmates of Luka died suddenly.
“We know how we touch people’s lives, because they frequently tell us”
The children at the school requested they hold a Native American death ceremony in honour of the twins’ father… where families gathered around a manzanita tree by a fire, watching shooting stars. “You give offerings to the fire,” says Booth. “The twins slept by the fire with their mother, and it’s the most profound acknowledgement of death I’ve ever experienced.”
Told you Booth wasn’t a regular bloke. But he’s one it’s impossible not to warm to, and whether or not James play the hits on that May tour, 150,000 people will go home happy.
“We know what we’re capable of,” summaries Booth. “We know how good we can be live, though some shows fail and we fall.
“But we know how we touch people’s lives, because they frequently tell us. We do what we’re most passionate about and have people thank us for it all the time. That’s an amazing position to be in.”
James’ new album Girl At The End Of The World and new single Nothing But Love are out now. The band begin a 15-date tour on May 2 and play at Glastonbury and On Blackheath festivals.
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn