“So we may be gorgeous. So we may be famous. Come back when we’re getting old.” And so here we are. Almost 20 years since the song “Destiny Calling” was released by British band, James who were at that point arguably at the height of their popularity. Hits like “Laid” made them a college radio favorite here in the early Nineties and UK top singles like “Sit Down”, “She’s A Star” and “Come Home” help them shift more than 12 million albums worldwide.
Today, the band fronted by Tim Booth and all of its original members are most certainly ‘getting old’ but heading into their fourth decade together have just released their 14th album, “Girl At The End Of The World”. And it is a fantastic return to form with standout track “Nothing But Love” sounding every bit as youthful, vital and euphoric as anything in their back catalogue or currently cluttering the charts. The album debuted at no 2 on the UK album charts last month, looking like it was actually going to topple Adele in all her faux heartbreak.
In truth like the term ‘overnight success’ bandied about when new acts hit the charts – it usually takes a much longer slog than the public is privy too. Similarly, James’ ‘return to form’ is a culmination of the band’s comeback in 2007 after they had broken up for more than 6 years. The internet is filled with youtube videos titled “James: The Last Performance” and suchlike, after rumors of turmoil, in-fighting and drug addictions prompted Booth to finally walk away from the much-loved band.
Remarkably this was a band that begun in the early ‘80s and were opening for acts like The Smiths and Joy Division. It is truly mind-boggling. Morrissey had on many an occasion proclaimed that James were his favorite band. The band came through the legendary Factory Records scene in Manchester, with the likes of the Happy Mondays and had The Stone Roses serve as their openers. They did have the good sense to not stay with Factory the way New Order did, only to see the success that their staggering royalties and earnings produced plunge into that heady and unfortunate black hole.
Anyone who has ever listened to James can’t ignore the resonance that Booth’s lyrics hold. Written in the wee hours, often wrenching him out of bed to scribble them out – they posses the power to inexplicably make you weep. The sweet anguish that exists in all of us – no matter which dark corner we have chosen to bury it, the best of a James song can summon asunder through a horn-led refrain or drum-heavy melody. Or a morsel of a phrase baring a truism that in the hands of lesser mortals may seem glib, hackneyed but with Booth – it’s the closest thing to Godliness.
Witness in “Sit Down” when Booth beckons: “Those who feel the breath of sadness, sit down next to me. Those who find they’re touch by madness, sit down next to me,” ah which one of us have not been touch by either malaise? But a James song heals us, their soothing words remain with us. Or “Whenever she’s feeling empty, whenever she’s insecure, whenever her face is frozen, unable to fake it anymore, ” the slide guitar twisting our own emotions on “She’s A Star”. Inspired by Princess Diana – barely six months after the single’s release in 1997, she would be lost to the world after being pursued by paparazzi and crashing at high speed, the prophetic song taking a whole different meaning.
And James still have it. On La Petite Mort, a riff at the French “die a little death” a reference to the bliss of climax, Booth wrote of his mother’s death where he held her in her arms as she took her last breath equating that to the beauty of birth. He juxtaposes that experience with the pain of losing a dear friend who he had last parted on harsh terms. As he bolted for a plane to New York to try and make amends on her deathbed, she died before his plane landed. But on “Moving On” and it’s remarkable video – the cycle of life is beautifully portrayed and death becomes meaningful, uplifting even.
In the US, James have always been a cult favorite. They did find popularity again when the “Laid” track with its cheekily scandalous lyrics was used in the American Pie movies between the late Nineties and early Noughties. However, none of the other albums were released here in any significant way. Die-hard and loyal fans have been happy for word on any new James album. Their last album, La Petite Mort which also followed with a small tour of the US, did see them appealing to a new generation of fans and with Girl At the end of the World they should be poised to broaden their reach.
Already their upcoming UK tour which kicks off today, May 2 with a sold-out gig in Bristol – is their biggest to date with several other venues already sold out. There are plans to bring their show to the US though nothing has been confirmed. Another true measure of their current success is the fact that Australia where they have legions of fans and their albums had always charted well, they have never had the opportunity to tour. Booth revealed that they are in talks with their new label BMG – themselves going through a renaissance of sorts – and it is on the cards for the future. There exists already a Facebook page dedicated to this task.
Over the weekend, a small rehearsal show in London was open to fans with a competition on their Facebook page. An outpouring from fans has followed with any corner of the globe where a James fan may reside, seeing requests for tours to their city.
Before leaving for London, Booth who lives in LA took a moment to speak to us for an Examiner exclusive – albeit on his morning commute with his wife next to him. The frontman, ever-gracious, discussed his Shaman-like way of catching a glimpse into the future with his songs. And explained why he finds himself time and again writing about sex and death. More importantly, like many a James fan I can scarcely hear the opening notes to “Sit Down” without feeling a pang of sadness, followed by tears but it was wild and completely humbling to see Booth return the favor.
Examiner: Hello Tim Booth, how are you?
Tim Booth: I am good but there was a mix-up and I am not in my office but driving to a meeting. So if you’re okay with that I can do the interview in the car.
Examiner: Oh sure but if you’re driving, please take care?
TB: Two weeks ago we were in a car accident. We got hit from the side and behind while in LA freeway traffic. We slid across three lanes of traffic safely onto the shoulder but in the rear-view mirror I watched in slow-motion as the other car faced oncoming traffic. And now we’ve just released this new single “Girl At The End Of The World” which talks about a car crash. I was nervous about this single as often times I write these lyrics and may not totally understand it, then a year later they come true. It has happened several times so I’ve been a little scared. And thank you for saying to take care. I will.
Examiner: So what a great album – there are so many gems from “Nothing But Love” to “Girl At The End of The World” and everything else in between from “To My Surprise” and “Feet of Clay” – my sort of quiet favorite. I want to say, ‘welcome back’ but do you guys feel like you’ve been away at all? I mean the internet is filled with youtube videos titled ‘James: The final Live performance 2001’ but you’ve been re-united as a band since 2007?
TB: In 2001 when I left James we were a dysfunctional family. We were still making music we loved and working with Brian Eno but it was so painful so I really thought that was it. Then 6 years passed. We went away, cleaned up and then we were all just in a better place. 2006 was our proper comeback year – we felt that we wanted to come back and to make new music together. Not just be a nostalgia act. I also saw how Bruce Springsteen reformed the E Street Band and he did it so well, writing new music and keeping it real and I felt James could do it too. Somewhere inside of us, we felt like we had unfinished business. We still had songs we wanted to make that could still touch people in that way. And what you’re seeing now is that – it’s just been growing since. And now our May tour in England is the biggest we’ve ever done. The new album entered the charts at Number 2. I think on our last album, La Petite Mort we also got a chance to do better videos and we found that we really reached new fans that we never had before. For “Moving On” we had control of our music video in the way that we never had in the ‘90s. We have a great record label behind us now who understand that we can break the glass ceiling for a band like us that have been around for a long time. I feel like “Hey Ma” was a great record but it got no help from the industry. This time we have that steely-eyed focus to make a louder noise and more videos to show that we mean business.
Examiner: Well this was like question 17 on my list but since you brought it up – I’ve been a fan of James for so long, I feel like you’ve soundtracked my life just about. There’s always a morsel of a phrase that really gets me, I latch on to it and I think it helps me make sense of things. I don’t know…my mother passed away when I was 6, going on 7 and I don’t think I ever really dealt with it, so perhaps that’s why?
TB: The words – they are very unconsciously delivered to me. To touch people…(pause) … that is why I became a singer… (pause)…I heard Patti Smiths’ “Birdland” when I was a boy … (choke)… I was in an English boarding school and my mom had rung to say that my father was going in for an operation and he might not make it. But I couldn’t go and see him…I just had to stay and wait it out…
Examiner: Are you ok Tim? Would you like us to stop?
TB: No, I’m ok with it, if you are… I was just touched by your story and what you said…(pause) I bet you weren’t expecting this? (laughter)
Examiner: Well, to be honest this was me yesterday. I hadn’t known all this backstory but as I was reading about it, prepping through my last edit of questions and re-listening to the album, I was in absolute tears and a mess. It kind of makes sense. I wasn’t quite sure how I would go today. But I do feel like that’s why I’m always looking for meaning in songs.
TB: Yes I did it with songs, books and films. I think we leave this paper trail as to how we work out what this life means and is all about. And in turn we become part of this paper trail ourselves.
Examiner: The writing for La Petite Mort you’ve mentioned was inspired by two people’s death – your mom who died in your arms, and a dear friend whom you had last parted on bad terms – did the sentiments from that record also spill over into this one? It feels like the continuation of the same conversation in a different room.
TB: Ha! I think the songs “Feet of Clay” and “Girl At the end of the World” are questions around death and mortality, the rest of the songs are definitely different – they’re about coming to terms and celebrating life. So this album, it’s a different journey.
Examiner: I know you and Jim Glennie recently said that “Nothing But Love” is as good as “Sit Down” but I feel like “Girl At The End of the World” is the follow-up or companion piece – when you finished writing “Nothing But Love” there was a sense between all of you that wow, this is something special – how did that differ from “Girl At the end of the world”?
TB: “Nothing But Love” is my personal favorite. Every so often you know you are downloading a song that can stand in a room and just battle it out. It can walk into a radio station and fight it out with the other singles. For that sort of single it has to be more robust, it’s a different beast. We don’t know how to write these songs – they just fall into our laps. “Girl at the end of the World” I did the first edit and thought it was good, I brought it to the guys and nobody liked it. Saul took it and then came back with it. “Nothing But Love” and “Dear John” felt immediately like songs that could cross over whereas “Girl” had these lyrics of impending death and a car crash – we were unsure that it would cross over. But a song like “Laid” we took 20mins to come up with and we were laughing so much we had to stop playing. And when we were done we thought ‘wow, where did this come from? Who gave us that!’. When we played “Girl” to the head of the record company she cried and said ‘Oh my god, it’s so sad’. When you are supported by your record label in a beautiful way…it’s really great. Let me tell you that’s rare from a record label. We’ve had it at a few points during our career but it’s rare.
Examiner: Was there a reference to the Elisabeth Esther book of the same name – as there’s a couple of similar themes – God being able to still do good when his people fail and that sometimes our scars make the most beautiful art?
TB: Lovely. No I didn’t know about the book. But someone had written in the bottom of a post somewhere that there was a short film of the same name. I had no idea about the book though. I am very happy for the synchronicity – I see that as a sign that you are on to something. It’s good to hear.
Examiner: In ”Dear John” you sing: “Wrote a song to tell you I’m leaving, must be better than a letter, a text or an e-mail…” Could you tell us a bit about what inspired this song?
TB: It was seeing how social media have changed our lives – and that people are now ending relationships with text messages. I mean long relationships. I’ve heard a couple of horror stories. And I was also recognizing my own cowardice in the past and seeing how people are really taking the easy way out these days.
Examiner: ”Surfer’s Song” in it’s synths and drum beat does feel like you’re in the surf waiting for the right wave – it’s tiring and a bit scary, you might just give up but then you catch that wave and you’re just on top of the world. It’s euphoric and dancey – it reminds me of ‘90s club music – what was the genesis of this track?
TB: Oh my god. We purposely – from the last record were heading into a more dancey direction and here we’ve just kept moving that along. I’ve been using an app called Funk Box with these fast-tempo disco beats. Musically, I think that Glennie our bass player has just gotten sexier with age and those bass lines. (laughs) That’s the genesis on the musical side. Lyrically there were lots of influences – living in LA, spending a lot of time by the beach, watching surfers. And my son loves to surf. I don’t. And it’s just watching them get this thrill. Also when we were making it – it was the week that Gay Marriage was making the news. President Obama had got it through the Supreme Court. It felt like finally now all those prejudices are coming down, breaking through our empathetic consciousness, the last 100 years of slavery, women’s rights, gay rights, transgender rights and whatever else is coming next. That we stop seeing the ‘other’ as dangerous. It was celebrating that but also there is still fear – in those people who are still fighting you – your Donald Trump and Ted Cruz’s of the world. You have to be very afraid of them.
Examiner: When did you first move to LA and why? Then you moved to the Bay area and back again – does “Move Down South” refer to moving back to LA? I’ve moved with kids a couple of times, adults always say kids are resilient but if we really knew what it was like – would we ever do anything?
TB: I met my wife in LA 20 years ago – at that time she had been living here for 6 years and when we moved to California we were more drawn to Big Sur. That’s been our spiritual home – we met there and our son was conceived there. For British people – California holds with it the cultural matrix that comes from being a sunnier climate, it’s openness, and expansiveness, that yes-you-can rather than no-you-can’t attitude. We just wanted some of that back in our blood. Big Sur soon proved too remote for work so about 7 or 8 years ago we moved to Topanga Canyon. My wife is saying nearly 9. I’ve always dreamed of living in San Francisco – that kind of intellectual vibe or it had in the ‘90s when I use to visit. But truly it was because of the Redwood trees – my favorite thing on the planet. So I had convinced my wife and son to move and soon they were coming to terms with the grief and missing what was left behind – family, community and my son’s school. For “Move Down South” I’d written the lyrics 6 months before and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t ‘move up north’. And I tried changing it but it just didn’t work. When the mixes came through my son who was age 10 said: “Dad, can’t you listen to your own lyrics. You know what you have to do.” So we moved back and the lyrics came true which was astonishing to me.
Examiner: Why do you think songs about death and sex are like lightning rods, they really attract people and have that ability to touch them – well your songs of death at least… and Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Llowell. For example, “Nothing But Love” may be a love song but it’s bigger than just a love song – it’s about humanity really?
TB: I think death, sex and birth are three incredible moments in life where we are shown things outside of our own reality. The cultural and religious matrix conditions our reality but death, sex and birth smashes through it. My mother’s death was clearly a birth, that’s what it felt like for me. Nobody told me death could feel like that. The grief experience of death is for the people who are still living not for the dead. Birth on the other hand … – when my son was born they had to rush him to the premature ward and stuck a load of needles in him. I sang to him because I thought ‘what do I do?”. My memory of looking at him as he opened his eyes for the first time it was like looking right at the night sky full of stars. The line “this Universe in your eyes” is a reference to that. ‘Where do we come from?’ and ‘where do we go?’ these are questions that songs like “Feet of Clay” deal with. Love, money, career these things may be important but where do we go? Where do we come from? These are really the questions most of us what some answers to. Well at least I do. Sex is amazing and it’s something between these two bookends. These transcendent moments when we are in completely altered states – you get a glimpse of life. Sex can be so prescribed and controlled by religions and government, anything that’s been banned has some power to it, a porthole to a new understanding. And sex I’m not talking about porn but between two people in its purest form is what we have when living that connects us to birth and death. That’s why I’m so attracted to it. Absolutely.
TB: Actually, I don’t think I have ever expressed it that way before, the connection between the three.
Examiner: Now you’ve cracked that nut. Glad to be a part of it.
TB: Yes. (laughs) And I went to see all three of Sufjan Stevens’ shows and there were some of the greatest shows I had ever seen.
Examiner: I am so jealous, I didn’t even make one of them and you went to all three.
TB: They were just wonderful – his performance each night, the music, the lights… everything.
Examiner: I read in The Guardian that with regards to “Sit Down” you had refused to get it released in America and were hanging on to that punk notion of never having selling out – what does selling out mean to you these days?
TB: Ha! Interesting. Yes we were reared on NME and punk. The Clash sold out when they came to America. We had loads of those hang-ups – most of them we ditched as we grew up. Selling out? I guess it would be writing something that was not true. I feel lucky to be in this band for 30 years and to have that connection to our muses so I don’t want to betray our inspiration, or we’ll all be screwed.
Examiner: Is it true that James have never been to Australia? It seems odd as you are so big there – that’s where I first heard James when I went to University and the album “Laid” was in just about everyone’s CD collection then?
TB: Our record companies at the time never really enabled us. We have fans in Chile, Peru and Mexico, 10,000 people came out to see when we toured there – nobody even told us we had fans there. And in South Africa and it happened in Greece – all these fans came out to see us. It’s always exciting for us going to a new culture – a culture different to ours. And we are talking to our record label so it’s looking like a possibility. Let’s all wait and see.
To purchase James latest album Girl At The End of The World please click here. Or visit iTunes here.