None of It Seems Real: An Interview with Tim Booth of James
In an interview that traces the long history of James, Tim Booth reflects on the band’s past, discusses their current project, and drops hints about secret plans for the future.
Even a brief glance at the highlights of James' career reveals a band that has accomplished far more than most others: Chart success, peer admiration, numerous collaborations with producer Brian Eno, tours with icons such as the Smiths and New Order, unfathomable longevity, a devoted and sizeable following, etc...
And yet, lead singer and lyricist Tim Booth cannot force himself to be anything other than modest when reflecting upon the band's ongoing career. "You've just outlined it from the most positive perspective," he replies, dismissing any notion that James has -- and continues to have -- an enviable career.
"On a good day, that's maybe how we see it. On a bad day, we haven't done enough. We haven't achieved enough. We've been lazy. We should have more out there..." Booth continues with a litany of reasons explaining why the members of James should not be satisfied, perhaps outlining their career from the most negative perspective.
Then, exasperated, he relents, realizing that anyone who has made a living in a band for over two decades is, indeed, fortunate. "Yes, most of the time I feel really blessed," Booth admits, sounding like someone forced to make a concession.
"Really, like, 'God, I've managed to make a decent living out of this for 22 of the 30 years.' And that's fantastic. So, yeah, most of the time I feel really blessed. I'm like, 'How did that happen?' And you just don't know. It's all a mystery. None of it seems real."
Perhaps Booth's reticence stems from James' uncanny ability to always be the band that was about to be more. Shortly after the band's genesis in the early 1980's, they were dubbed "The Next Smiths" by the English press -- a tag that proved to be both a huge compliment and a huge burden. Though James eventually toured with and befriended the Smiths, they never captured the public attention in quite the same way.
James did, however, become a mainstay in the British music scene, both eluding and leading music trends. Eventually, when the alternative scene was breaking into the mainstream, they scored chart success and garnered attention in the States with songs such as "Laid" and "Say Something". It appeared that James finally had their day, but instead of capitalizing on the momentum, they went on a three-year hiatus.
Since then, the band has been on-again, off-again, but together since 2007 and recording since 2008. And therein lies the reason why James is so fortunate: Having survived nearly three decades of music trends and an often fickle music press, they are still releasing material that refuses to simply rehash the band's past, that satisfies but challenges their audience. Nowhere is this more evident than on the band's latest release, The Morning After the Night Before.
Originally released as two separate EPs (or "mini albums", if you will) in Great Britain, The Morning After the Night Before holds up nicely as a cohesive song cycle. As the title of the set suggests, The Morning After is more melancholy and The Night Before more upbeat, a decision that Booth describes as being both creatively practical and liberating.
"I think we had purposely chosen the more down, somber songs for The Morning After because we come up with those songs effortlessly," Booth explains. "But normally we don't put too many on an album [because] they drag an album down ... [and] this time we went, 'Let's give them their own dedicated record instead of just putting one on an album and discarding all the other good ones.'"
That decision -- to devote an entire album to more somber songs knowing that it would be balanced out by another collection of songs -- allowed Booth and the band to be more artistically adventurous. "Once we made that choice, it just gave me license to really go into it. And I named the EPs The Morning After [and] The Night Before, so once I gave myself that theme, I really gave myself permission to go into these stories."
And what stories they are -- and many of them bleak. In "Tell Her I Said So", for example, the narrator looks back on a long life while waiting for death. "Got the Shakes" tells the story of a man who wakes up from a drunken stupor, only to realize he has beaten up his wife. And in "Lookaway", the speaker is determined to pretend to have a purpose in life for fear of not having one.
When asked to explain why the lyrics are so doggedly gloomy, Booth replies that he just writes what he knows -- either from personal experience or from observing those around him. "'Tell Her I Said So' is a lot of my mother's words, at age 90, sitting in a home and waiting for death, so that was very autobiographical in that sense. But lot of them were inspired by what I saw in other people but then became fictional characters."
"I'm more interested in human vulnerability and human strength," Booth elaborates. "Because at some point or another in everyone's life, we're all going to hit vulnerability ... whether it's through some life circumstance, which always happens to everybody, whether it's divorce or the loss of a loved one or whether it's facing your own mortality. At some point, we get that in life. There's no escape from that. And I'm always more interested in those realities than more illusory ones."
Indeed, some of those unpleasant and unavoidable realities that inform Booth's lyrics he has experienced firsthand. In "Crazy", an atmospheric gem of a pop song, the narrator can't help but laugh at his own insecurities, refusing to bore the listener with his story while insisting that it has shaped him nonetheless.
"That was actually quite inspired by my own situation. I was born with an inherited liver disease and it wasn't diagnosed until I was twenty-two. So all through my teenage years I was bright yellow. I was jaundiced and quite sick and hallucinating and was convinced that I was mad, because nobody thought it was an illness. That was the psychology through which I saw the world. I was convinced that I would be caught and put in a psychiatric unit."
When discussing James' creative process, though, Booth keeps coming back to a common theme: spontaneity. After detailing all the various influences on his lyrics, he then explains that every element of the band's music is guided by the hand of chance. "It's not really a master plan for James," he says, "but more intuitive and instinctive. We just go with what comes."
That intuitive and instinctive approach led James to create half of the project, The Night Before, in an experimental fashion. Rather than meeting as a group and laying down the tracks in a studio, the band used the internet to create the songs from different locations. Band members would download the tracks, add their musical parts, and then post the revised tracks back online, where the next band member would then download the track and do the same.
For Booth and the band, though, using the internet to create an album wasn't a matter of convenience or logistics, but a way to keep the creative process fresh. "We were brainstorming. We're always looking for things to throw us off track. The more you bring in random elements and random chance, the more you break out of your own predictable path."
Breaking out of that path was particularly important to James after their 2008 release, Hey Ma, proved that they could reunite and still create music at the top of their game. Critics noted that the album was as quintessentially James as any in their oeuvre, and fans concurred. For the band, though, creating one of their best albums after having dissolved the group in 2001 only left them hungrier.
"Hey Ma was a very solid record of James songs. And it's like, 'We've done that now. We've come back. We've shown that we can do it right and we've still got the writing ... now let's play. Now let's take some more risks. And, you know, working with Brian Eno through the years taught us the value of that. If you want to stay fresh, if you don't want rigor mortis to set in, then you have to keep turning it up, you have to keep stirring it up."
Stir it up: Those three words could be used to describe James' ongoing career, a career that Booth insists is not done with artistic surprises. "James have got really great plans," he teases, "but I'm afraid I can't tell you." At this, he laughs deviously. "I do apologize ... we do have something that we're going to do that we've never done before that we're looking forward to."
So just what does James have in the works? Coming on the heels of a resurgence and ambitious album, anything is possible. Whatever it is, it doesn't sound conventional. Then again, nothing about James' career does.