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In the Darkness with James' Tim Booth

John Davidson

Former James frontman discusses love, lust, and man's darker impulses.

Bone (Koch Records), the title of Tim Booth's new album is a double entendre. It refers to the essential nature of ourselves, of our experience, but somewhat typically, contains a libidinous aspect also -- as in, the verb "to bone". From a singer whose largest commercial hit in the States was titled "Laid", this perhaps shouldn't come as an enormous surprise�

Booth began his career with James while a student of drama at Manchester University in 1982. Soon thereafter, Morrissey, already a papal presence in English music, described James as his favorite band, and the band spent the better part of a decade attempting to live down the distinction. In some circles back then the Smiths were seen as an English equivalent of R.E.M. (both being Indie kings of their respective domains), but ironically, it's possible that James, with a more wide-ranging curiosity and intelligence, to say nothing of longevity, may actually have offered a better comparison. Like R.E.M., James (with ongoing input from Brian Eno) cultivated an intelligent, free-ranging, art-driven approach to popular music, hitting a creative apex with Gold Mother (1990), Laid (1993), and Whiplash (1997).

James eventually called a halt to proceedings at the end of 2001, almost two decades after they had begun. During that time, Booth released a collaborative effort with Angelo Badalamenti Booth and the Bad Angel (1996), and also appeared in English regional theatre. He spoke with PopMatters from his home in Brighton, England.

PopMatters: You've been touring since the album was released in England. How has it been received?

Tim Booth: It's been brilliant. We just played in Greece and Turkey, and then back in England -- the shows have been great. People have been really enthusiastic; we've been gaining a really nice momentum. It's hard to get media attention in England because everything's so youth-oriented here, but people are starting to pay attention. James were always a good live band, so it was important that this was too, otherwise it would have been embarrassing.

PM: When you originally ended your association with James, did you imagine that you were finished with music completely, or was it just an opportunity to explore other avenues for a while?

TB: I thought I was done with the music business, but not with music itself. There were other things I wanted to do, and being in a band, I didn't really have the freedom to do that. I always felt this weight of responsibility, of six other mouths to feed. I wanted to get back to acting, and I had an idea for a screenplay that I wanted to write. I thought it was going to be this big long process, that it would take two years or something, but I finished it fairly quickly.

PM: Has it been produced?

TB: It hasn't been produced yet, but it's been optioned and I've received lots of really positive feedback. It's set in a place quite like the Esalen Institute, which is this New-Age retreat in California, and it involves a hit-man -- that's all I'll say about it for now. I just finished a second screenplay this week. The first one, I hired some people to act it out while I worked on it, so it really forced me to focus, otherwise I was just wasting my money. But because of that, it also felt a little like performance. One of the things I was worried about when I started was that writing is such an isolated thing to do�

PM: Right, it helps if you feel there's an audience, that you're not just writing for yourself�

TB: Exactly. So that first one took me through about eleven drafts, and several people helped me out. This second one I've done more by myself, and now I just love the process. I enjoy making up stories -- I always have done, even as a songwriter. Besides, it's a lot cheaper than therapy.

PM: Is it true that James, the band, were named for Joyce, the writer?

TB: That's one of the stories we put about, yeah�

PM: So do you perceive yourself more as a writer or a performer now ... or don't those distinctions matter?

TB: I won't consider myself a writer until I've had something made. I'm a songwriter, and I always considered myself a better lyricist than a singer. But I enjoy all of it really, acting, writing, singing, creativity.

PM: Wasn't the way this band came together somewhat arbitrary? Is it ongoing?

TB: Well hopefully we'll continue to work together, but we've called the band The Individuals because everyone in it has other things going on outside of this. It's a group of really, really talented and cool people, and I'm sure they're each going to be successful in their own right. I met Lee in a café, we were just talking about music and I liked what he had to say, so we decided to meet up. Lisa I met through a connection with this band in Brighton called The loveGods -- they're probably going to be huge soon -- and I met Milo taking these acting classes in London. He's a comedian, and I had no idea when we first started talking that he was a drummer as well.

PM: Over the course of your career, it seems your writing drifts between three major areas, and the new album continues in similar vein. First there's the personal/intimate -- the nature of love and lust, happiness and sorrow. Next, there are more global concerns -- politics/the environment; and finally, what we might consider issues of spirituality -- belief/the search for meaning. Would you agree with that?

TB: Well, that covers pretty much everything, doesn't it? But yeah, I know what you mean, and I'd agree with you. A lot of those things I explored as part of James, although I couldn't always write about "God" back then. In writing about "God", I wasn't referring to one higher being, but rather to a more general Greater Power. But when there are so many of you contributing to a band, and sometimes you're coming at things from different places, different areas of sobriety even, and you can't always write about everything you want. Even musically, though, it's something we consciously strived for, to be eclectic in what we did, whether it's rock, country, or something else.

PM: I'm struck by the emotional honesty in your work. Whether it's something like "Sit Down", (an anthem for those aggrieved by melancholy), or something as mischievous and superficial as "Laid" -- "Dressed me up in women's clothes / Played around with gender roles" -- there's a courage to it. More recently I'm thinking of "In the Darkness", a song that acknowledges the difficulties of monogamy and erotic longing. It's something we all go through, but not everyone talks about it ... or at least, not everyone advertises in song!

TB: Thank you. Yes, I'm interested in things like what it means to be a man, at the mercy of your sexual desires. I've been in a serious relationship for ten years, and there's no way I'd ever want to lose my partner. But still, sometimes when I talk to my gay friends, I'm almost jealous of the sexual freedom many of them have. And it's true that I'm constantly aware of my own sexual obsessions...

PM: Although, many of my gay friends lament the comparative difficulty of finding a committed, long-term partner as well -- the exact opposite of what we're talking about.

TB: Absolutely! I can absolutely relate to that with my own friends�

PM: I'm sure you've been asked about this a lot, the line in Discover, "So I've been abuser and I've been abused / I've been the Nazi and I've been the Jew..." When William Styron wrote Sophie's Choice, certain critics attacked him, suggesting he had "eroticized" the Holocaust, that unless you were there, you have no right to that material...

TB: Yeah. It's a line that I've had for 15 years in one variation or another, but I've never been able to use it. Even the last James album, I had it on one of the songs there, but always before when I tried to use it, the line unbalanced the rest of the song. It seemed to fit here. I do feel I can own the line to an extent -- my partner is a Jew, my child is a Jew. In part, what I was getting at, what I was thinking, was that anyone could have been born into either circumstance, Nazi or Jew. Any of us could have been born into the wrong family at the wrong time. I'm not saying it's a complete lottery, because I do believe there are unseen forces...

PM: But do you think it's appropriate to use the literal destruction of a race as metaphor for the damage we do to one another in personal relationships?

TB: Well, I don't think I was really writing about personal relationships. I was writing more about the human condition, about what we're all capable of doing to one another. There was a lot of anti-Semitism at the school I went to, and I stood there and watched it sometimes because maybe I was afraid. I'm deeply ashamed of that. Learning about the Holocaust had a huge impact on me. When I was 21 I watched a film (on the Holocaust) and immediately afterwards went in the bathroom and shaved my head.
It's difficult, though. You have to be sensitive, but like all this fuss about Prince William or whoever at the moment [the interview was conducted amidst the furor generated by Britain's Prince Harry attending a costume party in Nazi regalia] ... I mean he could just as easily have been wearing a devil costume, and what would that have said? What about the film Life Is Beautiful, a comedy? Or when people tell jokes that are supposedly in bad taste? I'm really not one for censorship in any form.

PM: You're one of a relatively small number of artists to have worked extensively with Brian Eno. Can you talk about that?

TB: He's amazing. People in rock music don't know half of what he does -- besides music and art installations, he's a professor at The Royal College of Art, heads a "think-tank" for Sony, he designed a crystal museum [a reference to Swarovski Crystal Worlds in Innsbruck, Austria]. He's probably the most intelligent, brilliant man I've ever met -- great sense of humor, very sexy, just amazing. Just talking with him after recording, having dinner and a bottle of wine discussing eighteenth-century German philosophy or whatever, that was the best part of it.
As a producer, he's brilliant at harmonizing people, disparate individuals. You could put ten people in a room together, none of them speaking the same language, and somehow he'd find a way to bring the best out of all of them to the benefit of a single cause. He was with James in some capacity for ten years -- except for Whiplash -- and we couldn't have been more different as people within a group, all working at different times and whatever. But he has this amazing concentration, and it makes everyone around him concentrate that much harder too. He's probably the main reason I made the last James album, thinking at least it would be worthwhile. It's funny, because I've talked with Michael Stipe, and Flea, and they've always wanted to know, "How did you get Eno to work with you? We've been trying for years..." and meanwhile, here's James, this band who've sold only a small number of records in comparison�

PM: Are you happy with the level of success you attained with James, or would you have liked to have been more commercially successful, something on the scale of a group like the Chilli Pepers, or REM?

TB: It depends what day you catch me on; it does bug me sometimes. There were certain key dates when we fucked things up or there were other circumstances, and you do wonder, "What if?" Like when our American label wanted to release "Sit Down" as a single and we -- or I -- refused. The song was over a year old by then, and as an artist sometimes you want to move on and say, "No, this is what we're doing now." But that was a mistake, because at the time it was our best song. And then also, I don't think some members of James could have managed something that big -- possibly including me. When Danny Goldberg took over at Universal that was the end of it, though; it finished it for us. He hated James.

PM: What does the future hold? More music? Theatre?

TB: Well, I've just finished with this album, which has taken one-and-a-half years, recording, promoting it. I'd like to work on some acting next. I have a small part in the new Batman film coming up, and then something for PlayStation next week. I'm flying out to L.A. for a while, see if I can get some acting work there. I quite like L.A., though I've only ever been for short periods of time. Sunshine, beautiful women, beautiful men -- it's easy to see why people like it. But it's also where I met my partner, Kate, so at the moment we're just looking forward to that�

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