James Continue to Burn Bright: An Interview with Tim Booth

Everyone knows that in the music business it’s better to burn out than to fade away but no one ever mentions anything about being reignited. That’s exactly what Manchester’s James has done.

The band went on hiatus around 2000 but made an unexpected comeback in 2009 with Hey Ma and they’ve continued to burn brighter and brighter ever since. The band continues to write, record and tour at a pace that is both inspiring and tiring to think about.

Their latest album Living in Extraordinary Times is full of poignant songs, rhythmic work outs and barbed lyrics about the current state of the world. When Culture Collide spoke with Tim Booth he told us he was in Yorkshire Dales looking out onto completely fantastic verdant lands populated with pheasants, goats, and wild rabbits “A kind of an England I’d forgotten existed.” he said.

You’re doing some shows right now correct?
We are doing many things. Mostly festivals right now and we’ve rented a farmhouse where we’re writing for the next record.

The next record? Already?!
We write all the time. We just get in the room and improvise. It’s a like a meditation. We love it really. We generate a lot of material that way.

Does everyone in the band feel the same way?
Yes. Mark, Saul, Jim and I do all the writing and we really love it. It’s really magical. We nervous write.  None of us come in with prepared chords or lyrics. We set up a tacky drum machine, set it off and just start improvising and after a while we start to look into each and just jam a song for about half an hour. We record it the best we can. 

Later on Jimmy will go through and kind of label it and find the best bits where the changes take place and send it off to us. Later we’ll listen to the bits and if we like a certain song of it we’ll do an edit of it ourselves and shape it into a song. Then I can start putting lyrics to it though I’ll have some lyrics when I start the jam.

So what does your vault look like?
We have a big fat hard drive [laughs].

Well before we move onto that record, congrats on the new album that isn’t even out yet.You’re sort of a new breed of band, almost 40 years into the business and you’re still putting out solid material.You haven’t become the Stones where the later material is mostly ignored. The new stuff sits well with the older work, it isn’t a bathroom break song. What do you owe that to? What makes that happen?
Good question. Self respect [laughing] and a kind of a feeling that we weren’t finished. We stopped in the late ’90s not because of musical issues because we were still making records that we were proud of. In fact we went out with quite a bang on a record with Pleased to Meet You which we were really proud of with Brian Eno. [At this point Tim laughs at the sheep loudly baaa-ing in the background which continues throughout the interview].

We were just dysfunctional as a band at the time. It was so unpleasant and unhealthy, so we quit because of that not, because of the music. When we got back together we had all gotten ourselves together psychologically and were ready to appreciate the whole thing again.

When we reformed, we said we didn’t want to be a heritage band. We have to keep on moving forward and the music had to be beautiful and if it isn’t we stop. So we kind of exacted ourselves to pretty high standards to try and match or better ourselves than anything we’ve done in the ’90s which I think we’ve done and to improvise we change our setlist every night which is kind of a pain in the ass in some ways. The meeting before every gig becomes a bit of a ruckus. As we present songs someone in the band might go “I don’t know how that one goes! I can’t play this.” [laughs] But we want that fear. It brings out a presence in us.

You talk of The Stones, I read a very influential review when I was 17 by Martin Amos. He saw them at Earl’s Court. He’d seen them in San Francisco. He’d seen them around the world and they were the same every night.  Same set, same in-between talk as if the location and time didn’t mean anything. They were just repeating it like a theater act. I thought to myself “damn that’s not good.” If it’s live, you want it to be this living breathing organism that’s different in Barcelona on a Wednesday night to London on a Sunday night or out in a field raining in Kendal on Saturday. You choose different songs for standing in the rain. You choose different songs on a Monday night than a Saturday night. If the band is in a different mood you pick different songs. Are you in a good mood? A bad mood? Is someone’s parent ill? You really cater to the psychology of what’s going on with other people.

We were in New Zealand on the night Trump was elected and we had to make a setlist that allowed us to expresse our fury and our distress that we were feeling.Then it becomes a living organism of expression instead of a theater performance. It really challenges us but keeps it fresh for us as well.

Do you feel your fans growing with you? They started as teenagers. With Coming Home Again, I can see where that song would hit them now but might be hard to identify with at 17.
[Laughs] When we first came back it was just the older audience mirroring us which was kind of depressing in a certain kind of way.

We’d sell out a tour of 70k arena faster than we ever had before but then we’d see them and be like “Oh they’re old!” Lots of gray hair and big bellies [laughs]. Then after the last two albums in particular we started seeing some younger fans. I think because we’ve been getting more groovier with our bass lines. There are beats and stuff in there to dance to. We’ve been getting real generations coming. Maybe the kids of the fans have grown up and they’ve had us played to them to death. It’s a form of mind control [laughs].

Well you start to raid your parent’s record collection at a certain age and the music you didn’t want to hear as a kid suddenly becomes interesting.
Maybe it’s that but we also see a lot of young people coming now which is great for us. It’s a mixed audience out there. It’s gotten bigger. We are selling bigger venues than we did in the ’90s when we had hit records.

We went to Mexico and we booked a 2k seat theater thinking that’s all that would come. That sold out so we booked a 6k seater. That also sold out so we bumped that up to 12k and it sold out. You discover you’re big in countries you had no idea you were known in like Peru and Mexico and it’s just like how did this happen? How did these people hear our music? It’s just one of those really great things that happens to musicians and music. If it has longevity and life and passion in it and it’s sung from the heart and it’s about someone’s life then hopefully people can relate to it even 20-30 years later.

We’ll do a set where we’ll play a new song next to a song we wrote in 1983 and if we didn’t tell them they wouldn’t know it because of the way we play it. Even the other day we did a festival and we played a very new set. Usually you play the hits at festivals but we played mostly new material and it was just one of the best gigs we’ve ever had at a festival. We’re moving forward.

As far as growth, you can definitely hear the new grooves but the last two albums have also become a little more pointed and focused politically. You’ve always sung about the broader more universal themes but this seems a little more direct. There’s a little anger we’ve never heard before.  A little more punch. Do you still think music can make a difference? Are you cynical?
I have written political songs before but probably like 10 out of 250. It’s never been a genre I’ve really liked.  There have been a few I’ve liked. Dylan’s “For What it’s Worth” comes to mind. It’s always unconscious though. I never set out to write about a person or a relationship. It’s what comes out. I often write at 4 am so I usually write down lyrics that are keeping me awake and that dictates what the album winds up being about.

We were writing while Trump was running for president, so he ended up being the star of a couple of songs. He could have been on more but I was like no I’m not going to let that narcissistic ass take this record. Yeah, real anger, it’s quite something. It’s an extra level. I’ve written songs about politics and religion that got banned off TV  in the past but it just varies and what comes to me at the time.

Again it’s not something I consciously set out to do. I don’t think political songs can change things necessarily but I think art can change things. We just came back from Bilboa Spain. It’s a really industrial hard edged city. About 20 years ago Gehry built the Guggenheim museum there, this incredible building and it’s become a mecca. It’s just substantially changed the culture, the very atmosphere of the city. You can just see it all around the Guggenheim Art, architecture, music they influence for sure.

One of the things in the Holocaust museum is that one of the definitions of fascism is that they have no respect for art. They don’t respect it. They trample it down. Any fundamentalism basically, they don’t like art. The same can be said of ISIS.  Look at them destroying ancient pieces of art history. Fundamentalism is frightened of art so you have to say art has a power otherwise why would they be afraid of it? Though I don’t think you can measure a song and what it has done.

The Beatles changed a culture at some level but you’d be hard pressed to put it down to a song, maybe LSD [laughs] but even then you’d be hard pressed to put it down to just LSD. I think what an artist does is go into the unconscious before the culture does and they bring back the fire from the unconscious.  It’s the fire the culture is going to get to anyway but the artist brings it back first and changes the culture so I’m very positive about the effect of art. You don’t find too many totalitarian artists which is why Trump had so much trouble finding anyone to play his inauguration.

Artists are people that have to be empathetic at some level. They have to want freedom of speech and want to say the unsayable. So I am pretty positive about it. The album is called Living in Extraordinary Times not Living in Appalling Times. Look at Black Lives Matter, look at the kids in Florida, you look at the women’s marches and it’s like bring it on, let it come! Please, wake up everybody!  But look I’m cynical too. The initial democracy in Athens only lasted about 50 years. The democrats following Aristotle’s lead didn’t want elections because they knew if you had election in a democracy that the rich and the powerful and the ambitious with their advantages of education and money would be able to buy the votes. They actually wanted a lottery which is pretty shocking.

History repeating.
I think democracies are as rare as unicorns.  I don’t think there really is one in the world. Each country has subverted their own democracy to work for themselves. The Senate with two representatives no matter how many people live in that state, the Supreme Court which is meant to be apolitical and the blind hand of justice…[laughs]. It just makes you laugh. The song Hank is almost a thank you letter to Colbert with the lyric:

“Our weapon is a stand up
A jester prancing like a fool
In jest digest the monster
This president’s a dangerous tool.”

I can only digest Trump through the comedians to some degree because if you stare at Medusa you turn to stone but the comedians enable you to digest the monster through jest. So Hank was written as a thank you to these guys.

“Mock the Devil and he will flee from thee.”  Like most bullies, they can’t take being made fun of.
Well Trump certainly can’t but I also unfortunately think there is a level of impotence in the fact that our weapon is a stand up. I’m not quite sure how big a weapon that is given the circumstances. It’s not enough. Also shame doesn’t really work as a tool for change.

Not with the shameless. You can’t shame the shameless.
That’s a good line.

Is there any chance of coming to our troubled country for some shows?
You mean from this troubled country to my troubled country? I’m a joint citizen of both troubled countries [laughs]. No, not at present. We might come over in a small version of James and do some acoustic gigs.

We’ll take it!  Whatever we can get!
Well, spread the word because what I want to do is go out with a great band as support or even do a double header with somebody because I just love playing America. It’s my country and I may be critical of it but I live there I love it and I’m a citizen as much as I’m an English citizen. It’s a country I want to be in, to play in.

It’s a much more liberal country than its given credit for but there’s a corporate grip on modern democracy that is really fierce and powerful. Aristotle’s definition of democracy was rule by the poor and we certainly don’t have that [laughs].

Back to the album, you’ve had a few different producers over the years including of course Brian Eno. What did this production team bring to this album?
I wrote to Charlie Andrews when he produced the first Alt-J record and said “Wow, you’ve just made the OK Computer” for this generation.  It was one of the freshest records I’ve heard over the last ten years or so and I said I want to talk about working with you.

Finally he came to a gig and afterwards he was like “Ok, I’m on board. I’m with you.” See, when people see James live that’s when they go “Oh ok.” they really get it. You can do one thing on record but live it has that fear, that spontaneity, that improvisation thing makes us very present I think..

We also started working with a younger unknown engineer and purposely asked him to kind of fuck up some of our songs so they weren’t traditional James songs, especially the rhythms. He was banging on cables, dropping bottles of water, recording iPhones crashing on the floor etc. My favorite track on the album is called Heads. He made it without even using a drum kit which was amazing. We replaced some it with drum kit as well but there are all these wild things going on in there.

We put these two together. Basically we asked Charlie if we could bring in Benny and it worked. I think we got the most amazing team because I think Benny will be quite a world famous producer in a year or two and Charlie was voted as producer of the year last year and of course we have Brian. We got stuck on one song and I took it to Brian and he was like Oh! and put all his famous squiggles and stuff on it. We feel really blessed on this record. This album was very harmonious and went really well which the other two hadn’t. Sometimes the making of your best albums are not harmonious. We lost a guitar player during the last one but this was just really harmonious in its creation.

Did that harmony give you momentum to launch into this next album? Is there a connecting point or do you get a fresh start.
Basically my idea was let’s get ahead of the curve. We had a gig in Kendall and I thought lets just get a farm house and everyone loves writing so here we are. We start fresh. We don’t really know what’s going to happen. We have about 9 days of writing and soon I’ll take that over to Benny and he’ll work on the rhythms again and we’ll start deconstructing the rhythms and I’ll work on structures and we’ll see what we’ve got. Before the album is even released we’re writing the next on. It feels really good. It’s always nice to have something in your back pocket people don’t know about. It gives you a little bit of confidence.

Fans love to hear there is something on the horizon. There’s always that fear as bands have been around for a while that this could be the last one. It’s great to hear that the band is full of energy.
Oh yeah we’re full of energy but who knows how long we’ll go on. If I get to the age where I can’t really dance or get into the audience I’m not quite sure how much appeal playing live would have for me.

Well there are a lot of new bands behind you. You’ve turned a lot of people onto the Slow Readers Club who are great by the way. Any other new bands you’re into?
None like the Slow Readers Club.  That was just like wow, these guys are great. We had another band, Lanterns on the Lake out with us who are great. They were beautiful and we got one with them really well. We were happy to be part of Slow Readers Break just like other Manchester bands have been there for us like New Order and the Smiths.

There’s something in that Manchester water.
Well it rains so much there’s nothing to do so you’re bored to tears so you start a band.

Well we’re glad you did. Thanks for talking with us. Hopefully we’ll see you over here soon!

Living in Extraordinary Times is Out Now and available here. Follow James on twitter

photo by: courtesy of the artist