On Matters Of Life & Death: Tim Booth Of James Interviewed
, May 21st, 2014 05:19
John Mullen talks to Tim Booth about album number 13, death, Brian Eno and Morrissey
There's a great lost band from the post punk era – you'd love them, you really would. They had the same spiky, deconstructive approach to the pop song as Gang of Four or Fire Engines. Their first gig was supporting Orange Juice (they are named after OJ's guitarist); they were hailed to the heavens by The Fall, New Order - even the bloody Smiths covered them.
Like all great bands, they were a delightful collision of yobbery and sophistication - half footie hooligans, half Borges-quoting vegans. The singer, like John Lydon, suffered desperate ill health as a child, which allowed him to channel some kind of shamanic, holy-fool aura. NME thought they were the future of British music ("This is what The Smiths think they sound like"). Jesus, they even persuaded Lenny Kaye to produce their first album.
But this band were just too batshit crazy to live. Their first records were on Factory, but they were too eccentric for even Tony Wilson to handle. Their first album sold fuck-all, even in those experimental times. All we're left with are tantalising clips like this from the Hacienda in 1982 – a kinetic, shuddering piece of avant-pop that just glistens with awkward energy.
Of course, James didn't split up… But if you read Stuart Maconie's superlative and jaw-dropping biography Folklore, that's pretty miraculous. Viewers who grew up in the Granada region might remember a harrowing programme showing the band undergoing grim medical experiments to raise cash. James must also be one of the few bands to nearly end because the singer and bassist had joined a cult, Lifewave. James turned down a support slot with The Smiths in America because the cult's guru, Ishvara, was coming to Manchester (Ishvara was really an ex-squaddie called John – as Tim says to me later, "the fucker never even showed up").
The really interesting thing about James is how a bunch of freaks would go on to sell records by the skip-load. Their sound broadened as their band swelled to a seven-piece. But as their bank balances rose, James' critical reputation would plummet into the red. The enmity James still provoke (among many tQ readers too, I'm guessing) is huge, possibly due to traumatic memories of squatting on sticky floors when indie DJs played that bloody song. It's a loathing that brings out some journalists' inner Evelyn Waugh ("They make you want to slip strychnine into Britain's tofu reservoir").
James' thirteenth album, La Petite Mort, will not sway the sceptical – it is too brash, too anthemic. But it is a record that taps into a little of the haunted oddness of their earlier incarnations. After a career writing joyously twisted songs about sex, now Tim Booth has begun to write joyously twisted songs about death.
I spoke to Booth over Skype, at his home in California – wearing a purple dressing gown and bright green hat, he looks a little less like Ming the Merciless, more like a kindly bohemian uncle. Booth is a really wonderful interviewee, mainly because of his utterly disarming honesty (this is a man who doesn't suffer embarrassment easily – his Twitter account recently stated he was "teaching an ecstatic movement class at against the stream Buddhist centre in LA - come dance with me").
As he recounts his tales of near-death experiences, Factory Records, Brian Eno, Morrissey and the weirdness of early James, you realise that Booth's presence in the pop mainstream should be cause for celebration, not consternation.
So, you've created a wonderfully upbeat album about death…
Tim Booth: I've realised quite recently that death is present here and there as a backdrop to James. I always think of Nick Cave in those terms, and his love of el duende [a heightened awareness of death and sadness]. I'd never considered myself in that category - but el duende is definitely knocking about in this record.
It's clearly an album fuelled by personal experience, it has that sense of rawness and vulnerability.
TB: My mum died about two years ago, and I was there. I ended up having a day and a half with her, singing to her, cuddling up to her. Finally she passed in my arms with my sister. It was the most amazing experience – because it felt like a birth. Of course, I had some grief, and I definitely had tears. But the general feeling was she was 91, she'd had an amazing life – and she'd died in the arms of people who loved her. You couldn't ask for much more than that.
And there was the death of somebody in the world I loved most apart from my wife. She'd kept her cancer from me, and I hadn't seen her in a few years because of a stupid disagreement. I flew to New York to see her, and I was too late. I was devastated – and I still am when I think about her. These two different, contrary experiences were really percolating in my psyche when I wrote the album.
'Quicken The Dead' is about, 'What the fuck was I waiting for?' [a little break here as Tim chokes up]. I want to live thinking I could die tomorrow, that means you're going to fucking love the people you're with every second you're with them.
And you had your own very close brushes with death as a young person that must've informed the record. Reading Stuart Maconie's book, it's clear how close to dying you came.
TB: It was when I was 21. I had this liver disease for over ten years that was undiagnosed. I was bright yellow. I stopped breathing, which alerted the nurse, and they forced me to breath. But it was so beautiful. I remembered breathing out and out and drifting away and going, 'Wow, this is fantastic.' I was resentful when the nurse brought me around.
But it was a turning point for me. I was sick of life at that point, because I was so ill – I had literally a jaundiced view on life and I thought it was my personality. And then I discovered when my liver healed, it wasn't my personality. Our body and biology are pretty intertwined.
Turning to early James, it's amazing how resilient you had to be when you joined them, especially as you were from a very middle class background.
TB: James was a tough little band. The original singer was in Strangeways for GBH. When I joined, they were a fighting band – the second night I went out with them, there was a huge fight. I am talking heavy fights, front page of the Manchester Evening News-type fights.
Now that Manchester has become the 'Barcelona of the north', it's easy to forget just how bloody grim the city used to be…
TB: I know! I lived in Hulme for about two years, when it had the highest crime rate in Britain. I would go out late and walk to the Hacienda late at night. This was the time people were being knifed, being shot at – but I never got attacked once. It's amazing how you can live in a warzone, and somehow you're protected if you're lucky. I'm a lucky fucker.
I find it interesting that people forget that you were a Factory band, that you played gigs with New Order, A Certain Ratio and the Durutti Column…
TB: Yeah, but we buggered that up though. We should've released at least an album with them – a big mistake from us. We were ambitious and we thought they were too untogether – which they were, but they would've been great. We kept refusing them. We created our own myth – we were the people that turned Factory down! We miserly gave them singles, and not the songs they wanted – we gave them our worst songs!
Have you read Morrissey's book?
Would you have any interest in reading it?
TB: Not really – am I in it?
No, I don't think so – but then, neither's Vini Reilly, and he made a whole record with Morrissey.
TB: The fact with him is that I know he'd have rewritten the whole fucking thing. It's like Vini – he was so close to Vini and he loved Vini, he introduced me to him actually… But with Morrissey, he's so damaged and self-justifying, and I don't want to hear that. The Morrissey I knew was a very beautiful, vulnerable human being. That was Morrissey in 1982.
I'd love to know about working with Brian Eno.
TB: He was magnificent… Every band's first question to us is, 'How did you get to work with Brian Eno?' - from Metallica to R.E.M. to Chili Peppers – and we made FIVE album with him.
Did he use his 'oblique strategies' with you?
TB: Oh yeah – he'd make up new ones when we were working. He'd write with a big marker, and show it to one member of the band, and it might be 'go make a cup of tea', or 'play in a different key to everybody else' or 'put them all off', to throw in some anarchy into our jams. I've got a box here of them here. I'm writing a novel at the moment, and I'll draw a card if I'm stuck.
It's essentially a fucking tarot deck or I Ching really – it's saying 'I believe in chance'. Brian, who is a totally non-religious human being, has made a fucking tarot deck! He wouldn't admit it though. My favourite card is 'honour thy error as a hidden intention'. That means you believe something else is happening. He's going to say, 'Oh, it's the subconscious', but you're getting pretty close to some kind of belief that there's something going on in the background that those cards are tuning into.
Finally, turning back to death, you don't strike me as somebody who would die with many regrets.
TB: [Long pause] Regrets? I do have regrets. But I think I'm lucky cos I lived a pretty miserable life from the age of 8 to 21, and it really got great when I was 28, when my first son was born. If you live life pretty miserably at a young age, life gets better, which is fucking great. I pity the top fucking dogs at school. I'm not a miserabilist. I was a miserabilist who determined that that wasn't the right way to live. I spent many years fighting out of that particular sack.
James' new album Le Petite Mort is released on 2nd June 2014. For more information and pre-orders, please visit the James website