Still Getting Away With It: A Few Words with Tim Booth of James
With the release of a bold new album called Living In Extraordinary Times, the band returns within the throes of a hostile society
Desperate times tend to foster some of the best art, and the past few years have seen more than their share of crises, scandals, and human rights violations.
It’s striking then that James, a band from Manchester best known Stateside for a hit song about kinky sex, has given voice to not only the dissent that has practically riven our country in two, but also the need for us to put aside our differences in order to save what’s left of our society.
Living In Extraordinary Times, the band’s 15th studio album, grapples head on with ideas of nationalism, fear and how it is only through loving one another that we can find a path out.
The band is currently co-headlining a U.S. tour with the Psychedelic Furs and singer Tim Booth was kind enough to sit down for a brief chat about the record, the threats to democracy and why he views it as an insult to “sound like James”
The new album, Living In Extraordinary Times is very exciting. I’m struck by the dichotomy between the anger with what is going on in the world around us and the beauty of what can happen when people pull together. Lyrically, you really hit on the idea that love and finding connection is the answer to fighting the rise in ugly fascism and populism here and abroad – it really is like an infection that needs to be attacked and stopped.
It spreads virally, doesn’t it, literally. There is such a division – people are really focusing on their differences rather than their similarities. We are 99% the same, but everyone seems willing to fight over that other 1%. It’s insane.
A lot of that is manufactured between the haves and have-nots.
Right. Brian Eno says capitalism is different in every country, it’s not just one thing. And it’s gotten particularly ugly because of the consumer culture and because of the class war that is going on from the rich dividing the poor, and making them fight each other. I became an American citizen because I love this country – where are the checks and balances? There’s no fucking checks and balances! Look at the Supreme Court, where they didn’t let Obama name a judge. He should have taken them to court – that was an illegal act. It shows us that the judicial system here is completely political. In England, at least they have where the judicial system will often slam down the government, and they are very separate.
Trump the other day just said, “Go back to the crime infested countries that you come from”. America is completely “crime-infested” from the top down; it’s completely bought! Many of the Republicans are bought by the Koch brothers and many Democrats too are similarly bought. I was shocked when I learned that the Democrats were the party of the Deep South until the 1960s and then it all switched. They’re that interchangeable, eh? We need these women like Elizabeth Warren – it’s not socialism, we’re just making things a little bit more egalitarian!
They are the center – they represent what 80% of the population wants from their country. We should be speaking about things like income inequality, healthcare, access to services, but it’s being framed as extreme Leftist ideology.
When democracy was first tried out by the Greeks, Aristotle and the people didn’t want it to be a voting system; they wanted it to be a lottery. If it was going to be a voting system, they realized that the rich with their superior education and money would find a way to manipulate it. Whereas, if it’s a lottery system (outside of generals and finance ministers and specialist positions), there would be much more of a chance of it really being a democracy for the people. He nailed it! Every country wants democracy according to who the ruling elites are, but some democracies are more robust than others.
I’m not even sure that we’re even a true democracy anymore.
No. Well, now we’ve completely fucking depressed each other (laughs). Let’s talk about love.
Well, one of the things that I loved most about the new album is that it’s very percussive, which is interesting because drums can have both military connotations, but they also play a big part in communal celebrations and bringing people together. It seems to be a good metaphor of the theme of the political and personal that the album grapples with.
Yeah, that was pretty intentional. The last two or three albums have been much more groove based, and then what happened was I was working with this guy Beni Giles. We would do an improvisation of about an hour long, and then we would chop it up. And I am technically useless at that, so I hired Beni as an editor to assist. After a couple weeks of us improvising to a drum machine, I said to Beni, “fuck around with this – try and make it sound NOT like James”. So he went in a room and shook water bottles and dropped his iPhone while it was playing – and that became “Heads” off the album. He played it to me after about half a day and I burst out laughing. I thought it was the most brilliant thing!
We usually play “Heads” every night, but we didn’t tonight. It needs lights, and this being an open air experience….it just didn’t feel right. It’s why we change our setlist every show; you have to adapt to what’s around you. Like you pointed out, you’re trying to connect and it’s a means of communication.
So, anyway, Beni is a drummer, and we brought him in to work with (Mercury Prize winning producer) Charlie Andrews, who’s also a drummer. We had two producer drummers, so we were heading that way (laughs).
Now, when we play the album live, we have to have assistance for David our drummer because the percussion is so strong. We brought out a girl called Debbie in for about a year and she fit in perfectly. It was like, oh my God, she was born in the ‘90s – she’s twenty-five! But she was the missing piece. Unfortunately, she came to us and said, “I’ve been given this amazing opportunity with Netflix and I gotta step back, but will you accept my girlfriend Chloe?” And we had already met Chloe and loved her, and she fits in just as beautifully.
You’ve had a remarkably stable lineup for the past 30 years with the exception of Larry (Gott, former guitarist) leaving twice and Adrian (Oxaal) taking his place.
It’s pretty remarkable, yeah – Larry has slipped in and out with Adrian, but we are very lucky. We like each other (laughs).
It really is incredible. Given that consistency, how do you push yourselves as artists while still managing to sound like “James”?
(Mocking) I am insulted that we sound enough like James! The whole idea of calling it James in the beginning was to be like a human – multi-phrenic, or schizophrenic at least. We didn’t want the name to give away what type of music we played so we avoided things that would label us. The Smiths invited us to America and we turned them down. Then Madchester happened, and we skirted around the side and Britpop got big and they tried to pull us into that. We never quite wanted to be identified as something. I never WANT to be like “James”. To us, what we do is feel like we are always moving forward. When we decided to reconvene in the early 2000s, we were determined that we weren’t going to do it unless we could make songs as good as we did in the past and if we fuck that up, we’ll stop. But, like, the last album got some of the best reviews of our career. And we know it’s fucking brilliant (laughs). The last two have been really wonderful, and we are really on a roll right now. So, we keep going.
The band hasn’t played the United States in several years and hasn’t mounted a full tour like this in almost a decade. Why now?
Well, I live here and I have been trying to get us back every year. Richard (Butler) from the Furs sent me a nice message saying that they were going to be here this summer and I thought, “Well, maybe we can go out with you guys.” I mean, it’s a really strong bill. They are just a great band and it’s been a pleasure being able to get to perform for fans who haven’t seen us and may not be as familiar with the new stuff.
VIDEO: The making of Living In Extraordinary Times
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