The return of the Madchester men: James are back

James are back with songs that explore sex, and the passing away of friends and family

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Tim Booth is talking to me about sex. As he broaches the subject, which crops up a lot on James’s new album Le Petit Mort (and not just in its orgasmic title), he removes the woolly hat from his head to reveal a bald pate.

“I’ve always been pretty fascinated by sex,” he says. To me, it’s fascinating, wild, confusing, rich. And it keeps us primal!” Beside him, James’ bassist Jim Glennie listens, unreadable half smile on his face.

“Okay, look, I don’t want to get all Sting about it, but people do have transcendental experiences through sex. It’s a fascinating subject to delve into, to write songs about.”

Tim Booth is 54 years old, still the hypnotic frontman of James, in so many ways Manchester’s most maverick sons, and, according to BBC 6 Music listeners, who voted their 1989 single “Come Home” as the best Manchester anthem of all time, among the very best.

James’s new album does not sound like the work of an act well into its fourth decade. Throughout all the coitus obsession (in the track “Curse Curse”, for example, he sings: “In my hotel room, sounds from next door, someone getting laid/ God’s name is proclaimed, the end is on its way”), they sound alive and playful and endlessly curious. It’s not all sex, though. Death gets a look in, too.

“I write about whatever is happening around me. In this case, sex and death.” Within a couple of months of each other last year, he relays, his mother died, so too one of his closest friends. “They were two very opposite experiences. My mother died in my arms at the age of 90. It was a quite beautiful experience, euphoric; it felt like a birth. And then my friend went. She had kept her cancer from me, and I didn’t get to say goodbye. I was devastated.”

The album itself, he suggests, is something of a rebirth for the band that first got together in 1983. They are on a major label again, BMG, and for the first time in over a decade had the budget to record in a big studio. The last time they made music, for the 2010 mini album The Morning After, each member worked from home, then emailed the results to others. “An experience we chose not to repeat,” Glennie notes. But then they always were one of the more idiosyncratic acts to come of age during Madchester, perhaps the only ones to boast an improvisational trumpeter (Andy Diagram), and the only ones to be produced by Brian Eno (he worked on 1993’s Laid). And in Booth, they had a genuine one-off, a Buddhist-leaning vegetarian with shamanic tendencies who would go into trance-like states during live performances.

But Booth insists that James were indeed a typical Manchester act. He was only asked to join in the first place, he says, when their original singer was sent to Strangeways for GBH. “Their background wasn’t dissimilar to, say, Oasis’s. It’s just that wasn’t fully appreciated because the band was so often seen through me, this middle-class meditation practitioner from Yorkshire, with a boarding school background.”

It was Booth who introduced the band to the benefits of meditation, convinced it might help them deal with their various issues. And for a while it did. But old habits die hard, and by the mid-1990s, James now on the cusp of stadium-sized success, the group meditation sessions were ditched in favour of more predictable proclivities. By the decade’s end, they were, in Booth’s words, “very psychologically disturbed.

By 2001, shortly after their album Pleased to Meet You, they split. Multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies, guitarist Larry Gott, keyboard player Mark Hunter and drummer Dave Baynton-Power each went their separate ways. Glennie and his family retreated to the Scottish Highlands, while Booth, with wife and son, made Los Angeles his home, where he retrained as an actor (cropping up in the 2005 Batman Begins movie), and taught a form of dancing to help people reach higher states.

They reconvened six years later for all the usual reasons – they were better together than apart, had moved on mentally, physically and spiritually. At a reunion lunch, they created a set of rules to abide by, listing traps not to fall into. “Thou shalt not fuck this up all again was pretty high on the list,” Glennie laughs.

All of which leads them to here, and now, a new album when most of their peers are reliant largely on greatest hits collections.

“There is a glass ceiling in music, isn’t there?” Booth muses. “But who says you have to write your best material in your twenties? That’s ageism, and it’s wrong. Why can’t you do it in your fifties and beyond?” He’s put his woolly hat back on now, all business. “If Springsteen can do it, we can too.”

‘Le Petit Mort’ by James is released on Cooking Vinyl/BMG in June. James are performing at Latitude Festival Saturday 19th July, Obelisk Arena.