James: ‘We were so hopelessly indie-schmindie it made Belle and Sebastian look like Whitesnake’

Near-death experiences! Cults! Getting thrown across the stage by Keith Flint! An audience with the Manchester band is never dull. As they return with a new album, they reflect on their hallucinatory 40-year-long career and how some unconventional therapy saved them with Mark Beaumont

Friday 04 June 2021 09:14 BST
<p>James: ‘I personally think grief is, if you can, something to face and to walk into. It has a purpose and its purpose is to break our hearts'</p>

James: ‘I personally think grief is, if you can, something to face and to walk into. It has a purpose and its purpose is to break our hearts'

Tim Booth hesitates at using the words “spiritual vision”, but there seems no other description for his glimpse of blazing armageddon last year. “I had a vision,” he grins, fully aware of his astral surfing reputation – not just as the frontman of Manchester indie legends James but a veteran of alternative therapies ranging from primal scream to intense meditation, ecstatic dance and being set on fire with rubbing alcohol. “It was during a ceremony with an indigenous shaman from Peru. I saw earthquakes and fires in California and I saw myself driving our family out, and we got away. I saw this devastation.

‘It was like watching a movie,” he continues, “and then it stopped, and then it started again, on repeat. My mind came to a crashing halt after about 25 minutes. I virtually convinced myself that these were my own apocalyptic fears just externalised. We woke up the next day at nine o’clock, and the whole place was full of smoke and California was on fire.”

In a year of fear, tragedy and upheaval for so many, Booth has certainly felt the heat of the times. After several years of close calls (“We had wildfires at least once a week, within five miles of us,” he says) and keeping emergency bags packed by the door of his family’s home in the wilderness of Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles in case of sudden evacuation, Booth’s “vision” finally convinced them to move out to Costa Rica. His days of singing to the coyotes and bobcats and “getting a little Californian ruggedness into my brittle English bones” may now be behind him, his premonition still inching towards reality.

“In England, the climate extinction crisis isn’t so obvious,” he says, horizontal on his sister’s couch in London as if awaiting Zoom interview therapy. “America, with its extreme climate, typhoons, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, it’s going to exponentially increase in the next few years, and I’m going to look to see where we’re going to be able to land.”

In the year it took him to relocate to Central America, Booth also lost his father-in-law to Covid and watched American democracy very nearly collapse around him. All of which fed into James’s 16th album, All the Colours of You, written collectively pre-pandemic and recorded remotely during lockdown with Booth’s Topanga neighbour and superproducer Jacknife Lee at the dial; a deal sealed when, driving home from a toe-dip meeting, Booth was flagged down by two women in the road, scared of a rattlesnake in the road. “I said ‘hop in’ and I turn the car around and drive them back up the hill. And it’s Jacknife’s wife and daughter.”

The new album merges the Manchester indie legends’ mastery of the soul-searching guitar anthem with elements of future rock, synthetic psychedelia and electro rave, marking another stylistic twist in one of rock music’s most successful and unpredictable comebacks. Since reforming for 2008’s Hey Ma (following a much needed seven-year hiatus, to clear the air between them) James have bucked the flash-bang reunion trend to grow in stature.

Over an uncompromising decade they gradually rebuilt their standing until 2016’s Girl at the End of the World and 2018’s Living in Extraordinary Times reclaimed the chart highs of their early Nineties peak, when “Sit Down” and “Come Home” helped define the communal euphoria of the Madchester scene and “Laid” set America aflame with passionate love. “The album’s really positive,” says bassist Jim Glennie from his Highlands home. “Some of the lyrics are dark, but [Lee] adds a joy to counterbalance that, which I think is really needed now – the last thing people want is a depressing record. He’s contemporised us, he’s pushed us kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”

The record certainly needed lightening up. “Beautiful Beaches” captures Booth’s escape from wildfire country; disco noir single “Recover” details the isolations of lockdown and the death of his father-in-law “in a world all alone”. Does it help to confront grief in song? “It helps me, selfishly,” Booth says. “I hope it helps other people. I’ve had mainly positive responses to it. I had one furious reaction saying ‘we’ve all suffered, you self-indulgent t***, you should be uplifting us, that’s your job, earn it’. It went on for quite a few tweets, it was quite spectacular. I figured they must have lost somebody.’

“I personally think grief is, if you can, something to face and to walk into. It has a purpose and its purpose is to break our hearts. And when our hearts are broken, hopefully we expand. Look at Biden. I might not agree with him politically but he’s had deep grief in his life and it’s made him empathetic. And the contrast to Trump is just profound. It’s maybe all that’s needed right now, somebody who actually gives a s*** about people suffering.”

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‘When our hearts are broken, hopefully we expand’

Though Booth is at pains to avoid painting All the Colours… as a political record, it’s nonetheless an unflinching reflection of the world in 2021. State-of-the-States lament “Miss America” attacks the USA’s inherent historic racism and “love of guns”. The brutal and cinematic “Wherever it Takes Us”, inspired by the Portland protests, follows an injured, tear-gassed protester transcending into a digital multiverse afterlife of pure data. And if their previous album was something of a lament for truth, democracy and humanity in an era with “white fascists in the White House”, the new album’s title track reads today like the door hitting the former president’s backside on the way out, likening Covid quarantine with being trapped in Trump’s “dis-United States” and declaring “he’s the Ku Klux Klan, coup-coup, coup-coup”.

“I wrote that lyric eight months before the coup,” Booth says. “Trump is a potential fascist dictator. He has gone on record as saying we have to stop the mass of Americans voting because if they do vote the Republicans will never win another election. And that’s what they were trying to do, stop the vote. So my take on [the election] was, if Trump gets in, America will become an overtly fascist country, and definitely there’s some weird f***ing link going on with other dictators. The way he was subservient to Putin was very strange. The other aspect was, I thought if Biden got in there would be some kind of attempted coup, and then there would be so much white terrorism in America that it would again become very hard to live in… the contemporary versions of the Klan that we see in America, who can put up a scaffold in front of Congress when they’re looking for Nancy Pelosi to hang, you’ve got some major white terrorist organisations going on there and we don’t fully get our heads around that in England, how [out in the] open those people are.”

Trump was an amazing cult to some degree, he was a really abusive cult leader

Tim Booth

Booth thinks America’s white supremacy problem isn’t going back underground any time soon. “It’s not going to get back in [the box], it has to be met. Too many people have gone ‘we’re OK now, Biden’s got in’. Oh, no, all you have to do is drop into the reality tunnels of Fox News or the other even more right-wing news organisations benefiting from Trump at the moment, just drop in for 20 minutes and you’ll see that they are alive and kicking and speaking to 30 odd per cent of Americans. It’s really scary… We are in a time where consensus reality is crashing and people are fleeing to different belief systems for some kind of certainty. QAnon is obviously a massively impactful cult [and] Trump was an amazing cult to some degree, he was a really abusive cult leader.”

Booth knows a thing or two about cults: he once joined one. Early in James’s career, he had a near-death experience in hospital due to an undiagnosed liver disease that had made his teenage years at boarding school a living hell and left him “sick of life”. “I remember breathing out and out and out and dropping back,” he says of the experience, “and going ‘Hey, this is really peaceful, this is great’. And then I remember a commotion in the room and a nurse coming in and making me breathe, and being a little bit pissed off. A deep sense of peace was my memory of it.” Told by a doctor that western medicine could do nothing for him, he began a lifelong exploration of alternative eastern ideas instead. “I went to Chinese herbs,” he says. “I was doing yoga, I started meditating, I started doing visualisation to try and heal it, I went on a vegetarian diet, I did enemas, I did every f***ing thing out there.”

Healing too slowly and short on will to live, Booth soon found himself drawn towards stricter, more cult-like practices. Alongside Glennie, he joined Lifewave, a meditation group founded by John Yarr that demanded a strict routine of sobriety, celibacy, fasting and meditation sessions of up to 16 hours at a time. “I was a monk. Celibate, no alcohol, no drugs, meditating hours every day, hours every weekend,” Booth says. “It saved my life. Jim said it saved his too. It was a f***ed-up cult, of course, but the thing about cults is they often have something at the centre of them that’s really positive. I wanted proof of the existence of some intelligence behind life, and I found it in meditation, for me. I got my dramatic moment where I went, ‘Holy f***, there’s something here, that is behind all this’. I gave myself a year, quite frankly, to find proof of the existence of some intelligence to life, or I was going. And I found it within that year. So I’d say it probably saved my life.”

“I don’t think I’ve had any singular bigger positive impact on my life,” Glennie agrees. “We joined a ridiculous cult with a ridiculous leader that ended up shagging half the women, just the total cliche, but I went into that angry and pretty messed up and it focused me and sorted me out for the rest of my life. It gave me a huge amount of self-discipline at a time when I really needed it. I was really surprised that we weren’t asked to pull the plug. If Lifewave would have wanted us to leave, we would have left the band. So I’ve got that to thank them for, that they didn’t make us leave.”

When Lifewave collapsed in 1987 over accusations of Yarr’s sexual misconduct amongst the members (“one of the ‘enlightened teachers’, who got sent abroad to Africa so [Yarr] could f*** his wife, went round and beat him up,” says Booth), James were already earning themselves a name as the modest men of Madchester. Multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies, joining on violin in 1989, found a band happy to ohm away in their own little sonic world.

“There was this mad self-belief in the band that we had music that we felt like people should hear,” says Davies from his own Highlands retreat, “but they were knocking back opportunities to be on the front cover of NME and Melody Maker and Sounds, going ‘no, we don’t want to be successful, success will kill it, we just want a few people who love what we’re doing’. Just prior to me joining they’d written this song called ‘Sit Down’. We did a really weird version of the song at Bath Moles club and Edward Barton did a video with sheep in it. We were so hopelessly indie-schmindie it made Belle and Sebastian look like Whitesnake. A lot of our peers were much more ambitious. You saw the [Stone] Roses wandering around and you thought ‘f*** me, they sing about being the resurrection and they f***ing are, they know how to be proper rock stars’. Here’s us sitting in [Manchester vegetarian hangout] the Eighth Day Cafe eating our f***ing carrot cake. It may be the case that when you least look for something you get it. By 1991 we were filling arenas and people were saying we were gonna be the next U2. How did that happen?”

'There was this mad self-belief in the band that we had music that we felt like people should hear’

As with so many rock’n’roll stories, James’s success with 1990’s breakthrough album Gold Mother and its arena friendly follow-ups Seven (1992) and Laid (1993, the first of five albums produced with Brian Eno) planted the seed of their (thankfully brief) demise: they became a James of two halves. Booth, keen to reach the state of onstage abandon of heroes like Iggy Pop and Patti Smith without drugs and alcohol, continued exploring alternative therapies. “I want to feel my fear,” he explains. He practiced his famously jelly-limbed dancing eight hours a day as a route to altered states, working with shamans aplenty and recently discovering the wonders of psychedelic therapy, “whether that’s MDMA, ketamine therapy, or psilocybin therapy. I’ve been lucky enough to work with that, and it’s astonishing. Without therapeutic grounding, it’s dangerous. But with a really good person holding space, it can be a year’s worth of conventional therapy in one session.”

His bandmates, meanwhile, were quietly turning into Manchester’s Mötley Crüe. “We were quite uptight early on,” Glennie explains, “Getting success the first time round was a weird puritanical mission to justify what we’ve always been trying to achieve. There wasn’t a lot of fun involved. And then when we got the second wave, in the States with Laid, it was ‘well, let’s enjoy ourselves’. We drank a lot, and everything else that came our way as well, we just went for it, and we seemed untouchable.

No one seemed to believe it was happening. We had journalists with us on the road, yet virtually nothing would get written about – because it clashed with how somebody wanted to portray us, they just completely ignored it. It’s almost like we had this get-out-of-jail card that meant we could do sodding anything and we were virtually invisible. I think the problem with Tim was because he’s always had health issues and a weak liver that he’d inherited, it was physically difficult for him to party. And we stupidly let the gap grow, we let there become a division between us and him.”

“We went on a tour with Orbital, The Prodigy, Snoop Dogg, Tricky, Tool and Korn, and the security would say, ‘watch out for James, they are the biggest f***ing troublemakers here’,” says Booth, who spent that whole 1997 Lollapalooza rodeo on a separate bus, having a dancing injury tended to by a nurse. “They were completely rat-arsed by midday. If you ask Orbital they will probably tell you some funny stories about James stealing golf buggies, crashing them into the stage and being chased by security with guns.”

“I remember walking down a corridor backstage at Lollapalooza [1997] wearing some stupid little shorts and high heels with ‘F***’ and ‘ME’ written on the fronts of my legs,” says Davies. “Madonna came out of a room and said ‘wow, you look awesome!’ I’m thinking ‘that’s cool’. I must’ve looked preposterous.”

There was a lot of addiction going on… I thought someone would get killed

Tim Booth

Driving Suede out of their Reading festival dressing room with “intense techno”. Cross-dressing to provoke the American rock audiences who were flinging homophobic slurs at them. Davies being thrown across a Lollapalooza stage by Keith Flint in front of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, then banned from hanging out with The Prodigy for being “a bad influence”. The stories mounted; the fractures deepened. By 1999’s Millionaires the band – and particularly Booth and Glennie – were “in a difficult place with each other” so, with relations “civil” on 2001’s Pleased to Meet You, a connoisseur’s James album, Booth felt it was a good time to go out on a high. “There was a lot of addiction going on… I thought someone would get killed. I thought someone would die in James and I didn’t really want to be around or feel like I was any part of enabling that.”

The James of 2021 are “reformed” in so many ways. Davies decided to take a fortnight off drinking 14 years ago and never went back. Glennie has acknowledged that accepting the differences in the band and treating his relationship with Booth as “fragile” are key to keeping James together. And their appeal today stretches far beyond mere Nineties nostalgia value. They remain an ambitious, creative and unpredictable act capable of forming real communal connections with audiences. They still walk an adventurous line between worldly mysticism and melodic Manchester grit. And they’ve stayed prescient, pertinent and politically charged ever since suggesting we “break down government walls” back in 1990. So they’ve naturally envisaged the post-Covid new normal.

“It’s almost like the Matrix dropped,” says Booth. “Certainly the capitalistic Matrix, the Matrix of money… Now I’m fairly sure, we being humans, if the machine gets up and running our amnesia will kick in within a month or two and we may forget some of these lessons, but I don’t think we should. I think we have to use this to challenge the hypnotism we live under… [Society] is an agreed set of beliefs that we think we have to play by and Covid has smashed many of those agreed sets of beliefs. I don’t want to go back to playing by them, because they were pretty hollow to begin with. The endless consumerism, the endless sense of wanting more, the endless bulls***, the endless fear[-mongering] from media news.

“Before Covid,” he continues, “the idea of trying to respond as a global human race to the extinction crisis seemed an impossibility, because we’ve never seen every country work together to do the same thing. After Covid, a response to global extinction, you can’t argue against that anymore. It’s obviously absolutely possible.”

All the Colours of You is out now

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