“You can compare it to other art forms like being a painter. They might have painted something amazing 20 years ago, but their exhibition is about what they’ve painted now”
In 1986 James released their raw and inciting debut album Strutter, reaching a modest number 68 in the UK charts whilst gaining generally favorable reviews, notably from Smash Hits writer Duncan Wright, who described each song on the record as a “polished nugget of fantasy and imagination full of mind-boggling details” – a quote which could just so easily describe every James record since. From the dizzy commercial heights of 1993’s ‘Laid’ to the viscerally abrasive ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’ (2018), the dam of predictably has never burst for James, because they never built one in the first place. You will always fall in love with the music for different reasons, and that’s just how they like it. Challenge the audience, change perceptions and *never* play the same setlist twice.
35 years on with 22 million records sold worldwide, the band are showing no signs of slowing or resting on their laurels; still pushing sonic boundaries whilst maintaining those very same levels of fantasy, imagination and mind-boggling details. Whilst the themes of the songs may have moved on from brain eating insects and satirical takes on the concepts of outdoor music, the essence of the process rings true and still stems the interpretable musical chemistry of band and the enigmatic beauty of Tim Booth’s lyrical wonderment.
On the eve of their 16th studio release ‘All The Colours Of You’ I spoke to the band’s longest serving member; bass player and songwriter Jim Glennie to get an insight into the band’s latest work and find out just how the group have navigated their way through the everchanging cascades of social and political turmoil over the last 16 months.
The new album strikes me as a musically diverse record – what was the process behind the writing and recording of it?
It’s been a bizarre experience really. Fortunately for us, just before Covid we’d just finished the writing of the songs. The writing is the bit where we need to be together, I don’t think we could’ve done that remotely. We have a weird way of writing, which is four of us: me, Tim, Saul and Mark (the songwriters) just putting a drum machine on and improvising. Nobody brings anything in and goes “hey we’ve got some chords here” or anything”. We just play, listen and record everything. The jams last for anything between 8 minutes and half an hour. Within the jams you get ups, downs, breakdowns and mad musical landscapes. We then hone them ideas down into listenable demos. The demoing stage we can do remotely from our own studios, just chopping things up and piecing things together. The big hurdle was actually finishing the album! We normally get a producer, find a big studio somewhere and we’ll be in a house close by (like a bed & breakfast) and we’ll be there when the producer needs something from us like a decision or any parts that might need playing. We couldn’t do that this time, so we had to do everything remotely.
You worked with well acclaimed producer Jacknife Lee on the record – it sounds like you had an idea of the musical direction in the bag beforehand. Therefore, was it more a case of him shaping the record afterwards rather than informing the process?
Fortunately, he lives 15 minutes from Tim, who happened to have his contact details. We were keen to give it a shot, and thankfully he was available and not too He wanted to work from home to be with his family, so we sent him the demos and he really liked them. And because Tim lived just 15 minutes away from his house, he could act as our representative. So, whatever we had decided together as songwriters, Tim would go in, deal with Jackknife and push things forward on our behalf. The demo’s that we had were quite evolved with character and identity, but we often want things to change beyond that point. We’re not in the mindset of “this is how it sounds, we’ll now leave it alone”, we want the producer to have an input and musically contribute. Jackknife did a demo of ‘All The Colours Of You’ and we loved it; there was a kind of joy and positivity to it.
Underneath the joy and positivity there are lyrics (on the new album) that seem quite politically charged – is that a reflection of the last 12 months with the Black Lives Matter movement and renewed conversations around American imperialism?
Tim always reflects what’s going on around him in his life, it’s just how he writes living in America. With the Trump stuff, build up to the election and peoples fear of Trump getting in again. That was a big fear for anyone normal, realised by all the nonsense after he didn’t get in by trying to deny the vote and clinging onto power. That fear of the armed right wing of America makes for scary times really. Tim’s father in law died on his own in hospital of Covid just like thousands of other people have. It represents a genuine expression of the times and what people have gone through and what he went through. There’s a lot of topics on there (whether we like it or not) that are punchy, edgy and quite dark. We wanted musical uplift to that and not to write a depressing record. The last thing people need now is a depressing record.
Would you say that encapsulates James as a whole – dark undertones with uplifting music?
It’s a big part of the writing. When Tim writes a dark lyric, we don’t go dark musically. It’s kind of hope and optimism. It’s the emotional reaction we want from people when we play a gig; taking people on an emotional journey: the ups, downs and unexpected. But overall, we want people to leave happy. We want people to be sweaty, knackered, losing their voice from singing but smiling. We’re aware of that when we write songs, people don’t want to wallow in something. There might be a time in your life when you do for whatever reason, but for us as a band it’s about expressing things that are important, expressing things that might be difficult… but at the same time there has to be hope and optimism.
In the new record I can hear shades of Depeche Mode, OMD and even the Pet Shop Boys. ‘Wherever It Takes Us’ screams Neil Tenant to me – personally as the bass player, does what you are listening to at home influence the final record?
I can, but I try to consciously not do that to be honest. I know I’m affected by the things that I like and don’t like. On this record virtually all my bass lines came from the jams. We only replaced one and used ten of the original bass lines. ‘Wherever It Takes Us’ was the only one I replaced so I didn’t have time to stop and think about it, I usually I replace most of them. On the last album (Living In Extraordinary Times) three were taken from the jam and the rest I replaced with the producer. On this one Jacknife was happy with what I’d done. I’d very happily send over lots of bass tapes like “I’ve gone a bit funky on this one or I’ve gone a bit reggae on that” and completely confused him for months on end, but he was happy with the process and what I’d came up with in the jams.
Tim once said in an interview: “rock dies when it becomes theatre” in reference to bands just resting on their laurels – do you have a natural affinity with other artists that resist that big pay day and transition into becoming a heritage act by pushing on and making new records?
New music is our art. You can compare it to other art forms like being a painter. They might have painted something amazing 20 years ago, but their exhibition is about what they’ve painted now. An author writes a book, they might have written an amazing book 20 years ago, but it’s about what they’ve written now. The songs we are writing now are a reflection of where we are at in the present. This is as good as we can be at this moment, as individuals and creative beings. That’s massively important and why we do it. We don’t want to be a covers band doing James songs; it sounds shit and we wouldn’t bother. Its about creating something, pushing yourself and doing something that lives up to the standard of things we’ve done in the past. Yes, we’ve had big hits, god bless them because that’s why we’re still here. But for us new music is everything.
Does some of that ambition to keep pushing on come from the fans also that consistently receive the new music in a positive light?
Primarily that’s because we have demanded that from them over the years. We’ve demanded that they let us do what we have to do to stay together as a band. We’re quite selfish in a lot of respects. We change the setlist every night, we don’t play the big hits all the time, because if we did, we’d get bored and leave… then they wouldn’t have a band. So, you’ve gotta love us for the way we do it. There’ll be some nights where we’ll be the best band on the planet and others, we’ll make mistakes. But if you let us do our thing there’ll be some nights where we will be the best band on the planet. They give us free reign to do that because we like to challenge our audiences in a way that they don’t expect. We’re there every gig and every rehearsal. If I didn’t do something that kept me interested and vital, then I’d leave. Why we just want to go through the motions?
How much are you looking forward to finally getting back on stage with the new material and going on the road with fellow legendary Manchester band Happy Mondays?
It’s really positive, but it’s been such a problematic 15 months. Everything that you thought you could rely on, you can’t. God willing these are baby steps in the right direction… we’ll do some rehearsals, we’ll do some festivals, we’ll do a tour. It will happen but it’s hard for me to go “brilliant yeah it’s going to happen”. It’s really exciting and we’re looking forward to playing the new stuff to people. There’s always a stage in the development of a song where you imagine it live and a kind of adrenaline rush comes. You get attracted to that even though the gigs are a long time away. We lots of slow songs and struggle to work out what to do with them, but you can’t put loads in a gig. On our last tour we supported ourselves acoustically. We had a little stage in front of our own gear so we could play the songs that we wanted to play in a stripped-down way. But you know inherently that you have to give people something to dance and sing along to in the end. You can’t deny them of that.
There’s a lot of talk about certification to get into gigs and the likes of Ian Brown have voiced their opposition to this – do you think there may be split between artists on this issue?
I think for things like insurance, there will be some sort of guidelines for promoters to be able to put gigs on. It depends on where we go from here. If things continue to tick forward and everyone gets more confident as we start to open up and nothing weird happens then it’ll be okay. I think there’ll be a few bumps and minor conflict, but I don’t see a major split. There’s no point in freaking out and overly worrying about the situation because there’s nothing we can do about it. It feels like it’s a world issue and not a local issue. We need to get the planet sorted or we may end up with a variant works its way around the vaccine. I don’t think politically we’ve got our heads round that yet. I’d like to think that some of the positive qualities we’ve found over the last year somehow do spread into our existence past this point and we learn something from this. Empathy, understanding and sympathy.
You can only ever play one song onstage ever again and there’s 30,000 people in the crowd – which song would you choose?
I’d probably say ‘Sometimes’. Whenever we play it at gigs it’s like a religious experience. It just builds to that massive ending. You can go on for about 2 hours playing that. When you listen to it, it’s actually the same chords all the way through. Early on, back in the day when we were writing songs in the practice room you couldn’t fucking hear anything, so if you tried to change anything nobody would follow you, so you’d go to put a different chord in and nobody else would change. Now we can change chords all the time because we can hear what we’re doing. I remember sitting in the jam for ‘Sometimes’… it sits on the ‘A’ for three bars in a five-bar cycle, which is bizarre, especially for Tim. If you listen to him singing it’s a nightmare to learn in that cycle. It’s a bastard to play if you’re not paying attention and drift off for a second, you can go arse over tit. A difficult one for me is thinking about the next song and what pedals to press and you are just somewhere else… in that situation you will balls it up.
‘All The Colours Of You’ is out now on EMI Records. Visit James Website. James are due to play a range of UK festivals this summer followed by a winter arena tour. Tickets available here: https://wearejames.com/live/