When I was 13 I used to have a coughing fit every time James sang about sex. It was the opening lines of their hit single ‘Laid’ that did it: “This bed is on fire with passion and love / The neighbours complain about the noises above / But she only comes when she’s on top.” This sounded unbelievably filthy to my young ears, so when my mum made a disapproving comment after overhearing it blaring out of my bedroom I was so mortified that I’d desperately try to drown out the offending lines with an impromptu hacking cough if I thought she was within earshot.
The trouble is I had to do this a lot. James were barely off my stereo when I was a teenager – the first band to get me excited about music and, fittingly, the first band I ever saw live, at the Great Hall at Exeter University on 26 October 2000. They were even better than I’d imagined they’d be, with singer Tim Booth flailing himself into a hypnotic trance. When I heard that James were releasing their first ever boxset, ‘The Gathering Sound’, I took the chance to finally talk to Booth about growing up, life-changing gigs and blowing Brian Eno’s mind.
James in Exeter in 2000 was my introduction to live music. Do you remember the show, or have those old tours just blurred into one long gig?
I think I was sick. I may have had the flu. It’s interesting: when you get sick before a concert it strips you down so you’ve got nowhere to hide. They can either be the worst gigs you do, or some of the best. I seem to remember that being a really beautiful one, because I was just so vulnerable. Certain gigs jump out and I have memories of, and then other gigs I haven’t got a clue. I remember fantastic gigs or very bad gigs.
Is it important to you to feel vulnerable as a musician?
I have an inherited liver disease which I’ve had it all my life. It’s probably saved my life, because I can’t indulge too much in alcohol or drugs – which go hand in hand with my profession! I think having periods of severe illness gives you a strange perspective. I’ve nearly died a couple of times. Being brought close to the end, to near death, is always a good place to write from. It’s a real leveler and it’s made me look for what people would term “spiritual answers”, which really just means coming to terms with the fact that you’re going to leave this world. All of us at some point go: “What the fuck happens next?” I think that’s true of most religions – it’s everyone going: “What the fuck happens next?”
I think the fact that you were tackling those big, existential questions is what drew me to James as a teenager.
Great, I’m so happy that’s what you found. That’s what we put down there. There were artists who similarly reached out to me, especially in my teens when you’re fucking confused and asking: ‘What the fuck is this about?’ You know it’s all a fucking mess and piece of shit – or you can do! Then there are certain things that you read and you go: ‘Thank God! I’m not alone!’ They seem to have a bead on this. For me, it was Patti Smith and the writers Doris Lessing and Albert Camus. ‘The Outsider’ is one of those books where you go: ‘Oh thank God! I’m not alone.’ I love that we were part of that daisy chain, that paper chase.
I had the same experience reading Camus. What was it about Patti Smith that you connected with?
Well, speaking of Camus: there’s that amazing scene in ‘The Outsider’ where he’s imprisoned and they want the priest to come to him and he’s telling them to fuck off even as he’s about to die. So when you hear Patti Smith’s opening line on ‘Horses’: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” you realise it’s all about taking responsibility for your own life and your own sins. You also realise that within what is called ‘sin’ there’s a huge amount of power and energy. Part of what makes us individuals is sometimes doing taboo things we definitely would have been burned for hundreds of years ago by the authority. I particularly remember hearing Smith’s song ‘Birdland’ the night I was told my father was going to die. It was the first time I’d ever really listened to it and it’s about a boy losing his father. So I think that went in at a very deep level, and probably unconsciously made me become a singer and a lyricist. She was a poet, so words became hugely important to me.
What was the first gig you went to as a fan?
The very first one was when somebody dragged me to Hawkwind, with Motorhead opening for them. The second one, which was more of a conscious choice, was Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel. I think the third was the White Riot tour [The Clash, The Jam, The Buzzcocks, The Slits and Subway Sect]. That was the point from when I never looked back. That was the point from when it made sense. The fourth might have been Iggy Pop, and I was lost after that! There was no hope for me!
In 13 years I still haven’t seen many performers go into the sort of trancelike state that you do during a James show – when did you start dancing like that?
I don’t know. It was just something I could do. I used to take songs when no one else was around and I’d throw myself around the room, often ending up crying or shouting or screaming. It was my choice of release. You can see the power of dance from the fact that 100 years ago it was banned in many Christian countries, on pain of death, because it was seen as a very sinful thing. Look at Elvis! His dancing is Shamanic. Then early Iggy was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen on stage. In my 30s I met a woman who taught dance as a way of going into trances, but she recognized that that’s what I already did. You get into an ecstatic state. It’s a great place to write songs from, and an amazing place to see the world from. There’s a tradition going back to the Sufis of dancers writing poetry. It’s a tradition of ecstatic worship.
‘Sometimes’ is a personal favourite, how did you write that?
Oh, thank you! We jammed it in our rehearsal room at Beehive Mill in Manchester. We knew it would be a big song, so we sent the demo to Brian Eno. Everyone wanted to work with Eno, and they still do! He rang me up at 9 o’clock in the morning and said he’d record with us. ‘Sometimes’ was the main song he talked about. I hadn’t got the lyrics for it at the time. I had the bit about the boy who wanted to be struck by lightning but no chorus. In the studio I had to keep telling him I wasn’t ready to record it yet, because I hadn’t finished the lyrics. We had this layout where we’re in a circle around him with the recording console is in the middle of the room. Eventually we say: “Okay Brian, we’re ready to record ‘Sometimes’.” I’d got the chorus ready and I hadn’t told them. He’s prowling around the floor while we were playing the start of the song, just waiting to see what I’d got. I sang the chorus and he kind of went white and sat down while we were playing. I thought: ‘Oh shit, he doesn’t like it’. When we finished he didn’t say anything. He had his head in his hands on the desk and we all crowded round him and eventually he looked up and he said: “I’ve just experienced one of the highlights of my musical life.” We went: “Woah!” We were completely blown away. That someone we held in such high esteem could have such a physical, tangible reaction to that song. His reaction was one of our highlights of our musical life!
Just to burst our balloon and bring us down to Earth, I was going through customs in Manchester airport once, and one of the customs guys is frisking me and he goes: “You’re in that band James?” I go: “Yeah.” He says: “That song ‘Sometimes’: does the chorus lyric bear any relationship to the verse?” I said: “Not really.” And he said: “Thought not. I’m a Morrissey man myself.”
Everyone’s a critic.
Everyone’s a critic, and there are just some lyrics that don’t make sense. The chorus in some ways doesn’t connect with the verse – I don’t know why I’m singing that chorus but I’m singing that fucking chorus because I know it’s the right chorus for that song. Some of my favourite songs lyrically don’t make sense – the Pixies: what the fuck are they singing about on most of their songs? Then there are other lyrics that I want to make sense all the way through. Lyrics are a mystery, in terms of what works and what doesn’t. Lyrics are important to me. Some of those Patti songs hit me in the subconscious even though they don’t necessarily make literal conscious sense.
Speaking of lyrics, the opening lines of ‘Laid’ used to make me so embarrassed I’d have to cough over the word “comes” if my mum was around.
Well, I just hope you don’t still cough whenever sex is discussed. A censored version was released with the line: “But she only hums when she’s on top”. Normally I refuse to censor our lyrics, but I found that quite witty.
James’ boxset, The Gathering Sound, is out now on Universal.