Songs from the strangest of days: James talk ahead of Birmingham show
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary music. So it’s just as well that James are back with new songs forged in these strangest of days.
The Mancunians returned last spring with their aptly titled 15th album Living In Extraordinary Times.
It showed James to be as vital, visceral and urgent as ever.
James are one of British indie rock’s most celebrated and enduring bands. Formed in 1982 in Whalley Range, Manchester, the band went on to produce a string of huge hits during the next three decades, including Come Home, Sit Down, She’s A Star and Laid.
The band’s longevity can be attributed to their constant process of renewal and reinvention. Their 2016 album, Girl At The End Of The World, debuted at #2 in the UK Album Charts. In total, they have sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, including their 1998 BEST OF which was a UK #1 and went triple platinum. Their reputation as a uniquely transcendent live act is well-earned, having headlined festivals throughout the world from Glastonbury in 1992 to Festival No 6 in 2015.
The new recording sessions were overseen by Mercury Prize winning producer Charlie Andrew and rising star Beni Giles. The former had come to the band’s attention through his work with alt-J. “When their first record came out, I thought the production and the arrangements were genius,” says singer and lyricist Tim Booth. “So, I wrote to Charlie quite early on and told him I wanted to work with him”.
Beni Giles had already been working with the band on creating a new rhythmical approach when Charlie Andrew, who won a Brit Award as Producer of The Year in 2016, joined the project after being blown away by the band live. “We were definitely trying to capture as much of the live energy as we could. This album is full of big tunes. Tim and the guys are all very good at writing huge hooks. There’s some really big, energetic tracks and some nice, chilled ones. There are monstrous tracks like Hank, which is just vast with layers and layers of drums”.
Bassist Jim Glennie was impressed by the impact Charlie and Beni had on the rhythmic sound of the new record. “It wasn’t what I expected,” he says. “We were creating belting, banging layers of rhythm rather than relying on fancy programming. It was us in a room hitting things. That pushed us in a different direction and, live, it’s going to be wonderful”.
Tim Booth is an Englishman in America, and that particular perspective on Donald Trump’s American carnage couldn’t help but have an impact on the writing of the record.
“You can’t write lyrics in the time of Trump and not have some reflection of that,” says Booth, who has made his home in California for the last 10 years. “Originally he was sneaking into nearly every home at some level. Then I had to say, ‘I really won’t let this guy have this record’. I whittled it down to two or three songs where I would really focus on what’s going on, but he’s still the backdrop to the record; the horror-show of American politics”.
Another song on the album, Many Faces, was written as a response to Trump’s claim that he would build a border wall with Mexico. “We don’t need walls,” says Booth. “What we need is diversity and interconnectedness, not the other way around. It’s the tribal mentality which will destroy us, if nothing else does. It’s that which will make us drop the bomb. The more that we see that we’re the same, the less likely we are to kill each other. I’m hoping that song will match Sometimes for its emotional clout live. If we can get an audience singing, ‘There’s only one human race, many faces’ then that’s going to be beautiful”.
As well as biting social commentary, Living In Extraordinary Times also sees Booth speak frankly about deeply personal issues. On Coming Home Pt 2 he writes – not for the first time – about the pain of being a father on tour away from a young child. “I wrote [1989 single] Come Home feeling awful about leaving my older kid and splitting up with his Mum,” he explains. “This is part two, a sequel to that. My family is together but I’m away traveling a lot”.
That song features an appearance from long time James collaborator Brian Eno. “Brian’s keyboards are in there,” says Davies, “bubbling away like mad”.
Living In Extraordinary Times started life in three weeks of jamming sessions at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield, featuring Booth, Davies, Glennie and keyboard player Mark Hunter. “We all felt at home there,” says Booth of their adopted town. “Sheffield’s an incredibly cool city.”
They finished recording at Iguana Studios in Brixton, London. “This was the most harmonious time we’ve had making an album for a long time,” says Booth. “I think that’s to do with the chemistry between the band and the producers. This was certainly much easier and effortless than anything we’ve made since Laid.”
“We’re still pushing,” adds Glennie. “Each record we do, it feels like we’re trying to do something different, to break out of something and to find something new.”
James took their new music on the road last summer with festivals in the UK and Europe, and further shows.
“When you see James live, you see that we’re still an organism that’s alive; growing and shifting and changing,” says Booth. “There aren’t many of us who have been around for this long who are still doing that.”
There’s nobody quite like JAMES.
But, like we said, extraordinary times call for extraordinary music.
l James headline Birmingham’s O2 Academy on Thursday. They’ll play an acoustic support slot, followed by a headline band slot.