40-somethings everywhere hold British band James close to their hearts, having joyfully (and often drunkenly) sang along to their anthemic classics, Come Home, Sit Down, Born of Frustration, Laid, Say Something and She’s a Star during the 80s and 90s. Formed by Mancunian friends Jim Glennie (bass), Paul Gilbertson (guitar), Tim Booth (vocals), and Gavan Whelan (drums) – and first signed by Tony Wilson of Factory Records – James cycled through their fair share of labels and line-ups, but produced a commendable number of bestselling albums all the while, including five gold and two silver LP’s worldwide. After bitterly splitting in 2001, then wholeheartedly rejoining in 2006, James proved to everyone including themselves that they were nothing if not passionate about their craft.
From his London hotel just days before embarking on a North American tour, Jim Glennie admits that while James has matured considerably over their 30-year career, they’re just as excited by the madness as ever.
Starting at the beginning, can you tell me what it was you envisioned or hoped for when you first formed James all those years ago?
Oh, I don’t know…there was no big master plan; we just got very, very excited by creating music and then terrified by going out and playing for people in a venue (laughs). We were somehow attracted to that weird, mad fear that we felt every time we went on stage to play concerts for people. I don’t know quite how good we were at that stage to be honest, but we were addicted to it and it was a buzz that I’d never imagined. I just couldn’t leave it behind.
Does it feel the same even now?
It does, even to this day (laughs). I just genuinely cannot believe we’re still here. Every time we go to sit together in a room to write songs – because that’s the way we’ve always done it – part of me wonders, ‘Will there be a song waiting there for us?’ We improvise when we write; there’s no preparation and there’s no sitting down and working things out on a piano – it’s just what appears in the room. I’ve always been amazed at how that happens and I’m equally amazed when it happens again. It feels quite…fragile, I suppose. Even though we’ve been doing it for 30 years (laughs) it feels like it could just be taken away just like that.
When you go back and read the bio of James, all the major milestones are well documented and it all seems very much like an cohesive, uphill climb – but did it feel that way to you while you were actually experiencing it or did it feel mad and frantic always?
Oh, it was mad and frantic and all over the place with lots of ups and downs. We’ve had some real disasters (laughs). There were lots of personal crashes and collisions: close friends leaving the band, Tim and me falling out for years which was just disastrous and awful… Those are the big things that can throw you off. It’s been a roller coaster that has always been headed in one direction but with a lot of sharp descents on both a business and personal level. So, you’re right – it does all look like everything panned out quite nicely and as it should have, but in the midst of it, it felt terribly chaotic and uncertain.
1990’s Gold Mother (reissued in North America as James) is credited as the album where the band hit their stride and gained widespread appeal – did you know when you released it that it would be a game changer?
No, not really. Gold Mother is a great record and you’re right, there are a lot of big tunes on it and it broke us in the UK, but in the States it was Laid. We’ve had various milestones when it comes to commercial success but seemingly never often at the same time or in the same place (laughs). I mean, in the UK, Sit Down is just absolutely huge but anywhere else it’s Laid or Born of Frustration. In Greece it’s different and in Portugal it’s different…Maybe that’s even helped us to some degree.
What about the Madchester movement? Did you feel a part of that or that you benefitted at all from it?
I don’t think we did feel part of it and I don’t think we benefitted from it. We knew the people in those bands very well but I think consciously we always stayed one step apart from it. We’d been going for a fair chunk of time by then and we weren’t particularly a new arrival on the scene while many of the others were. We shared a rehearsal space with Inspiral Carpets and we took Happy Mondays on tour with us but we were a little worried about getting pigeonholed and hoped that if and when the tide went out, we wouldn’t be swept off with it. It was an absolutely mad, fun time during that whole period but musically, we kept carefully to one side of it.
Certainly the big James anthem here in Canada was Laid. Even now, it’s a ‘retro’ staple and it brings back so many great memories… What is it about Laid – and any other James hit for that matter – that resonates so strongly with people?
I really, really don’t know…I mean Laid is just a throwaway little pop song; it’s not very long, there’s not a great deal to it. The version that’s on the record we actually recorded as a demo in a little studio, and when we tried to re-record it with Brian Eno, nothing captured that original magic. It’s really, really scrappy and the timing’s all over the place and it’s sloppy, but there’s a lovely, scruffy lilt to it that kind of fits with the record. I really don’t know why it’s had the impact that it’s had and continues to have on people. I think some of the big James tunes are very uplifting and very celebratory and there’s a communal quality that makes them work very well live. We always try to keep our crowds on their toes and give them something they’re not going to expect, but we also always want to make people feel positive and to go away happy and smiling. I suppose Laid fits very well into that category, doesn’t it? (laughs)
Were there any James songs or even entire albums that you just loved and were so proud of but that ultimately fizzled?
Ummm…Wow. We absolutely adore every album that we put out. Each one is very precious and it’s almost like sending your kids off to school on that scary day when they’re thrust out into the big wide world and you wait to see what happens. I think just like those parents, it would be difficult to judge individual success or rejection. We try not to view it too clinically. They are what they are and they do what they do. Sure, we’ve done some silly things that I never thought I would end up doing and some may have missed the mark slightly but we’ve been amazingly lucky and successful. I would be the most ungrateful person in the world if I thought, ‘Now why didn’t more people go out and buy that record?’ Each new record is released into a different landscape because the industry shifts all the time..but it’s exciting; I can deal with that.
Around 2001, everything went quiet on the James front and behind the scenes we learned that there was friction and unhappiness. What motivates you after several years apart to try to work things out?
The mad thing was, when we split, I started working with Larry Gott who was one of the early members of James and left shortly after Laid I think. We both lived in Manchester at the time and we started writing lots of songs and working with different musicians, and all of it (laughs) just sounded like James (laughs). We both separately came to the conclusion that Tim should be in on it. We asked Tim and at first he said, very nicely, ‘No, no, I can’t do that. I just had a kid and I just moved house,’ and so on, so we thought, ‘Okay, cool; let’s just leave it.’ About a year later, we decided to ring him up again and this time he was like, ‘Yes, yes, that sounds fine; I’d love to.’ We weren’t quite expecting it, but it was wonderful. He came to Manchester and we had a rehearsal room booked for three days that we locked ourselves into and it was just great. Musically, it was a dawdle and wasn’t at all difficult. It was very, very easy.
So it was never the music that was the problem between you, it was the relationships.
Yes, that’s right – and maybe that’s because we do very little talking when we get together to make music; we just get in a room and play (laughs) and our egos get left behind to a certain degree. Really, we’ve changed a lot as people and we’ve put all that silly nonsense that was getting in the way of us appreciating what we’d had behind us. I can’t believe we got so childish and petty and pathetic there for a while…I really can’t. We get on very differently now; the atmosphere is less destructive, less rock ‘n’ roll and more grown up.
You re-announced yourselves with Hey Ma in 2008. Did you feel like you had something to prove?
I think we did, yes. I’m not quite sure anymore what it was or to who, but I do know that we certainly wanted whatever we did to live up to the legacy of James. The idea of getting together again only to bang through our ‘best of’ seemed quite depressing. We wanted to write new material and it was selfish in that way. There was no grand plan other than that – and you can’t really bother with wondering what people will think anyway. They’ll think whatever the hell they want to and there’s nothing to be done about that.
It’s obvious writing comes easily to you. You got over that initial hump with Hey Ma and then you went and followed it up shortly thereafter with a double album.
Yeah (laughs). We write so many songs and because we cover such a broad spectrum of sounds – from laid back, to uplifting, to abrasive, to acoustic – we almost cover too many bases and then there are songs that get left behind because they don’t fit with the overall sound of a record. It’s wasteful and a real shame, I think. So, with The Morning After the Night Before, we decided that instead of trying to make them all fit together somehow, to put them onto two very separate-sounding records with two very different characters. It was fun and we enjoyed that.
Will your forthcoming The Gathering Sounds box be a channel for some of that music that was left behind?
Oh yeah, there’s loads of stuff on there that wasn’t ever released that goes back thousands of years…Early demos from like, 1982 and maybe even earlier. I was plowing through boxes and boxes of old cassettes from the 80s that I was just scared to death to play again lest I wipe the final bit of oxide off the tapes (laughs). When I was sending them off to the guy at Universal, I said, ‘When you play this, master it, because you may not get to play it again.’ It was really exciting and I was really hit by the fragility of it and how easy it is for things to get lost and disappear.
So tell me about this tour you’re about to embark on in a few days. How did you choose what you’ll perform from your vast catalog of material?
(laughs) We’re not even sure yet what we’ll be playing. We’ve got a very, very long list of songs we’re all supposed to have learned prior to leaving for the tour – how that’s going to turn out remains to be seen (laughs). At the end of last year we toured with an orchestra and a choir and that brought lots of new songs into the live set we’d either not played for a long time or had never played live…Maybe some of those songs will be songs that we’ll play, we’ll have to see.
Do you stick to your setlist or do you switch it up from night to night?
We often argue and debate about what to include or not and we switch up the setlist a lot. We just like to play what we like to play and we keep try to keep it interesting for ourselves.
This interview gave me a great excuse to go back and listen to your records, some of which I hadn’t heard in a long, long time. I was quite struck by 1998’s Destiny Calling given the context of where you guys are now in your careers. In the lyrics, you say, ‘Don’t believe the adverts / Don’t believe the experts / Everyone will sell our souls.’ Was James’ identity under threat at any point?
No. The bulk of our career has been with a major record label so with a band like ours there’s always going to be points where there’s trouble. I’m amazed that we had such a long and prosperous relationship with Universal and Mercury Records because we demand things our way and always have done. We’ve had our fights but they’ve always known what they had on their hands with James; that was made very clear from the beginning. We decide who we’ll work with, whether it’s press or radio or whatever. It’s always our decision.
Having said all that, what significance then does the line, ‘Get a little wiser / Get a little humble / Now we know that we don’t know’ have now?
We didn’t always have a grasp on exactly the best way things should go, but we wanted all our decisions to be ours so that any mistakes would be ours, too. It’s three steps forward and two steps back with this band. Our manager and our record company will pull their hair out because we make calamitous decisions quite often…but at least it’s our way of doing it.
And are you in fact waiting for fans to tell you when its over?
(laughs) You said you were selfish, so does that mean you’ll go ahead and crank out one or two more even after the fans have suggested it’s all said and done?
Oh God, I hope and I pray that we have the wisdom to realize when it’s not there anymore. It feels like it won’t always be there…It feels like one day we’ll get in a room together as we do and we’ll be like, ‘This is rubbish!’ But for now, every time we get together to jam and to see if something’s there, it’s there.
James commences a North American tour this Sunday in Vancouver, British Columbia and will wrap up in Mexico City on April 26. A limited edition box set entitled The Gathering Sound (containing 11 studio albums, rarities and more) will be available July 16.
Apr 07 – Vancouver, BC (Commodore Ballroom) +
Apr 08 – Seattle, WA (Neumos) +
Apr 09 – Portland, OR (Roseland Theatre) +
Apr 11 – San Francisco, CA (The Independent) +
Apr 12 – Los Angeles, CA (El Rey)
Apr 13 – Indio, CA (Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival)
Apr 15 – Las Vegas, NV (Hard Rock Café On The Strip) +
Apr 16 – Tempe, AZ (The Marquee) +
Apr 18 – Tucson, AZ (Rialto Theatre) +
Apr 19 – San Diego, CA (The House Of Blues) +
Apr 20 – Indio, CA (Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival)
Apr 25 – Monterrey, Mexico (Details TBA)
Apr 26 – Mexico City, Mexico (Details TBA)
+ Special Guest ELIZAVETA