When I caught up with Jim Glennie, revered bass player of the band James, he was just a few hours off a low-key live show back on his old patch in Manchester.
Admittedly, that was a while ago, the date in question serving as something of a warm-up and album launch in one, premiering the 14th James studio album, Girl at the End of the World, at Manchester’s Academy 2, a venue the band – now well into their fourth decade – had somehow missed out on playing before.
If you’re based in the North West and didn’t make it along for that momentous occasion, there’s another chance tomorrow (Friday, May 13) when James return to their old stomping ground, calling in at Manchester Arena. And if you’re not, there are dates still to come in Leeds, Hull, Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham and Nottingham this month, plus another 10 shows this summer and early autumn in the UK and mainland Europe.
Girl at the End of the World – like 2014’s La Petite Mort put together with the help of German producer Max Dingel – was released two months ago now, 25 years to the day their biggest hit, the re-recorded Sit Down, was issued. It led to a great response from fans and critics alike, and since then we’ve had a second single from the album, the sublime Nothing But Love following album teaser To My Surprise.
In fact, the new 12-track long player came close to finally knocking Adele’s 25 off the top of the UK album charts, leading the way in the midweek charts in its first week of release, 2,000 sales ahead, only marginally slipping to second place at the end of its first full week.
And now the band – no chart slouches over the years, with an impressive 20 UK top-40 singles under their belt – are part-way through a busy touring agenda which also included a three-night takeover of London, playing Shepherds Bush Empire, Kentish Town Forum and Brixton Academy. Which all goes to show there clearly remains huge affection for the band, some 25,000 tour tickets snapped up on the first day of sale and around 60,000 fans expected overall across 15 shows.
For all that though, James – namely Tim Booth (singer), Jim Glennie (bass), Adrian Oxall (guitars, deputising for Larry Gott), Saul Davies (guitar/violin), Mark Hunter (keyboards), David Baynton-Power (drums) and Andy Diagram (trumpet) – are more focused on creativity and invention than record and ticket sales.
While the new album was recorded live at RAK Studios in London, it was written in the Scottish Highlands, as the last LP was. There, in the dining room of a remote 18th century coaching inn in midwinter, they set about recapturing the freewheeling spirit that lies at the heart of their best work. Apparently, they built a rehearsal room within and ‘bunkered down’ in their ‘man-cave’, mattresses gaffer-taped to the windows for soundproofing, cut off from families and the world.
According to front-man Tim Booth, “If a lot of the tracks sound quite fast, you can blame that on the raw Scottish weather. We were working with a drum machine and were conscious of setting a quick tempo to inspire dance grooves and keep us on the move as the temperature outside was five below zero.”
The album that followed those sessions gives a firm indication of where James are at today, still writing great songs yet never taking the easy road. And for all their past success, they remain fresh and contemporary, unwilling to coast on the back of 13 million album sales over 30 years.
Again, like the last album, Mark Hunter and Saul Davies co-wrote and shaped the final songs, and as Jim Glennie told me, “We began to open up the songwriting on La Petite Mort. But we’ve now taken that to a new level. We loved La Petite Mort, and its songs worked so well live that we’ve pushed ourselves more this time. We love guitars, but since the Wah Wah album in 1994 we’ve embraced samples and loops as well as traditional instruments.
“Mark’s an amazing keyboard player and we’ve created more space for him. Rather than surround him with dozens of guitar overdubs, we’ve given him the room to really express himself and he’s become more central to our overall sound.”
For many, the single To My Surprise was the first track heard, frontman Tim Booth tackling fundamentalism with disdainful humour, while elsewhere on the album he talks about his adopted Californian homeland on Move Down South. But let’s be clear on something – this album is, like the last one, very much an across-the-board band project, incorporating important contributions from all of James’ ‘magnificent seven’.
That’s not to say there aren’t stand-outs though, and the anthemic mandolin-flecked Nothing But Love shines for me in the way Sit Down did all those years ago. In fact, as Tim put it, “We knew immediately it was a big song. Love songs tend to tread such a well-worn path that I avoid them unless I have something new to say or I’m so blinded by emotion I can’t help myself. It’s about love’s euphoria and ecstasy – that love-bomb that goes off and changes everything. But love is a high-stakes game, as something you love can also be lost.”
It’s a little late to be giving you a full-blown review here – you probably already know the score already. But from Jim’s driving bass-line on storming opener Bitch – which threatens to be an instrumental for the first couple of minutes – through to the titular finale, it’s a winner. And as Tim requests at the album’s climax, ‘Remind me to breathe at the end of the world; Appreciate scenes and the love I’ve received; To love who I’ve been at the end of the world’.
Jim Glennie certainly had total faith in the finished album when we spoke, despite feeling nervous of introducing the world to the latest songs in a live setting at that afore-mentioned Academy 2 show.
“We’ve been working quite hard to get ready for this, planning to do 10 songs off the album … so there’s going to be a lot of fear! We haven’t got that safety net of slipping back into things that you know. With a lot of the stuff it will be the first time we’ve performed them.
“It’s a bit scary, but that’s okay – we like scary! We’re not a band that seeks to take that away from what we do. We’re not a band that wants to over-rehearse and make sure everything’s bolted down. We like a little bit of danger and risk.”
When we spoke, I’d only had a couple of listens to Girl at the End of the World, but I was already loving it. That said, I did mention to Jim how there was a slight ‘80s vibe, not so much as to where James were at then, but more a kind of retro vibe the likes of The Killers nailed much later (as it was, I didn’t even realise at the time that Max Dingel previously engineered The Killers’ Sam’s Town).
“That’s difficult to pin down. For us it feels quite connected to La Petite Mort. That opened a lot of doors for us, creatively being quite a turning point for us and a slight re-invention. It kind of shifted the sound of James and we’ve embraced that. Getting on with the second album straight away was about keeping that energy and momentum. I think we’ve ended up with something we’re incredibly proud of and fits very nicely within the broad confines of James, but is a little different.”
I’d also say it sounds a little more immediate than the last album.
“Again, it’s difficult for me to say. I’m the least objective person on the planet for this – I absolutely love it! For me every song on a James album could and should be a massive worldwide hit, which is absolutely ridiculous! As a band we’re not great at seeing how things fit into the greater context. That’s why we have people around us – fortunately – to help with that. We have a very committed record company and I’m very grateful for that.
“The writing process changed slightly on La Petite Mort. We upped it from three of us to five again. It was like the baby steps of that relationship. With this record that’s much more established. This album pushed things further and it’s given us the space and the confidence in what we’re doing to push it. This has kind of moved us on from last time.”
So what is it about the Scottish Highlands that bring the best out of the band? Is it a lack of mobile phone signals?
“I think we get left alone. I live up there, in the middle of nowhere. Funnily enough, Saul’s moved up too. I’m on the West Coast, he’s on the East Coast. We absolutely love it. There are no distractions and we’re not pulled into doing other things. We had two and a half weeks in this big house in a place called Gairloch in Wester Ross, and it’s beautiful.
“We were there in January and it was a proper Scottish winter, with lots of snow and minus 10 outside. Distractions were few and far between. You could wrap up and go out for a nice walk along a freezing cold beach if you wanted – and we did. But we were there to focus, and it works for us, as it did with the last album. And what we came out with from that session were the demos which went on to become this album.”
There’s definitely an epic feel worthy of the landscape, almost Waterboys-like, not least with Andy’s trumpet.
“I think you’re right. Not a bad comparison, I guess. We’re an odd band in that respect. There’s a lot of technology on this record, but also a real sense – with the violins, the cellos, the trumpets – of mixing and matching elements of what people might call organic as opposed to a more processed sound. And it’s about getting that balance right.”
I love the accompanying video for Nothing But Love, but wonder if you’ve missed a trick. There was a great opportunity here for you to pay tribute to the setting by all donning kilts, carrying bagpipes, in a nod to Slade’s Run Run Away. And if not bagpipes, you could at least have tried mandolins.
“That’s a great idea! I’ve got a kilt actually, so I’m alright!”
Can you remember back far enough to recall what there was to distract you back in your Factory or Sire days, before Gold Mother took you on to that whole new level, long before mobile phones and social media?
“Things were different in those days. We were all based in Manchester and there wasn’t a great deal else to do. We constantly rehearsed between the sparse number of gigs we could arrange and organise. We would rehearse for no reason. We’d get in a room and just bang away for hours, day after day, working out what we were as a band and trying to write songs … in a very hit and miss kind of way.
“There was virtually no communication between us. We were an odd little band! Now we’re geographically scattered around, so have to be more organised in how we work together. Everyone’s shipped in and we lock ourselves away, start first thing in the morning and work away until we go to bed. It’s great – productive but really good fun as well.”
Are you a family man between your stints with James?
“I haven’t got young kids, which makes things a little easier, but I’m married and away from home a fair amount. But Tim’s got young sons, Saul’s got two kids and Mark’s got two. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to pull people away from their responsibilities, but it’s the nature of the job. It can be difficult at times but you make the best of it.”
This summer marks the 30th anniversary of debut LP Stutter, the first of two for US label Sire, produced by Lenny Kaye and Gil Norton. Ever wonder how it got to be 14 studio albums?
“All the time! It always seems daft. I’ve never been able to project beyond where we are. It’s never felt like something that could be a long-term thing. I’ve never thought, ‘Right, we’re going to do another three albums then …’ My imagination won’t go beyond where we are! I think if this one goes okay, BMG might want us to do another record. That’s as far as it’s ever gone for the last 35 years!
“Something might happen that changes that. It’s never felt like it’s completely up to us whether we carry on if or if we don’t. Circumstances can be imposed upon you. I think that’s quite a healthy attitude. I’m not sure what phase of our career we’re in now – whether we’re in our autumn or twilight years. But whatever there is left now, I’m going to make the most of it, throw everything into it.”
Speaking of time phases, it’s 25 years since the world really went mad for James, in the wake of the re-release of Gold Mother, with one of the biggest-selling singles that year, a gigantic GMEX date and all that. In fact, the live experience has always been a key component of the James experience. Do you struggle to personalise such big venue shows?
“James has always been about playing live, connecting with people on a personal level. We play the songs we want to play and if it feels like we’re going through the motions with a song we rest it and put songs on the set-list that require us to be present to perform them.
“That’s kept for us our vitality and spark on stage, and I hope that translates to an audience. We ask quite a lot of a crowd. We won’t just go there and play everything they want to hear. We’re still here after 35 years, but I don’t know how long we’d last if we tried to do what we thought people wanted. I think it would just go horribly wrong, we’d hate ourselves and split up.
“We’re quite selfish in that respect. We do what we want to, and I think that’s the way we can give people the most we can. There are challenges when you play somewhere huge like Manchester Arena. A different kind of relationship has to be projected to the back of the place to make people feel involved.”
Yet somehow, for all their Manchester shows before now, the album launch involved a first for the band – playing the Academy 2.
“I can’t believe we’ve never played it before. I’ve seen so many bands there. It was such a pivotal part of my musical background – as the MDH in those days, the debating hall. It was the same for Tim and Saul. They were at the Uni going to see bands, while I was living in Manchester, getting signed in by students to get into those gigs.
“That’s why we’re playing there – because of all that history and the impact it had on us. I was in a band then, and would say, ‘One day I’m going to be up there!’ I’ve said that in a few places in Manchester, and played pretty much everywhere else since. That’s why playing the Apollo was so important as well. I’ll never forget that. It was the same for The Ritz. But for some reason it never quite happened with the MDH.”
I suppose you kind of leap-frogged it, going from smaller venues to much larger ones in such a stratospheric rise.
“I guess we did. There’s a time in your career where that would be the venue to play, but we missed it.”
Going back to the band’s pre-Tim Booth days, tell me about your experiences with fellow founder members Paul Gilbertson (guitar), Gavan Whelan (drums) and then Danny Ram (vocals, later a cage-fighter) rehearsing in a scout hut in Withington.
“That was down to Paul having his garden back on to this scout hut. We could climb over the fence and then we were in. When we started we had no idea what we were doing, so the Scoutmaster used to tune our guitars. I think we were pretty bad, I’ve got to say. Thankfully, I haven’t got any recordings.”
The band went through a string of names – from Venereal and the Diseases to Volume Distortion, then Model Team International, Model Team and finally James. But long before that came that very first show at Eccles Royal British Legion, in early 1980. Were they a committed four-piece back then?
“Massively! We absolutely loved it and were completely addicted to it. It’s just that we weren’t very good! I was just addicted to the buzz. It was so alien to me. I’m quite a shy person really, but loved the fear and self-consciousness. It was awkward and horrible but at the same time like a fairground ride – that mixture of excitement and terror. I was completely and utterly pulled in. I didn’t think, ‘I’m going to make a career out of this’, but definitely wanted to do it again and wanted another gig.”
The following year they got to support The Fall at Manchester Poly. So who was it that then spotted Tim, this drama student from Leeds, dancing in a Manchester nightclub in 1982, subsequently deciding to invite him to join you?
“It would have been Paul. He was a keen dancer himself. We had this mad idea to get somebody dancing, Tim turned up, and because he was at uni we thought, ‘Great, he can help us write lyrics!’ That’s how it came about. For his first gig, we were supporting Orange Juice at Sheffield Leadmill, when we were still called Model Team. I can still picture him on stage, doing backing vocals, dancing, shaking a tambourine, looking terrified – wide-eyed and completely and utterly terrified!”
He was obviously a great fit though, soon graduating to lead singer.
“Absolutely. He grew into the role. Again, I don’t think he felt, ‘I’m going to be a singer in a band’, but there was a mad turn of fate and a few odd twists that could so easily have not happened. We might not have bumped into him that night. If so who knows how things would be now.”
That takes me to the band name, which people still seem split on. Was it down to your Sunday name or a nod to Orange Juice guitarist James Kirk? You were certainly big fans, as early tracks like Summer Song suggest.
“Me and Paul loved Orange Juice and that whole Postcard thing. We were huge fans and they very kindly took us on for about three gigs – I think we did Oxford and Reading too. There was definitely an influence in the music we were doing, and it was Paul who suggested the name.
“We picked up on it at the time because someone in the band had that name, but no one ever called me James. I was Jimmy then, and I’m Jim now. It’s never really felt like my name. I knew the undercurrent was that Paul idolised James Kirk! So what’s the right answer? I don’t know – some weird kind of hybrid between the two!”
You probably know a lot of this, but I should at least try to summarise some key moments that followed. By the end of 1982 the band had a support at the Haçienda, as filmed on A Factory Outing, leading to a deal with Tony Wilson’s iconic label. The Jimone EP followed in late 1983 and was a single of the week in the NME and Sounds, the first of many John Peel radio sessions following, plus a Brixton Academy support with New Order.
In 1984 guitarist Larry Gott replaced Paul, the band soon touring with The Smiths at the invitation of Johnny Marr and Morrissey. In fact, it was only while preparing for this interview that I vaguely remembered – with the help of an old diary – that I saw James on The Smiths’ Meat is Murder tour at Guildford Civic Hall in late February 1985.
The band went on to release the Stutter and Strip-mine albums for Factory, then a self-financed live LP, the brilliantly-titled One Man Clapping. All were indie chart successes, as was an early version of Sit Down, Tim, Jim and Larry now augmented by David, Mark, Andy and Saul – the band’s ‘magnificent seven’.
But although I liked James from the start, I admit to Jim I only really started paying proper attention in late ’89 with the single Come Home, snapping up Gold Mother on Fontana vinyl seven months later. And that was the album that broke them commercially, going on to sell two million and yield three hits, triumphant appearances at Glastonbury and supports with The Cure at Crystal Palace Bowl and David Bowie at Manchester City’s Maine Road following, ending that year with two sell-outs at Manchester’s 15,000-capacity G-Mex venue.
Another big year followed, 1991 a re-recorded Sit Down spending three weeks at No. 2 in the charts, the band headlining Reading Festival and bringing Manchester traffic to a halt with a free concert from a rooftop overlooking Piccadilly Gardens. Then came 1992’s Seven album, the first US and Japanese tours, an open-air concert at Alton Towers for 30,000 broadcast live on Radio 1, and another Glastonbury appearance.
In 1993, an acoustic tour with Neil Young was followed by Laid, produced in Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio by Brian Eno – the first of five James albums he was involved with – and selling 600,000 copies, breaking the band in the States.
The list of new highs continued, 1994 seeing further Eno-production Wah Wah, an appearance at Woodstock Two, an extensive US tour, and much more. Eventually, Whiplash finally appeared in 1997, the next year’s Best Of compilation shifting 900,000 copies, topping the charts and going triple-platinum, fuelling a sell-out arena tour.
That part of the story ended in 2001 after Pleased to Meet You – like 1999’s Millionaires also produced by Eno – as internal as internal tensions led to a farewell tour that included an MEN Arena show recorded for a live album and DVD. At that point, the general band feeling was that it was all over for good. Yet five years later Tim, Jim and Larry – who had left in 1995 – were jamming again, and by 2007 the band were writing prolifically and on a UK tour, 35,000 tickets selling out in hours. And 10 years and five more albums beyond that reformation, the love for James remains.
From The Hacienda to the rooftops of Piccadilly Gardens and from a Radio 1 Live festival in Heaton Park and one-off at Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom to Beijing’s Heineken Beat Festival, three nights at a Greek amphitheatre in Thessaloniki in 2009, Castlefield Bowl in 2014 and beyond, there have been many memorable James shows.
So, off the top of his head, can Jim pick out a couple of venues that have stood out since that low-key Eccles debut?
“Glasgow Barrowlands is probably one of the best if not the best I’ve ever played. It’s a strange venue, in a rough part of Glasgow, where the carpet sticks to your shoes when you go in, but there’s an atmosphere that is just absolutely priceless.
“And Manchester Ritz I absolutely love. We’ve done a couple of nights there which were absolutely amazing. We started a tour there, with Happy Mondays supporting, doing two nights. It’s great. Everyone’s really close and the floor’s sprung so you’ve this kind of bounce you get from the crowd. Yeah!”
And for more James tour dates and all the latest from the band head over to www.wearejames.com.