After 19 UK top-40 singles and 14 top-40 albums in 32 years, you’d think North West outfit James might be happy enough just playing their greatest hits these days. Not a bit of it though. For while this Manchester success story are set to double-up with fellow regional ambassadors The Charlatans later this year, neither outfit are eyeing up the retro heritage circuit yet.
These days an eight-piece, the band are following a recent sell-out mini-tour and on-going festival appearances with a joint UK arena tour with their old Cheshire comrades in December, plugging a 15th studio album, one which suggests there’s still plenty of fuel in the tank.
The release of Living in Extraordinary Times follows the ‘Better Than That’ EP and second single ‘Hank’, both tracks included on an album produced by Mercury/Brit award-winner Charlie Andrew (alt-J, Wolf Alice) and Beni Giles.
It’s James’ first new music since 2016 album Girl at the End of the World, which was only denied a No.1 on the week of its release by Adele, their highest debut entry in nearly 20 years. But perhaps that’s not so surprising for such an iconic outfit steeped in critical and commercial success, having sold more than 25 million albums worldwide.
As their publicity team put it, the new album ‘delivers the same vigour and urgency as its predecessors, a fusion of social commentary and personal reflection, covering everything from the current political climate in America in the frustration-charged ‘Hank’ to the lonesome Father’s Day in the heartfelt ‘Coming Home (Pt. 2)’, the latter track featuring keyboards from long-time collaborator Brian Eno. And as front-man Tim Booth has it, explaining the underlying concept of the new record, ‘We knew something was up when Leicester City won the league, then Brexit, then Trump. It’s as if we’d slipped into an alternate reality, a Philip K Dick reality. We are living in extraordinary times.’
My first couple of listens to the album were enough to assure me James remain switched on, something underlined by 15 minutes in the company of guitarist/ violinist/ percussionist Saul Davies. And that came through straight away when I started out by asking, seeing as I was tearing him away from his bandmates, if they were rehearsing for their ongoing live dates that mid-morning.
“No, we’re doing some writing for our 733rd album. We started writing it in the medieval ages … around the maypole. Actually, you’re not going to like this, but we’re in a house in Yorkshire … ‘Band found dead in hills’.”
Doesn’t bother me. You’re not going to like this, either, I told him, as I’m a geographically-challenged Surrey lad who just happens to live in Lancashire. Anyway, moving on, I suggested that James set a precedent with that method of back-to-back writing sessions with their previous two albums, seemingly going from 2014’s La Petite Mort straight into writing the Girl at the End of the World album.
“No, we just need to grab the time that we get together …”
“Erm, sorry, Mark’s just decided to use that time to make a noise emptying the dishwasher.”
That’s pianist/keyboard player Mark Hunter, like Saul a 1989 recruit to Team James, his rattling of cups and plates soon complemented by a little nonchalant whistling.
“Yeah, welcome to James’ domestic bliss. If I go outside, I get the sound of sheep, and it’s drizzling a bit out there. And in the kitchen here, Jim’s just made me a nice cup of coffee (2016 WriteWyattUK interviewee/ James founder member and bass player Jim Glennie) while Mark’s decided that’s a good idea. I tell you what – omelettes all-round, I think.”
I see that as a call to down tools, and tell Saul I seem to recall the last two albums were devised in the Scottish Highlands, so they’ve moved down the UK map a little this time.
“Actually, the next writing session we do will be in the north of Scotland again. But this album we did entirely in Sheffield, writing it and then going back to record. A place called Yellow Arch Studios.”
The album started life during jam sessions there, and was finished at Iguana Studios in Brixton, with Beni Giles already working with the band on creating a new rhythmical approach when Charlie Andrew joined the project, after being blown away by the band live.
Charlie recently explained, “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; and there are some monstrous tracks, like ‘Hank’, which is just vast, with layers and layers of drums”.
While it’s Scotland next, they’ve only made it around 90 miles north so far from Sheffield, into the heart of North Yorkshire. Where’s the link there?
“There isn’t one really, other than we needed somewhere big enough to have a room we could work in – four of us – and ended here, this amazing place in Swaledale. It’s beautiful, a new part of the world to us, and one we all really like.”
You have room to breathe there, presumably.
“Yeah. We make a bit of noise – not a vast amount, but we make a bit of noise – and need to be somewhere relatively secluded so we can get on with it.”
Taking the general tone of the new album, Living in Extraordinary Times, are you fairly positive about where we are right now, despite these dark days of austerity, political uncertainty, and all that? If nothing else, this malaise and anger at what’s coming to pass at least seems to make us think things can’t get much worse, surely.
“Oh, I think things could get worse, but I suppose we need to try and make sure things don’t get worse.”
So, it’s more about being a driving force for positive change, maybe?
“Well, it’s clear that there’s lots of mad stuff going on. There usually is, but it does seem that it’s even madder than usual. And that’s not just confined to America and Trump. We’ve our own issues here.”
The video for ‘Hank’, filmed live at Halifax’s Victoria Theatre, showcases the passion and emotion continuing to drive the band’s performances. And when Tim Booth sings, ‘This crackhead’s tiny fingers, accusing you of what he’ll do, white fascists in the White House, more beetroot in your Russian stew,’ and ‘A jester prancing like a fool, In jest digest the monster, this president’s a dangerous tool,’ there are no prizes for guessing who’s he’s directing his tirade at.
But flipping the coin, to a degree, we then have the positive drive of previous single, ‘Better Than That’, a typically-inspirational James anthem. Is the over-riding message to Keep on Pushing, as Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions put it?
“Yeah, probably. As we touched on, we write by getting a room, just jamming and making a noise together, then blending songs within that. We don’t set out with a plan. Whatever comes, happens really. I think if we were more planned, sometimes it might be tempting to think we’d make better records … and we don’t.”
I could take issue with that, and although I’d only managed a first listen to the album at that stage, a few tracks came straight at me, not least those already mentioned. And the strength of the last LP and what I’d heard so far suggests they remain in a rich vein of form. For one thing, I’d woken up the morning we spoke with ‘Nothing But Love’ in my head, for no apparent reason.
“Ah, it’s reared its head again! And what I think you’re alluding to there is that we’re in our 37th year and what you and I are discussing here is about songs we’ve just made. It’s really refreshing and really heartening to me that I’m in a position whereby we’re not having to talk about ‘Sit Down’ and all that. I think that’s testament to the fact that we have pushed it, and we are moving forward.
“I think it’s great that we’re able to do that so convincingly. If we think about it, the tendency is for bands as they get older and older not necessarily to lose their spark but for the business around them to try to make them keep everything safe – get into the arenas, do the greatest hits, then go home to their castles. But our attitude is that we must make new music … otherwise we’re dead.”
Which brings me on to you hiring producer Charlie Andrew, best known for his work in recent years with fellow past WriteWyattUK double-interviewees alt-J and Wolf Alice. And ‘Hank’ certainly has a big sound equated with both bands. So do you still tend to immerse yourself in new music?
“Oh yes. I mean, there’s a lot of us in James, and a lot of tastes, but I’d say we listen to a healthy mixture of our old favourites and new stuff that’s flying around.”
When you start to jam on a new composition, do you tend to start with something – for instance, a cover version – that you’ve not necessarily tackled live before, to inspire you towards something of your own?
“Erm, no, what we literally do is that Mark will fire a drum machine pattern into the room and we all just start making a noise, all fishing around for a few minutes as we get into working out which chord we’re going to start with …”
If you were hoping for the secret of James’ longevity to be revealed and further insight into the band’s creative process there, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, as my digital recorder gave up the ghost at that point, and I only realised 30 or so seconds later. A lengthy answer followed, but Saul’s secrets remain intact, as my memory is like a sieve when I don’t write anything down. Just ask my better half.
Soon, I interrupt Saul and ask – slightly embarrassed – if it’s okay to sort out my technical issues and get straight back to him. And he’s good enough (a) to agree, and (b) to bother answering the phone when I called again, at which point I decided to go back to his earliest recollections of joining the band instead of pursuing that songwriting line. But I asked first if equipment failure ever troubled James in the studio.
“Well, yeah. All sorts of stuff happens, and sometimes all sorts of stuff doesn’t happen that should happen!”
So let’s go back to that Band on the Wall show in Manchester when Larry Gott (guitar/ keyboard/ flute, 1985–95, 2001, 2007–2015) first saw you. Clear memories of that night?
“Of course! That was amazing.”
Who were you playing with at the time?
“I wasn’t with a band. I just went as a punter. I’d moved away from Manchester a few months before and was working down South, but went up with my girlfriend, and she put my violin in the back of her car. We got to the Band on the Wall quite a lot, they were inviting people to get up and play that night, and Rebecca said, ‘Get your violin and go up on stage’. I said I hadn’t got it, and she said, ‘Erm, no, I put it in the car’. So I did.
“It was weird though. I only played one note – a G. I was trying to be as unmusical as possible. I don’t know why I remember it so clear, and I haven’t thought about this for years, but nine different people came up to me that night and said, ‘Do you want to be in a band?’ And I said, ‘No, no, no. I don’t want to be in a band. What are you talking about?’”
It must have been a hell of a G you played.
“Yeah, it was! And the last one forward was Larry, and he goes, ‘Do you want to be in a proper band?’ I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting.’ So the next day I went for a jam with them.”
Was that a nerve-racking experience?
“Not in the slightest, because I didn’t want to be in a band. It was nonsense really. Weird as hell. I thought, ‘I don’t like this lot. They’re mad!’ But actually, everyone wants to be in a band or wants to be a footballer, yet no one truly gets to be a footballer or gets to be in a band … so what an unbelievable privilege. That was 1989, and I’m now in my 30th year with James.”
What came first for you? Violin or guitar?
“Violin. I was playing from when I was about eight, but it took me a while to unlearn all that training. And I only use it occasionally now.”
“The thing is, it’s not an instrument used in a band unless you’re in a folk band, so I tread carefully with that. But it has got an amazing sound, and when you hear someone who knows what they’re doing playing violin, it’s quite something.
“I love the guitar though, and have an unseen and unheralded attribute with the guitar, which I love doing. I’m not a very technical player and don’t find all that exciting, but I’m really good at holding down a beat – I play drums as well – and I love hearing guitars that are just on it and just drive.”
At that point, we get on to recent WriteWyattUK interviewee and fellow violinist Jim Lea, telling Saul how the Slade legend chose to play bass – despite being a great guitarist – in an attempt to try to keep more in the shadows than he would if he’d chosen otherwise.
“Oh, interesting. Cool. Really cool.”
However, it appears that Saul has no such problem in taking the limelight now and again.
“Doing these shows in the arenas in December, imagine the buzz of standing in front of 15,000 or however many people on something I start on a guitar, like ‘Tomorrow’, and it just drives. I pick up my guitar and start playing, and I’ll see 15,000 people move. It’s a remarkable process.”
And you have a reputation as something of an orchestrator out there on stage, one to get the crowd going a bit.
“Erm … I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t do it deliberately. I don’t think about it. I just recognise that having the opportunity to do what we do – our job – is amazing. It comes with its down-sides, like all jobs do, but I tend not to dwell on those things.”
And talking of those December dates, co-headliners The Charlatans are a band that have shared the scene with you for many years, going right back. Is it good to be on a bill with them again?
“Yeah, and I admire The Charlatans. They’re a really good band and really know what they’re doing. There’s not that many of us in truth who, despite our longevity and catalogue, continue making new music. I think that’s the key. Not every album is going to be amazing and not everything is going to work, but you must try. And while the lights of creativity are undimmed, you just strike. Because we’re creating our legacy.
“Sometimes we’re standing together in a room, making a noise, like we will be later today, and some of the time I think about my kids and the fact that when I’m gone it’s these moments that I’m literally creating now in this room that will end up on a record, and they’ll have that. That might sound a bit maudlin, or weird. But it’s not meant to. That’s my legacy. And I like to think of my legacy as being important to the people who are most important to me.”
So how old are your children?
“I have an 11-year-old daughter and a son about to turn 17.”
Are either of them following you into music?
“Erm, well, we’re writing an album together at the moment, the three of us, and I think we’re going to record it. As the year goes on and into early next year, in the workspace I’ve set up in my barn in the wilderness in the Scottish Highlands. I live there with my kids, and they get to see their Mum, who lives abroad, on holidays, but mainly they’re with me.
“We have this rather strange life together and we’ve been writing together. We even did a mini-gig recently, playing 15 or so minutes to 70 or 80 people in our village hall, which was really cool … and a little nerve-racking!”
So it seems that the Davies family are on the march, just as James continue to do. Watch this space, I reckon.
Living in Extraordinary Times – its sleeve created by contemporary artist and ex-Vivienne Westwood designer Magnus Gjoen, whose work ties in with the album’s themes, ‘exploring the space between politics and tranquillity’ – is available on CD, download, cassette and heavyweight double vinyl, plus a hardback-booked deluxe CD featuring 4 extra songs (three demos plus another session track). HMV and independent stores will also stock a limited grey gatefold package featuring double magenta-coloured vinyl. Meanwhile, for details of exclusive signed bundles and a limited yellow gatefold package featuring double white coloured vinyl, head here.
Following their recent seven-date sold out UK tour, revisiting intimate venues across the country, James have already played six festivals this summer, including dates in Portugal and Spain plus Kendal Calling, and this month headline Linlithgow’s Party at the Palace (Saturday, August 11th), Scarborough Open Air Theatre (Saturday, August 18th), and Dumfries Electric Fields (Thursday, August 30th). Then come those dates with The Charlatans at Glasgow Hydro (Wednesday, December 5th), Wembley Arena (Friday, December 7th), Manchester Arena (Saturday, December 8th), and Leeds Arena (Sunday, December 9th). For tickets, information and all the latest from James, try www.wearejames.com and follow the band on Facebook and Twitter.