“Everybody’s in their cave, facing what we can’t escape; Every time we’re through, your shit sticks to my shoe;
Tell me how you’re staying sane, haven’t hugged a human since the end of May; Quarantine with you, our world’s a private zoo.”
Here we go again – the joy of online video interviews, this time with James bass player/co-founder Jim Glennie, from my front room in Leyland, Lancashire to … well, where exactly is that grand setting?
“We’re in this bonkers huge country house near Skipton, called Broughton Hall, as you can see in the background … This isn’t my bedroom – mine’s much grander and more opulent than this. We’re slumming it this week!
“We’ve kind of gone into lockdown for two weeks. We all had PCR tests before we came in, and we’re rehearsing the album and a whole bunch of other things, including quite a lot of interviews and recording radio sessions, sending them everywhere.”
Is lead singer Tim Booth cooped up in a separate padded cell elsewhere in the house, waiting for his self-isolation to finish after flying over from the States?
“He’s finished now. He did his self-isolation. He’s alright, and we’re allowed out tomorrow for a little bit, filming for Sky Arts at Sheffield Leadmill. Other than that, it’s people coming to us. It’s all the things we’d be doing with an album coming out, but instead of us bobbing around, we’ll do it here.”
I should ask who’s in those portraits on the wall behind you.
“Ha! I wish I knew! This is the Tempest family home. They’ve been here for 32 generations over the last 450 years, so the house is full of relatives. I’ve a whole array of various faces looking at me while I’m doing this … with a huge amount of disapproval, I would imagine.”
They weren’t the inspiration for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, were they?
“I don’t think so, but you never know. Actually, we’re rehearsing in the Great Hall downstairs, and I can’t believe they’re letting us do it. It’s very brave of them.”
Last time I spoke to someone from James was two years ago, chatting to Saul Davies (guitar/violin) ahead of the release of Living in Extraordinary Times, and I think it’s fair to say none of us knew where we were headed at that point.
There was a quote I had from Saul, me trying to put a positive spin on life, hoping people were starting to wake up and we were at least on the way back from the brink, and him responding, ‘I think things could get worse, but I suppose we need to try and make sure things don’t get worse.’
Well, here we are now, and it seems that the latest James LP – also featuring Andy Diagram (trumpet), Mark Hunter (keyboards), Adrian Oxaal (guitar, replacing Larry Gott), David Baynton-Power (drums) and recent addition Chloë Alper (backing vocals, percussion) – to hit the racks, All the Colours of You, their 16th studio album, sums up the year we’ve just had, not least through lyricist Tim addressing all that’s been happening across the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, last time I spoke to Jim was five years ago, in May 2016 (with a link here), ahead of a relatively low-key Manchester Academy 2 LP launch for Girl at the End of the World, James playing a hall they missed out on first time around on a rather meteoric rise to fame, going straight on to much larger venues. And now it seems they’re doing something similar with this Leadmill show, albeit behind closed doors this time.
“Yeah, although we’ve played there a few times. In the very early days of James we supported Orange Juice there. I think that was one of the first gigs Tim did with us. We’ve a bit of a history with the venue.”
It seems that while you’re a Manchester band, Sheffield – a city I’ve started to get to know through my eldest daughter studying there – has always been special for you.
“I love Sheffield. My wife used to work for Sheffield City Council, in the town hall. We were living in Manchester and she was commuting from Stockport train station. And part of the writing for this album was done at Sheffield’s Yellow Arch studios, as was all the writing for the last album. We’ve ended up spending a lot of time there.”
While Tim’s California-based, home for Jim and Saul are living in the Scottish Highlands these days. But it seems that Yorkshire features prominently too.
“Yeah, it does, although Yellow Arch was kind of an accident in a way. We rented a house where we were supposed to be writing in, but when we got there it wasn’t suitable – the room wasn’t big enough for us to be in and the neighbours were closer than we thought. So we just found the nearest rehearsal space and it happened to be Yellow Arch studios.
“We went down, they had a room available, we wrote there, it was brilliant, and the people were lovely. So we felt if it’s easy, we know it and it works, keep doing it. The Highlands is also good for us – we’ve done a fair amount of writing there.”
You’ve been in Scotland a while now. I take it you’re happy up there.
“Very much so, and Saul’s about an hour and a quarter from me – a close neighbour by my standards! And Mark and Tim tend to come to us. It’s beautiful there – a lovely part of the world.”
You were ahead of the curve in that respect, I’ll venture, living in a remote area long before lockdowns and self-isolation.
“Yeah, it’s been strange being cut off from family. That’s been difficult, but we’ve been lucky because inherently it’s not been a massive amount of difference from the way we normally live our lives.
“My son and daughter – in their early 30s now – are both in Manchester and have had very different experiences. My son was isolating on his own, while my daughter was working from home with her husband, with two young kids, kind of bouncing off the walls – a family trapped in a flat in South Manchester. Very different experiences, but for us, we’ve space around us and can get out for walks …”
Lots of people have realised this last year the importance of location. You do need money to make those moves sometimes, but if it’s not about that commute any longer and you can work from home, why not choose stunning countryside, wherever it is.
“It will be interesting to see how things pan out after we come out of lockdown, see how many people choose life changes. Also, businesses may go, ‘Hang on a minute, this worked out alright – are we all piling into the office for nine o’clock?’. It’s almost a dangerous experiment that businesses have never tried in case it completely fails.
“Like it or not, they have now tried it, so why not learn from it. It seems ridiculous nowadays that for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening the country grinds to a halt while everyone tries to get to the same place. It seems mad and such a waste of time – silly and old-fashioned really in this day and age.”
We spoke about The Leadmill, and last time around, the Academy 2. You’ve become experts at playing the arenas and enormo-domes, somehow making them feel intimate. You clearly have showmen in the band who rise to that occasion, but it must be really special to play venues where you can have that eye contact too.
“Yeah, they pull different things out of you. You’re right, you’ve got to be larger than life in the big venues. You know you’re projecting a long way back, and that does make you do things a different way, put on a different show and fill that space – with those big stages you’ve got to fill. But you’re right, in those small and intimate venues where you can look out and see faces, it becomes a very different experience.
“And I’ll take either at the moment, to be honest with you – it seems such a long while since we were on a stage. We haven’t done anything since September 2019 – that was the last gig.”
I’ve always been impressed by the way James never sat back on past success, instead ploughing into new territory. I’m guessing that hasn’t changed and they’re not about to join the heritage trail and go play the Rewind festival circuit, doing ‘Sit Down’ and a couple more of the big hits. And the new album seems to prove that, and this has been going on for as many albums as I can think of. They’re still coming out with fresh, relevant material.
Who’s more woke than who? Who’s more broke than who?;
Disunited States, they want a boogaloo with you;
He’s the Ku Klux Klan (he’s the Ku Klux Klan); K-coup K-coup (K-coup K-coup);
President’s your man, he’s the Ku Klux Klan (K-coup K-coup).
Lyrically, All the Colours of You deals with some dark and difficult issues, its themes ranging from politics and race relations to climate change and the pandemic, the latter not least on ‘Recover’, covering the death of Tim Booth’s father-in-law from Covid-19. Yet that too is ultimately hopeful, its production delicate and simple and its tempo upbeat. The band explain, ‘It’s a song about honouring a loved one’s legacy and spirit. There’s a lightness to it, as though it celebrates the joy of life rather than the sadness of death’.
Also picking up on the politics Tim dealt with on Living in Extraordinary Times – Tim having witnessed first-hand life in the US through the Trump years and the divisiveness and hatred stoked by the former President – the song ‘Miss America examines the country’s tarnished image through the prism of a beauty pageant, while the album’s title track addresses the rise of white supremacy in America. As Tim put it, ‘To go from the hope of Obama to Trump was radical, and I couldn’t keep it out of the songs if I’d tried’.
In fact, the new LP impresses from the moment the lead singer tells us, ‘We’re all going to die …’ I mean, what better way to open an album in 2021, I suggest to his long-time bandmate, Jim. He laughs at this, yet I add that there’s also a hint of an epic from the opening bars. It’s spiritual, it’s uplifting, and just what the world needs now. Was he similarly impressed on the first listen back?
“Yes, very much so. I think you’re right – to some degree the album does reflect the period we’ve been through, so there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s sad. Inherently, Tim’s reflections on things and how they’ve impacted on him. But at the same time, we wanted a record that was uplifting – the last thing we wanted to do was wallow in misery and darkness. That’s the last thing anybody needs right now.
“And I think Jacknife picked up on the fact that we wanted a lightness and a humour at times, not taking ourselves too seriously and getting that mixture sometimes where bits of the lyric might be dark or quite personal but with something underneath it that’s very positive. That’s kind of a trick we do a lot – when Tim comes up with a dark lyric or we write music that’s more uplifting, he tends to use that as an excuse to get something quite dark in.”
That’s Grammy award-winning producer Jacknife Lee he’s talking about there, best known for his work with U2, REM (he produced their final two albums), Taylor Swift, Snow Patrol, and The Killers.
On the title track, Tim tackles both the Trump-based Covid year and on-going Civil Rights struggle head on, characteristically animated. And by the time he’s talking about ‘your shit sticks to my shoe’, I’m punching the air. Perhaps this is the LP I’ve wanted Coldplay to make for a long time. Maybe Chris Martin needs to get a little more angry, follow Tim’s lead.
“Tim does get impacted by the things that go on around him and impact on society around him. He can’t help but reflect that. He’s been in the States and all through last year there was a whole heap of nonsense going on. So that’s going to be part of it and part of the record – was always going to reflect that.
“It will be different next time for whatever reason. He’s gone through various stages. Look at an album like Le Petit Morts, where he’s lost a couple of people who died. There’s a bit of death on this one as well, but if it’s something that impacts on him, it gets reflected, and he’s writing some really strong, clear powerful lyrics.”
You certainly lock into all that as a band, taking those songs forward, to great effect. And you’ve known each other so long now, you must be at a stage where you finish each other’s sentences or at least know when to hold back and not rile each other up, give each other more space.
“Yeah, like all good relationships I guess it’s a matter of spending time together but also learning to be apart, and nothing greater than this album, where we physically couldn’t be together, even if we wanted to, so we had to have a relationship where we were trying to complete the record.
“Fortunately, we got all the writing done before all this kicked off, so the bit where we have to be together – the four of us in the same room – was done, so we were lucky in that respect.
“So the next thing was pushing the songs forward, which we could do remotely, either individually or in pairs, and we did it all individually this time. Then what happens ordinarily is we find a producer, get a studio and we’ll stay somewhere nearby and all be round the corner and keep going in either because we’re needed or just to see how things are going and give input. But this time we couldn’t do that – that was a ‘no can do’ this time.
“So it was really Tim’s relationship with Jacknife, because he was just down the road, that was the prime band input, then Tim would come to me and some degree to Mark and Saul as well, and go, ‘This is where we’re at, what do you think?’. It was a lesson in letting go as much as anything, to be honest, and also it helped that the songs sounded great very early on.
“We got a lot of confidence in that to go, ‘This is great!’ We’re allowing him to put his own mark on it, we’re not too precious about it, and it’s going really well. If it wasn’t going really well, it would be different – ordinarily, you’d go in and sort it out, be there all day for a few days putting something back on track. Fortunately that wasn’t needed, so it’s been a bizarre experience to a large degree, as most people’s lives have been for the last 12 months, trying to find new ways of making it work within the confines of the restrictions you’ve got in front of you.”
Along the way, band members sent contributions down the line to Jacknife, from Saul’s violin to Andy Diagram’s trumpet, the producer left to his own devices building up songs, chopping, dicing, looping and replacing as he went, a virtual collaboration that ‘pushed us into new areas and made the album more extreme,’ as Jim put it.
As the producer himself said, ‘I was trying to find out how rock‘n’roll could sound if you incorporate digital editing possibilities, time stretching, changing context and just taking one bit and looping that,’ keen to ‘make the album sound fresh’ and highlight the music’s ‘strangeness’, Jim loving the ‘little splashes of primary colour’ Jacknife introduced, Tim adding, ‘We think we’ve made a masterpiece, but we can’t be trusted’.
I see Jacknife Lee is also about to release an LP under the name Telefis with my recent interviewee, Carl Coughlan, of Microdisney and Fatima Mansions fame, and now an accomplished solo artist. That’s another project that intrigues me. Is Jacknife someone you’ve known for a long time?
“No, Tim’s moved from LA now but he was in Topanga Canyon, where Jacknife was, so when we were looking at producers, there was a good list of different people we could have worked with, but it was all going to be completely remote. It could have been anywhere really. Whether it was London or New York or wherever, we wouldn’t see them … apart from Jacknife, who lived 20 minutes from Tim, and he was available. He wanted to stay at home – he didn’t want to go to a studio because his family were there. He wanted to create his own bubble. So we arrived just at the perfect time to say, ‘Do you fancy working on the record?’ and he gave us a kind of cheeky mates’ rate because otherwise there was no way we could afford him!”
It was clearly meant to be.
“Yeah, there’s this mad story …”
It’s a good one, set in Topanga Canyon, California, late evening, early 2020, with Tim Booth driving home, his mind fizzing from his first meeting with Jacknife Lee, who happened to live two miles away and had just agreed to work on James’s new album. Two women emerged from the darkness with a dog in tow and flagged the singer down. They’d seen and heard a rattlesnake on the unlit asphalt and couldn’t get past it, back up the road, in the direction from which Tim had come. He told them to hop in and turned the car around. It transpired that his passengers were Jacknife’s wife and daughter, out for an evening stroll. Call it dumb luck or a happy accident, but it made Tim smile. “It was one of those moments. I thought, ‘OK, this is looking promising.’” he said.
And it seems serendipity was James’ friend in 2020. Or as the press release accompanying the new record puts it, ‘Serendipity and a knack of overcoming obstacles, be they rattlesnakes or a global pandemic. With momentum behind them after a run of outstanding albums, James went into the year intent on upping their game further. They signed to a new label Caroline International and a new publisher Kobalt Music. They had demos ready for a new album. But then lockdown struck and Charlie Andrew, who produced 2018’s Living in Extraordinary Times, suddenly became unavailable. It seemed as though circumstances had left James high and dry. But that’s never been their way. Their management approached Jacknife. The fit was perfect. He and Tim could work together as almost-neighbours in California with the rest of the band contributing remotely from the UK. Circumstances be damned. Tim’s inkling was right. It was a match made in heaven’.
Jim, tells me the story too, adding, ‘It’s absolutely bonkers’.
“I think he felt obliged to do the album with us after that! It’s one of those mad things where two things happened really quickly and easily. He was free and just down the road from Tim, and he liked the demos, so we felt, ‘Let’s take it, let’s do it’. Tim could actually go and meet with him, spend a bunch of time with him, and I think that was a huge positive factor in all of us connecting, as opposed to handing it over to someone you’d never met and probably never would meet. The odd Zoom call was probably as good as it was going to get.”
I was running out of time by now, my own Zoom call soon to end, but in light of the splendid ‘Beautiful Beaches’ on the new record (I know there’s a far more serious theme there regarding climate change, forest fires and all that, but …), I asked if he was a beach or a mountain guy, bearing in mind his (far) north of the border abode.
“Yeah, I mean we’re lucky where we live. Where we are is beautiful and we’re in the middle of nowhere – you can just walk out the door and straight into the mountains. It’s been amazing and this winter we had a lot of snow but also a lot of sunshine. It’s been really cold but there were loads of days where it’s been snowing outside but blue skies and sunshine, and if you wrap up it’s beautiful, absolutely stunning and really, really quiet. It’s quiet most of the time anyway, but just because no one could visit, there was nobody up there.
“I like the sunshine and hot holidays, but I am a mountain guy, and I like the remoteness and bleakness of the Scottish landscape, and the fact I can go for a six or seven hour walk and not see another soul. There’s a remoteness to the Highlands, there’s nobody there basically, the population is incredibly small – it’s half the landmass of Scotland and there’s 300,000 people living there. It’s very sparsely populated, partly due to the Highland Clearances.
“I think that will probably change, something like this last year will probably make people think, ‘Maybe we could live there’. Property is still relatively cheap, it’s a good place to bring up a family, there are good schools, there’s no crime … I’m amazed people haven’t twigged and piled over the border, to be honest!”
Coming from a North of England city where workers traditionally looked to escape to the hills when it was factory downtime – with a resultant rich history that included 1932’s Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout, and all that – was the great outdoors seen as essential to you as a youth?
“It wasn’t really. I was very much a city kid, but my mum and dad took us on two holidays in Scotland and the second was two weeks on Skye. I was 15 and just fell in love with it. I hated it the first two days – me and my brother were going to leave, thinking, ‘This is terrible! There’s nothing to do!’ But I just fell in love with it and as the two weeks developed, I was completely sold. And as an adult I just came up as much as I could. That’s why I ended up getting a house there – every holiday I’d go up to that north west corner. I love all the Highlands and most of Scotland, but that north west coast I absolutely love.
“And it’s a part of Britain most people don’t know. You get on a plane, travel here, there and everywhere for holidays, but most people you speak to about Scotland will say, ‘Oh, I’ve been to Edinburgh’ or ‘I’ve been to Glasgow’. Maybe that’s to its advantage though. It’s quiet and I love it, but it does seem a very ignored part of Britain.
“And the islands – there are so many to visit, and they’ve all got different characters and mad little things going on. They’re all very different. Like Islay with the distilleries, especially if you’re a whisky drinker.”
Which you are, I’m guessing.
“Yeah, and I love all the peaty Islay malts. Ardbeg’s my favourite, Laphroaig, Lagavulin … I think there are 11 distilleries on a small island, for crying out loud – brilliant!
“And there’s Jura, where George Orwell wrote most of Nineteen Eighty-Four and nearly got killed there. There’s a whirlpool called the Corryvreckan. He went out in a rowing boat to have a look and nearly got pulled into it. And that’s a tiny island, there’s nothing there, but they’ve also got a distillery, although there are probably around four houses.
“Some of them are quite religious, The Wee Frees (Free Church of Scotland), and everything shuts on Sunday. There are old stories of chaining up the swings in the playground so kids can’t go enjoining themselves. It’s all very puritanical. Some are hippie communes where people have bought out the island and it’s all for one and one for all. They’ve all got very different characters …”
Jim was in full flow (those streams of whisky calling, maybe) at that point, but – almost inevitably – the screen froze, then his voice was gone too, your scribe left with a list of questions I didn’t quite get on to. Ah well. There’s always next time. And in the meantime, we have All the Colours of You to savour, its songs ‘among the most arena-ready in James’ 38-year history’.
What’s more, 30 years after the re-release of ‘Sit Down’ brought their commercial big-time breakthrough, a band that have sold more than 25 million albums over a 39-year career – have very quickly sold 60,000 tickets for their forthcoming UK arena tour scheduled for November and December, those dates having sold faster than any previous James tour.
All the Colours of You is out on June 4th, available in various standard and deluxe formats. To pre-order, head to https://james.lnk.to/AllTheColoursOfYouSo.
UK tour dates, with special guests Happy Mondays: Thu, November 25 – First Direct Arena, Leeds; Fri, November 26 – Utilita Arena, Birmingham; Sun, November 28 – Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff; Tue, November 30 –SSE Hydro, Glasgow; Wed, December 1 – 3Arena, Dublin; Fri, December 3 – Manchester Arena (sold out); Sat, December 4 – SSE Wembley Arena, London.
UK festivals: Thu, June 24 – Heritage Live, Kenwood House, Hampstead Heath, London; Fri, July 30 – Playground Weekender, Rouken Glen Park, Glasgow; Sat, July 31 – Deer Shed Festival, Baldersby Park, Topcliffe, North Yorkshire; Sun, August 1 – Y Not Festival – Pikehall, Derbyshire; Sat, August 21 – Beautiful Days, Escot Park, Ottery St Mary, Devon; Thu, September 2 – Highest Point Festival, Lancaster, Lancashire; Sat, September 4 – Warrington Neighbourhood Weekender; Thu, September 9 – Scarborough Open Theatre; Fri, September 17 – Isle of Wight Festival, Seaclose Park, Newport; Sat, September 18 – Visor Fest, Benidorm, Spain.