Interview: Tim Booth (James)
Tim Booth – would-be actor, spiritualist, husband, father, though you probably know him (if at all) as that crazy dancing hippy who fronts the band James. You’ve heard of them, right? No..? They sing ‘Sit Down’. That’s the one, you can stop singing the chorus like a pissed-up football hooligan now.
“One of the curious things about James is how we’ve attracted such football blokes, and look at me”, he smiles. Booth is an unlikely idol to the masses of burly men who flock to experience the euphoric live performances of James – he cuts a lean figure, has dance moves to shame your mother, and would rather meditate than get pissed up at an awards show. “A&M were gonna sign us at one point years ago; eventually they declined and when we asked them why they said ‘well, look at Tim, he’s not going to be the kind of person that’s gonna appeal to a redneck in the Deep South’”, a quote he tells me he’s particularly proud of.
James are somewhat a curious case in general. Tipped in the early 80s as the ‘next big thing’, it wasn’t until the 90s with songs like ‘Sit Down’ and ‘Born of Frustration’ that the band gained any real attention. Gold Mother, released in 1990, came fifth in NME’s Albums of the Year and follow-up Seven reached Number 2 in the UK charts in 1992. Five albums and nine years later, Tim made the decision to leave, but not because they’d outstayed their welcome. “I did it really – and I’ve been more and more honest about this over the last few years – because there was so much addiction going on in the band and I just didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. We were still making good music, but there was a lot of addiction and that’s why I left, simple.”
The band bowed out to a sold out arena tour eleven years after people had started to take notice; six years passed before Tim returned, and in the five years since then, three albums have been released and a dedicated and growing fan base continues to sell out tours all over the world. And yet, there’s an underlying feeling that James were never quite as successful as they should have been.
The media it seems didn’t quite ‘get it’. The NME lauded them as ‘the most original and exciting band in years’ in the early 90s, only to paint them as musical garbage a few years later. Why the turned backs when the door stayed wide open for bands like The Smiths? “I think it’s a number of things, and I think it’s something we survived. Familiarity breeds contempt… You know, The Smiths went like a firework and came and went and were appreciated, but you never got to see them grow old” – he pauses – “though you get to see Morrisey grow old”, he points out, with a glint in his eye.
“We also didn’t have much of a story for them – we kept our addictions to ourselves and we weren’t gonna sell them to the press”. This is something, I imagine, he’s quite happy with looking back? “We wouldn’t be back together now the way we are, I mean we genuinely love each other. You look at the Stone Roses and you go ‘hmmm, okay, how long is that going to last? How long are they going to stay in the same room?’ We actually love each other more now than we ever have done, which is shocking. The late 90s were bad. We had a lot of things going on and it looked like it was irreparable”.
As candid in person as he is lyrically, Booth exudes an honesty which seems something of a rarity in an industry where most are merely concerned with how they’re going to make the headlines. And it’s this nature and comfort with being so self-revealing, along with a sound which remains euphoric even in its darkest moments, which has enabled James to turn into a vehicle of comfort and self-discovery for those who jump on for the ride.
“We were doing a gig for Greenpeace on the White House lawns years ago and these young kids came up to us afterwards, about 5 of them, really shy, and they said ‘your album was the soundtrack for our escape. We were born into a religious cult and Seven was our soundtrack – we escaped about two years ago, all of us, and he’ (pointing at one little kid) ‘had to punch his father in the face as he was escaping through the toilet window – and the song that did it for us was Ring the Bells.’ And we just go “thank you, thank you God”. Music can work in mysterious ways, that much is certain.
And then there’s the incredible impact had on a boy who, autistic and locked in with no real way to communicate, only calms down upon hearing James, an effect which has carried over to other children at the autistic centre he goes to with his mother – a story she shared, confiding in, thanking, and congratulating them at a recent Q&A session. “I was in tears – I couldn’t talk for three minutes… None of us could speak. It was like, what a thing to say, what a use of your music. It was probably the most beautiful thing that anyone has ever said to us”. These stories and anecdotes come a-plenty, each serving not to massage an ego – of this, I feel certain – instead giving a sense of value to words put down on paper, which have gone on to find new meaning in unlikely and life-affirming places.
Gold Mother, an album filled with self-hatred, somehow managed to have this exact effect on the lyricist himself. Driving to the first gig of a tour in Blackpool, a request came from guitar player Larry’s step-daughter to listen to the album. What followed was something he likens to alchemy, metal into gold, pain into celebration. “We put on these songs at their request and they sang along joyously to all these painful lyrics representing the most painful moments in my life. It was just so shocking somehow, but fantastic. And then we went and did the first gig in Blackpool and it was the first time we’d played ‘Born of Frustration’ and 400 men were screaming – they knew what I was singing about and they knew how it felt.” Like therapy both ways? “Therapy both ways, yes”.
And such is the power of James, it would seem. I wonder if this kind of story makes up for never quite reaching the dizzying heights of stardom that has always seemed just out of their reach. “Yes and no. You know, I can see really shitty bands doing really well and I go ‘Fuck! Why the fuck isn’t that us?’ Every so often I’ll have that, but less and less.”
It seems somewhat of a blessing that the kind of fame which has paparazzi hiding in your bushes has never quite dug its claws in to Booth, it almost wouldn’t suit him. A distinct lack of arrogance exudes this front man, yet an alarming charisma and serenity seasons his words in a way which is both mesmerizing and enchanting. Opinionated and self-assure, but minus the sense that the world owes him a favour, it’s no wonder the media circus isn’t interested. And even when they are, he isn’t.
“You can see the public’s completely mixed reaction to celebrity with I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here”, he muses. “On one level, they’re like ‘oh, I love that person’ and on another level they want to tear them apart and make them eat maggots”. Not too far from how James have been treated, then. He tells me he’s received their call about three times. Was it a straight up no, I ask? “A straight up no”, though he ponders for a second. “There was one moment actually where I was quite curious” he admits, “I’m very interested in survival techniques and I was like ‘I wonder if you could go and live off that fish in that pond or catch some wild animals and live off them, and fuck doing the bloody bushtucker trials because you’ve just provided an elk that you’ve brought down with your homemade knife.’” I ask how he’d feel about living with other celebrities. “Oh, fuck!” – I start to think of a few names – “Shut up, don’t go there, I’m not going there.”
I’m A Celebrity… seem to have been punching above their weight with Booth, though one can only assume that the producers of such a show would be hard-pressed to believe that a band who formed in the 80s are still going, bloody love each other, and are not just touring their greatest hits to make a bit of money and satisfy a middle-aged audience. Sounds familiar though, doesn’t it?
But that’s not the name of the game here. Mobbed at Peru airport by fans they didn’t know they had and of the age that would most typically be expected to lose their shit over the latest buzz band, the audience is growing, and it’s not just the 40/50 year olds who come out for the James experience. “You get this all around the world, different people cottoning onto us in strange ways. We know there’s a huge audience waiting for us in South Africa, and we’ve never been to South Africa, and there’s one in Australia and we’ve never been there either. It just keeps going.”
It seems somewhat of a vindication for a band who refused to play the game that the kind of longevity most crave has come to them, and not for the price of compromising their integrity and pandering to the media. “We’ve always wanted longevity, you want the respect, you want the long-term, and it’s always been about live, and we have it. We took seven years to make any money out of this, 30 quid a week we were making for the first seven years. We knew what we had would eventually get through, and there’s also some part of us that feels it’s not finished yet”.
30 years down the line and there’s no time for being complacent. A youthful grin plays across the corners of his mouth when I ask about the future, as he declares: “There’s nothing like virgins, you know? People who come to a gig and think it’s going to be an ordinary experience with a band and go ‘what the fuck is this’?”
Well, what the hell are you waiting for?
Words: Tania Burnham