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James - Interview

  by Richard Lewis

published: 13 / 10 / 2018

James - Interview


With their fifteenth album ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’ heading for the Top 5 of the Album Charts, James multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies discusses with Richard Lewis the making of the new LP, not becoming a nostalgia act and what lies ahead for the group.

Reactivated since 2007 following a six-year hiatus, indie stalwarts James are currently basking in the glow of laudatory notices and an all-round positive response to new album ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’. The follow up to 2016’s ‘Girl at the End of the World’, which landed at a career best equalling number 2 on the Album Charts, at the time of writing the new album is currently on course to become the group’s eighth Top 10 entry. A twist on the Chinese curse/backhanded compliment 'May you live in interesting times’, which almost always means war, huge upheavals and general strife, the septet’s fifteenth album puts the tumultuous present era under the microscope. From you-know-who in the White House to social media, immigration, fake news and beyond, singer Tim Booth’s lyrics have rarely been sharper, while his voice is still able to scale the same heights as ever. An outfit, their politics have always been subtly threaded through their work, such as also on 1990 ‘Gold Mother’ cut ‘Government Walls’and the self-explanatory ‘Greenpeace’ from 1997 album ‘Whiplash’, the title track of 2008 album ‘Hey Ma’ tackled the fallout of the second Gulf War. Ten years on ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’ takes aim at the political scene in Europe and the US, where frontman Tim Booth has been based for the past decade. The scabrous ‘Hank’ ("White fascists in the White House/More beetroot in your Russian stew") opens the album in commanding style, its booming drums flagging up the importance of the rhythm section on the disc. Elsewhere ‘Heads’ ("Don’t believe in the white American dream/God bless inequality") and recent radio hit ‘Better Than That’ ("This naked ape is so out of shape/Sedated by hi tech/Wants fame on a plate") showcase the seven-piece’s pugnacious new sound in excellent fashion. Backing up the lyrics with suitably spiky music, the album possesses a more jagged edge than previous James releases. Is it fair to say the new disc is quite abrasive? "We were definitely going for some punch and that was initially from the demos, the songwriting, the moments we generated. Getting into the studio we really wanted it to sound like that." Violinist/guitarist Saul Davies explains from the band’s current rehearsal base in the Yorkshire Dales. With a bragging-rights list of producers to their name dating back to Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye helming their 1986 debut ‘Stutter’, James’ collaborators have included Youth, Pixies cohort Gil Norton and no less than five albums with studio wizard Brian Eno. While ‘Girl at the End of the World’ featured Killers/Muse cohort Max Dingel in the swivel chair, the new LP saw the group change tack again. Best known for his work with Mercury Prize winners Alt-J, Charlie Andrews was hired to push the faders alongside rising talent Beni Giles. "We’ve been wanting to work with Charlie for ages. We knew he’d bring some that abrasiveness to it, which is one of the reasons we wanted to work with him, it was very much a deliberate policy," Saul explains. "Beni’s not that known by people but he will be, I think he’s going to be a massive producer in time. He comes from a weird kind of background, a contemporary classical thing, but he’s very much into pop and whatever’s alternative. He’s a really interesting character, mad as a box of frogs to be honest," Saul states. "He and Charlie hadn’t worked together, so it was a bit of risk really to put them together and see what happens, but it was really good." "We wanted more clatter-y, percussive things in our music," the guitarist explains. "We beefed up some of the sounds we were using on the last couple of records, the bass was very overdriven, we were distorting drums and we were experimenting with that kind of stuff, but we wanted to push it further and at the same time we wanted to get more rhymical information and we did it." Underlining this new approach, the suitably colossal sounding ‘Leviathan’ lives up to its title and sounds destined to become a live favourite even if its chorus "Fucking love/Before they drop the bomb make sure we get enough" is unlikely to score daytime radio play. Elsewhere the life-affirming ‘Coming Home (Pt. 2)’, written by Tim Booth about being reunited with his son following a lengthy tour is a successor to 1990 classic ‘Come Home’. In contrast the gentle acoustic strum and Andy Diagram’s Mariachi trumpet melody of ‘Many Faces’ sounds like a track from 1992 LP ‘Seven’. An outfit who frequently air new material live before it appears on record, several ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’ cuts have been played recently. "We did a tour to kickstart ourselves in May and there’s a song that went out called ‘Busted’ that was part of the ‘Better Than That’ EP we did initially which worked brilliantly," Saul states. "We’ve been opening the set on occasion with ‘Hank’ which is great. It has this clatter-y thing we’ve been talking about.They’re coming, they take a little while in truth to really get together because they are so different, but it’s working. We just did a couple of great shows. We did Latitude a couple of weekends ago, and we played a lot of new stuff. We were in the tent. It holds about 20,000 people, and then we went to play BBK in Bilbao and it went down really well. I think we’ve got it now. We know what we’re doing." New arrival Deborah Knox-Hewson on drums alongside regular tub thumper Dave Baynton-Power allows the group to bring the record’s tougher rhythms to life onstage. "We generated all of this stuff in the studio. It’s easy in the studio. You just record as much as you want. But then how do you present that? How do you get that over live without just pressing a button?" Saul questions. "We’ve found a way I think through that minefield of being able to do it and Deborah’s brought a massive amount to that, really As we bring more of these songs into our set - currently we’re doing six or seven from the new album - once we’re performing the whole record as such, we’re going to need more hands-on percussive things including all of us. It brings a different flavour to the whole thing.2 On the subject of setlists, a hallmark of James’ shows over the decades has been the group’s insistence on playing new material instead of relying on their storied back catalogue. "Yeah, we’ve got to do that. Otherwise we’re dead I think," Saul says. "The thing is if we got to this point in our careers and started doing arena shows we were just playing the greatest hits, I think there’d be something really sad about that. We could do it. It’d make tons of cash and all that kind of stuff, except that we’d be dead. We’d become something we fought to not be, which is just a band that lives in the past. I know it’s a challenge for people, I know that people want new stuff, young artists, and that’s the way it should be. That’s what our culture demands. But at the same time, there are a few bands pushing forwards. We’re one of them I think." Aside from greatest hits sets, something the Mancunians have also avoided is undertaking tours that showcase their older albums in full, something that their contemporaries Happy Mondays, Ride, Primal Scream and scores of younger acts have done. The temptation to play the hit laden likes of 1990 zeitgeist-seizing classic ‘Gold Mother’ which spawned ‘Sit Down’ or 1993 landmark ‘Laid’ which included the evergreen title track in their entirety must be difficult to resist? "There’s an appeal," Saul muses. "Sometimes I do think ‘It’d be nice to go and play all of ‘Laid’ and bookend it with the whole of (2001 album) ‘Pleased to Meet You’. Two very different but really cool records. I’m not sure that we will do that, cos of how it’s regarded by people. I know playing all of those records for me personally would be amazing on a stage. But I’m not sure that we will ever do that because it precludes doing new things and our raison d’etre seems to be to do new things!" he laughs. "We’re nearing our 40th year. We’re in our 37th year of being a band," Saul expounds. "I think that also needs to be recognised at some point as well and is being recognised now by people. Like with the Charlatans, they’re not just a band that go and play their hits from years gone by. They make new records every two years. And I really admire for that, I think it’s great." Kindred spirits, Tim Burgess & Co. supported James at a memorably riotous Liverpool show in December 2016. "That’s why we’re doing these gigs now with them," Saul enthuses of their December arena tour. "That gig was the test and it was absolutely magic." Staying with the same city and tying in neatly with similarly politically engaged musicians, the guitarist praises Pink Floyd legend Roger Waters’ recent jaw-dropping show at Liverpool Arena. "It blew my fucking mind!" Saul marvels. "The visceral attack, the politics of it was just unbelievable." Highlighting ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’ in its belligerent approach, post-punk rush ‘Picture of this Place’ is redolent of Magazine and early Cure. Guided by band founder Jim Glennie’s irascible bassline and possessing a subdued air of menace prior to its explosive chorus, the cut is an album standout. "There’s something about that track. We jam quite a lot like that, but those bits never seem to finally end up being songs, so they get lost," Saul notes. "There’s things we do in a room together and we go ‘That was cool’ and then not make it into a song and this time we did. There’s a song on the album before called ‘Bitch’, which had a different but similar kind of vibe, that was more (Krautrock outfit) Neu! We’d go in the room the four of us making a noise and a lot of that noise is in the record. A lot of that particular track is the original jam, the guitars we did. We didn’t touch any of it. They’re from the room live as we were making it up." A glimpse into the group’s methodology of jamming their way through ideas, the track harks back to experimental 1994 collection ‘Wah Wah’, which pulled together song sketches recorded during the highly productive sessions for ‘Laid’. Keeping with the theme of remaining prolific, James’ release schedule of six albums in ten years mirrors their work rate during their initial burst of success in the 1990s. "Yeah, even maybe even more so," Saul says. "We’re speaking to each other now, the four of us who are writing these songs are up in the Dales. In the house we’ve rented we’ve put a load of gear in it and we’re actually writing music now for our sixteenth album." 2I suppose we’re feeling like people’s ears are open to all sorts of things," Saul ruminates on the group’s recent sonic upholstering. "I think we’re broken free. If there were shackles they were only in our imaginations, but we’ve certainly broken free of any expectations that might have been around the band. Us having to sound a certain way, having to appear a certain way, having to do obvious things. We don’t feel like we have to do any of those things any more." The guitarist sounds, however, a note of caution. "If we end up where no-one turns up to the arena shows then we’ll know that we’ve made a mistake!" he laughs. An unlikely occurrence, the new album and the upcoming gigs mean James are set to celebrate their aforementioned 40th birthday/Ruby Anniversary in superb style. The top three photographs were taken at the 2018 Latitude Festival by Peter Whitehead at www.premiumphotographic.com and the lower one by Dana Miller.

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