James Frontman Tim Booth Talks Politics, Quantum Physics, and ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’
Bands come and go with the phases and fads that spawn them, but there are the occasional few that resonate strongly enough to become cultural mainstays. Such is the case of UK rock outfit James, who have been at it for nearly four decades, and are still going strong. James were an era-defining feature of the early ‘90s Manchester scene, a coming-of-age period from both indie and dance music, and they have always retained the creative energy and spirit associated with the period.
The years have seen numerous lineup changes, and the band has dabbled in diverse sounds, with projects such as an album of instrumentals remixed by Brian Eno scattered throughout their prolific career. While recent releases have followed a dance-oriented trend, the band’s latest record, “Living In Extraordinary Times,” revamps the sound, with a bold, impactive, percussively adventurous approach. The album takes an engagingly somber surveyal of the disconcerting socio political landscape, but never descends into despair. Instead, the overall message is a remarkably uplifting one. It’s a rich album both thematically and sonically, capturing all the hallmarks of James’ signature sound, along with plenty novelty.
Singer Tim Booth met with Entertainment Voice for an in depth interview. We delved into the lyrical inspirations and musical stylings of the new record, touching on politics, science, the occult, James’ colorful history, and the zeitgeist at large.
You’ve just released your fifteenth album, “Living In Extraordinary Times.” With such a prolific career behind you, how does the new record strike you as particularly different from your previous output?
I think it’s got a lot of more percussive elements to it. The last few records were heading toward more groove-based music, more dirty bass, and this one jumped into a different zone. I think we were headed toward something a bit more dancey on the last record, and then this one has a slightly off-kilter percussive element that love, that we’ve been looking for for a while, really. When we’re improvising songs, we improvise with a drum machine, so it’s just endlessly going on, and it’s very flat, and we got this guy Benny Giles in, who as editing with me, because I needed to edit the improvisations in songs, or vague song structures. And I asked Benny one day if he’d try fucking up some of the songs, and really mess up the rhythms, and he did (laughs,) and it sounded fantastic. So we just kept encouraging him to push it further, push it further, and he kept pushing it. He’s a drummer and Charlie Andrew is a drummer, so when the two of them got together, it was like fireworks in the percussive department. And I’d say things like “Oh I could really hear some Flamenco dancers doing some handclaps and stamps,” and within a day, we got two Flamenco dancers in, and we built a small wooden stage for them to do some stamping on, and it was like, “Ok, this is great, these people are as crazy as me!”
There’s some wild percussion in the song “Heads,” and many of the new songs seem to be quite rhythm-heavy. What led you to take this direction?
The stuff in there is like water bottles being dropped on the floor, with iphone beats. Lots of sounds you wouldn’t expect are mixed into that percussive ambient. Lots of fun. It’s one of my favorite tracks, the way it turned out.
The new record’s opener “Hank” paints a vivid, dystopian picture of the current US political situation. On the other hand, your song “Many Faces” is quite optimistic in a Kumbuya sort of way. How much of a factor was politics in shaping the sound and content of the new album as a whole, and how are you coping with the circumstances?
You know, I lived in America, and I am an American dual citizen, and I was writing a lot of lyrics when Trump came into power, and it spurted all over the album, and I was like “Oh, you’re not taking this album, motherfucker!” So I kind of banished it into two or three songs. “Hank” is the condensed, anger, despair song. “Heads” starts off pretty deadpan. I think I’m saying it how it is. And then, the second half is pretty optimistic, actually. It gives an alternative vision what American could be. It’s a land of immigrants. It’s always been a land of immigrants, and it is a land of immigrants — whether Trump likes that or not. And then, “Many Faces” was in response to Trump building a wall. It was really simple. It was his racist outburst about Mexicans and keeping them out with a wall. It’s been very interesting with that song. When we played it live to audiences who don’t even know it, a lot of people burst into tears. We’ve hardly had a song that’s ever had such a strong reaction. One gig, we played it mid-set, amongst all of our hits that came afterwards, the audience sang it as they left the concert. They were singing it out loud, and it was like, “How can you remember that?!”
There are a lot of parallels in American and British politics right now, and you have commented, regarding Brexit and Trump, that “It is as if we’d slipped into an alternate reality.” With the world seeming to grow steadily more absurd, many people, physicists included, are actually beginning to consider the possibility of alternate realities more seriously. What do you think of ideas like The Mandela Effect?
Well, I know the “Many Worlds” theory, and I do read science magazines every week, and I’ve been fascinated with quantum physics for about twenty years. Any scientist who’s into string theory believes that it’s ten to — I think — five-hundred universes, which is a pretty infinite amount. I’ve been very interested in that. I met this lead scientist who created the first quantum computer. I met him on a hike in Malibu on a weird synchronicity, and he told me his quantum computer was computing in other universes. That’s why it was so fast. It was computing in other dimensions, and then bringing them back into this dimension. And it’s like, that’s what he told me! He built the thing. And it was like, “Oh ok, we have to take this really seriously at this point.”
I’m also really interested in the documentaries on DMT that you find on Netflix, and Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind,” and I’ve seen movements where people go into trance states, and I’ve been meditating since I was twenty-one, so I’ve been into pretty alternative spaces, and you go a long way out when you meditate for days and days, or when you go into a trance state, and you dance for a month. So you go pretty far out there, and you can contact some pretty interesting experience out there.
Your 1989 single “Come Home” already had some retrospective lyrics, like “After thirty years I’ve become my fears,” and now we have “Coming Home (Pt. 2.)” How do the two songs relate to one another?
I write from the unconscious, so I didn’t do it on purpose, to some degree. I think both me and my fourteen year-old try to come to terms with the fact that I have to go away a lot of the time. We both go into denial, and I realized, in writing the song, that I wasn’t that fine about it. I try to keep it down to three weeks maximum away from home. My eldest son, whom both songs are about, had it much harder, in some ways, because I’d go away touring America. So they’re connected by that same experience, the guilt when you have to work away to provide money, and also to do the thing that is your calling. I mean, I actually accept after, thirty-four or five years, that this is my calling — whether I like it or not. So it’s my calling, it’s my work, and I have to do it, and I love it — and I’m away from my kids. It’s a tough call. It’s a thing that breaks your heart. But it wasn’t consciously written like that. I just kind of went, “Oh that’s cool. I think you’ve just written a sequel to ‘Come Home.’” And not many singers write sequels. Sequels you find in books and music, but not many songs, and, especially twenty-five years later, I thought that would be quite a cool thing, to connect them in that way.
How do you feel looking back at the Hacienda days, and is there any current scene, movement, or phenomenon that you feel, in any way, captures the same spirit?
I’m thinking the rap movement, to some degree. My kid listens to a lot of rap music, and groups of rappers that he likes, you know, from Florida. There seem to be scenes going on in those communities that seem quite interesting. But I think music, apart from maybe rap, to some degree has become less tribal. Twenty years ago, as a teenager or a twenty-year old, you could often define yourself, almost, by whether you were a goth or you listened to house music or punk. That was a big part of your identity. I think now, kids can get music for free, so it makes them take music a little less seriously, but also it means that can get whatever music they want to listen to, and they don’t really care where it comes from, as it turns them on. We’ve had a youthful audience coming to our gigs in the last three or four years. It’s really been great to see the demographic getting really balanced. It’s great that you’re speaking across generations.
I was always on the edge a bit. I would go to the Hacienda when it opened at 9:15, dance on the dancefloor until eleven or twelve, when all the people turned up, and then go home, because I would dance in such a strange way that often my life would be in danger. This is really before house music. When house music came along, it was a bit more like, “Oh ok, I can dance with these people. They’re pretty crazy,” and it was more welcoming. But I have an inherited liver disease, so I’ve always had to be very careful with my intake of alcohol and drugs — which has probably saved my life — so I didn’t really get down to that scene in the way most people would. When we took the Happy Mondays on tour and they knew I didn’t really take drugs, or very seldom, they kept trying to spike my drink with acid (laughs.) They never got me, which is good.
What do you think of the depiction of Tony Wilson and Factory Records in the film “24 Hour Party People?”
I enjoyed it. I was a bit upset how Tony Wilson was treated. I went to the premiere, and I went to Tony and said, “Are you okay with this?” and he was like, “Yeah I’m fine, it’s all ok.” So ok.
One striking lyric is “Your god is just calamari.” You’ve expressed some abstract ideas about the concept of “god” before, for example on the 1999 television feature “Faith & Music.” Please expand on what you were going for with that line.
It’s kind of a joke. I mean people are going to war over their version of what god is, so I’m just being satirical. It just beats me, really, that everyone has to kill each other over their definition of what god is.
The new record’s cover art, designed by contemporary artist and former Vivienne Westwood designer Magnus Gjoen, depicts a rather cryptic figure overlain by flowers. What’s the picture about?
It’s probably the best art we’ve ever had. It’s a hand grenade with flowers growing out of it. It really fits with the record, the poison of Trump, and a lot of flowers growing out of it as well. You could look at it politically, like Black Lives Matter, the kids in Florida, the women’s marches, the resistance that’s starting to build. Hopefully the democrats will get their shit together and stop being such an elitist knitting circle. And then, there are amazing things within the culture, like “Sapiens” and Michael Pollan. There are really interesting figureheads in the world right now too.
Your song “Better Than That” has the lyrics, “This naked ape / Bent out of shape / Sedated by hi-tech.” Considering that we’re “Living in Extraordinary Times,” what are your thoughts on the overreach of technology, and the balance between, say, nature and progress?
It’s a great question, and I’d probably answer it differently depending upon the day that you caught me. I love my technology, but also, when you’re sitting at a train station, and you see everyone looking into the black mirror, and kids of three or four just staring into their phones, and not talking to their parents, it’s pretty scary. Or the brain science, the ways our brains are becoming adapted, and it’s changing the way our brains work, I think that’s pretty scary. And the overreach in terms of targeted marketing that we are all perceptible to and manipulated by. So there are many things that I feel about the overreach. I sent an email to a friend about looking into something around a scandal that happened in England, and suddenly I was getting targeted by advertising, which is really worrying.
“Living In Extraordinary Times” is available August 3 on Apple Music.