THE KISS AND THE CAR CRASH Tim Booth

The James frontman on his new solo
record, on America’s embrace
of Laid (and who subsequently sunk James in America), and much more.

 

BY DAVID
ISKRA

 

As I
talked to Tim Booth, best known as the lead singer of James, he was in the U.K. in the
midst of rehearsals for his upcoming tour and getting ready to release his
second solo album Love Life.  The Zen-like frontman sounded very relaxed
for someone about to risk his house on a world tour and solo album. 

 

***

 

BLURT: You’ve been a Los Angeles resident for
some time now.  Has living in sunny California affected your
writing as opposed to your somewhat cloudy homeland?

TIM
BOOTH: No, not really. I’ve been in a great writing group that has enabled me
to step out of singing in the first person. 
The last James record had all those weird little short stories that were
fairly dark.  One man wakes up with blood
on his knuckles not knowing he had done and another as someone who has cancer
so I was able to write more stories from other people’s POV.

        That has come from being in a great
writing group rather than being in America.

 

Does creating those characters
stem from your interest on acting?

Yes,
though I‘ve not really focused on acting in years (Booth has a small cameo in Batman Begins). I moved to Los Angeles and haven’t
gone to an audition in years because the music has really taken off again. I’d
like to do more acting but it’s been really hectic.  I only manage to stay home in California a month at a time and then wind up flying to Greece or Europe,
anywhere but home.”

 

You’ve been quite busy the last
few years.
James managed to record and release an
album followed by pretty extensive touring and in the meantime you recorded a
solo album.  You‘re not one to relax are
you?

(laughs) No, not really, the solo album
has been gestating in the background for about five years.  Lee “Muddy” Baker, my best friend and
producer and I have been plugging away in the background in our spare time
between his projects and mine. Last year we decided to make the final push
because we knew James would need a break at some point.  So it’s a cheat to say that it was only two
years.  It was more like five. 

 

What does Lee “Muddy” Baker bring
to the table as a producer?  What sets
him apart from Brian Eno or any of the other producers you’ve worked with?

It’s a
different relationship.  I didn’t write
with Brian.  He would come in and take
jams that James had created or work with songs we had already constructed and
help you with the arrangement, or help you with recording and set you in a
great frame of mind to deal with that. Lee and I wrote a lot of these songs
together. I wrote one on my own and a few with more with a guy named K.K.

        Lee plays every instrument. Sometimes
he will go off and do his thing and I’ll come back and a song is just there.
There is little input needed.  That is a
different construction from the bottom up. We hang out a lot. We have a great
relationship.  We get together and talk
and just fuck around more than working a lot of the time.

        Having said that, Brian is a great mate
as well and brings such a strong focus to the work.  And his focus is quite catchy.

 

I was listening to the new album
on headphones and the TV was on in the background.  I heard the lyrics “Consequences ripple to
the shore” as the crisis in Japan
was unfolding on my TV.  Obviously you
didn’t know about this when you were writing them, but has it occurred to you
since how prescient they were?

Not with
that particular one.  I always rely
unconsciously and then things become more pertinent around the time of the
release.  I’ve written lyrics in the past
and wondered, what is that about? Only for it to be revealed later on.

       On this record which I‘ve called Love Life for many reasons, one is there
are quite a few songs about relationships that work and don’t work but there
are also some almost apocalyptic songs about mass destruction going on. I’m
thinking about “Bless ‘em All” and “Shattered” which is post-apocalypse and
there are hints of it in “Monsters” coming to get you as well. I had no idea
why I was writing those, but that’s how they came out. There are earthquakes,
towers falling, etcetera, but that’s what I’ve written about and the only
response you can have to those things is to just love life.

        The only thing you can do in response
to those situations is to just love life.

        The only people who seem to be able to
accept life in all its beauty and terror; the only attitude you can take is to just
deal.  The best attitude is to love the
kiss and the car crash because they’re all coming. You have to be able to do
that if you want to find a sort of philosophical spiritual attitude towards
life.

 

That message is pretty loud and
clear on the album.  The thing that
strikes me is that both James and your solo work are almost always euphoric and
uplifting without being cheesy. And as apocalyptic dark as some of the new
stuff it is, it still has a message of hope and to enjoy the moment.

It’s a
hard line to walk sometimes. I love Joy Division but I can’t listen to them
because it is too depressing.  I can only
listen once or twice a year.  I want to
go to the same level of that psyche, but how do you do it and not depress
people?  That’s been a theme that has run
through anything I’ve ever been involved in.

 

Well, Joy Division did become New
Order and the sound definitely became a bit more upbeat even if the lyrics were
still dark.

That’s
the idea. It’s looking for the contradictions and the contrast, looking for the
acceptance.”

 

The lyrics “Johnny’s on the phone
Johnny’s online” from the song “All About Time” made me laugh because I was
listening as I was on Facebook.  The
message to slow down and take a pause almost made me feel guilty.

That was
written for those of us who are sort of tied to our inbox. I recently twittered
that “Happiness is an empty inbox.” It just becomes this huge pressure.  We’ve developed this amazing technology but
everything speeds up.  Workloads
intensify and, yes, communication is quicker, but it needs to be and we always
seem to be out of breath catching up with ourselves.

        The song is definitely about that,
about modern life being fast.

        Part of the video we just shot was of
me trying to stand still as people pour out of this busy shopping mall and
everything moves around me.  We got kicked
out but we go the shot.

 

Speaking of your videos, I just
spent some time on YouTube looking at some of your older videos.

(groans) I didn’t like our videos too often.  They were impossible, you get a fantastic
script, see the director’s work and it would end up shit.  Or you’d get a bad script, and great
director.  I could never figure out how
to pull it off and the label would never let me direct, which pissed me off
because I was an actor and directed university plays and stuff.  I really wanted to direct but they never gave
me an inch.”

 

Well, they say that nostalgia is a
powerful drug. Maybe I was just excited by the reminder of seeing you guys on
TV.

I could
count on one finger, the number of videos that made me go, “Wow!” Videos always
made me think of an advert for the single, which was an advert for the album. “Praise Me” by Spike Jonze stands out. Especially
when there wasn’t much money involved did it blow me away. Those Michael
Jackson videos where they were throwing millions of dollars at it, all I could
think of was the waste. It just didn’t capture me as a medium very much, but
then again maybe I was just frustrated I couldn’t do it myself.”

 

I saw on Twitter the other day
that you made a joke about an advance of the album being sold on eBay and that
your house was collateral for the tour and new album.  Without getting into a tired “downloading
destroyed the music business” discussion, how are you faring in this new
landscape?  They keep saying live bands
do better than artists that don’t tour or aren’t great live performers. Do you
find this to be true?

The
landscape for James is good because we are a great live band.  We change the setlist every night.  You never know what you are going to get from
us.  Live, we’ve never done better.  We are heading off to Chile and Peru and to play this summer.  We went to Mexico expecting a couple thousand
and 1k showed up. 

        No one seems to be able to sell records
right now except for the really big mega-bands. I really can’t complain about
downloading.  It is an old argument
now.  An entire generation has grown up
with the quite pragmatic argument,  “Why
pay for something I can get for free?” It’s completely changed how music is
perceived and used in this culture.  It’s
happened; it’s past. It’s an ancient fact that you have to figure out how to
live with.  Love it and try to work with
it, but now it’s a problem for musicians to figure out how to get financial
backing to record.

        I read an article recently about how
OKGO figured out a way to get funding through their visuals but I don’t come
from that place.  I’m about making
music.  If I can find the right person to
make visuals with, great but I find it hard to do that myself.

       I’m trying to adapt, you know?

 

James has a great fanbase, which
surely helps.  The Hey Ma tour did well in the States with little to no press for the
album.  But the fans knew about it
somehow.

Our fans
are amazing. In fact, after that Twitter went out about my house, I received
several offers of places to stay.  It was
sweet.  They take the lyrics very
seriously and very sweet things get said. 
We had 56 songs on that tour and every night we’d mix it up.  There aren’t many bands doing that.  So many bands are doing the same songs night
after night, even the in between song rap. 
I would find that so soul destroying. 
For me what makes it fresh is that every city we go to we want a
relationship with those people on that night of the week. That affects what
songs we play, what happened that day. Who we interacted with that day, that
changes the setlist and makes it a living breathing organism of communication
rather than a theater performance.

 

Well, that just makes sense with a
band like yours, which has such a back catalog of songs that can stand up after
all these years thematically with the new stuff.  Why just promote the new album when you have
old stuff just as strong?

Yeah,
when we play new songs we work extra hard to make them jump out because you
know the songs fans know backwards and were part of their formative years
resonate instantly without any effort, so you have to rely on being a better
lyricist now or that you worked your ass off to make this song work.

 

You are one of those bands that
here in the states might only be known for “Laid” kind of like Radiohead only
being known for “Creep” or The Cardigans for “Lovefool”. I tell people you are
missing out if that is all you know. 
Then people turn around and surprise me by bringing up your project with
Angelo Badalamenti.  In fact, my friend’s
63-year old mother was eager to discuss your music with me. I thought, wow,
that is quite an impressive fanbase.

We’ve
always wanted to be like the Beatles, where you could cross every boundary you
can possibly cross.  Music should not be
elitist.  The British press is so elitist
and all about the niche of music that they love and is currently cool. James
has never been about cool.  It’s always
been about being vulnerable, which is very different, probably the opposite of
cool.  We go to Mexico and we
have a stage invasion of teenagers.  Then
we go to Greece
and it is all 30-40 year olds.  It’s all
about how old they were when we broke and certain songs that broke us.  It varies in different countries.  In England, it’s the early stuff.  In America it’s “Laid.” In Greece it’s
“Getting Away With It.” In Mexico
it’s the present stuff, which is fantastic. 
It keeps us alive and makes us feel like this thing is moving
forward.  To be able to communicate
across time and race is a great thing.”

 

Wah-Wah [1994] was my door to the band.

(laughs) “Oh, you mean James’ commercial
suicide where we released it as a follow up to Laid instead of a companion album as planned? Brian wanted to
release both at the same time and people were like WTF?  We were sunk after that in America.

 

Do you feel like it was a mistake?

It should
have come out with Laid.  It was done in the same session and we wanted
to show our versatility more than anything. 
It probably wouldn’t have made any difference.  Danny Goldberg (Universal Music exec) came in
and sunk James in America.

        Generally James have had so much love
and luck in our lives and that was just one instance of negativity.

        I could tell you many positives as
well.

 

***

 

With
that, Booth heads back to rehearsals for his European tour.  When I ask him if we’ll see him Stateside he
sounds unsure at the moment but tells me he is aiming for the end of the year,
with the possibility of a living room tour of the West Coast which he says
sounds quite fun.  I’m pretty sure there
are a few fans on the West Coast already moving their furniture.

 

Leave a Reply