THERE'S an unwritten rule that bands who were popular in the '90s have to reform after a series of unsuccessful individual ventures.
James fit this profile up to a point. The Manchester septet fizzled out in 2001 when frontman Tim Booth left to concentrate on other projects, including a solo album in the form of 2004's Bone, but factions had already appeared in 1995 when founder member and guitarist Larry Gott quit.
What sets them apart from the likes of The Wonder Stuff and Shed Seven, however, is that they continue to release new material rather than relying purely on nostalgia.
"I'd hate to feel that the best was behind us," notes Booth from his home in California. "Musically we're making as good music, if not better, than we've ever made. And I have to have that sense of change."
The band's prodigious output since they reformed in 2007 supports this claim, averaging one album a year and undertaking a hectic touring schedule. As part of their latest jaunt they'll be playing at Leeds Academy on 14 December in support of The Morning After.
Their second mini-album to be released in the space of six months, it stands in musical and lyrical contrast with The Night Before. The material on this latter, which was released in April, started life as extended jams that were then loaded onto a website and edited by band members in the isolation of their own homes. The process was, "very much using the internet – using technology – and people working individually in many ways. That was a very unusual process for us."
In contrast, the latest release largely eschews keyboards and has something of the intimate feel of 1993's Laid. Recorded over "five days in a room, really slugging it out with an arrangement," its eight tracks are united by lyrical themes around cancer, ageing and death: "topics that interest me and that I see in people around me."
The tone on The Night Before is generally more upbeat and extrovert but it hints at the dark subject matters to come on an excoriating comment on the 'war on terror'. Following the impassioned anti-war tirade on the title track of 2008's Hey Ma, Dr Hellier lambasts fundamentalists who, "know who and what God is and what God wants and they're willing to kill other people in order to impose those views on others. And I find it amazing that we're still living with that kind of..." he laughs bitterly – a single cartoon 'ha!' "...infantile psychology that could well destroy us in the end."
The danger of fundamentalism and the hypocrisy of organised religion have been the target of his wrath in the past, most notably on God Only Knows (from 1990's Gold Mother), which blasted television evangelists. It cannot, therefore, be lost on him that tabloids were more outraged by the sleeve art of Hey Ma than by the message it conveys. Depicting a toddler reaching for a gun, stores in America refused to stock it and the Advertising Standards Authority banned the image from billboards.
Rather than promoting violence, however, the design references psychological studies that show it's "actually very difficult to kill another human being for most people." Booth continues, "Most Hollywood films are around violence and revenge. I see those as being very much desensitising indoctrination to get us to a state where we can kill each other. Which is not a natural state. And so that image of a baby reaching for a real gun instead of a toy gun, that's what that was a statement about: one thing leads to another."
Incidents such as this, together with other anecdotes from their two-decade career, are likely to be lovingly chronicled in the James box-set that's in the pipeline. Booth is somewhat cagey about the release, politely steering conversation back towards new work. These include his appearance in an independent Manchester film Poor Wee Me, which previewed in November, and having optioned a screenplay during the band's hiatus, his plans, "to sit down and write something quite serious in the next year."
Furthermore, he's working on another solo album with Lee 'Muddy' Baker, with whom he collaborated on Bone. It's too early to give away many details but he suggests it's "probably much more uplifting (than The Morning After]. There seem to be a lot of strings finding their way onto the record."
For the time being, however, the focus is on the current tour. And while fans can expect a generous sprinkling of hits, Booth is excited about the prospect of playing new tracks. "Songs like Tell Her I Said So – the disco song – I'm dying to play to an audience," he enthuses, with a conviction that suggests the best may truly be yet to come.
Dec 14, O2 Academy, Cookridge Street, Leeds, 7pm, sold out – returns only. Tel: 0844 477 2000. www.o2academyleeds.co.uk