Music interview – Tim Booth: ‘James has always been about hope’

James will be playing songs from their new album in Leeds and Scarborough.
James will be playing songs from their new album in Leeds and Scarborough.
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Tim Booth doesn’t seem to understand the concept of resting easy. The frontman of James has, along with his bandmates, only just seen his latest long-player hit the shelves – and yet, holed up at a converted barn, marooned somewhere in the Dales, the group are already knees-deep in creating new material for their next record.

The pause for breath is barely there, an insignificant gulp of air between plunges.

“We don’t stop!” he laughs when politely faced with the question of whether he has considered a holiday recently.

“That’s what we do; we love what we do so we keep on doing it, regardless of any business application. It’s fun; it’s something we love doing. We’ll just get in a room and jam. We’re lucky enough to get to do the thing we adore.”

Not only are James lucky enough, but so are their fans. The long-standing Manchester group have notched up three albums in the last four years alone, an impressive turnover rate by any conventional margin.

They’re arguably in the midst of a commercial renaissance too; last album Girl at the End of the World was only denied a debut atop the UK album chart by Adele and they will look to go one better this week with their newest offering Living in Extraordinary Times, one of the more incendiary offerings of their career.

Around the world, a grenade has gone off with Brexit and Trump – but there will be flowers and beauty that grow from that.

Timm Booth

Booth, the shamanistic Bradfordian who now lives with his family in the USA, is a vocal critic of the political landscape – but an insightful one too. “I think, certainly in America, liberals got rather complacent and arrogant about their level of intellectualism, and that they failed to meet the needs of people,” he notes shrewdly.

“It’s the same here, up north, where people wondered what they had to lose by voting for Brexit. There hasn’t been a great deal of sharing going on; when you look at the disparity between the one per cent and the rest of the world, it’s just appalling.”

He points out that the handful of uber-rich elite he has crossed paths with have all built their own private nuclear bunkers and fallout shelters. “That tells you all you need to know,” he adds pointedly.

The horror-show around him is not something exclusive to Trump; it’s a cultural issue, one surrounding the legitimacy of egalitarianism in his adopted homeland. “Each country finds a different way to subversive democracy. Look at Trump. You have members of the political system admitting that there was interference in the electoral process, yet you don’t re-run it. I mean, what the hell? That’s not democracy.”

He chews it over before continuing. “Basically, you’ve watched this culture exposure itself over the past two years; you’ve watched a man brazenly say the things that a lot of people have tried to keep secret – all the sexism, the racism, the exploitation, the love of money and power, the bullying. Trump operates from his wounds; he is a very damaged human being, totally reactive in his actions.

“When you have a face like Obama on the American machine, you can somewhat excuse the institutional problems because you see a decent man trying to do an impossible job. But Trump is most certainly not a decent man. We all have an inner Trump, but to see it on the world stage, controlling the most powerful country in the world, is somewhat terrifying.”

If the strident anti-demagogue message of tracks like Hank are not an obvious enough riposte for some, then the striking cover art of the album surely is, bearing the image of a grenade wreathed out of flowers. How does the band go around choosing a face for a record? “Our manager recommended us an artist called Magnus Gjoen who did this piece and it just immediately struck us,” Booth notes. “You know, around the world, a grenade has gone off with Brexit and Trump – but there will be flowers and beauty that grow from that.

“I think the word crisis in Chinese also means opportunity, and both things are going on simultaneously. I think that image really captures that.”

Despite its themes, Living in Extraordinary Times isn’t all doom-and-gloom; like all of the band’s great records, it coaches its lows in triumphant musical highs. Booth nails that combination as effectively the group’s modus operandi. “James has always been about hope. I often write dark lyrics to some of our most uplifting tunes, and vice versa.

“We aren’t Joy Division; I mean, I love them, but I can only listen to them a certain amount of times. I don’t want to present something that is going to leave people in despair.

“We named ourselves James in the first place because we wanted to have the variety of a human being, rather than be pigeonholed into one sound by a band title.”

Living in Extraordinary Times is out now. James play at Scarborough Open Air Theatre on August 18 and First Direct Arena, Leeds on December 9.