James Yummy Interview
Image © Paul W Dixon Photography

James return with uplifting new album

Having celebrated their 40th anniversary  last year, James are back with new album Yummy. The LP maintains a prolific output since the band reformed, vowing to stop their internal chaos. Tim Booth, Saul Davies and Jim Glennie tell Classic Pop  of the nine-piece’s eccentric creative  process, why they’re so bloody-minded –  and of their macabre sweepstake…

Coinciding with their  40th anniversary,  James were recently honoured with the Icon award by The Ivors.  It’s the biggest prize  in British songwriting, which many would  say is overdue for a band who’ve created classics including Sit Down, Laid, Born Of Frustration and Sometimes.

The band themselves were less certain of their status when they attended the ceremony last May, as multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies admits: “We sat there, thinking about the luminaries who’d won Ivors before us, how they’d studiously sit around a piano and write songs in a technically able way. Then we thought about the unholy fucking mess James are when we write. If the Ivors knew what they were actually honouring, it’d be hilarious.”


Sculpting Songs

With nine people contributing to James’ music, it’s little wonder their songwriting is different compared to most bands. “Everyone needs something to do, and everyone is so talented that what they contribute makes complete sense,” reasons Davies, a focal point of James’ live shows since joining in 1989. “It’s one reason why our records sound so full. The producer putting all our music together will go: ‘Fuck me, I’ve got 600 tracks of noise here. How am I going to do this?’ And we have to say: ‘Well, it’s over to you…’”

In truth, James’ songwriting is more structured than the cheerfully anarchic Saul makes it sound. Davies, singer Tim Booth, bassist Jim Glennie and keyboardist Mark Hunter are the main songwriters, the quartet gathering for sessions a week at a time in secluded locations close to nature – most recently Broughton Hall in Skipton, North Yorkshire – until they have enough jams to start sculpting into songs.

Glennie states 88 different jams feature somewhere in the 12 tracks on new album Yummy. And he should know, as he’s the one who assiduously takes notes on where potential magic lies: “I give sections marks out of 10, put circles around lyrics I like. Everyone else tends to use my notes to work from. I take ridiculous notes of where things change every few seconds. It’s just the way I am.”

Born Of Frustration

However eccentric James’ methods sound, it works. Yummy is their sixth album in 10 years – prolific for a band at any stage of their career, let alone one entering their fifth decade. As Tim Booth smiles over Zoom from his kitchen in Colorado: “It was so funny when The Rolling Stones’ new album came out, hearing Mick Jagger say: ‘We love making records.’ This is your first new stuff in 18 years. What were you doing?”

Although interviewed separately, Tim, Saul and Jim each talk of the “uplift” and “euphoria” in Yummy, stressing how important it is to give listeners some respite from what Glennie calls: “A groundhog day of negativity, a society stuck in a washing machine of problems.”

“We’ve felt joyful in James for at least the past five years,” asserts Booth. “We’ve been unashamedly more positive in our approach. When James are joyful, we’re really joyful. At the same time, we’re realistic about what we witness, in a world that’s not looking so positive right now.”

Magical Process

It’s not just mere productivity which has kept James consistently playing arenas and getting good festival slots. There’s an energy throughout Yummy, which makes it worthy of James’ finest albums. Saul notes: “Making records is a complicated, magical process that very few bands master. We do it occasionally, and Yummy is a good one. We sound excited by the music we make. You can’t fake that.”

That diffident attitude is typical of James’ approach. Asked what James have stood for throughout their 40 years, Jim and Saul both mention “bloody-mindedness.” They don’t shun success, but they haven’t made life easy for themselves either. Tim highlights how James rejected an offer from Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein, the powerful management duo behind Metallica, Muse and Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as refusing Sit Down’s release as a single in America, two years after it had been a hit in Britain. “The truth is, my psyche couldn’t have dealt with global fame,” the frontman admits. “We made choices to keep the band at a manageable level. We probably could handle that success now, but it’s too late, as we’re old and craggy.”

Keeping Things Manageable

James’ bloody-mindedness extends to their gigs. Fans are used to shows consisting of the songs the nine people in James want to play, not what’s expected of them, a rotating setlist which extends to their festival slots.

“We get criticised for that,” admits the youthful, hyper-enthusiastic Glennie. “We do rest big songs and put them to one side, but we’re the people who are there at every James show. The reason we still do this is because we want to.”

Founder member Jim started James in Manchester aged 15 with his best mate, the long-departed Paul Gilbertson. He fondly recalls the improvisational nature of the band’s early concerts: “We allowed things to change onstage. It wasn’t: ‘Guitar solo!’ for three minutes with the rest of us stood there. The whole band would be playing music none of us had heard before, which would then shoot off somewhere. If it didn’t work, the crowd would be: ‘Wahey!’, but other times it’d be absolutely brilliant.” Or, as Davies puts it: “Sometimes our show is bollocks, sometimes it’s completely life-affirming. We’re less bollocks than we used to be, and people like that. We might not play what people want us to, but we do it well.”

Eternally Grateful

The early James were nearly derailed when, aged 21, Tim fell ill with liver disease. He’s spoken before about how he nearly died, saying now: “I was lucky that my doctor told me: ‘Western medicine has nothing for you’ and not ‘What you have is incurable.’” This led Booth to a strong belief in alternative medicine, especially from China, as well as in psychedelic therapy. He predicts: “It’s not a panacea for everything, but psychedelic therapy will make a big difference in the mental health crisis the World Health Organisation has said is coming.”

Meanwhile, Jim is a strong advocate of changing how the music business deals practically with musicians’ mental health challenges, confessing that James are “much different” in how they value each other than in their early career. Yet the early band surely deserve credit for sticking with their frontman when he was so ill, when other bands would have quietly replaced him.

“Tim has an eternally grateful attitude to that,” accepts Glennie. “Honestly, at the time, it wasn’t like that. Early James was about playing and playing for as many hours as we could. We didn’t even speak very much, we’d just have a concert as a focus for all that playing every now and again. Those days were about finding who we were and getting good at that. When Tim was ill, we just carried on trying to do that, via more playing and playing.”

Gold Mother - Seven - Laid

All Messed Up

A more serious challenge arrived once James achieved success in the 90s. By the end of the decade, James were in chaos, Jim remembering: “I was a mess, unpredictable and all over the shop. Musically, I’m amazed we did as well as we did. I’ve seen live videos from that time, where I think: ‘Wow, we’re actually really on it.’ I don’t know how we did that.”

Tim states simply: “I thought someone could have died in the 90s. James were a wild band, but we kept that secret, circling the wagons to try to look after each other.” On a Lollapalooza tour, James shared the bill with The Prodigy, Tricky, Korn, Tool and Snoop Dogg. Booth says grimly: “The tour’s security said: ‘Look out for James, they’re wilder than any of the others.’”

Golf buggies were particularly at risk of being totalled…

“When you think someone is going to get killed, you don’t want to aid and abet that,” reasons Tim. “Seeing people you love go through that was a big reason why I left.” Splitting for six years in 2001, since James returned everyone has been focused on being the best James they can be.

Glennie points out: “This is the only job where a table full of free alcohol arrives at your workplace every day. It’s fucking mental. It’s weird in the music business not to have had a drug or alcohol breakdown. Do we really need to do that? The industry talks about mental health, but in reality it’s stuck in the 70s.

“You’re shot through with adrenaline after a show for two or three hours. I tend to leave gigs quickly, because otherwise I get pulled into that euphoria. I go out after some shows and enjoy myself, of course I do, but I know what the issues are in a touring band, and I don’t want that.”

Shes A Star

Reformed in every sense, James have been further improved by the addition of percussionists Debbie Knox-Hewson and Chloe Alper, the latter also a strong vocal presence on Yummy. “They’re both great additions, and they’re both cool as fuck,” beams Saul. “Chloe’s vocals really make the most of some of the new songs, and her work ethic is insane.

“Debbie’s drum work is excellent. She’s quite wayward, a bit of a northern bastard. I like that. We met the two women by accident and they joined the band in an ad-hoc way, which is very typically James.”

As delighted as he is by Chloe and Debbie’s contributions, Davies’ dark humour shines through when he reveals there’s a sweepstake within James as to who is going to die first. Asked who his money is on, Saul responds: “I reckon it’ll be unexpected. The girls joined last, so one of them will be first to go. Last in, first out.”

Living in Extraordinary Times - All the Colours of You - Be Opened by the Wonderful

So Much To Say

Saul rallies, briefly serious as he considers what unfulfilled ambitions James have left. “We still haven’t made our Dark Side Of The Moon,” he considers. “I don’t think we ever will, though we got close with Laid. We’ve still got so much to say as a band.

“Every time we go in to start writing, I worry: ‘Is this when we’ve lost it?’ But within 10 minutes, we’re always grinning like kids, jumping up and down, with Tim doing his mad dance and howling about whatever the fuck it is Tim howls about. I think: ‘No, this is great!’ and I can’t see how we won’t always have that between us.”

On Yummy, Tim is largely howling about trying to be “the antidote to the stress everyone is going through.” That’s especially present in the riotously infectious Mobile God, Our Worldand Life’s A Fucking Miracle, though all three bangers are undercut with lyrics respectively touching on dangerous tech, climate change and doomscrolling.

“You can feel in the air that people are losing it,” sighs Booth. “The media is based on selling fear. We all know about the awful things that go on simultaneously, hearing too much about them rather than the positives that balance them. As a singer, it’s important to be informed, but I have to balance that with what my mental health can take. I meditate, because that keeps me sane. If I don’t meditate for a week, I really struggle.”

The importance of Tim’s lyrics means he’s stressing about what he views as a mistake even before Yummy is released. He reveals the album’s inner sleeve will feature lyrics he doesn’t actually sing in conspiracy theory anthem Hey. He frets: “Hey had the line: ‘CIA killed the Kennedys, it was a coup by the way.’ It’s becoming more and more obvious that’s what happened, and I’m so angry with myself that I didn’t sing that line. It would have worked beautifully.”

James' new album Yummy

Destiny Calling

The omission is a microcosm of James’ profligacy in the studio. While Jim is experienced in how to edit James’ jams down, he’s also painfully aware of how much potentially great music they throw away: in James’ whole career, he can only think of 2018’s Extraordinary Times as a song based on a jam left over from a previous LP’s sessions.

Fans will be teased by an idea of Glennie: “If James don’t exist anymore, there’s a ton of unreleased stuff waiting to be utilised, a whole career’s worth of music for somebody to go through. When we finish an album, our view is: ‘We’ve finished that part of James, what’s the next bit?’ It’s all recorded on multitrack, too. We’re more conscious of how to get some of those demos out with this record. Maybe we should put a massive chunk of unreleased music out there and say to the fans: ‘Right, edit this’.” Davies, meanwhile, speaks longingly of a song titled Linger Like The Ocean that got ditched because: “Some wag in the band decided it sounds too much like Echo Beach. I think it’d be a huge hit, but it’s gone and I understand why.”

Production Skills

Yummy is helmed by Leo Abrahams, a producer for Paul Simon and Regina Spektor who was also a protégé of previous James associate Brian Eno. Saul praises Leo for coaxing him into “My best studio work in many years”, while Booth hails the producer for his patience at having less access than usual to the band while they were on tour.

Brian Eno himself had agreed to oversee Yummy, but ultimately wasn’t needed thanks to Leo’s inventiveness, but the legend naturally has a special place in James’ hearts, as Tim emphasises: “If you’ve made five albums with Brian Eno when you’re not making him the millions he’d get from some of his other bands, that’s a certain stamp of approval.”

Another Eno pupil, Coldplay producer and cult electronica pioneer Jon Hopkins, plays piano on Yummy. Sinéad O’Connor sang on I Defeat and Vervaceous, but James haven’t previously been known for collaborations. Saul talks of wanting to make a solo album influenced by The Byrds, Jim of maybe doing a soundtrack, with Tim naming Underworld and Black Country, New Road as bands he’d love to work with outside the day-job.

Not Disappearing Any Time Soon

Any extra-curricular activity might have to wait, though. James have begun work on album 19, having started the first of those week-long writing sessions in January – “Something we often do just before a new album, so we have something to start whatever comes next,” says Davies, who grins: “The bad news for anyone who hates James is that we’re probably not going to disappear any time soon.”

Glennie is a man happy to have spent all his adult life in the band that sort-of shares his name: “People go ‘Hey, you’ve got the same name!’, but the only person to ever call me ‘James’ was my mum when I was naughty.” Relative newcomer Saul has the most inventive way for how to keep James going for another 40 years, revealing: “Chloe and Debbie can become the singer and drummer, continue the James name. Then the rest of us can train up our kids to be in the band when their dads are gone. James can be like a football team, with a new generation of players.” The future of James’ fatalistic sweepstake might have to wait a while just yet.

Yummy is out via Virgin order here

James’ 2024 tour dates:

In June 2024, the group will head out on their biggest ever tour with special guests Razorlight.

03 June Aberdeen P&J Live
05 June Newcastle Utilita Arena
07 June Glasgow OVO Hydro
08 June Leeds First Direct Arena
11 June Cardiff Utilita Arena
12 June Birmingham Utilita Arena
14 June Manchester Co-op Live
15 June London The O2

For more information click here

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