British band James' lead singer Tim Booth speaks to ShortList about surviving 34 years within the music industry
15 albums in and 36 years playing together, James has shown no signs of slowing down. Yes, they've been together for over three decades now, but as frontman Tim Booth tells Shortlist, their sights are firmly set on the here and now
Congratulations on a fantastic new album Living in Extraordinary Times.
"Yes, it's had the best reviews we've ever had, which is really gratifying."
The title and the artwork – a hand grenade wrapped in flowers - are perfect for the zeitgeist of our times. Can you explain how you struck a balance of deciding where to be politically direct and indirect in your songs?
"Well firstly I never sit down to write about A, B or C - I just follow the intuition that comes from my unconscious. Some of the songs come from things that are emotionally stirring me up, whether they're political, emotional, social or spiritual - for want of a better word - and it just comes out, I don't really try and censor it.
"Secondly, I don't generally like political songs as a genre because they tend to be divisive, and the thing I love about music is that it brings people together. But I couldn't help it on a couple of songs; I felt too much anger and distress witnessing the racism of Trump and some of the racist elements connected to Brexit – though other people voted for it for very legitimate reasons of course.
"But there are really only two majorly political songs and two others that are more like unification songs that speak to the idea that we have to come together to face a global crisis. We are facing global warming and you can't solve that by America withdrawing from the rest of the world or Britain withdrawing from Europe. We have to meet the global crisis with a global response because we are connected, whether you believe that spiritually or politically."
Is the atmosphere in the US as polarised as it seems from the outside?
"Well I don't know many Republicans and I'm sure most Republicans don’t know many Democrats. So it is fairly separate in many ways and people are very upset on both sides of the divide. The country is in a very dangerous place… to the point, I think, of civil strife depending on whether Trump gets impeached or not. And the problem is that the whole country is armed so if you have civil strife on the streets those people all have weapons."
Hopefully, though, there's been some catharsis in your live shows lately. Many Faces really took off even before the album was out. That must have been gratifying...
"Yes, that's been the most unifying song on this tour [the chorus line is: ‘We’re only one human race/many faces/everybody belongs here’] and it has been remarkable."
You’ve released four albums and two mini-albums since getting back together [James formed in 1982, split in 2001 and reconvened in 2007]. Have you thought much about why some artists are able to maintain their creativity while others don’t?
"Well, I think it's a couple of things. The way I live my life helps me to keep exploring my unconscious, whether that's through meditation or going into altered states through dance [Booth is a student and teacher of Five Rhythms dancing].
"The psyche is an endless pool of unconsciousness and I think most artists tend to write a little bit more from their conscious self, which is more limited, so they run out after a while - especially if your life gets into grooves and habits or fixed ways of being. My life isn't like that - we’re travelling a lot, and even at home I juggle lots of things - for instance, I'm teaching a movement workshop to 150 people this weekend - which is quite healthy in keeping me alert and fresh."
What about your songwriting approach as a band – how do you keep that fresh?
"We write through improvisation, so no one has control over a song and it means we write stuff that surprises us and makes us feel excited. And because we don't bring anything into the room we're asking our unconscious to just create, and the best creativity comes that way, rather than from the more limited conscious mind.
"Musically we are still really turned on by each other in James, even after 34 years. We've got an amazing trumpet player who uses weird effects; we've got an amazing guitar player who is actually a genius violinist and another one who's a great cellist. So there are different scopes of musicianship and it's pretty fulfilling as a songwriter because I can use these different palettes.
"And I'm probably blowing my own trumpet but we are explorers and we're artists and we have a lot of pride in what we do. We work really hard. We wrote 30 songs for this last album and wanted it to be a double, but we ran out of money and the record company wouldn’t let us complete them all, so hence there are just eleven. But if you go to the deluxe edition there are 19 and they're all really strong. So it's a combination of all those different factors."
It's well documented that you have always followed more sustainable approaches to creativity in terms of clean living. Do you have any advice for people wanting to explore these avenues?
"Well, I was forced into that because I was sick as a child for 11 years so my health wouldn't allow me to go down any other routes. It probably saved my life in many ways as I've watched so many musicians go down in flames. My heroes were people who were like fireworks - Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith - but their recreational habits gave them a limited window of creativity as those things can burn you out rather quickly.
"And that’s really the thing - if you want to last then you've got to find a way that you can get to your unconscious in a sustainable way without artificial means. But I want it made really clear that I don’t have a moral position on this. It's more about the fact that I've had no choice, and I'm really glad I had no choice as it has been a really positive thing for me."