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James – Live After Racing
Sat 17th Aug @ 5:30 pm
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary music.
This summer, James are back with new songs forged in these strangest of days.
The Mancunians returned in May with the ‘Better Than That’ EP and they will follow that in August with their 15th studio album, aptly titled ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’. Taken together as shot and chaser they prove James to be as vital, visceral and urgent as ever.
James are one of British indie rock’s most celebrated and enduring bands. Formed in 1982 in Whalley Range, Manchester, their debut ‘Jimone’ EP was released in November the following year on Factory Records and made Morrissey and Johnny Marr into early fans. The band went on to produce a string of huge hits during the next three decades, including ‘Come Home’, ‘Sit Down’, ‘She’s a Star’ and ‘Laid’.
The band’s longevity can be attributed to their constant process of renewal and reinvention. Their most recent album, 2016’s ‘Girl at the End of the World’ debuted at number two in the UK album charts. In total, they have sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, including their 1998 ‘Best Of’ which was a UK number one and went triple platinum. James’ reputation as a uniquely transcendent live act is well-earned, having headlined festivals from Glastonbury in 1992 to Festival No.6 in 2015.
The new recording sessions were overseen by Mercury Prize-winning producer Charlie Andrew and rising star Beni Giles. The former had come to the band’s attention through his work with alt-J. “When their first record came out I thought the production and the arrangements were just genius,” says singer and lyricist Tim Booth. “So I wrote to Charlie quite early on and told him I wanted to work with him.”
Giles had already been working with the band on creating a new rhythmical approach when Andrew, who won a Brit as producer of the year in 2016, joined the project after being blown away by the band live. “We were definitely trying to capture as much of the live energy as we could,” he says of the recording process. “This album is full of big tunes. Tim and the guys are all very good at writing huge hooks. There’s some really big, energetic tracks and some nice, chilled ones. There’s some monstrous tracks, like ‘Hank’, which is just vast with layers and layers of drums.”
Bassist Jim Glennie was impressed by the impact Andrew and Giles had on the rhythmic sound of the new record. “It wasn’t what I expected,” he says. “We were creating belting, banging layers of rhythm rather than relying on fancy programming. It was us all in a room hitting things. That’s pushed us in a different direction, and live it’s going to be wonderful.”
‘Hank’, which appears on the EP and opens the new record, is further evidence that James have no inclination to shy away from politics. Booth is an Englishman in America, and that particular perspective on Donald Trump’s American carnage couldn’t help but have an impact on the writing of the record. Booth sings of:
“White fascists in the White House / More beetroot in your Russian stew” and:
“Democracy sells easy/NRA high fives / Orlando, Sandy Hook and Columbine”.
“You can’t write lyrics in the time of Trump and not have some reflection of that,” says Booth, who has made his home in California for the last 10 years. “Originally he was sneaking into nearly every song at some level. Then I had to say: ‘I really won’t let this guy have this record.’ I whittled it down to two or three songs where I would really focus on what’s going on, but he’s still the backdrop to the record- the horror-show of American politics.”
For multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies, ‘Hank’ – which is propelled along on an industrial, militaristic beat – is an example of how percussive the band are these days. “I think that could become one of the highlights of the live shows. We’re all going to have to hit something!” he laughs. He also points out that while lyrically the song looks toward America, sonically it is heard through: “a kaleidoscope of Britishness.” He adds: “We can’t do Americana. We’re more claustrophobic, more ‘dark Satanic mills’.”
Another song, ‘Many Faces’, was written as a response to Trump’s claim that he would build a border wall with Mexico. “We don’t need walls,” says Booth. “What we need is diversity and interconnectedness, not the other way around. It’s the tribal mentality which will destroy us, if nothing else does. It’s that which will make us drop the bomb. The more that we see that we’re the same, the less likely we are to kill each other. I’m hoping that will match ‘Sometimes’ for its emotional clout live. If we can get an audience singing ‘There’s only one human race, many faces’ then that’s going to be beautiful.”
As well as biting social commentary, ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’ also sees Booth speak frankly about deeply personal issues. On ‘Coming Home (Pt. 2)’, he writes – not for the first time – about the pain of being a father on tour away from a young child. “I wrote [1989 single] ‘Come Home’ feeling shit about leaving my older kid and splitting up with his Mum,” explains Booth. “This is a part two, a sequel to that. My Family is together but I’m away travelling a lot.”
That song features an appearance from longtime James collaborator Brian Eno. “Brian’s keyboards are in there,” says Davies, “bubbling away like mad.”
The new album also features EP title track ‘Better Than That’, in which Booth urges the universe to do its worst, like a man squaring up to life itself.
“You can do better than that,” he sings. “Hit me again and show me where I’m cracked.”
“It’s an asking-for-trouble lyric,” smiles Booth. “I think the worst thing is to fall asleep, or to feel numb, or to get into one of those marriages where you’re just watching television the whole time. When You’re doing things to numb yourself out because the job is shit and the kids are overwhelming. We need to be challenged. If you don’t go out into life, inviting to be cracked, life will crack us anyway – through old age, or death. You can’t hold on. Nobody can.”
The album started life in three weeks of extended jam sessions at Sheffield’s Yellow Arch Studios, featuring Booth, Davies, Glennie and keyboard player Mark Hunter. “We all felt at home there,” says Booth of their adopted town. “Sheffield’s an incredibly cool little city.”
They finished recording at Iguana Studios in Brixton, London. “This was the most harmonious time we’ve had making an album for a long time,” says Booth. “I think that’s to do with the chemistry between the band and the producers. This was certainly much easier and effortless than anything we’ve made since ‘Laid’.”
“We’re still pushing,” adds Glennie. “Each record we do, it feels like we’re trying to do something different, to break out of something and to find something new.”
After an intimate tour of UK venues in May, the band will take their new music on the road this summer with festivals in the UK and Europe and further shows to come later in the year.
“When you see James live, you see that we’re still an organism that’s alive: growing and shifting and changing,” says Booth. “There aren’t many of us who have been around for this long who are still doing that.”
There’s nobody quite like James.
But like we said, extraordinary times call for extraordinary music.