Even 36 years on, the Manchester band’s audiences are still building. Here frontman Tim Booth tells Malcolm Jack why their Scottish gigs means so much to them
On their strange and often fraught route from Factory Records-signed oddball post-punk hot tips to Madchester baggy breakout sensations, accidental Britpop exports and now arena-filling elder statesmen of British indie-rock, James could scarcely be accused of going the obvious way.
In some respects, their journey as a band only properly got going north of the Border. “When James broke in public it was really Manchester and Scotland,” muses their Bradford-born, now California-based frontman Tim Booth, in his lucid and always entertaining way over the phone from the serene surrounds of a farmhouse somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales, where James are holed up writing and rehearsing for a few days. “Manchester and Glasgow in particular,” he goes on, “those were the two places that really supported us early on and got us before anyone else did. And so we have a strong bond there.”
It’s why you’ll rarely see a round of tour dates announced by the band without a Scottish stop or two on their schedule, and also what makes them a natural choice to this year – in support of their dense, angry and urgent-sounding 15th album Living In Extraordinary Times – to headline the fast-growing Electric Fields Festival in Dumfries & Galloway, alongside another Mancunian legend, Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds. “Scotland’s always great for us,” Booth adds. “We have a passionate audience there who make it very clear, their appreciation, and also if we mess up. So it’s always a gig that we’ve loved.”
Quite apart from holding fond memories of playing other Scottish festivals such as T in the Park over the years, Booth also reminisces about a formative experience travelling up from his native Yorkshire to attend an open-air show in Scotland as a teenage music fan. At Edinburgh Rock in 1979, he remembers seeing Talking Heads boldly perform a set of almost entirely new material. “It was amazing. I had so much respect for them for doing it. But it shook the audience up a bit. That stuck in my memory a lot, and I think that helped make James bloody-minded about playing new songs.”
James’s own stubborn insistence on prioritising new material in their live sets across a 36-year career is a habit that’s not always to everyone’s liking, and it can sometimes draw criticism from unlikely sources. For instance, after they played the Hydro in Glasgow back in 2014, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson, who had been at the show, grumpily tweeted the band pouring scorn on them for not playing their best-known song Sit Down, label-ing them “completely self-indulgent.”
How does it make Booth feel to know that a woman tipped by many as a potential future UK Conservative party leader and Prime Minister is a James fan? “Or may not be a James fan any more,” he counters, sounding thoroughly unconcerned by the thought. “She got hammered by people for that – people were saying, ‘You obviously don’t know James.’
“Look, we change the set every night,” Booth asserts. “We have 240 songs, and we play a wide variety of them. That’s who we are. That’s the nature of it. I get that we are promoted in the pop world and some people want to see us as a pop band, but that’s not how we see ourselves.”
That bloody-mindedness hasn’t come at expense of popularity – indeed there’s evidence to suggest that James’s appeal is only growing with age. Their previous album, 2016’s Girl At The End Of The World, debuted at number two in the UK charts behind Adele’s all-conquering 25, becoming the band’s highest debut entry in nearly 20 years. “We have a bigger audience now than in the Nineties in our so-called pomp,” says Booth. “The difference is that we aren’t being played on Radio 1.”
As its title suggests, Living In Extraordinary Times is a reflection on our turbulent era, inspired by Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House, Brexit and the creeping sense that you can never be entirely sure whether or not to believe what you read anymore. “It’s like we’ve gone down the rabbit hole, come out in another multiverse, another dimension,” Booth reflects, when I ask him how he feels when he looks at the news these days.
“The title of the record is slightly ironic,” he explains, “because I think every generation thinks they’re living in extraordinary times. But clearly, something very odd is going on with information. [There’s a] kind of hall of mirrors of information, where everything is fake news and nothing is fake news, and everyone is certain they’re right and no-one is right. It’s a really weird time of uncertainty, and institutions crumbling before our eyes.
“I don’t just mean political [institutions],” he adds, pointing out that there are only two overtly political songs on what is also a deeply personal record. “I mean social as well – I see it being reflected in people’s lives. And in relationships. We’ve witnessed something like 26 divorces in our community in the last three years. And we’ve probably only seen six in the last 20 before that. I think it’s reflecting outwards. Whatever’s going on, it’s not just a political thing. It just manifests itself very obviously politically, and I think it’s happening in people’s personal lives. Everything is being questioned.”
It’s not all as doomy and gloomy as that sounds, however. James always aim to make us feel uplifted by their music, and hope for the future is programmed into the new album as much as anything else. “That’s why the image on the front of the album is a hand grenade with flowers growing out of it,” Booth explains. “I think there are many positive things coming out of these extraordinary times. Corruption that was hidden is now exposed. People who were apathetically political are now getting active.
“I think it’s important for these wounds to be exposed,” he adds, “because it’s the only way that they can be healed.”
James play Llinlithgow’s Party at the Palace on 11 August and the Electric Fields festival at Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfries & Galloway, on 30 August. Their new album, Living in Extraordinary Times, is released today