Indie band James up for another tour

Emma Lee James, one of Britain's most successful bands, are back with their first new studio album in seven years and will play a sold-out show at UEA, Norwich, on Friday. Emma Lee spoke to the group's singer and 'lunatic' dancer Tim Booth.

Emma Lee

During their career, indie legends James have produced anthem after anthem. Sit Down, Come Home, Sometimes, She's a Star... the list goes on.

In fact, they're one of the most successful bands this country has ever produced, selling more than 12 million albums worldwide.

After a hiatus they're reinvigorated and back with a new album, Hey Ma, which is a real return to form. And they're taking the record on a tour, which includes a date at UEA, Norwich, on Friday.

The band's heartbeat is Tim Booth, singer, lyricist and self-proclaimed “lunatic” dancer. The band was formed by guitarist Larry Gott and bassist Jim Glennie (the band's name is taken from his first name) in Whalley Range in the early 1980s and it was those two, plus Tim, who formed the band's nucleus.

When asked why he wanted to be in a band, Tim's answer is disarmingly frank.

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“It was a Patti Smith track called Birdland. I heard that song on the night I was told my father was going to die. It taught me the power that words and music together had. That moment changed my life,” the softly-spoken singer says.

But then, listening closely to the band's lyrics, you know that Tim has always worn his heart on his sleeve.

“Song-writing is my way of keeping a diary or having therapy - it's cheaper and more productive. It's something I do to keep me sane,” he says.

One of the band's early breaks came in the '80s when they were briefly signed by the late impresario Tony 'Mr Manchester' Wilson to his Factory label.

But while famed in Manchester and beyond for their exhilarating live performances, and their iconic daisy T-shirts (any self-respecting indie kid had to have one in their wardrobe) their commercial breakthrough didn't come until the early 1990s with the album Gold Mother and a remixed version of the single Sit Down - a song that came out of “a 20-minute jam that only ended 'cos we were laughing too much to continue”.

Always emotionally-charged, they weathered the rise and fall of Britpop, with hit after hit in this country and collaborations with Brian Eno. The band was also successful in America, which, as the likes of Oasis and Robbie Williams will tell you, is a particularly hard nut to crack.

“We didn't plan to last this long,” says Tim. “But we wanted to make music that lasted, that people could come back to, that would reach out and connect to them. The lyrics aren't all happy, happy. Sit Down has an edge of darkness,” he says.

But after the departure of Larry Gott in 1995, the band became, in Tim's words, a “dysfunctional family”. Tim himself quit the group in 2001, and it looked like it was the end of the road.

Then about a year and a half ago Tim, Larry and Jim met up again having not spoken for about five years. Three days of jamming later, they had the makings of about 30 songs.

“That's the way James works,” says Tim. “We are a band that improvises a lot. The songs weren't completed, but we had verses and choruses.”

The project hadn't started out as James's reformation. But soon familiar faces Saul Davies (guitar, violin), Mark Hunter (keyboards), David Baynton-Power (drums) and Andy Diagram (trumpet) were on board and the band was back to the line-up that had recorded the seminal albums Gold Mother and Seven.

“It was great because they were the best musicians. And it was great to see if we could move forward,” Tim says.

In September 2006 the band headed off to Warsy Chateau in northern France to write and record what was to become their first new record in seven years. It proved to be a unique working environment. Producer Lee 'Muddy' Baker (who'd worked with Tim on his 2004 solo album Bone) allowed the band to build their own studios in their rooms and constantly feed ideas back to him in the main studio. He also allowed the band to jam at their leisure. The result was Hey Ma.

Lyrically, Tim was, as ever, bursting with ideas he wanted to explore.

“It's always a kind of snapshot of what's going on. There's a lot to fire me up - love, the Iraq war. It's quite a mixture,” he says.

And, of course, it has its deeply personal moments. Waterfall recalls an occasion when Booth, during his time working with composer Angelo Badalmenti, bathed naked at Snoqualmie Falls near Seattle and felt a special energy connected with the place.

“The album's got quite a triumphant feel to it and it's a very positive record. Waterfall is about connecting to nature, to get out of the machine - forget the TVs and mobile phones and technology,” he says.

With the new record warmly received, it's time for James to hit the road once more. And Tim has been in training for it.

“We've got lots of new songs and we're very fired up about them. You have to be physically fit - it's always quite gruelling. And you can feel it approaching. It's a big deal for us and we don't take it lightly. I'm always scared before I go on stage. You always want that night to be the most special night,” he says.

t James play UEA, Norwich, on Friday, April 18. Tickets are sold out, but check with the box office for returns on 01603 508050. The band's new album, Hey Ma, is out now. Website - www.wearejames.com