James frontman Tim Booth reflects on keeping meditation under your hat, Iggy’s tail and how Brian Eno knocked some scents into him
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
“I was brought up in a really sterile middle-class household in Clifford, Yorkshire, and my parents were very much about appearances, God bless them. My sister had a record player, though. One of the earliest memories I have, is her playing me Leonard Cohen and telling me that these were great lyrics, which put in my head that poets were better than singers.
“Another early memory is being at my granny’s house, and the whole family watching ‘Top Of The Pops’. I remember The Rolling Stones coming on and my granny saying, ‘I don’t like The Rolling Stones’, and turning the television off. I didn’t like her very much, so I remember kind of making a mental note to check out this band that she thought would be a bad influence on me. I think that was the seed of the profane – of something that had a bit of juice and sparkle!”
“I was very sick between 12 and 21 with an inherited liver disease. I actually died when I was 21 – I stopped breathing in hospital – so I couldn’t do drugs and alcohol. I worked out that all my heroes needed drugs to get into those connected states, but I thought, ‘How do you attain that without drugs?’. That became my kind of lifelong search, and probably saved my life.
“I watched lots of band members go down in flames, and I’m sure that would have been me if I could have joined in. But I couldn’t. I became part of a meditation group to try and help one of our band members who was having schizophrenic episodes. It didn’t work for him, but it did work for me and Jimmy [James’ bass player Jim Glennie]. So we were meditating like teenagers wank! It was 16 hours every weekend and two hours every day. For three-and-a-half years, I was celibate, no alcohol, no drugs. James were playing with The Smiths throughout that whole period, and we were keeping it quiet because we realised the rock ’n’ roll press might not be so open!”
“I went to Shrewsbury School, a boys’ boarding school, and it was a bit like a Victorian prison. Fortunately, the kids all had good record collections. I remember Supertramp coming through, and getting the first Queen album.
“One night, I was told that my father would probably die. He’d had two strokes and was having an operation, and they didn’t think he’d survive the anaesthetic. I couldn’t sleep, so I sneaked into my study after lights-out and I put on Patti Smith’s album ‘Horses’. I heard ‘Birdland’ and the opening line is, ‘His father died / And left him a little farm in New England / All the long black funeral cars left the scene / And the boy was just standing there alone’.
“I was just taken apart. I sold my whole record collection the next week, and vowed I wouldn’t listen to anything else until I could find something as powerful as that again.”
“Patti was connected to punk, and so that’s what I threw myself into. Along with two friends, I organised the first school trip to a rock gig. We were 30 public school boys, all dressed in uniform, and we went to Wolverhampton to watch The Clash, The Slits, the Buzzcocks and Subway Sect as part of the ‘White Riot’ tour. Luckily the punks wore school uniforms too, so nobody could quite work out whether we were being ironic or not.
“Tables and chairs were flying and the school teachers were fucking terrified. We were forced to leave the room for The Slits because they couldn’t handle these 16-year-old schoolboys watching it.
“Later on, we persuaded the church organist to drive us to Manchester to watch Iggy Pop. We ditched him, and ran down to the front before he could pull us out. Iggy came on with blood on his chest, with leather pants and a horsehair tail between his legs. It was the sexiest fucking thing I’d ever seen. Just glorious in its debauchery…”
“The only person who could ever ‘hear’ our demos the way we did was Brian Eno. He would sit with headphones on from 9am to 5pm, listening to these howling fucking noise cassettes, making notes, then go, ‘I found this gem here…’. He’d play back 30 seconds and a great song would emerge. It would blow us away. He has an amazing mind that just wants to keep on exploring.
“I’d take my kids to meet him and it was like visiting a magician. He’d be working on some music, then he’d take us into a pitch-black room and show us these light boxes, which would start glowing mysteriously with colourful things. And then he’d say, ‘Would you like to smell smells that nobody has ever smelled in the history of mankind?’. He’d get these scents made up of the most bonkers fucking things. He’d tell us, ‘This one is vanilla and motorcycle tyres!’, or ‘This one is tomato leaves, seaweed and iron!’. He’s just brimming with ideas in all the sensory dimensions you can imagine.”
(NOT) THE SAME OLD SONGS
“I read a great article by Martin Amis that influenced me. He was reviewing The Rolling Stones, and said, ‘It’s the same set every night. The gig in London is no different to the gig in Rome. This is not a living communication anymore’. I remember thinking, ‘That’s a brilliant observation. And we don’t want to do that’.
“That’s why James changed the set-list every night, not knowing half the songs we were playing, trying to improvise. The audience got that there was a big risk being taken, and how that puts you in the moment. We were meditating, you know, so we were studying being in the moment – a bit of Zen. We wanted to keep shaking up the fucking Etch A Sketch!”
‘All The Colours Of You’, is released by Virgin Music Label & Artists Services