Booze, rows, that song ... but James won't sit down just yet
As they prepare to play the Belsonic festival tomorrow night, Tim Booth from the iconic indie rock band tells Chris Jones why they were finally ready to get back on the road again
When James join Suede on the Belsonic stage in front of 5,000 fans tonight, it's fair to say that the prevailing mood will be one of nostalgia. The two bands are reformed and revitalised, and both are making brand new music – Suede with new album Bloodsports to promote, James with a fourth post-reformation release recorded and ready for mixing.
The fact remains, though, that they are both heavyweights of 1990s indie rock, and long-time fans will be desperate to hear the hits of their youth. Not that James frontman Tim Booth feels like his band has any part to play in a Nineties revival.
"No," he says tersely. "I think we feel too arrogant, and we've been going too long. In 1983 we toured with The Smiths, had number one indie singles and Morrissey called us the best band in the world. Our history is too big for us to feel like just the Nineties counted."
It's a fair point. James hit the big time when their enduring anthem Sit Down reached number two in the charts back in 1991, but success was a long time in the making. They formed in Manchester in 1982, blending folk, post-punk and the new style known as 'indie rock', and had released three albums and many more singles by the time Sit Down was a hit. Overnight, they became a sensation, their iconic daisy logo T-shirts ubiquitous on the chests of students who shared Booth's taste for tousled hair and baggy clothes.
Success endured throughout most of the rest of the Nineties, with 14 more top 30 singles and five top 10 albums – six if you include their 1998 Best Of, which reached number one in the UK album charts. It's a formidable catalogue, and the band have added to it since they reformed in 2007 after six years apart – Hey Ma became their sixth top 10 album in 2008, and Booth is justly proud of the music the band are currently making.
"Hey Ma is as good as anything we've made," he says, "and the new record is too. Just because you don't get the media attention, probably because of our age, it doesn't mean that you don't make great music. I feel that our kindred spirits are people like Springsteen and Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. We might not get hits again, but we can – and do – still make great music and have an aliveness to what we're doing that isn't time-specific."
Indeed, Booth is relentlessly upbeat when he talks about the James of 2013, while willing to provide some insight into why they broke up in the first place. "We've had quite a chequered time in terms of our relationships within the band," he admits. "It's like a marriage of weird brothers. You know those incestuous marriages, they're really hard to hold together! The late Nineties were rough, which is really why I left, and it's been fantastic since I've been back. We're all appreciating it in different ways, everybody is sober, and very creative."
That little word 'sober' is telling, as alcohol abuse played a role in the band's demise. "The last few years of James got really rough around that," Booth confirms. "We've never really been a band to advertise ourselves using that kind of information – unlike lots of bands where that becomes the story, we never wanted it to. But there was that going on."
Now, Booth says that James are "in a great place", and it's worth noting that unlike many reformations, all of the band's classic early Nineties line-up are involved, including guitarist Larry Gott, who initially left in 1995. "We all wanted to be on board – everyone had spent long enough away from it to re-appreciate it," says Booth. "I think we'd all given it long enough – it got to the point where it was functional. We all had families and settled down, and we were ready to go back in and do James because we all love it. We'd always loved the music side of it, but sometimes it got hard in terms of relationships."
Despite Booth's protestations and his pride in the band's post-reformation material, it's inevitable that the biggest cheers at Belsonic will be reserved for a certain number of the band's most popular songs from the Nineties – Sit Down, of course, but also the rambunctious acoustic romp Laid, the Madchester anthem Come Home and the graceful vistas of late-decade singles like She's A Star and Just Like Fred Astaire. Does he ever get tired of playing the hits?
"We've had 14 or 15, so we've got enough to be able to rotate them – rather like farmers with fallow fields," Booth says. "There have been years when we haven't played Sit Down or Laid, and when we do play them we change them around and do something with them to make them useful again, or fresh for us again. So not really.
"I got churlish about playing Sit Down for a while, probably because it was our first big hit, but there are many things you can do with it. For a year, we used to walk through the audience playing it acoustically at the beginning of the set, when we didn't know what to do with it live. Then Comic Relief seemed to give it a new lease of life. Suddenly people are starting to really sing it to us. As long as a song keeps moving, we'll keep playing it."
Ah yes, Comic Relief. Earlier this year, TV viewers were treated to the unusual sight of the rather stern-faced Booth being joined on a sofa by cuddly funnyman Peter Kay, miming along to his band's biggest hit while being pushed through the streets of a northern town. It turns out that, unlikely as it may sound, Booth and Kay have known each other for some time due to the comedian's love of the band. "Peter Kay telephoned me when I was in America," Booth recalls, "and said, 'I've got to say, Tim, as a James fan, Sit Down is not one of my favourite songs.
"But I've gone back to listen to it and it really is a good song'. That sold it to me – a James fan saying it's not one of his favourites! So he pitched his idea to me and I rang up the rest of the band.
"We know Peter Kay, we think he's a very funny man, and we've always wanted to do stuff for Comic Relief so we were like, 'Absolutely'. It was great fun. I flew in and was jetlagged, and we were dragged around Stockport by about six dwarves, stopping the traffic with cars hooting at us and people waving. It's Peter Kay's off-key, slightly perverted razzamatazz. He's a very entertaining human being – the kind of guy you want to sit on a sofa with, basically."
From touring with The Smiths, through early Nineties stardom, booze-fuelled in-fighting and a successful reformation, James have lived the life of a dozen bands, and they are still going strong in their 50s. Could Booth ever have envisaged it turning out like this, back in 1982?
"No, but we always felt we had longevity," he says. "We were going seven years before we had any success, and everybody was trying to persuade me to give it up. But we were always absolutely certain that the band had some sort of destiny. And we still don't think it's fulfilled its potential, which is probably why we're still going. We don't think about stopping because we feel there's something more to come."