Mancunian band James is still not as well known in the U.S. as it deserves to be, despite more than three decades of pouring out fresh, thoughtful and creatively challenging material. Last August, the band released its 15th studio album, Living in Extraordinary Times. Partnering with producers Beni Giles and Charlie Andrews, the new album has the effect of both a soothing hand and a punch in the gut. Pro Sound News spoke with band leader Tim Booth about how being optimistic and fatalistic about modern times served as the creative cauldron behind the new record.
On the cover art
I was being really difficult—every time a cover was presented to us, I would say “No, that’s not it.” And then finally, our manager found this great artist, Magnus [Gjoen], who had these fantastic images of a hand grenade with flowers growing out of it. And I thought, “That’s it! That’s living in extraordinary times! You have the poison with the medicine growing out of it. So that was the image we chose. It was a month overdue and more expensive than we wanted it to be and the record company wasn’t very happy with us, but it is the perfect image for the record.
On America’s influence
I think when you move to a country, you see it in a different relief—against a new backdrop. So it makes things like government, which has never been my interest in the past, really stand out. It has been shocking coming to the States and really starting to see how there isn’t a democracy here. There are so many different forces undermining democracy, all to do with wealth and power. Generally, I am not a political person, but I am somebody who gets pretty outraged at unfairness and inequality. I guess that is what motivated the two political songs on this album, and there are only two. “Hank” is one of the two, and we wanted to make it as angry, as marshal and as violent as James go.
On balancing extremes
We are working with two great producers: Beni Giles, who really helped with the drums and the ideas, and then Charlie Andrews, who is alt-J’s producer. So we just wanted “Hank” to be brutal as we can make it. James has always gone through extremes—in this country, we were known for the album Laid, which was almost an acoustic album. But at the time, we wanted it released with Wah Wah, which was a kind of ambient, electronic album. We wanted it to be a double album so they would come out together, but the record company wouldn’t let us because they thought the two albums were too different and that it wouldn’t work. So we’ve always been into not really have a ‘sound’, but rather serving the song. You get the sound which serves the song—and that’s what we’ve gone for on this record. We’ve been lucky enough to have brilliant producers who could manifest that for us.
On old-school jams
We create every song through jamming. Then one of us will take that jam if we think there is potential in it and we’ll start working on it. I get an engineer in and chop up the jam and structure it into a vague idea of what I believe should be a song. The first stage is taking the jams and editing them into potential songs. Then I might add lyrics, and people might work on instrumentation. And then the producers come in and they start helping with the drums—because we jam to drum machines, which makes it really easy to keep time and to edit. The exciting thing about it is you never know how the song is going to turn out and no one person has control over it—the song goes on a kind of journey. It is the journey that is the creative process.
On “extraordinary times”
The album encapsulates the rise of nationalism, Brexit and countries all over the world retreating into that ‘me first’ mentality—all based on fear, and essentially coming out of the financial collapse that took place around a decade ago. And yet, in the backdrop, there is a thing called global warming, which is an issue that has to be solved globally or we are all [in trouble]. But people are not putting this first; they are putting their own national self-interests first, and we’ve got to come together because time is running out. So there is that aspect, but culturally, there is a fantastic healing response that is going on—all the women that got voted in in the recent mid-terms, for example. The women are coming, and thank God, we need them! We are living in a really potent time of huge transformation possibilities, but also possibilities of huge destruction. I think these are the ‘extraordinary times’ I am talking about.
On generational shifts
What’s happened over the last couple of decades is that music has become devalued because now it is virtually free. And to some degree, people do not value what they do not pay for. This is not so great for musicians, but it is great for music fans because the younger generation doesn’t care where the music comes from. They might be into the Doors, or they be into a contemporary rapper. Their tastes seem to span more widely and it is less tribal than it used to be. As a result, we are getting younger and younger people coming to our gigs. Our concerts are selling better than we’ve ever sold, even than during the ’90s when we had hit records. And it is a really mixed audience—from 60 to 70-year-olds, right down to teenagers. As we are witnessing that change, we are loving it.