“James has always felt that the test of the authenticity of a band is how they are live. Originally, we were forced into making records because promoters wouldn’t put us on unless we had a single out. So live performance to me has always been the litmus test of a great band.”
For four decades James have championed the power of live music, renowned for the strength and infectious nature of their live performances. Frontman Tim Booth’s Nine Songs travel the globe in pursuit of classic, raw and ferocious storytelling and an aptitude for compelling shows.
As part of his research for our interview, Booth went down a rabbithole on YouTube to find live performances for several of his choices. “I’m choosing people who have blown me away live”, he explains before diving into anecdotes which span his childhood at a Manchester boarding school to befriending Regina Spektor and seeing the chaotic spectacle of Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party.
“At first we didn’t really want to make records, we just wanted to play live. So from day one, that was it. I mean, it’s the traditional way isn’t it? We’ve only been able to record music in the last 140 years. We really learnt the recording process after about eight or nine years. It’s very hard for us to try and learn how to capture it,” he explains. “I think most people would say we’re a better live band than we are on record, but we’ve worked with Brian Eno on five albums, so we’ve had amazing producers. I don’t think it’s a deficiency in the recordings, I think it’s a proficiency in the performance.”
“I don’t mean musical proficiency, I mean that every night we go onstage we want it to be the best gig we’ve ever done, so we change the set every night to meet the atmosphere of the day – in our own lives and in the lives of the country we’re playing in, what day of the week it is. We’re trying to create a living form of communication every concert. That isn’t like a stage performance or a theatre performance. I think that is what makes us fairly unusual in these times.”
Our conversation dips into how James have continued to produce with a fresh perspective throughout their four decades as a band. Though musically, Booth admits James don’t emulate the sound of his love of Talking Heads and The Beatles, they do take seeds of songwriting influence from their process. “We write through improvisation, the four of us, and none of us control it. I think that means the music shapes itself.”
James’ 16th studio album, All The Colours Of You was produced by Jacknife Lee and Booth explains, “We purposefully choose producers who kind of fuck with us a bit, because we like being fucked with. And that’s helped us stay fresh, the fact that not one person controls the process. I think most bands have a singer-songwriter and after a while they dry up, or you get so used to what they have to say. I hope we aren’t like that, although some of my lyrics do re-address the same issues that I’m interested in.”
Booth’s peaceful demeanour ripples through his attitude towards creating, and as we dive deeper into the stories that shaped his adoration for music and the art of live performance, he concludes our conversation with ideas on how he believes one can continue to shift and constantly evolve as a musician, avoiding the status quo and unveiling new perspectives.
“All the time I’m digging into my unconscious through meditation, through dancing into trance states and working with shamans. I find those things help me dig up my psyche and that really helps with great writing.”
“Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean
“I’ve chosen this because it is a narrative, and narrative songs are particularly hard to write. It’s a narrative that rhymes too, you always see people who do this really well and then they trip up on a couple of lines, which blows it. It’s like that great quote from a writer who said that writing a novel has to be a continuous thread of imagination, without any break in the chain. And it’s true, because if you lose your reader in a narrative, you lose them completely.
“I first heard this as a kid, and I know it backwards and could sing it to you. It’s such a good story and I even love the sound of it and the finger clicking and the vocals – it’s a strange piece of music. It obviously stuck in my psyche at a young age, along with Val Doonican’s “Paddy McGinty’s Goat”, but I figured your readers wouldn’t really want to listen to that as much as “Big Bad John”!
“Bowie did the storytelling so well with “Space Oddity” and Pulp did it brilliantly with “Common People” but they’re hard to pull off, and when people do it I’m always quite thrilled. This was probably one of the first [narrative-led songs] I ever heard as a kid. I think for a long time I thought it was James Dean the actor who sung this, so I had an even more romantic halo around the song than it probably deserves.
“There was one song I remember my parents would sing to me: “Over the wall we go / All coppers are nanas / Over the wall we go / Leave ‘em alone and sing Happy New Year.” It was a song about breaking out of prison, which my parents didn’t approve of as my father was a magistrate. I recently discovered that that was a Bowie song, which was hysterically funny, because it sounds more like Dick Van Dyke. It was in that period where Bowie was looking for an identity, when he was trying different personas as if he were trying on different suits.”
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” by Nina Simone
“I curated these Nine Songs with the videos as much in mind as the songs – the only two I couldn’t find good videos for were “Big Bad John” and “Hey Joe”. So, with Nina, I’ve not so much chosen my favourite Nina track, but one that is a fantastic live version.
“My God, where do you start with Nina Simone? She’s one of my favourite artists, or the most important figure in the 20th century. I think it broke her when Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were murdered, probably by the government. And I think, ‘Yes, she was bipolar’, but her bipolar got broken. You can see it in that time period, there’s some astonishing concerts on YouTube, where she’s playing to white audiences and she’s just ferocious, astonishing, patient and heartbroken. And this is one of those performances.
“In this particular clip you can see what an astonishing pianist she was. She would have got into Juilliard, but they had never taken a black person before, so she didn’t get in. She didn’t want to be a singer, she just wanted to play piano but she couldn’t book gigs at coffee bars, and she was told she had to sing. So, she was forced into it. She became the most astonishing live performer.
“Go online and track down her live shows – watch this one for a start and watch how she plays, how she sings this song from the point of view as somebody who knows what it is not to feel free. I’ve seen other clips of her, where she might get up and dance for six minutes in front of an audience. She’s a remarkable dancer. What a performer!
“There is something here around mental illness, as she was bipolar, about the artist going so far out on a limb that it’s like a tightrope walking act. And I think after the mid to late ‘60s, when her friends had been murdered, that she fell off the rope a few times later on. But what a voice! She carries the weight of the civil rights movement so much in all her songs. Like in “To be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Mississippi Goddam.” They were all written for that purpose. There’s just so much courage and ferocity and musicianship all going on all at once.
“I’ve seen a few documentaries and the What Happened Miss Simone? one I’m a bit pissed off with. It didn’t show her genius. I think it was more a film made by her daughter who wanted to share what an awful life that she’d had. I felt it didn’t get the balance of ‘Yeah, the mother was crazy, but look, she was up there with the greats.’ Whereas some of the other documentaries have footage that would take your breath away at what she did onstage. And this piece will take your breath away too. Recently I was with my 16-year-old son. We were going through YouTube and I was showing him lots of great clips up to the present day and he was showing me some of his favourite songs. We got to Nina Simone and we had to stop, because we couldn’t find anything afterwards that was as strong.
“I had tickets to see her play in Brighton, but she sadly pulled out due to illness and she was dead within about eight months, so I ever got to see her perform. It’s a real regret of mine. My wife saw her play at Ronnie Scott’s, where she walked in late with two shopping bags from Sainsbury’s. She walked onstage, put them down by the piano, played “To be Young, Gifted and Black” thirteen times and then she lifted up her shopping bags and walked out. This was later on in her career, when she fell off the edge, but my wife said it was still astonishing to witness, everybody sat there in shock!
“In New York I dated a girl who was living with her guitar player of 30 years and I would quiz him all the time. This was in the 90s’ and they were worked, hard. She was a tyrant. You made one mistake and you’d all have to start the song again. The mistakes were often at her discrepancy, but she was tough. When people have reached a certain level of musicianship proficiency, it isn’t often combined with that rawness of lyric, and of voice. As I say, watch this clip, because it will show you what she was like live at that time. Which was a force of nature.”
“Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads
“Talking Heads are, I think, one of the last of the great bands – I’d include The Pixies in that too. From the start I loved their first single, “Love → Building on Fire”, which I have. It’s a strange title. And they’re just idiosyncratic, the way they don’t give a shit about the way they looked – they used to wear cardigans onstage, like we did.
“David Byrne was so nerdy and Tina Weymouth was astonishing. I thought she was the most charismatic bass player, and so generous – she always used to stare at David Byrne, with an intense look, that meant whenever you looked at her, you wanted to look at what she was staring at. So she boosted David Byrne’s charisma by that look and I always thought that was very generous of her. She in herself I found so fascinating to watch, with that gorgeous early-years pageboy haircut. I definitely had a crush on her.
“At boarding school, I saw this clip of Talking Heads performing “Psycho Killer” on Whistle Test with a whole load of people and everybody laughed at them. I told them this was the future of music, and had quite a row with one particular person, who, 30 years later, actually wrote to me and said, ‘By the way, you were right about Talking Heads.’ I thought they were captivating. Everyone laughed at them and how they moved. You can’t imagine that today, but back then that kind of music was really strange and eccentric. They went on an amazing journey with Brian Eno, and they were really the reason we wanted to work with Eno. Talking Heads are one of our favourite bands, but you won’t find any Talking Heads in James, there’s no influence there, but we have so much respect for them and love them so much.
“I’m not going to say the lyrics were my favourite part, but I really appreciated the fact that Byrne was trying to avoid the clichés of most lyric writing. Sometimes though, I felt he did that too much and they sometimes became too clever instead of heartfelt. But his phrasing was fascinating, as was the tight tension there, and being able to get a groove into the music.
“My favourite album is More Songs about Buildings and Food. The first four tracks take your breath away and leave you feeling so joyful. They were very uplifting, but never felt like they were escapist uplifting. Then Talking Heads became a massive funk band which I was less interested in in some ways, I was more into the taut four-piece, but I always appreciated the fact that they were always experimenting and they weren’t standing still for a long time.
“They took risks. I saw them at a festival in Scotland where they played an album that hadn’t been released and they played most of the record. The audience at first were furious because they weren’t playing “Psycho Killer” and they wanted something that they knew. But then the final six songs were off the Remain in Light album, when everyone dropped in and were saying, ‘This is amazing! What is this?’ And I thought that was such a ballsy performance to do that.
“We toured with Tom Tom Club around America. It was a little disappointing, we were a little sad because they were quite bitter in that they felt they’d taken all the songwriting credit. But being one of the biggest bands in the world and having that experience, you can’t be bitter about the money, you know? That’s not in our hands. I understand that, but that was very sad to see.
“I nearly went to meet David Byrne. I was going to fly to America to work with Angelo Badalamenti, as a TV show put us together. The night before, he was going to play with Richard Thompson. I got sick and couldn’t go, but I was meant to fly in early to see them. I would have been with the camera crew, who all had a car crash coming back from the gig and ended up in hospital. I just have to tell myself that I dodged that bullet, at least.”
“A Day In The Life” by The Beatles
“The Beatles, in my world, were Shakespeare. They’re a freak which will stick out for hundreds of years. To go from being a boy band and playing these covers of very simple songs, to working with George Martin – who definitely is a Beatle – then taking psychedelics and stretching consciousness in such a short time period.
“They produced music that to this day really hasn’t been matched in many ways, and they created so many genres of music. For example, you could say ‘Helter Skelter’ launched punk. There’s never been anything like it, and I don’t think there ever will be. I got to 30 and realised I’d never be John Lennon, which was a really depressing moment. I suspect quite a few musicians have that moment.
“I could have picked so many Beatles songs, but “A Day In The Life” gets it because of the chaos of how they worked on that song. That’s how James works too, you improvise and you allow for chance to be a part of the creation. As Brian Eno says, ‘Honour thy error as a hidden intention.’ Which comes from a version of tarot cards which he has.
“Lennon wrote the first bit and McCartney followed. They then set an alarm clock for, I think, 20 bars – you can hear the clock go off. They left those 20 bars empty and they basically said ‘One of us will fill it and make it interesting’. After the countdown with the alarm, you hear the philharmonic orchestra do this incredible, out-of-time, ascending scale, that I think George Martin probably came up with. It’s chaos. In James we call those songs ‘journey songs’, there’s no verse, chorus, middle-eight, verse, chorus bullshit. I think its genius and scary in a fantastic way.
“I chose this one because of the fantastic footage of the recording of the philharmonic who turned up and were asked to put on crazy Halloween masks. It’s a really psychedelic video that matches the song. You can see the Rolling Stones there, some of the Monkees are there, so you’re watching an event in history of one of the greatest bands in the world winging it in the studio. It’s a masterpiece; you have to let go of wanting to be good, if you’re trying to be genius. In the final note they used five pianos, so the note goes on and on. They wanted to create an eternal note.”
“Junkyard” by The Birthday Party
“This is Nick Cave’s second band, the band that brought him to the UK. They were the most astonishing, visceral live band I’ve probably ever seen – up there with Iggy who was a very dangerous performer at the time too. You didn’t know if he was going to jump on you or hit you with a mic stand.
“The first time I saw The Birthday Party they were opening for Bauhaus. Nick Cave came on with a vicar’s dog collar and a Bible. The bass player had an Australian cork hat. Nick Cave was slapping the audience in the face with the Bible in the front row and tearing out bits of the Bible and shouting ‘Thou shall not, thou shall not!’ They were bonkers, and he was matched by the menace of the band.
“There’s no good footage of The Birthday Party online, except this. This clip will give you an idea of how outrageous they were live. On this German TV show, they’re smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey in the song, and keep your eyes on the bass player, who does some things at the end which are physically impossible. They were a complete train wreck as a band, in terms of heroin mainly, I think.
“They took music to an edge which I’d never witnessed before. I think Nick Cave is the greatest artist of my generation, who maintained creativity and who was constantly moving and shifting. Anyone who is interested in Nick Cave should watch this clip, because it will blow your mind. Turn the song and the bass up loud. Keep your eye on the bass player, it’ll make you burst out laughing.”
“I Feel Alright” by The Stooges
“I was at a boys boarding school at this time and it was like a prison, I was very sick all the time I was there. My friends and I organised the first school trip to go and see live music and it was the White Riot tour. Punk hadn’t broke, and so the masters had no idea of what they were getting themselves into.
“We arrived at Wolverhampton to watch The Clash, The Jam, The Buzzcocks, Subway Sect and The Slits. He dragged us out during the Slits, because he was worried that we’d figure out what it meant, but we could come back in for the rest. The deal was that we all had to wear school uniforms, but luckily a lot of the punks were too so we didn’t get beaten up. During that show tables and chairs were flying through the air at an alarming rate, and after that concert the house master said ‘Never again!’
“So, six months later, Iggy Pop was coming to do the Lust For Life tour in Manchester and we begged them to go. They agreed, but only if there was a couple of us and we were told we could only go if we could find a teacher foolish enough to take us. We persuaded the choirmaster, Roger Parks, who had never been to a concert in his life. He was 6″2, built like a Will-o’-the-wisp and couldn’t make eye contact with you, he was so shy and sweet. He was the only guy we persuaded.
“He drove three of us to Manchester, and we realised we had to ditch him early because the show was starting. They had songs about serial killers and we thought he’d drag us out. So we ditched him, got downstairs at the Apollo and Iggy came on with blood on his chest, wearing a devil’s tail, topless and off his head. I ran down the aisle and a bouncer punched me out, I was 16 and it was wonderful. It was a fantastic, thrilling mess. We skulked back to the car afterwards thinking we were doomed. Roger Parks was there and told us ‘Wow, oh my God that was amazing!’ He was so alive! He was so passionate, he’d had Iggy Pop therapy.
“I nearly chose footage from that concert, but it’s not as good as the footage I’ve chosen here. It’s not my favourite Iggy song at all, which would probably be “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. But here, he walks on the audience’s hands and smears himself in peanut butter. Stage diving didn’t exist until Iggy Pop. He was so beautiful, I think I had a crush on him too. I saw him probably 22 times, because he was so dangerous and unpredictable. I saw him get teeth broken in gigs, I saw him get physically hurt, bollock naked at 65, when someone undid his trousers and he left them there by his knees for two songs. One of the greatest live performers I’ve ever seen.”
“Après Moi” by Regina Spektor
“I first heard about Regina Spektor years ago, when I bumped into Gordon Raphael, the producer of Soviet Kitsch and who did The Strokes album, at a festival. He was raving about a record he’d just made with this crazy young woman who played a drum stool with a drumstick while playing piano and singing at the same time.
“So I’d always wanted to see her, but I think it was for the next album, when she came to Los Angeles and played at The Greek Theatre – which is probably the most beautiful venue in LA to see anyone. I went with my wife and two other people, and we must have wept through about 50% of the concert – partly through joy at seeing Regina. I think Regina has more heart in her out of anyone, apart from maybe Springsteen, that I’ve seen – probably more than Springsteen even. I think that’s his great quality, that he puts so much heart into what he does. But I think she has so much and it’s just a love-fest to some degree.
“Her work is so feminine and constantly intelligent, her musicianship is remarkable, her voice is beautiful, her lyrics are wonderful – they catch you unawares. In one song she’ll have more ideas than most bands will have in an album. I just fell in love with her and for about three months after that gig I couldn’t write a song. I went back to every one of her records, playing them over and over again, trying to understand what she was doing, and was none the wiser.
“Later, I was lucky enough to become her friend when we played some gigs together. But she just blows me away every time. She’s so vulnerable onstage. Again, there are so many songs – “Man of a Thousand Faces” is probably my favourite song of hers – but I could name you about five or six that would be in my top 20, which I want played at my funeral. I love this one partly because she sings some of it in Russian, and some other character comes out when she sings in another language. I’m really interested in that, that there’s the American Regina, and then there’s the Russian Regina. I love what she does with her voice, and her passion.
“The other clip I would have chosen, is “Poor Little Rich Boy”, where she plays the drum stool at the same time, and she dedicates it to Patti Smith. Again, it’s not my favourite of her songs, but just look at this person, playing a drum with one hand, the piano with another and then singing, all at completely different timings. Who the hell can do that?! She’s a remarkable musician, she’s a delight.
“One video will show you the playful side of Regina, and the other will show you this light touch. “Après Moi” is when she gets more serious. I don’t know why I love this song so much, but I just find it passionately brilliant. She never talks about her songs to anyone, so no one ever finds out her process, which is a fascinating mystery I think.”
“Chelsea Hotel No. 2” by Leonard Cohen
“Again, I could have chosen “Who by Fire” or “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” or “Suzanne” as my favourite Leonard songs. But “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is probably one of the greatest lyrics ever written about a relationship. It’s so short, there is such depth of psychology in the song, such humour. That incredible final line – “I remember you well in Chelsea Hotel / That’s all, I don’t even think of you that often” – is such a cutting line, but so honest.
“Then there’s all the witty lines, “You told me again you preferred handsome men / But for me you would make an exception” What a lyric! And, “Clenching her fist… you said ‘We are ugly but we have the music.’” What a lyric of a moment in time in a relationship that tells you so much about him and her, fucking in the Chelsea Hotel.
“I chose this clip because it’s a lovely bit of storytelling at the beginning. For years people thought Leonard Cohen was so depressing, but if you can’t hear the wit in the lyrics, then you’re not listening. Leonard Cohen was written off in the late ‘70s and you forget this, because he had such a rehabilitation at the end as an old hippie. His management approached us because they’d heard me waxing poetical about him in interviews and they asked us if we’d do a cover version, a tribute to Leonard Cohen. They approached The Pixies and Nick Cave too. It was because he was getting such awful criticism from the press, so we did “So Long, Marianne” to our foolishness of choosing a song that good, and attempted to do a cover of it, which I personally don’t think succeeded! It was a good fist, but how do you cover that song? Nick Cave succeeded more ably I think.
“So that’s a really great thing for musicians to remember, sometimes musicians are out in the wilderness for years, and they come back and everyone suddenly turns around and goes – “Jesus you’re a genius!” The Beatles had that too. Disco and punk rejected them very strongly, and I think they disappeared for about 15 years before everyone looked back and thought “Holy cow! Giants just passed this way.” I think Leonard is another giant, and I’m so glad his managers stole all of his money while he was in the monastery, which forced him to come out and tour again, and discover how loved he is.
“I went to the eighth concert in Manchester, on his first tour in 14 years, having come out of the monastery. It was just, wow. Just one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. He got a standing ovation after every song and he got so flustered by this that he introduced us to the band six times. He couldn’t deal with the amount of love that was coming at him. People were running up with flowers and putting them on the stage. Everyone was crying.”
“Hey Joe” by Patti Smith
“Obviously I’m attracted to lyrics, and finding that balance between lyrics and poetry is such a fascinating thing. The latest anthropological studies are suggesting that calls and song were used to hunt and they came before language. Songs cross species and cross into the multiverse, so it’s a big deal to me.
“The song that probably made me into a singer was “Birdland” by Patti Smith, but that’s a hard listen for most people. It’s an 11-minute, improvised song. I chose “Hey Joe” because it blows my socks off and not many people have heard of it. I was interested too by Patty Hearst and her story. She was a billionaire’s daughter and was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, who were a protesting guerilla outfit. Then three or four months later, she ends up robbing a bank with them, with an automatic weapon. Finally, they were caught, some of them were shot, she was arrested, and a huge court case took place.
“In this song, she melds the story of Patty Hearst with the somewhat misogynist lyric of “Hey Joe.” It was a song I’d never really loved, I loved Hendrix’s guitar on it, but I never really took to his voice too much. Patti Smith turns this into an amazing art piece: “Patty Hearst standing there with the Symbionese Liberation Army flag with your legs spread / I wondered if you were just dead or if you were getting it every night.” Woah, what a fucking lyric. Who does that to a song? It’s so fucking ballsy and out there.
“At the end, you can tell that Patti’s trying to work out why did this girl do this? Because in the end it was down to Stockholm syndrome, where she ended up associating with her captors. She was of the Randolph Hearst family, so they had the money to get great lawyers and they argued her case and she got out. But it’s an amazing lyric where Patti Smith sings: “I am no pretty little rich girl / I’m nobody’s million-dollar baby / I’m nobody’s Patsy anymore.” I bet Patti Hearst felt very alive, robbing a bank having been brought up with a very pampered existence.
“It’s an amazing song with Tom Verlaine from Television playing guitar, making the guitar replicate birdsong at the end. It’s live recorded, it’s a fucking mess, and it’s a genius mess. There’s no great footage of it and she hardly ever plays it live. But I miss this song, and I wish she’d play it live more. I’ve seen her play it live once, with Flea on bass – it was fucking mind-blowing.
“Leonard and Patti are the two poets, in my eyes, who became musicians. Their lyrics are the ones that bridge the gap between poetry and music. The only other person I think who has done it as well is Kae Tempest. I’m not so much of a fan of her music as much, but she’s such a remarkable being that it doesn’t matter. She’s a genius. My tenth song would have been “People’s Faces”. It’s remarkable, it makes me cry, but obviously from this conversation quite a few things make me cry. Damn, I should have put Kae Tempest in – I’ve made a big mistake!”