Back in 2018, legendary band James released an album entitled Living In Extraordinary Times against a backdrop of climate change, the rise of right-wing populism and race divides which were bubbling under the surface.
For context, it was eighteen months into Donald Trump’s four-year term as President of the United States, during the height of the Brexit debate, shortly after a record period of summer heat in the UK. No-one had even heard of George Floyd, and COVID wasn’t even a word in the common vocabulary.
With that in mind, Live4ever’s first question to Jim Glennie, founding member of the band, was simply: Do you wish you’d saved that album title?
“Could it get any more extraordinary?,” he replied. “It’s gone from extraordinary to bizarre. When we called the album that, they were extraordinary times, they were bonkers. I bet everyone in history, whoever you ask in whatever period, says they are living through extraordinary times.”
“It’s just gone even madder and stranger. I hope it’s just some bizarre anomaly that we never have to go through again. Something we tell the grandkids about; the days when we used to wear facemasks in Tesco and not the beginning of something new, where we have to go into lockdown every couple of years.”
That, in a nutshell, sums up James’ approach to music over the last few years. Since their reformation in 2007, the currently-seven-piece band have steadily become both more mainstream (not that they ever weren’t) and, to their immense credit, much more explicitly politically conscious.
Recent single Beautiful Beaches sits proudly on Radio 2’s playlist, and is at surface level a perfect fit; an uplifting pop song about running away after a traumatic experience. In actual fact, it’s about escaping forest fires in California, where singer Tim Booth lives.
“Beautiful Beaches sounds uplifting, but it’s not. It’s quite a powerful lyric. Musically it’s very poppy, and if you skim over it then it sounds like, ‘Hey, we’re off to a beautiful beach. Cool!’. It’s not a song where we wanted to wallow. The ethos of it is wanting some bounce and to be vibrant to it. We do that a lot; dark lyric with hope and uplift.”
Dark lyrics hidden behind pop music is the foundation on which new album All The Colours Of You is built, as Glennie elaborates: “Some of the lyrics are a bit punchy but obviously reflective of Tim’s circumstances, which have been as bizarre as everybody else’s. We wanted the record to be joyous. We wanted uplift, we didn’t want a depressing record, though some of the lyrics are.”
Another recent single, Recover, is about the sad death of Booth’s father-in-law with COVID. When close attention is paid to the lyrics, it’s a heart-breaking ode to losing a loved one played out in real time. A real-lump-in-the-throat moment, it’s also a celebration of his life.
“Tim does his best for it to be a call of memory and of celebration,” Glennie explains. “That’s important. A lot of people are in the same boat and have lost people, or know somebody that’s died who they couldn’t be with or couldn’t go to the funeral. That’s the norm, we’re not any different to anybody else.”
“We wanted a record that was obviously going to reflect the times. There was no way Tim wasn’t going to write about all of this. And even the Trump stuff in the States, that’s come through on All The Colours Of You. We wanted it to be upbeat and positive. People don’t need a depressing album right now.”
Their instincts are correct, but James are doing their damnedest to test that theory. The first line on the album is ‘we’re all going to die’, which will stop many a listener in their tracks before the song evolves and literally uplifts, with a rousing section as band and vocals aim skywards.
When gigs return, it will surely act as a cathartic moment that the end is in sight. Showing their nous, that was by design: “Tim knew that (it will be a great live moment). He knew it would be massive. And the start of the album.”
“If it was somebody other than Tim, I would ask if that would be great right now, but Tim has embraced writing about death. Moving On, All I’m Saying are about his mum and his friend Gabrielle. We don’t deal with death in the West.”
“Songs about love, there’s millions of them. Songs about death, there’s not many. Yes, it’s perhaps not as cheery as subject as love, but it’s something that happens every day and we just push it under the carpet.“
“Tim’s not into that, and behind all these songs there’s always a message about not missing life. They are all about time and appreciating what you’ve got. Make the most of it.”
“That starts to dawn on you more and more as you get older. It’s happened to me; my mum and dad are both dead. I was quite old when the first person close to me died, in my 30s, and then one by one people did die. We somehow manage to ignore it. It’s like there’s a certain part of our brain that will just ignore it. It should have a big influence on what we do and how we do it.”
Even so, Booth’s lyrics may be a little close to the bone for some. As founding member of the band, does Glennie ever feel the need interject on some of the lyrics? The short answer is no, but he is considerate enough to elaborate on their relationship:
“Our politics are very similar. His life experiences are very different to mine. A lot of the time he sings about things that I can’t really relate to or don’t reference my experiences because of where he is and what he’s doing. But he’s a good man and he sings about good things. He reflects on what he does.”
“Some of the things he sings about don’t connect with me on a personal level, but not in a bad way. He has got clearer with his messages over time, and he’s wanted to do that. He’s wanted better clarity on what he’s trying to say.”
“Sometimes you need to continue to shine a light on things, again and again and again. People listen to what he has to say. I’m not saying he’s going to change the world, but if somebody stops to think about something that they wouldn’t ordinarily because it’s a lyric or in an interview, then brilliant.”
At nearly 40 years in, James’ remarkable longevity is surely testament to the inter-working relations of the band. Experience has given them a rhythm and process which is second nature. Even the worldwide pandemic wasn’t able to stop them in their tracks,, as Glennie explains:
“Fortunately we’d written all the songs before COVID started. There’s four songwriters – me, Tim, Mark and Saul. The way we’d do it would be to improvise when we get in a room. We put on a drum machine and just play. We just jam, and record everything.”
“The jams can be eight minutes or an hour. We do days of this and plough through them all, but all that was done before COVID. And that’s the key bit, we have to all be in the room together. The next bit is knocking them into demos, and we usually do that remotely anyway.”
“We either do it in our individual studios or in ones and twos. I would sometimes go to Saul’s, or Mark would come up from London and we’d spend a few days together. But most of it is done remotely so that wasn’t an issue.”
“All the music you are listening to are things that happened in the jams. If someone wants to replace something then they can do, but we quite often don’t bother doing that, at that stage. The bulk of the music tends to be stuff that is recorded through jams, then we go to the studio with a producer, so if there’s any issues we can replace things.”
“Obviously we couldn’t do that, so the problem was, ‘how are we going to get from demos to a finished album?’. So we’d have to have Zoom calls to try and push the thing forward. Somebody who worked at the record company knew Tim lived in Topanga in California and said that (producer) Jacknife Lee lives there.”
“They got in touch with him, and he was free. He wanted to stay at home because of COVID and his family, so he was happy to be at home. We sent him the demos, he really liked it, and that was it. Tim could be our point who could go into the studio and represent our collective views. Tim would come back out and explain what was going on.”
“He’d send us the mixes and between ourselves we’d feedback to Tim, and he would represent that to Jacknife. A lot of stuff we used in the demos is on the album. We replaced the bass for one song but that’s it, the rest is from the jam. Mad!”
All The Colours Of You is a tonic for the times and will be a fitting soundtrack when restrictions are fully lifted and gigs are a thing once more. James themselves have a summer of festivals lined up, and fortunately there are no plans to change their approach:
“There’s lots of emotions that fester at a James gig, but we always look to be uplifting. We always want that rise at the end that sends people away sweaty and having a good sing with a big smile on their face. That’s what we’re looking for. We might take a bit of a circuitous route to get there, but that’s what we want, and we always do.”
And preparations are afoot for a full-blooded album campaign: “We’ve just finished rehearsing in a big house. We were in our own bubble for a few weeks and did some rehearsals for the summer shows.”
“We did some sessions for Amazon, Twitch, Absolute…radio sessions. We did a ton of things that we’d ordinarily do bobbing around. It was a little bubble of rehearsals and promotion for the record. I thought it might be a bit weird but it did work.”
“We haven’t seen anyone in the band since September 2019 and then suddenly we’re all living together for a few weeks. But it was fine, and we got a lot done. We learned a lot and now ask, ‘do we really need to go back to the way things were?’”
That’s never been James’ style anyway. Nearly thirty years after their crossover hit, these purveyors of hopes and dreams are still going strong. No-one is more surprised than their founding member:
“I can’t believe we’re still here. I can’t believe I’m still in a band, and it’s the same band. It’s just been a ridiculous, weird, bizarre life because of it. I ended up in the band by accident through my best friend Paul, and then it became all my adult life.”
“The band I started at 15 in school became James, and that’s my whole adult life. It’s been incredible. Mad, amazing. So bizarrely lucky. Could I have predicted it? No chance! A wonderful experience.”
“It’s been amazing, and I’m very lucky.”
James release All The Colours Of You on June 4th