It's a humid Saturday night in Atlanta. The Roxy is packed end to end and the anticipation is so high that the air is tingling. About 10:20 p.m. the lights go down and the crowd begins to shout with anticipation. Ten more minutes of techno and suddenly James appear. First Dave and Mark, walking slowly to their places, then Jim, Saul and Adrian. As they pick up their instruments, Tim waltzes in, smiling, looking keyed-up in his tight polyester shirt, pinstripe slacks and grey wooly hat. They look around for a moment and launch into a rearranged version of "Come Home." The crowd goes mad. The new album sounds different. The old songs even sound different. The band certainly look different. But the moment they take the stage there is no doubt - this band is James. And James have always been magical.
But this James, this is not the James that recorded the tender, melancholic Laid. This band rock hard, play hard, and have a great sense of humor. This band has gone back into their old catalog looking for new life. The first chords of the opening song wash over the crowd like a sudden downpour, clearing the rubbish from the sidewalk, at once frighteningly powerful and breathtakingly beautiful. The opening number is, at the moment, the favorite for drummer David Baynton-Power "Cause we've reworked it, pumped it up and modernized it and it's just like 'Shit! If only we'd done this the first time....'" But this is a James that only improves with time, who tonight prove this once again. Bayton-Power continues, "It so annoys us, you know, you record tracks very much in their infancy and once we've had them on the road for a while, they really start coming together and you think - shit. If only we had this on the record."
So for this tour, not only has "Come Home" been rearranged, but the band have also given "Born of Frustration" a rough kick in the gut, but with different reasoning. Baynton-Power tells us, "There was always a lot of baggage with that song, because it came out at a time when the press started turning on us in England, you know. There was one point where every gig we did we got a great review. Suddenly it just turned and we got slagged off as being a stadium rock band, and being called the new Simple Minds and that track was kind of the key of all that. For us that song has a lot of baggage with it, and when we play it we've got all this shit going on in our heads and stuff and it's like we knew a lot of people like it, so it was like, 'How can we present it so it's kind of new for us and not so stadium...?'" The rearrangement itself consists of a complete rewriting of the guitar line,giving it sort of a folky, rhythmic feel. The new arrangement tries to be less grandiose and showy. The crowd certainly like it. And Booth, as always, is never one to disappoint the crowd, or the cameras flashing in his face. He strikes a number of rock star poses for the photographer standing at his feet, which whips the screaming mass of people whom he is serenading into a frenzy.
Watching ball of energy that James become on stage, it is hard to believe that three years ago this band was on the verge of a breakup. On a bleak Thursday, having been holed up in the studio working on new material, the band met with their lawyers and accountants, only to be told "You're broke. You owe this amount and that amount and it's basically not looking so good." Furthermore, guitarist Larry Gott, who had for a while been considering the fact that touring and family life did not mix well, decided on that day to inform James that after 11 years, he was leaving the band. Singer Tim Booth wanted to jet off to New York to work on a solo project with composer Angelo Badalamenti. As Baynton-Power puts it, "It was a bit of a downer.... it was all very fragmented and it was looking a bit bleak." So Booth took off to work on what was to become his stunning collaboration entitled Booth and the Bad Angel while what was left of the band decided to relocate their efforts to their drummer's home in Wales.
The band already had the rough sketches to some songs, including early vocal tracks from Booth, so the idea was that they could "take it to a small room and start editing and basically trying out new sounds and new textures on it. We weren't really coming up with anything in a big studio where we set up as a band. It's like you can really hone in on sounds and stuff and it doesn't cost you a fortune, it doesn't cost you £750 a day to do it, you know." So, by the time they had worked out some songs, the band had found a producer in the person of Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, New Order) and Booth was back and ready to go into the studio with the rest of the band. All that was left was to find a new guitarist. Luckily, guitarist/violinist Saul Davies offered up his friend, Adrian Oxaal. Baynton-Power relates, "He's a really good guitar player. He's a bit more rocking than Larry, he's got a bit of an edge, which has injected a new spark into the band. It was so good for us that we didn't have to audition, put the advert in and then 100 guitar players and we're 'No we'll give you a call...' It was like, 'Adrian? Yeah, give him a go. Great. He works.' So luckily that was quite easy for us."
The album that James created, over that rough three year period has all the edge to it that a work by a band on the edge of disaster should have. It also has all the celebration that a band who had pulled itself from the brink of death should have. They entitled it Whiplash perhaps as a tribute to the £8000 that the New Musical Express reports that Booth spent on physical therapy for a neck injury he suffered as a result of his uninhibited dancing on the final leg of the Laid tour. Perhaps, though, it represents their being jerked into action by impending destruction, that they have been burned once again and they are fighting back. Whichever it may be, the album represents yet another reinvention of James, a band whose very name should be synonomous with change. They have always been changing, mutating into new forms. They embrace newness with the same vigor with which they approach performing and they manage to create beauty from whatever they touch. Where Laid was moody and sincere, depressing and tender, Whiplash is boisterous and brash, celebratory and direct, and listened to with the experimental Wah Wah as a bridge, both albums begin to make sense together. Laid was the thoughtful serious James, Whiplash reveals their decision to finally come out of the closet after fourteen years and admit that they revel in life. This album with its harsh guitars, its drum and bass, and its expansive and ecclectic sound is an album from a band once again shouting out to the world "I feel I've been burned!" but like the Phoenix, will emerge from the ashes again..
So certainly, after all the tribulations, this band MUST maintain a sense of humor or they would have disappeared into the ranks of The Railway Children and the Miltown Brothers long ago. It is something always kept in the background, so as not to take away from the power of their musical statement. But now, James have chosen to make a grand entrance to announce their arrival among the ranks of the boisterous -- with all their clothes off. When doing a photo shoot, one of the first since 1994, the photographer immediately told Saul to sit in a chair and asked the band to gather round. David's reaction was "Lads, we've been here before." Saul rose to the challenge, suggesting that they take their clothes off. Which they did. James in their full glory. Well, most of James. Tim did not undress. Tim got to hold the whip. Why? Well... "There is a bit of a division. Like Tim's into a lot of stuff that he's into, and we're kind of into different stuff. We thought, well, let's use it to our advantage. So that's basically why he was there holding the whip and we're the whipping boys. We thought it was a fun way to kind of show that off, you know."
This dichotomy within James, the tension between singer and musician is something that has always woven itself into their music, into their performance, and into their mythos and on Whiplash it remains an ever-present part of the electricity driving the album. On stage, tonight as on any other night, Booth taunts and goads his bandmates, even stopping during "Greenpeace" to holler at keyboardist Mark Hunter through his megaphone, wondering why he could not hear the keyboards through his monitor (it was a minor technical difficulty, but we won't go into that here). He dances around them and between them bringing the energy to a dangerous level.
Off the stage though, it is Booth's bandmates who cut loose in their revelry, only now coming forward with debauched tales from the road. Tales about which Baynton-Power remarks "Uhh, oh god. They're not printable." It was this zeal and this desire to ring the most from life that brought Baynton-Power to a new source of personal inspiration last summer. He had returned to Wales after the band had finished up work on the album. He complains, "I was getting a bit pissed off living in Wales, after being in London and doing the album. I was thinking, 'What the fuck am I doing here?' I only know a few people, it was a bit boring. And when you want to go out you think, 'Oh let's go to Manchester, go to Liverpool to go to a club.'" But then he found something which changed his perspective. He explains, "...all the time there were these banging parties happening out in the forests. People go out with a sound system and just techno away all night. Once I discovered that, I just thought Wales is the best place on earth. And I got the lads over, I said 'You've got to come to these parties, they're brilliant!' They're totally unregulated so you don't have to buy tickets, there's no security, it's just like people having fun. That's really changed a lot of things."
Baynton-Power and the other non-vocalist members of the band took a cue from these parties and from the dance music that Baynton-Power loves so much and recorded an album of their own under the alias Money. The album described by the drummer as "3-minute pop songs in a techno environment" features violinist/guitarist Saul Davies on vocals. While at the time of this interview the band did not have a label to produce the LP, they were hoping for a mid-summer release.
But a newer more aggressive sound and the revelation of their exhibitionist tendencies are not the only fresh elements James brought into the tour with them. Starting in Washington, D.C. on the opening night of their 3-day U.S. stint, the band introduced a new backing vocalist/percussionist/guitarist named Michael Kulas. Booth, wondering what sorts of textures an extra vocalist could add to the band's live sound suggested they bring in Kulas, who had previously worked with Saul Davis on his (Kulas') own solo album and had recorded some never-released tracks with Booth and Badalamenti. Kulas explains, "Tim kinda suggested having some extra vocals on this tour, maybe a bit of guitar smatterings here and there...and we've gone and done it and I think the reaction so far has been pretty positive." Kulas' addition has allowed even more experimentation with the songs, as the band also reworked "Lose Control", creating a sparse, beat-backed mood piece featuring only keyboardist Mark Hunter, Bayton-Power and then Booth and Kulas harmonizing splendidly. The effect is stunning, the song, at first, unrecognizable. While unused that night in Atlanta, it causes a brilliant reaction several weeks later in Liverpool. Kulas tells us "It was Tim's idea to try something like that and I just thought 'That's great.' Can you imagine all of a sudden I'm just up there with him singing that song and it's such a nice song."
Kulas himself agrees that the night on stage in Atlanta was one of those special performances for
the band. "What a crowd!" he gushes. "I mean they really seemed to have a history behind them
those listeners, I mean they were really into it." "But," he continues, "Anywhere you go the
crowd seems really really into it." And Kulas, has, of course, hit on one of the most important
things about the band -- their legendary live persona, their ability to be intimate with thousands of
people at one time. On stage in Atlanta, as the band come out for their encore, and the opening
lines of "Out To Get You" wash across the crowd Booth hears something from the crowd, he
pauses and smiles as he realizes that upwards of 1000 people are, in some sort of ironic beauty,
singing along with his paean to "transatlantic lonliness." And it is truly breathtaking. As Booth
prepares to exit the stage as the final chords of "Tomorrow" fade away, he pauses for a second,
looks out at the crowd and smiles, once again, as if his heart might burst, revealing in that one
expression all the things that make up the most touching elements of James: The celebration of the
music, the joy of the performance, the social commentary and personal depth of the lyrics, and
most visibly, the intense sincerity of the singer. This is James. May they keep changing, and in
doing so, may they never change.
Interview with David Baynton-Power