Interview: Tim Booth opens up about life and death, musical therapy, and James’ incredible new record ‘La Petite Mort’
UPDATE September 17, 10 a.m.: James have announced a one-off stateside gig, October 21 at Webster Hall in New York. Tickets go on sale Friday. We will be among the first to report if other dates, especially Boston, are announced, either around next month’s show or as a full tour in early 2015.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t 32-year-old, most men and women are expected to have a realistic sense of their lives, their future as it matches up against their past, and their own mortality. But what about a band of that age? For more than three decades, Manchester’s James have weaved in and out of the trends, from Madchester to baggie to Britpop to whatever just happened in the 2000s, enduring at a time when most of their age are currently on nostalgia tours.
But somehow, perhaps inexplicably, James marked 2014 (and band age 32) with one of their finest musical efforts of their long career. La Petite Mort, out September 16 in North America, is a complex, layered, and emotive record that finds the band exploring modern electronic sounds and fresh compositions with great results. Frontman Tim Booth has juxtaposed the band’s jubilant vibe against some of the most personal lyrics of his storied tenure, touching on the death of his mother and best friend during the writing process to shape a sound and mood that is quintessential James without being a rehash of former successes.
Vanyaland reached Booth by phone at his Los Angeles home last month, right as news of the death of Robin Williams dominated global headlines. Taking the record’s theme of death and applying it to current events, we touched on a variety of topics, including Booth’s personal struggles and the band’s apparent rebirth. The interview is long, so we’ll keep our intro concise. We will say this: James La Petite Mort is one of the best records of the year, a very heavy and gravitational album that’s also uplifting and mobile. And it’s further proof of James’ enduring legacy as one of Britain most celebrated rock bands.
Michael Marotta: Hey Tim, congratulations on the new record, which is fantastic. But it’s also interesting to talk to you right now, as the record deals with many themes of death and personal loss, and the world is reeling from the death of two celebrities, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall. Not to start this off on a morose topic, but what is it about death that is personal but also public at the same time…
Tim Booth: I think in the west, death is something that we often — and I’m speaking from experience in Europe and England the colder climates — sweep under the carpet. Death is removed from us all, it’s something that’s not really lived with in the way that tribal communities would have lived with it in the past. Maybe hot-blooded cultures live with it a bit more in the present. I’m thinking of Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, they are a bit more embracing of the life and a direct reaction to the dead — they laugh with the dead, they play with the dead, they believe the dead are more present.
So for me, the two major experiences of death are when your parents die. When my father died, I was in America touring and had to get back to him. His casket closed by the time I got back, and I had asked them to keep it open, and I was really upset. I was unable to see his body, and I think that’s important for a young man or boy and anyone when you lose someone and how do you come to terms with this, when this person is no longer going to be in your life anymore.
So there’s so many aspects to this, I don’t know where to start. With Williams the celebrity death becomes public. Especially Robin Williams, I mean, of anyone who has died over the last number of years, he’s had a huge impact on a few generations, in many forms. The Fisher King is definitely in my Top 5 films of all time, but other people have Mork & Mindy, and other people have others–
Here in Boston it’s Goodwill Hunting.
He brought improvisation into people households, it wasn’t a well-known form of comedy before he came along. And then he’s this figure with a big heart, that’s how I always saw him, as very big-hearted kind of comic figure. But you could see the clown is there and the tears of the clown and all those type of archetype images of the sad clown with him and his having such a big impact people.
But celebrity deaths are weird, the whole celebrity thing is strange in itself the way our culture wants to live through other people or become close to other people without even really knowing who they are. It’s a strange relationship in itself, and when someone like that dies it’s even stranger.
Listening to La Petite Mort, it related to what was going on. But I wanted to trace it back to experiences with your mother. Dealing with death can breathe live into creativity as well as perspective. People see death as being final but in many ways it’s the opposite.
My experience with my mother dying — and she died during the writing of this album — and the big impact she had on the lyrics was that it felt like a birth. She was 90, she was ready to go, and I got back to her from America to England and comforted her and sang to her and she died in my arms. And it was incredible. And it felt like a relief. She had been in a home for a number of years and was not happy. And that whole experience changed my whole attitude, even with assisted suicide. She’d have wished to have gone about six years earlier, and I don’t see any reason why people don’t have the ability to choose when they want to go — if it’s an informed opinion.
It’s a hangover from religions where they try to control our bodies. We’re told this is a sin, and you get circumcised when you’re born and it’s a religious thing — religions have generally tied to control our bodies.
My mother dying like that and it being a really beautiful experience, like a birth, was shocking to me. I had no idea this was possible. People don’t talk about death as a beautiful experience or feeling like a birth and that what it was. When we came to make the video for “Moving On” with this animator [Ainslie Henderson], I talked to him about an hour about my mother dying and my best friend dying, and said you know, my mom’s death was like a birth. And he did this incredible animation video… I think it was one of the best videos I’d ever seen and I think he’ll win a BAFTA for it. I hope he does… I urge anyone to see this, especially anyone who is dealing with death — he just captured it.
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After my mom died, about six months later one of my best friend’s died and it was a really different circumstance. I didn’t get to say goodbye and I flew to New York and didn’t get there in time and it was devastating. And it was probably what most people experience when they lose someone they love. So it was really interesting, I got the two experiences. But I tend to go towards naturally the more positive approach, celebrating life. Even with my friend who passed, she was an amazing teacher of this ecstatic dance work that I am trained in by her, and we her whole philosophy was “Whatever pain you experience, you turn into art, into dance, into song.”
You’d get these people who worked with her with these incredible wounds — you know, “I was abused as a child” — and she would look at them very squarely and say “Well, I’ll be expecting great art from you.” And I always found that amazing. Instead of feeding the sense of victimhood that would come up in those situations very keenly she would say I’m looking forward to what great songs and dances you’ll be bringing to my community. And I loved that about her.
So even with her passing I can go to that; I’ve created this album and a lot of the pain of this album came from losing her, less from my mom which was more the celebratory aspects of the record. The album is about death but it’s really about life and rebirth, and wanting to live with a more positive attitude. A song on the album, “Quicken The Dead,” starts with “Don’t let me choose/An easy life with death once removed/Anaesthetize the blues/Domesticated” — it’s like it makes me go “Right, live with passion, take every moment because you don’t know when its going to come.” I’m a person of age, I have a friend who had a stroke 3 weeks ago —
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And that’s like — that could be me. So just live with passion, live every moment. And that’s what I got from these experiences and that’s the passion behind the album. We called the album La Petite Mort, because we wanted a reference to death, and mort in French is death but Le Petite Mort is kind of an allusion to an orgasm; that post orgasmic state when you lose your ego and your ego dies for a moment. That’s why we chose that album title, it had a sense of humor to it; it wasn’t depressing. We chose the artwork because of its Day of the Dead imagery, the skull with incredibly bright colors. To indicate that were not looking at death from another morbid or depressed point of view, it’s a more positive point of view within the circle of life that we have no choice of living. We’re all going to die so you have to come to terms with it.
We had a friend of ours whose mother [was told she has] cancer just this morning. But now we have science that alerts us to cancer. Fifty years ago we didn’t have these markers; it’s a flag to remind you of your own mortality and you don’t know how much longer its going to be but it’s a definitely a flag that says your end is coming
And to appreciate it.
It gives people time to prepare. We all have cancer, we all have something. In “Quicken The Dead,” the chorus goes “Don’t you know we’re already dead!” And it’s sung in a really enthusiastic chorus [sings] and it’s like, this means this record is about embracing that and of course we fail. I’m grieving, as well, and it’s me trying to come to terms with all this.
Sorry that was an intense 15 minutes.
How different would the record have been had you not gone through these experiences?
Any record I write tends to reflect different aspects of my life or my friend’s lives. It’s just the way I write, I write fairly unconsciously and from the heart. So I get lyrics at 4 in the morning, I wake up almost dreaming them and then I try to continue in that state, semi-unconsciousness because I find the best lyrics come from that place. And I never sit down to write purposely about something, it just pours out. Obviously with very powerful experiences in that time period the lyrics poured out; the more intense experience, the easier it is to write about. I try to not censor or think about it. You just write about it and see what happens. Of course, it’d be a completely different record had those experiences not happened — God knows what I’d be singing about.
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Was there a concerted effort to combat the lyrical theme with an uplifting sound, like heard on “Curse Curse”?
No, it tends to be what happens when we get into a room together. I am an introspective lyricist and some of our biggest hits had some pretty dark lyrics hidden in there — or not hidden, they’re just there. Someone said to me the other day “That ‘Sit Down,’ that’s a really sad lyric.” And I said yeah but it’s a huge celebratory anthem and that’s often how we… for me the most truthful statements about life are usually paradoxes, they are usually statements where, if you made a statement that was the opposite, that would also be true. That’s the nature of the world we live in, it’s the duality, and one of the things I love about James is that I’ll often be singing quite a dark introspective lyric and the band may be pumping, completely going in the opposite direction. And we love those kinds of conflicts and clashes because that feels quite true to life.
Is the band aware of what you’re singing about?
It varies. Sometimes I don’t think at all, sometimes I don’t know what I’m singing about! And I can literally discover it a year later – “Oh, that was about that! I never got it…”
It was so deep inside you, the real meaning.
Yeah. Literally if I’m writing from the unconscious. I’m sometimes going, “Fuck, what have I written this for? I hope this isn’t going to happen to me.” I once wrote a song [“Blue Pastures,” off 1997’s Whiplash] about somebody going off into the mountains in the snow, and he was lying down and committed suicide, and it came really quickly, the lyric, in came in one 20-minute jam, and then another 20-minute jam, I got the whole lyric. And I was sitting there going, well, I wouldn’t have chosen to have written this one but this is what has come out. And it sounded great to me, the song, and literally the week before we released it, my friend who I was living with, her mentor went out into the mountains and laid down in the snow and committed suicide.
And she took that song to the wife, who said “How did he know about my husband’s character?” I had written about his psychology and they played that song at his funeral, and literally it wasn’t released, I had to have it sent to them. She wanted to ring me and talk to me about how I knew her husband’s state of mind. Because I had got it and I had got it a year earlier.
So, I’ve had a couple to that point, where you go “holy wow.” Or you name an album Whiplash and two weeks into the first tour you get whiplash! I’m careful with words now, because I know their power for me, I’m singing them every day, they are mantras, and you can really create things. I really don’t censor at this level, but I once wrote a song about me getting killed and I decided that I wasn’t going to sing that.
So the obvious question is, you got Laid quite a bit in the early ’90s then, right?
[Laughs] No comment.
Speaking of Laid and Whiplash and Seven,some of the reviews for La Petite Mort call it a “return to form,” or “classic James.” Does that feel weird, where people want to connect it to a previous period of the band even though you’ve been releasing new music [since 2008’s Hey Ma]? Compliments are nice, but this isn’t a “comeback record.”
It is always weird. We’ve gotten used to it over time. What you see is that a certain period of your music gets accepted in a certain country. It’s often being the peak, usually when you break. In England, they usually think “Sit Down” is our big song, in America they’ve never heard of “Sit Down” and they think “Laid” is our big song. And in Portugal they think “Sometimes” is our big song and in Greece it’s “Getting Away With It” and in South America they think they album Hey Ma is our big record, and it’s like, go figure.
It’s great for us because we can go to different countries and play different songs. And we have a setlist of 80 or 90 possible songs that we can get together in the state of one soundcheck, and the setlist changes every night and it keeps things fresh. We know that Hey Ma has some amazing tracks on it, six or seven we can play live in any concert because they stand up to anything else, but Hey Ma never got any attention in America so of course people are going to write that.
I accept that praise, it happens with most bands, but of course we don’t neglect our other babies. It’s great that people are responding to this record is such a positive way; it clearly has a sound that is fresh and breaking through. The “Moving On” video is really getting us attention, and the “Curse Curse” video [is next].
That’s an incredible track. I wanted to ask… this sounds like a James record, and your voice is what a lot of people relate to. Listening to the record, in opener “Walk Like You,” there’s a part at about 1:15, where you sing “Whine like you,” and to me that’s when it first feels like a James record. And you know it’s seven minutes of “Walk Like You,” but the last 90 seconds is some of the greatest music James ever created, it’s so organic. Then “Curse Curse” come on and hits you with this EDM sound, which for a band that’s been around for decades to sound that fresh — was there any nervousness or hesitation. to approach that kind of electronic sound after such a long legacy of modern rock?
Sorry I just threw a lot at you there.
Your description gave me chills, thank you, because that’s exactly how we see it. We insisted on “Walk Like You” being the opening track, seven minutes long, probably one of our favorite tracks. And we did that running order very purposely, to really kind of, you know, get in people’s faces. Most bands want to stick on their first single as the first track and we went with a seven-minute, pretty tough track.
You’re going to have to come to terms with James in that seven minutes and then also to hit people who think “Oh OK, it’s got a familiar James thing” then to also pull the rug under people’s feet with the second track, and go “Well hang on!” I’m really loving that you got to listen to it in that way, because that’s exactly how it was meant.
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The lyric “Let’s inspire/Let’s inflame/Create art from our pain/Find a love that’s as deep as it’s holy,” that whole section, it’s inspired by my friend who died. As I said earlier in the interview, her thing was saying “Ok show us your wound, now show me great art, or a great dance, or great sculpture or song.” And that whole section is really based on her philosophy there. So that’s great that you brought that up.
And “Curse Curse,” well first of all remember that we have a song like “Come Home” which was a dance track, really. It’s got that groove beat, James Brown, baggie thing, and it’s got that keyboard riff. And that was when our keyboard player [Mark Hunter] arrived in James, and you can hear a song like “Sometimes,” if it’s tweaked a little bit it can become a dance song.
What happened on this record is, our keyboard player is a genius, from our point of view, and he’s always the shyest, quiet, retiring man, and his keyboard is too fucking quiet, and every time, we are in the room we can’t hear him. And so in the past we haven’t been able to build songs around him. And this time every single rehearsal we insisted he turn up so we can hear him. So the record has more piano, keyboard, than probably any other James record because we outed him. We dragged him kicking and screaming out of the closet. And he’s got those riffs, he’s got that dance aspect to him, and it was really great to go “C’mon run with this, Mark!” And that’s where “Curse Curse” came from.
Lyrically, it’s different from anything on the record. I got the opening bit “In my hotel room/Sounds from next door/Someone’s getting laid/God’s name’s proclaimed/The end is on its way.” And once you get a lyric like that you know the rest of it will have to be funny, and stand up to that, and gonna have to be sexually perverse and playful.
“Messi shoots and scores/A hundred thousand came!” That’s a different type of sexual peak.
Thank you I’m really proud of that lyric. I took a long time writing that lyric, it’s a different kind. Some of it just came unconsciously like “time to wake the floor boards.” I probably sang that in the first jam, and people in the band went “That’s a great lyric!” And I went “It’s okay isn’t it, OK I’ll leave it in.” I don’t know what it means, but it’s appropriate for that song. And we have all those parts in that song, too many parts, really, because that song screams to be a hit single, but typically James we had too many interesting moments in it to really streamline it into a blander song, what a single would need to be. We released it as a single but it’s got so many parts, it’s a bit ridiculous.
Same as “Walk Like You,” which can go on for seven minutes because it’s got several different sections. It came from an hour-and-20-minute improvisation, where I went through that one and marked all the sections of vocals I loved, and somewhere in the first three minutes, and somewhere in the last hour-ten-minutes, said how can we get from this to this to this to this in an eight minute song? And literally we bolted these pieces together and created “Walk Like You” and the structure took us a long time, but we managed to make it sound organic which is not an easy thing. We create every song from improvised jams.
You can hear it in that track. It’s seven minutes long but there’s a real payoff in the last two. First thing I thought was “I need to hear this live.” And it segues into an electronic song, but there’s a real electronic rhythm to “Walk Like You.” It’s organic and there’s a trumpet and it has these James-isms, but it has the energy of a live performance.
I went to the producer and said “I want this song to be nine-minutes long.”
Can you imagine in 2014 with everyone’s ADD wishing a song was longer? I wish the last two minutes went on for another two.
Maybe that’ll be the remix.
Live, we’re up to 10 or 11 minutes, it has a life of its own.
The thing is, we improvise in creating the songs and when we’re playing live there’s room to improvise, there’s room for the intro, that piano riff, and it doesn’t come back into the bloody song, but to me it’s the hook and its like, I’d actually would like to hear a single version of it because I think there’s potential in that.
The trouble there is that people get lazy. You have to find the right person to edit it. Suede released a radio edit of “Stay Together” in 1994 and it just cut the song off at the fade out after three minutes. It a song is cut in half just for an edit it won’t have the same impact.
That’s the thing with those edits, it’s really hard to let go of the one you fell in love with. You have to listen to it for days to forget the one you fell in love with originally, or you’re just clinging to it. Now playing live we’re up to 12 minutes and we’ve fallen in love with the live version. But that’s how music should be; it keeps evolving. If a song really had life and connection it should continue to keep evolving and travel across time, and that’s what great about music when you know your songs have been doing work in different cultures over time. That’s amazing… when you go to a country you’ve never been to, like Peru, and you have people turning up to the gig and you haven’t got a clue how it’s going to go. Mexico — 12,000 people at the gig the first time we went, and we booked 2,000 seat venue and we had to keep changing the venue. Nobody told us we had an audience in Mexico.
Those are the great surprises of a band that’s been around 30-odd years. You go “Oh great, the music’s been doing the work in different cultures and we don’t even know about it! We keep getting requests for South Africa and Australia and we are huge there and we don’t even know it, we’ve never been to Australia; we’ve been once to South Africa and we did have a big audience turn up. It’s crazy how this works. It’s exciting how this works.
Earlier we touched on themes of death, but do you see an end to James on the horizon? It seems like you’re full-functioning after 32 years.
We’re in the best place of James that I’ve ever been in, since we came back [in 2008] this has been the most enjoyable time in James for me. Everyone’s much more on same page, appreciating it, so that’s been wonderful. My fear for me is how long can I keep performing the way I I’m performing, like dancing or jumping into the audience, that to me makes me nervous.
In terms of, I don’t want James to go out when I can’t do that stuff, from this point of view, when you see the “Curse Curse” video, it really captured an amazing moment in a live gig that you won’t get from another live band. We really caught something about what we do live. As long as physically, I can still do that, James will continue for me. When we get to the point that I can’t, I’m not sure. I know what our performances are and I know how we break down barriers between the audience and the band in a way that most bands that won’t and can’t. There aren’t many people who do the same thing.
That’s my only real fear. I’m a dancer, I’m somebody very much into the physical, its part of our show and what we do.
And it’s another example of coming to terms with our limitations and mortality.
Yeah, which at the moment I am not.
James’ new record La Petite Mort is out September 16 in North America
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