By Ashley Zimmerman
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British rock band James' 28-year career has endured the kind of trials and tribulations that would make for a fantastic episode of VH1's Behind the Music — unpaid £250,000 tax bills, drug addictions, and a six-year breakup — but its resplendent jangle pop lives on. While never commandeering the charts stateside, aside from its 1993 album, Laid, the group yielded 20 top 40 singles in the U.K., released ten studio albums, and sold more than 25 million albums worldwide. Just don't mention to lead singer Tim Booth the "next Smiths" or, worse still, the "second-rate Smiths" designations that were pinned on the band by the English press.
"It might be fair to say we influenced them," says the cordial Booth during a call from Brighton Beach. First off, Booth mentions that his group was formed in 1982 — one year before the Smiths. He also points out that Morrissey himself was a huge fan of the band, proclaiming James one of the best bands in the world in 1983 and covering the group's discordantly frantic folk track "What's the World" in 1987 on the Smiths' cassette single for "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish."
Booth, who feels that Joy Division and Patti Smith would be much more obvious influences on James' sound, does not have one bad word to say about the king of mope or his quartet, however. He doesn't normally set the record straight on this topic, because the Smiths were extremely supportive of his band early on. "They got famous first and then tried to get us famous," he adds. "All part of a great legacy of Manchester bands looking after each other." After being lent a hand by the Smiths and former Factory Records labelmates New Order, James paid it forward to fellow Mancurian groups the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, taking them on the road when they were first coming up.
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James returns to North America this month, kicking off its 18-date tour on September 20 at the Culture Room. Booth says he's been campaigning to tour the States since 2008, when the group came to America on the heels of its comeback album, Hey Ma. It has been 13 years since the septet visited South Florida — the last gig had them sandwiched among Snoop Dogg, Orbital, and Devo at 1997's incarnation of Lollapalooza, held at the Coral Sky (now Cruzan) Amphitheatre. Although Booth doesn't remember any particulars about that gig, he does recall an incident with an uninvited guest at their hotel. An alligator was caught swimming in the hotel's pool the day before their arrival. "We were all in the pool slightly nervous, keeping an eye on the fence."
The band is eager to try out new songs from The Morning After the Night Before, released September 14, on American audiences. James is happy with the result of its double disc, which was released as two separate minidiscs in the U.K. "One condition we put on ourselves when we got back together was to create music that wouldn't let us down."
After working with producer Brian Eno on earlier albums, the group was inspired to record each segment of the album in drastically different manners. "It makes life more exciting," Booth says. The more-polished The Night Before was done on an FTP site with each band member contributing "20-minute meandering monsters" that were then downloaded and chopped up by another member and reposted. Booth compared this process to a "relay race over the internet." The organic The Morning After, on the other hand, was a much more improvisational affair recorded in a studio in just over five days.
"After clearing a lot of the messes we got ourselves into in the late '90s, we had a joyous time playing together," Booth says of the Hey Ma tour. Booth had left the band in '01 partly due to his bandmates' addiction problems and rejoined the group only after he was convinced that drugs would no longer be a problem.
As to what classic Brit-pop favorites local anglophiles can expect to hear from the Northern English troupe, Booth says he writes the set list an hour before he goes onstage. The band changes its set every night, depending on the audience and what songs are "really cooking."
With its original lineup in tow, the band is performing better now than it ever has, Booth says. Nearly three decades on, he is proudest of the fact that his band "hasn't tread any water" during its longevity. "All of our favorite bands usually burned out after a couple of albums. It's a great surprise to us that we can still be doing this for so long and putting out content that is spontaneous and alive."