James’ Tim Booth: Why wouldn’t you write about sex and death?

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TIM BOOTH and I are talking about death.
Our conversation  is not so much downbeat as fascinating, as we discuss the passing of the singer’s mum and another of his closest friends in the past two years.
 Tim has drawn upon both events  for several of the songs on new James album La Petite Mort, the band’s first in six years.
He tells me: “My mum died in my arms and she was 90 – and it was quite a beautiful experience.
“It felt more like a birth.
“I had never been with anyone as they had died before and it was  one of those moments where everything else gets put in perspective, the whole unreality of your day-to-day life.
“Suddenly you’re given a glimpse of something that’s so real that it makes everything else look a bit  like ‘oh, is that just a dream then?’
“You expect it to be this appalling thing and my sister and I  had grief and the sense of missing her, but we also had a sense of euphoria that we could be there for her last breath – the children she held in her arms for their first breath.
“There’s something incredibly profound and cyclical about that. How great, that death doesn’t have to be this absolutely appalling thing.”
Did he deliberately sit down to confront his mum’s death in his lyric writing, to help get over what is for anyone a tough time?
“No – I write lyrics fairly unconsciously, I never sit down to write about something.
“But if things are stirring me up like crazy – and that can be anything, now and again we write political songs even though I tend not to like political songs, I find them usually too didactic and one-dimensional – often something will pour out of me in disgust at what’s going on in the world.
“Strong emotions excite lyrics and yes, when we were writing this record my mum passed and then one of the people I love most in the world passed and it just came out in a lot of the songs.
“They came out in strange ways. There’s probably only two or three songs directly about them or about their passing. But then  Frozen Britain is about  a man who feels he’s dead to his life, he’s just switched off and then he meets somebody and it brings life to him.
“He falls in love with somebody and that can regenerate somebody’s life. And so the death  theme  is there,  which I suppose again unconsciously came from what had gone on for me.”
Unsurprisingly for a band whose hits include Laid and How Was It For You?,  death is not the only taboo subject  on La Petite Mort, the French phrase for orgasm which translates literally as the small death. Why does he write so much about sex, I ask.
“Natural hormonal urge I guess!
“Death, sex and birth are the archetypal primitive human instincts after survival and food. It’s hard not to be drawn to those topics.
“Leonard Cohen writes about those things and Nick Cave writes about those things and I don’t understand why other writers don’t, quite frankly.
“There’s an obsession with porn, and it’s amazing because it’s so bad.
“I always say that one day Ang Lee will make a great porn movie and we’ll say ‘Oh my God, this is what we’ve been waiting for!’
“The sexual drive is such a fascinating thing to me, as is  the difference between men and women – there’s so much richness there and not many people dare go in there.
“I would reverse the question – why don’t more people write about it? To me it’s obvious.”
Sex and death apart, the album is a radio-friendly record full of anthemic pop and soaring tunes that should by rights return James to the centre stage they occupied off and on during the nineties and early noughties.
Music press favourites throughout the 1980s, the band only began to enjoy mainstream success towards the turn of that decade, when 45s such as Come Home and re-released fan favourite Sit Down saw them lumped in with the then-fashionable Madchester scene.
Unlike city countparts The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, though, the 90s was a far more fruitful decade, with a series of successful albums and singles, arguably peaking with 1998’s Best Of, which found its way into enough homes to earn the band their first number one album.
“We were quite naïve, we didn’t realise that image was quite important, it’s taken us many years to work out that those things do have an impact and an influence and that to be realistic you need to play some of those games,” says Tim.
 “We were always wary of being linked to any kind of scene. We would always try to disassociate ourselves because we realised that scenes only last a couple of years and we were going to be around longer than that.
 “We’ve never sold our story to sell records. People don’t really know much about James – they don’t know that we went through a lot of addiction issues in the 90s and are a tough little Manchester band. They  don’t know it.
“We can talk about it now because it’s in the past but at the time we never used it to make an image because we wanted people to love the music..
“We’ve always been these bloody-minded independent people. It’s always been about the song for us.”

La Petite Mort is out now and the band are out on tour this November. Visit www.wearejames.com

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