With widespread fame in the ’90s, it is a wonder that the Mancunian rockers James are still releasing promising new material. Younger generations are listening to hits like ‘Come Home’, ‘Sit Down’, ‘She’s a Star’ and ‘Laid’ for the first time on streaming services, joining James’ loyal fanbase for a new wave of vibrant popularity.
James’ longest-serving member and bassist Jim Glennie calls me from the highlands of Scotland in “the middle of nowhere”. He is in a music nook in his home, with a large window and some guitars in the background. Wading through his thick Mancunian accent, I discover that he has been coping with lockdown surprisingly well, but Glennie frowns: “Being away from family has been difficult.” It has been a year since Glennie has seen his daughter and grandkids—a familiar story for the majority of the UK. “Business wise,” as Glennie puts it, “We’ve been busy!”. After creating both a live album and DVD of their penultimate show in Madrid prior to lockdown, the next project for James is their new album All The Colours Of You, released today.
Glennie explains that when James writes music they have to get together in a room for a frenzied brainstorm. It would have been impossible to write tracks while apart—the chemistry and togetherness are crucial. “That initial part of actually playing together, we have to be in the same space,” he explains. “You couldn’t do that in various parts of the world. Fortunately, we had done all the songwriting before the lockdowns kicked in.”
Produced by the world-renowned Jacknife Lee, All The Colours Of You covers prominent social issues from the past year: forest fires in LA, global warming, the pandemic, the last US election and BLM protests. Jacknife Lee’s positive spin on such distressing topics really appealed to the band, as Glennie elaborates: “Some of the lyrics are dark, but it’s counterbalanced with the music, which is really positive. And we wanted a positive album, I don’t think anybody wants to listen to the miserable album right now.” The producer sums up this contradiction in his description of the song ‘Recover’, comically labelling it “a song to cry and dance to”.
Glennie reveals that the band used a different approach to previous albums and gave their producer a lot of leeway to do what he wanted: “Usually, we have a natural tendency just to be there in the studio. Even if you’re not doing anything your presence is there, which means that you will have input. That wasn’t easy this time with social-distancing, but I don’t think the leeway has been a bad thing—I think we’ve allowed his character and personality to come into the record, which I think is kind of what you want from a producer.”
The relationship James has with their music has shifted since the early days, when they used to be ‘precious’ over their tracks. Glennie explicates: “It took us a long time, probably seven or eight years or something, to make it as a successful band. And at 18 that feels like a lifetime. We struggled a lot with the business, the industry, because it’s not been an easy journey by any stretch of the imagination. And I think once you’ve had a few knocks, you become very resilient and very kind of self-reliant, but also quite defensive. You have to, otherwise you just go: ‘We got a bad review. No one likes the new record. No one wants to sign us or work with us’ and you split up. So, you become quite bloody-minded, and I think that makes you quite tough as a unit, and as a band that makes you quite strong.”
“But also, that means you’re less willing to invite people in. Up until we got the success in the early ’90s, we were very puritanical in the way we approached music—fun or enjoyment were not words we ever used with the band. Not at all. We were just lunatics and we were very obsessed with getting the kind of recognition we felt we deserved. We were struggling; it wasn’t an easy journey for us to get there. Once we got that success it was like we’d proved something to ourselves, and we could start enjoying a bit more.”
Working with producer Brian Eno on Laid signified a shift in the band’s attitude towards music. Glennie explains that the trust between the band their producer on that album was immense, and they felt like they could “give up all control and all barriers and go with what Brian Eno wanted to do”.
“He has such an irreverence for that attitude towards production and songwriting and musicianship,” says Glennie says about Eno. “He’s a real anti-musician in a lot of respects. He’s very light-hearted, and that permanently changed the way we approached production. He made us realize that you could make a great record and enjoy the process as well. It didn’t have to be this kind of weird puritanical painful experience that we’d been enduring.”
James are known for starting projects they are interested in with a disregard for tracks tailored to the whims of their fans. Many gig-goers rant and rave about performances where none of their favourite hits have appeared. Famously James decide their setlists on the evening and play the tracks they want to, keeping their gig experience fresh and exciting.
“All our old songs are door openers for new fans, I know that,” says Glennie. “But it’s like a painter, you know, he’s got an exhibition. He’s not there for his 30-year-old paintings, he’s there for his new ones. There’s a kind of a vulnerability about ‘I am as good as I can be today’. Yes, I could go back in time and play ‘Sit Down’ for you, but currently the new songs are as good as we can be today. And that’s creativity.”
“The reason we’re still here, after all these years, is that we do things the way we want to do them. People might not get it; people might be disappointed that they didn’t get the song they came to hear. But we’re one of the best live bands on the planet, and the reason is because we love songs we want to play—we only play songs that we’re personally attached to.”
“We take people on a journey with 16 albums now to choose from, but also just musically, we have diversity. We have very stripped basic folk music, right through to dance music, pop and big singalong anthems. But anthems aren’t born anthems, they become that because people hear them, and they become well known through gigs. So, it’s part of a process.”
James have already started writing their next album, completing the cyclical nature of their music creation process. The band are touring the UK later this year, with tickets and merchandise available on their website.
Their new album All The Colours Of You is out now and is available on streaming platforms.
Interview conducted by Harriet Fisk
All images: Lewis Knaggs
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