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JAMES: Recording From Home?

Interview | Band By Paul Tingen
Published August 1997

For their latest album, style chameleons James retreated from commercial recording studios and found a new creativity working in the comfort of their own houses. Paul Tingen hears why they've decided there's no place like home...

During their 14‑year existence, James have had more than their fair share of setbacks, many of them catastrophic enough to be make‑or‑break affairs. And yet every time they've managed to bounce back and come out of their crises stronger, rejuvenated or more successful. Their latest tales of adversity involved the loss of one of their three remaining founder members, the discovery that they owed five years of back taxes, and a neck injury for their singer, which forced them to pull out of their American tour a few months ago. Despite all this, they've had a UK top 10 album and two successful singles this year, and appear to be creatively and commercially stronger than ever.

In a small, idyllically‑located residential recording studio in central Wales, four of James' six members — drummer David Baynton‑Power, guitarist and violinist Saul Davies, bassist Jim Glennie and keyboardist Mark Hunter — are having a few days of recording and bonding, rehearsing a dance music project for a live performance in Toronto. ("Something different from James," explains Baynton‑Power: "four‑on‑the‑floor, mindless, repetitive music. I love it!") The studio, named Foel, features a wealth of trendy '70s equipment, including the only Trident B‑series desk left in Europe and an MCI analogue 24‑track; the likes of Gong, Hawkwind, John Foxx, Peter Hammill, Youth, The Stranglers and The Fall have all recorded here in its 23‑year history.

When you're paying £1000 a day, nobody is prepared to stick their necks out and try weird things, for fear of wasting time and money.

In Foel's rustic control room, Baynton‑Power, Davies and Glennie talk about how creativity, technology and adversity blended together in the making of Whiplash. The adversity started one particular Thursday three years ago, when they were working in another studio in Wales called the Windings, brainstorming and writing ideas for a new album. So deeply ingrained is the day in their memory that they call it Black Thursday. It was on this day that founding member and guitarist Larry Gott broke the news to them that he couldn't be part of James any more, because he had found that family life and touring were incompatible. It was also on this day that their accountant broke the news to them that they had five years of back taxes to pay, and they might not be able to afford to continue the band. Combine this with the fact that singer Tim Booth was scheduled to start work with composer Angelo Badalamenti on a duo album that was to be called Booth And The Bad Angel, and few people would have put any money on James' survival. "It was like: 'Fuck, this is the end!'" says Baynton‑Power, and Jim Glennie adds: "Tim, Larry and myself had been together for what seemed infinity, and suddenly that was all over. Suddenly everything was completely broken. We were totally shattered, and had no idea what do next."

Long And Winding Road

The band's resilience, and their aptitude for reinventing themselves, may well have to do with the fact that their musical style and identity have often run in what seems, with hindsight, a bewilderingly zigzag line. James' beginnings were auspicious enough. Their first releases were two EPs on the Manchester Factory label in the mid‑'80s. Their melodic, punk‑influenced indie rock earned them a cult following, a tour with The Smiths and a major deal with the American label Sire Records. Stutter (1986) and Strip Mine (1988) contained an unusual folk/indie mixture, and were only marginally successful. An acrimonious parting of ways between Sire and James followed, and many people thought that was that. But the band refused to lie down, and rose to their first major challenge with a rather unusual mixture of creativity and technology: they financed a live album on Rough Trade, One Man Clapping (1989), by participating in medical experiments. The band survived the experiments intact, and the album was successful enough for them to be snapped up by the Phonogram label Fontana.

Gold Mother (1990) contained their UK Number Two single 'Come Home' and, together with the re‑release of their anthemic song 'Sit Down', it spelled commercial success in both the US and the UK. James appeared to be walking on air, but they blew the critical support they had enjoyed with 1992's Seven — a rather bombastic, stadium‑rock affair — and an allegedly awful performance at the Reading Festival in 1992, where they were the headlining act. They repaired the damage admirably in 1993 with Laid, an intimate, minimalist, acoustic‑sounding affair, produced by Brian Eno, which was a million miles away from Seven. Laid reaped much critical acclaim, and they had their biggest ever US hit with the title song. Having cracked America, James followed Laid with an uncommercial, eccentric, experimental album of out‑takes from the Laid sessions. Wah Wah (1994) veered around somewhere between ambient, industrial and dance music, and divided fans and critics alike. And now, three years after their last album, there's Whiplash, and again the band have made a musical left turn. Whiplash is awash with full‑throttle, distorted electric guitars, heavy rhythms and electronic eeriness, all held together by pop producer Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, Jimmy Somerville), with Tim Booth wailing over the top in a stereotypical mid‑'80s indie vocal style. If 'Greenpeace' is preachy and sentimental, and 'Go To The Bank' and 'Play Dead' full of industrial clutter, the anthemic 'Tomorrow', the elegant 'Lost A Friend', the slide‑guitar driven melodic rock of 'She's A Star', the lilting 'Waltzing Along' and the atmospheric 'Blue Pastures' are the best tracks, and arguably the best work, that James have ever done.

There are some echoes of Wah Wah on Whiplash — in the industrial and dance music influences, and in the track 'Tomorrow', which is a revamped version of the final track on Wah Wah — but overall Whiplash sounds as if it was made by a different band from the one that made Laid. Jim Glennie agrees, saying: "We always tend to react to the album before. Laid was a reaction to Seven, Whiplash a reaction to Laid," suggesting that the change of direction on Whiplash was purely the result of that reactive process. But other factors contributed to Whiplash, most of them part of the fall‑out from Black Thursday. Although James' music had always come into being through collective band improvisations ("It never happens that someone brings in a finished song," says Baynton‑Power), until that day singer Tim Booth had held tight control of the music, involving himself in every single musical decision. Now the band was in ruins, both financially and emotionally, and Booth was about to go off to make his duo album with Angelo Badalamenti. Clearly they would have to either disband, or find other ways of working.

Farewell To Democracy

When the band found themselves in disarray after Black Thursday, it was drummer David Baynton‑Power, a member of the band since 1989, who unexpectedly took the lead. He remembers, laughing: "Well, none of us are much good at doing anything else except make music, and we also felt that we were good for another album, so we thought 'Let's just do it'. I suggested ideas for how we could work cheaply on a new album, such as recording stuff with rented equipment in band‑members' homes." The other musicians were also keen to find a way to simply go on making music, and they therefore naturally warmed to Baynton‑Power's suggestions.

"During those sessions at the Windings we had already improvised and written many of the seeds for what eventually would become Whiplash," says Saul Davies, "and a lot of what we had done was really good. Then everything hit us that Thursday. If what we'd been doing had been rubbish, we might have given up at that point. But the music sounded really good to us, so we felt inspired to carry on working on it. Yet we also knew that we had to work on things in a new way."

The new way of working that Baynton‑Power suggested didn't only involve working in the band's houses, but also working in small groups, rather than having the obligatory plenary sessions of the past, and this meant that Tim Booth had to let go of a considerable amount of control. While Booth was working on his album with Angelo Badalamenti, Baynton‑Power set up shop in his house in North Wales. He rented two Tascam DA88 recorders, NS10 monitors, an Allen & Heath mixing desk, and some other studio paraphernalia, and started working with them, initially with help mainly from Saul Davies and Jim Glennie. For the first time ever, band members were working separately, and without Booth. Baynton‑Power elaborates:

Democracy is a wonderful process, but you do have to be careful that you don't end up with a musical compromise that's a dilution of what could have been.

"Until that time we had worked by jamming with the whole band in rehearsal studios, and then we'd go into a commercial studio and record what came out, listen back and pick out the good bits. With six people, we're a big band, and for that reason we'd always needed to rent big studios, and big studios cost a lot of money. And the disadvantage is that when you're paying £1000 a day, nobody is prepared to stick their necks out and try weird things, for fear of wasting time and money. So I thought that we needed time to try out any crazy idea that might lead to something brilliant. That's where the idea came from to work in people's houses. We siphoned off all the multitrack tapes of the sessions at the Windings onto DA88 tapes, and started the process of listening back, picking out the good bits and expanding on those, or trying out completely new ideas."

With band members living as far apart as Wales, Stirling, Brighton, Leeds, Manchester, and New York or London (Booth), Baynton‑Power's plan had the added advantage that the old logistical problem of getting the whole band together in one room ceased to exist. And so individual band members made their way to Baynton‑Power's home, and occasionally Jim Glennie's home in Manchester, and reacted to the material on the DA88 tapes. Baynton‑Power engineered most of these pre‑production sessions, and tried to keep them focused — part of the reason why he is credited as Associate Producer on Whiplash. He describes the process in more detail...

"We sifted through all the material from the Windings and the good bits that we found we sampled on an Emu 6400, or an Akai S1000, and looped them using Cubase software on the Atari. We constructed tracks from these loops and played to them, encouraging each other to come up with weird noises and all kinds of new ideas. It's a great way of working, because there was no pressure. People are often at their best when they're not thinking about what they're doing. When the red light goes on in a studio they tense up and often a pile of crap comes out. So you have to capture them in moments when they're not self‑conscious."

"We found that this way of working was really good for developing seeds," adds Jim Glennie. "When you're all together in a room, it's a difficult environment to control. You may not be able to hear what's going on; or it may sound great, but when you listen back it's no good at all; or it may be very hard to suggest an idea to a group of people who all have their own ideas. To get them to understand what you mean and agree that it's a good idea is not easy. So you often get a compromise that everybody is happy with, rather than being pushed to extremes by an individual who has an overview that they can push through. Democracy is a wonderful process, but you do have to be careful that you don't end up with a musical compromise that's a dilution of what could have been. So we got really into this new working method of creating an initial seed with the whole band in a room, and then taking it away to another room where one or two people work on it and listen to it and select the best bits and piece it all back together again. You can push things to extremes like that, and if it doesn't work, it's OK, because you're not spending a grand a day in a room."

Spanner In The Ointment

James found this working method so attractive that, when they eventually returned to working in big, commercial recording studios, they rented two rooms simultaneously: one where the main producer, Stephen Hague, worked with the whole band, recording and editing tracks, and one where David Baynton‑Power deconstructed those tracks and tried out weird ideas with one or two band members. (The other reason for his Associate Producer credit.) The recording sessions with Hague started in February 1996 — which meant that the pre‑production sessions at Baynton‑Power's house had taken well over a year — and took place at RAK studios in London and Real World Studios near Bath, with a few sessions in other studios: new guitarist Adrian Oxaal's overdubs on 'Tomorrow' took place at Foel studio.

"Dave grabbed the album in the early stages when it looked as if everything was grinding to a halt," says Jim Glennie. "He took the reins, dragged us all kicking and screaming into his living room, and instigated a process that became the foundation for Whiplash, which was to break away from the idea of sounding like everybody playing together in a room. We opened the boundaries of what James could sound like, and by late 1995 we'd arrived at a point where we had songs and sounds and felt that it was a good idea to go into a studio with a producer and finish the album off. At that point we went to see Brian Eno, but he realised that we knew what we were doing, and that we didn't need him to to stop us messing things up. He said that he didn't want to babysit us through the album, and that he would only come in occasionally, to make sure things were still on track."

Stephen Hague was appointed as main producer instead, and Brian Eno made his way about once a week to RAK and Real World, ending up with credits for "frequent interference and co‑production" as well as "keyboards and backing vocals". The whole band actually felt confident that Dave Baynton‑Power could have seen the album through on his own, Glennie explains, but their record company was keen to give the overall responsibility to a big‑name producer, and insisted on Hague's involvement.

"They want the security of being able to go: 'Yeah, brilliant, Eno's involved, Hague's involved, nothing can go wrong'," Baynton‑Power agrees. "And it is really good to have an outside opinion, someone who can be objective and tell you what's good and bad. Often we're way too self‑critical and think something is bollocks, and Eno was very good at saying 'Stop there, that was great'. And we'd think 'It can't be that easy, you have to struggle'."

"The best example is the song 'Laid'," says Glennie, "the single that broke us in the USA. It's screechy, scratchy, badly recorded, the timing is all over the place — it was thrown together really haphazardly, just one of the silly run‑throughs in the very early life of the song. And Eno said 'That's great, leave it'. And we were saying 'Are you sure? It's all over the place'. But he insisted it was fine. So then you ship it off to the record company, and they listen to it and, because Eno has done it, they say 'A work of genius, so scrappy, isn't that brave?' But if Dave had done it, they would have said: 'It sounds shite, it sounds like a demo'. It's how all record companies think, and it can be frustrating."

We always try to push things to extremes.

It could be argued that, while James talk with some bemusement and maybe even a hint of awe about the working methods of Brian Eno ("When you think you're just jamming, but someone like Eno tells you it's brilliant, you think that maybe he has a point"), they do actually still need a producer who can do what Eno does. But then, Laid is almost as uneven an affair as Whiplash, with some beautiful songs, gorgeously played, sung and recorded — 'Dream Thrum', 'One Of The Three', 'Say Something', 'Five‑O' — but some, 'Out To Get You' and 'Knuckle Too Far', that sound just like haphazard rehearsals. In any event, according to Glennie, Eno's instant, intuitive way of working and Hague's contrasting perfectionist approach did complement each other:

"We weren't too sure about how Hague would react to Eno coming in now and again and sticking a spanner in the works. But they actually worked together incredibly well. Sometimes one would suggest one thing and the other would suggest something else, and it was quite an amazing experience for us to have these two top producers suggesting things to us. It was an impressive line‑up!" laughs Glennie. "And then there was Dave holding the reins in the other room, throwing ideas around. Tapes were being sent to and fro between the two studios, and even occasionally to a third studio, where Tim would explore lyrical and vocal ideas. And out of this three‑studio situation came several brand new songs, such as 'She's A Star', 'Lost A Friend', 'Greenpeace' and 'Go To The Bank'."

New Toys

James are often compared to U2 — for their cause‑carrying rock, for their musical changes, for the way they write through band improvisations — and the process by which James created Whiplash sounds remarkably similar to the way U2 recorded their recent Pop album (see SOS, July 1997). David Baynton‑Power explains that it's the inexpensiveness and flexibility of new gear that's given James a new lease of life: the DA88 recorders and the Cubase plus Emu 6400 MIDI setup at his home gave the band the chance to record cheaply at home without sonic compromise. The DA88 material and Cubase sequences were transferred directly to two Sony 3324 24‑track digital recorders at RAK and Real World, where Stephen Hague used the two 3324 recorders to create new arrangements by shuttling between the two machines, and using slave reels for overdubs.

Technology also helps James to perform live, says Baynton‑Power:

"A lot of people don't realise how much hardware we use live. But we don't show it off. We keep it hidden and so no‑one notices. We work with drum machines and use a lot of pre‑recorded stuff — we never use tape, it's mainly samples triggered manually by Mark [Hunter, James' keyboard player], or loops that we run off the old little Alesis sequencer, the MMT8. That's a brilliant piece of gear for live use, because it's stable, it never crashes, and it's user‑friendly and quick to use. You can mute tracks with a touch of the button on the MMT8. Try doing that live with Cubase and a mouse!

"Live, Mark uses a Clavia Nord Lead, Korg Wavestation keyboard, Emu Orbit, Roland Super Jupiter rackmount and the Emu 6400 sampler, with 128K memory and hard drive. Brian Eno sang many of the backing vocals on Laid — he's brilliant at that, doing them very quickly with a Shure SM58 mic sitting behind the desk. To be able to perform these tracks live, we sampled many of Eno's backing vocals into the Emu and Mark plays them from a keyboard. And he often sends me a click track or a little drum beat from the MMT8, which only I will hear, via headphones, to make sure that all the backing vocals that he's firing from the sampler will be exactly in time with my drumming. Other than that, I don't use any MIDI live. I try to keep live drumming simple."

Finally, Baynton‑Power reveals that James have taken so strongly to their new working methods that they've acquired a whole batch of recording gear which they're planning to take on their forthcoming tours, starting with the legendary open‑air Lollapalooza tour in the USA (their first public appearance with Adrian Oxaal, who will take care of Larry Gott's guitar parts, including Gott's trademark slide‑guitar work). The new setup consists of a Soundscape version 2 system, with a laptop PC and Emagic Logic software, two Tascam DA38 machines, and an Allen & Heath mixing desk, and they intend to use it to work on new material, together with the Roland MC303 Groovebox, Clavia Nord Lead, Emu Morpheus, a Korg A/D rack and a few reverbs and other effects.

"We're planning to write new material while touring," he says; "either in hotel rooms, or using the jams that we usually play during soundchecks. The Soundscape hooks up straight to the PC, and it's a really portable system that's eminently compatible with the DA38 recorders. We can load material recorded on the DA38 into the Soundscape and edit it digitally. Or we can configure the Soundscape into any kind of mixer that we want. We're planning to use Emagic Logic in the PC for MIDI sequencing and link it with Soundscape, and we're thinking about getting Logic Audio for the PC, which is supported by Soundscape, so you can use the Soundscape hardware to do the audio — rather than the PC, which will inevitably crash! That would make a great combination. We think it's a brilliant portable unit as it is. Working directly on audio material with Soundscape is a lot easier than sampling the section you want, naming and looping it and then triggering it from Cubase, which is what we previously did."

Anyone who has toured knows how draining it can be, because there's only an hour here or a couple of hours there to concentrate on something. It's incredibly difficult to be creative in such circumstances, and so hats off to James if they indeed manage to do significant writing while on tour. But then, bearing Jim Glennie's elegant summary of James' motto in mind, they may well go where few have managed to go before them:

"We always try to push things to extremes. We don't like to sit on our laurels and milk what we have done and never change. We're always looking to change our sound and looking for different ways of working. What us kept us going for a long, long time is the fact that we still manage to find ways of working together that keep our music fresh."