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Tim Booth: ‘I carried too much responsibility in James’

James frontman Tim Booth speaks to The Big Issue about boarding school and dysfunction within the band

Tim Booth, 61, helped drive indie icons James to fame in the late eighties.

And despite some struggles along the way, the band is still going strong.

In a Letter to My Younger Self, the frontman spoke candidly to Jane Graham about his relationship with his parents, the adolescent experiences which helped get him to where he is, and how dysfunction within the band helped them build back stronger.

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So much of my life when I was 16 was about music. I was in a Victorian British boarding school and they didn’t let you do anything else, but you could just about play music in your study – that was your one freedom. So it became a big issue. Then I started organising going to see gigs. The first was to see the White Riot tour with The Clash, then we went to see Iggy Pop. Punk was so new the posh boarding school didn’t know what it was, so they allowed us to go.

I’d tell the teenage me that schools are generally shit. The idea of making kids sit down for seven, eight hours a day listening to boring crap… Schools are mainly machines to prepare kids for boring jobs. Kids get used to it, then they accept a boring fucking job afterwards. I was brought up in the very unreal kind of middle-class life in the 60s and 70s in Britain where everything was about appearances, and you had to be well behaved and look a certain way. The school was an extension of that straitjacket. It was breeding generals and politicians and stockbrokers and bankers for the Empire. That was really the foundation of boarding schools, and making those people tough enough to be able to live in the colonies. So they were really a horrible place. I was also very sick at the time, with undiagnosed liver disease, which meant that I was so yellow some of the kids called me names at school. Yeah, lovely. I was bright yellow from about age 12 to about 22. And I didn’t know why I was hearing strange voices, or couldn’t sleep at night or why I was having a rough time with these psychological battles going on, because with jaundice there’s a kind of cynical, bitter mindset that goes with it, a literal jaundiced view on life. But nobody diagnosed it, so I didn’t understand what was happening.

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There’s something about having an illness when you’re a kid that makes life amazing when you get older

I was rebelling against that middle-class mindset from a young age. I didn’t know my dad that well – he was quite old when I was born, a different generation. He was a magistrate. And he worked in a wool firm that he wanted me to work in. He sent me to the public school that he went to in the 1920s. Apparently, just as I was born, he ran into my mum and said, “I’ve signed him up Sandy! I’ve signed him up!” He’d liked the school, even though he got beaten a lot. But I didn’t understand any of it at all. And my illness made me a natural outsider anyway. So it was such a relief when I found things in music and culture that were real to me, that spoke to me. I would devour them with a hunger that I don’t think would have been there if they’d been freely available.

Did my relationship with my parents improve later in my life? It’s a little hard to tell. I was always the one that didn’t fit in. There was always some tension. My dad never saw my band. My parents wanted me to drop it and go and work in his wool factory. My mum came after 12 years. My sister dragged her in, kicking and screaming, to a Blackpool gig when we really were breaking. We had these intense, amazing gigs in 95-degree heat, and I was getting quite a lot of attention at the time. My mother was like, I don’t want to go, but after 10 minutes she was tapping the people in front of her saying, “Could you move a bit to the left, that’s my son up there.” She became evangelical, and our biggest fan after that moment. But to be honest, I wasn’t that impressed, because it was all about fame for her. And we weren’t about that, we were about making music that connects. The artists I connected with, people like Patti Smith and Iggy, they weren’t that famous at that time. For my mum it was more like a token, a middle-class badge of honour really. I loved my mum and I got on well with her and I got on with my dad – he had Parkinson’s by that point – but we didn’t have that much connection.

My 16-year-old self would be surprised to find out he didn’t end up locked up. My teenage self was fairly convinced that I would end up in a psychiatric hospital because of the extreme mental states that were not diagnosed; I thought they were just who I was. I remember, when I got past 30 and hadn’t been locked up, celebrating and thinking, oh, maybe I’m gonna be alright. I think my younger self would be surprised that my health could get so much better. There’s something about having an illness when you’re a kid that makes life amazing when you get older, in that your life just gets better as you get healthier. You’re like, oh my god, I’m full of energy. I pity these people who look back at their school days and go, those were the best days of my life. It would be awful to always be looking in the rear-view mirror.

If I went back and told my younger self about my life, on one level he’d say, yeah of course, that’s exactly what you should be doing. But, on the other hand, singing… I purposely failed the choir audition at school because I didn’t want to sing. I didn’t sing for years, then suddenly I was fronting a band at 22 and singing and dancing. I thought I was a shit singer, I didn’t like my voice for the first seven years of being in the band. But singing is actually a really joyful thing to do. And it crosses all boundaries into other dimensions as well. I think animals understand singing, to some degree. I’ve had some very strange experiences singing in nature and animals coming in and being close. Singing to me is a healing, an amazing magical communicator’s tool.

James had been going seven years before we got successful in terms of the rollercoaster of fame. There have been some landmark gigs, including those Blackpool gigs that my mum came to. A lot of the [1990] album Gold Mother was written out of the pain of splitting up with the mother of my son. There was some heavy lyrics in there, like ‘After 30 years, I’ve become my fears, I’ve become the kind of man I’d always hated [from Come Home].’ And I remember singing that for the first time at Blackpool and watching hundreds of men punch the air, and sing that line back to me and I’m thinking, fuck, they’re singing like it’s a joyous celebration. But I guess they were singing because they recognised the feeling of getting to 30 and not really being that proud of yourself. And I realised that the darker the lyric, the more release it might give an audience. As long as it’s honest.

I’d tell the younger me not to take so much of the weight in the early days of James. The founder of James was a beautiful young man whom we all loved [Paul Gilbertson]. I had to kick him out [due to alleged drug use] in the end and it was devastating. I took responsibility for that, and afterwards I think I carried too much responsibility in James. I drove a lot of the early stuff, the early gigs and albums, and really pushed. I was a bit draconian, over-anal, and it separated me from some of the other band members. It was only when Brian Eno showed up [initially to produce the 1993 sessions that resulted in two albums, Laid and the more experimental Wah Wah] that I thought, ah, I can let go now. This guy knows what he’s doing. I don’t need to make people do 12 takes any more.

I left the band when we were really dysfunctional. There was a lot of addiction, a lot of unconscious hostility towards each other in different ways. And we didn’t know how to deal with it so I left. When I came back everyone had sobered up and we really pledged to find a way to communicate with each other in a really positive way. And the music’s reflected that – a lot of fans put our last album [2018’s Living in Extraordinary Times] as the second best behind Laid. It’s hard to transcend albums that people heard as teenagers. You probably can’t have that same bonding effect upon people’s lives again. But I would say our new album is as good as anything we’ve ever made. We’re at peak James right now. And I feel incredibly blessed.

James’s new album All the Colours of You is released on June 4 on Virgin.The band are touring the UK with Happy Mondays in November / December 2021 and headline Neighbourhood Weekender on September 4

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