BRITPOPPING OFF “We started before the Smiths,” says Tim Booth (center). “I’m irritated by the iTunes bio that said we were influenced by them.”
It's been almost two decades since Tim Booth of James stared blankly at the camera in the video for "Laid," garbed in a thin sheer dress with a metal handcuff around his left wrist, his now long-gone hair a poofy, curly mess. The image crashed the omnipresent grunge scene and became a fixture on late-night MTV, a refuge for the 120 Minutes crowd that grunge helped to exploit. Cruising freely over a folkish acoustic-guitar riff and a soft, drumroll build-up, Booth's vocal falsetto and lyrics about kitchen-knife fights, blurred gender lines, and eyeliner on boys offered stark contrast to the macho power-rock revolution, which dragged the music into a shell from which it has yet to emerge.
By then, James (who come to the Paradise this Saturday, touring behind their new Mercury double album The Morning After the Night Before) were no strangers to dodging pop-culture labels. A few years prior to the homonymous album that spawned "Laid," their home city of Manchester was gripped by Tony Wilson's Factory Records — which gave the band their first record deal in 1983 — and the "Madchester" explosion. Right after "Laid" hit the airwaves, in 1993, the Cool Britannia juggernaut known as Britpop would reshape the UK scene as a direct reaction to American grunge.
They all served as trend hurdles for a band who were always clever enough to ride a wave without getting caught in the undertow. It's why James are still around in a career spanning 30 years, 10 studio albums, and 12 million units sold.
"That was all a conscious decision," Booth says via telephone from his home outside Los Angeles. "I remember saying that if we become a part of Madchester, the scene would be over in two years and we'd be old news. Each wave that came, we said, 'We don't want to be part of this.' It was strategic."
Of course, alignment with UK indie was something James always dealt with, even in the mid '80s. "We started before the Smiths," Booth points out. "I'm irritated by the iTunes bio that said we were influenced by them. We're an old band. Joy Division, the Fall, Iggy — those were our influences."
It's ironic, then, that it's the poppish "Laid" that remains James's most recognizable hit in the states. "It was a throwaway piece, we thought it was bubblegum," Booth admits. "But Brian [producer Eno] loved it, kept it really short. I think it's only about two minutes, and in the end, we loved it. A record exec came in one day and suggested it as a single. In the creative arts, one piece of work turns everything."
James's latest effort, two mini albums you can buy together or individually, is geared toward the single. Booth says the idea was "shorter batches of songs" for public consumption. "We can see people's attention spans don't extend to albums anymore. It was with iTunes in mind. The internet has fragmented everything, and music is more of a commodity."