The iJAMMING! interview

I have an instinctive aversion to conducting phone interviews. The medium is fine for quick research, or immediate answers to pressing questions, but when it comes to a proper conversation, it's a poor substitute for a face-to-face meeting. On the telephone, you can't look into each other's eyes, you can't read each other's body language, you can't be seen smiling or nodding along, you can't tell whether someone has finished a point or is merely pausing between thoughts. You can't offer to get the drinks in, pour a cup of tea, share some biscuits, touch each other's arm for emphasis – or point to something or someone in the background either for emphasis or good-natured diversion.

All of which is why, when I felt so motivated by Tim Booth's solo album Bone as to request an interview - only to discover he was not coming to the States for publicity - I initially suggested conducting an e-mail Q&A. I thought that, being such a poetic type, Ti would be sure to give good copy. In my usual manner, however, my questions turned into essays, and after those essays made it to Booth himself, word came back to me that we should conduct the conversation by telephone after all. Looking again at those overly elaborate questions, it was obviously the only logical process. It did make for an unusual situation, however – possibly the very first time one of my subjects has known, down to commas, full stops and parentheses, exactly what I intended to ask them.

Still, though it prevented me coming up with any surprises, it also meant that Tim knew where I was coming from, and we established a rapport so quickly I even forgot my dislike of the phone format. We talked for well over an hour; unfortunately, the more we talked, and the more relaxed Tim became, the quieter his voice dipped, and there were several words and phrases from the later part of our chat that I simply could not make out during the transcribing process. Given what Tim says about his lyrics, their multiple meanings and how open he is to their (mis)interpretation, I was tempted to just guess at those particular missing words… but that wouldn't be fair. And as you can see, it's hardly as if there was much dead air between us.

Bone: "An appropriately free-spirited album all aabout the existence of God, the meaning of life, the power of sex, and the manner in which, to quote the key line from the key song, 'Everything's connected.'"
Full review here

As for an introduction to the man himself, well, I could fill several pages with my love for Tim Booth's work, as front man with James for almost twenty years, and now as a solo artist. I initially viewed James as a poor man's Smiths (especially so when seeing the two bands together in early 1985) - and I lost the group for a while towards the end of their lifespan, which I now regret. And though I remember a show of staggering intensity at Irving Plaza around 1993, I also recall that they were such a familiar presence on the British festival circuit that even Campbell got to see them twice before he could walk! Still, many of their albums – Gold Mother, Seven, Laid and Millionaires, in purely chronological order – mean so much to me that rarely a month goes by when I'm not inspired to play one or all of them.

It's easy to fall in love with Tim's voice, and James knew how to pen a good tune or two, and they were masters of the emotive arrangement too. But it's Booth's lyrics that have most engaged me over the years. Tim sings about God, Nature and Sex with the poet's love of words, the mystic's desire for peace and the seeker's quest for answers. There are times when he describes our existence with such joyous beauty that I'm happy to be alive; there are other moments when he questions our human morals with such intensity that I wonder if we shouldn't all be struck by lightning. And while he continually calls upon the existence of a higher being – "I believe" may be the most common refrain in his canon – he's equally fascinated by our uncontrollable hormones. 'How Was It For You?' and 'Laid' must be two of the most honestly horny singles ever to make it to daytime radio.

On these lyrical levels, it's no stretch to call Bone Booth's finest work to date, especially as it seems to have more of an overriding theme than any James album. It was the words to Bone that inspired me to ask for the 'face' time in the first place. If you haven't heard Bone, it might make sense to read my review before diving into the interview. It should at least help set the scene.

Tim Booth: Is this Tony 'Trojan Horse' Fletcher? He who asks a question within a question?

-Tony Fletcher: Ah, that means you've seen the original written questions I sent. Well, it means you can probably see where I'm coming from on a few things, particularly about the new album. I don't know how it's been received but I haven't been able to stop playing it.

Fantastic. That's what we thought would happen. In England, we couldn't get arrested. But the press hasn't reviewed us – we haven't had any press come to our gigs, and our gigs have been amazing too. And then we go to Portugal and Greece and it's like the second coming. It's fantastic.

-Do you have a thought on that? Is it just the British obsession with the latest trend?

Yes. There's a timing to all these things. It's like Morrissey, he did seven solo albums I think and got less and less attention and then suddenly there's a wave and it's his turn again. The English press is very cyclical. James just finished and James weren't very popular with the press. They hated us really – we were still selling out stadiums and they couldn't do anything about it. And so for a while it will be the same for Tim Booth until it comes round again.

-I was reading one of your online interviews, and this whole notion that (the James album) Seven was slaughtered at the time. I remember reviewing that album for a daily paper here in America, and raving about it, not realizing that James were meant to be unfashionable at that point. I thought it was you finest moment to date.

Because we went on so long, I really got the cyclical thing of it and I never took it personally after a while. I knew Seven was going to get panned, because Gold Mother had been received so well and we'd broken through on it in Britain. And you know in England you're not allowed two in a row. And I just knew it. And then I did walk into that dumb thing on 'Born Of Frustration' where I did those 'la-la-las.' And I hadn't heard Simple Minds. We recorded it, and Mark and Saul from James took me into a room before we mixed it and played me Simple Minds, and I went 'Oh, fuck.' They said 'Do you want to change it?' And I said, 'Well, I honestly came on this unconsciously.' And Iggy Pop did la-la-las, which I'm much more likely to have been influenced by. So I left it in, because I figured, James had a rule – no conscious influences are allowed, but you're allowed unconscious ones. And I think that's where we suddenly got hit on that record, that 'James are trying to be Simple Minds' – in that one moment on that one song. And it was like, 'Aren't you even listening to the record?'

-And there was so much else on there.

So much else.

Tim Booth fronting James in 1993, at the peak of their popularity. "There's one intention: you make the best record you can possibly make in that time, at that time, with the people who are around you. And that's it."

-You were able to win it back over a period of time. But though I hope you're not looking at my questions, so that there's still an element of surprise here, you'll see that I asked: For all the commercial success James had over the course of almost twenty years, did you come away at the end of the band feeling, We didn't quite get that respect? Or was it enough that you got that respect from the fans?

It depends on what day you catch me with that question. Most of the time I'm… I really don't know. I literally stopped reading the press for the last seven years. And every so often band members would stick something in my face and say, You've got to read this. But I actually refused to read stuff, it didn't help and it was a mindfuck and it seemed irrelevant to what we were doing. To me, there's one intention: you make the best record you can possibly make in that time, at that time, with the people who are around you. And that's it. The more expectation you have on that, the more you're likely to fuck it up. No critic's going to say something to me that makes me go, 'Oh yeah, that's it.' If it hadn't happened for 13 years beforehand, I figured it wasn't gong to happen (with Bone). I mean, my manager...

-Pete Rudge... (who once managed The Who)

...He said to me recently, and I think he was trying to guide me for the next record, he said, "The press didn't like your lyrics again, Tim. They don't like the way you keep having to write these songs about God."

[We both laugh, knowing that many of my questions are about how much I like Tim writing songs about God.]

And I know what that means, it also means Peter doesn't writing these songs about God. Members of James didn't like me writing these songs about God. I don't write songs about God in any religious sense, because I'm not a member of any religion. I write about God in terms of the biggest question: is there any intelligence or meaning behind life? And I use that word very liberally. And that fascinates me as a question and I can't put it down. If that's a real pain for you Peter, go manage someone else. I write about the stuff that's bugging me at the time I'm writing. Whether I'm in love with someone or something, or some idea, or some way of life, or whether I'm repulsed or discovered some part of myself that I'm really having a hard time with, I'll stick it in a song in some way. Whatever's big in my life ends up in my songs.

-And usually it comes back to a few themes.

Yeah, you had me down (laughing). But I do have to say: you said this one thing [in your written questions], 'I can divide your songs into three. There's the personal and then the social and then God.' And it's like, Hang on, what other categories are there in life but from those three? You've just described the whole spectrum of human existence!

-I guess so. (What I wrote was: Along with God and Nature, your other pet theme has been sex.) And I don't mind jumping right in on the deep end on those… I didn't know the British press didn't like Bone, I came to it from the perspective that here's someone whose lyrics have always fascinated me and I think they're stronger now than ever. I think artists are fully entitled to cover the subjects they cover best. It seems that your questions and potential answers and philosophizing are stronger than ever. That was my visceral reaction without knowing whether that was meant to be the critical reaction to the album or not.

When you say I've written about them before, I cringe a bit. As an artist I would love to not be writing in some of the areas that I've obviously gone back to, but I can't escape my own biology. And clearly those are the things with which I'm still wrestling. I look at a lyric and if a lyric has got energy, and if the energy is a truth … you can feel when a lyric's dead and when a lyric's alive. So if I'm still writing about the same thing but I look at a lyric and say, 'it's still alive,' I can't then go off and start again and try and write a completely different lyric for the song. It just doesn't work like that for me. That somehow would not be true to my unconscious. My unconscious writes the best lyrics I write, and I have a weird relation with it where I feel I have a duty to be as truthful and as accurate as possible. And feeling that if I betrayed that, I would lose that communication.

-When you're talking about the subconscious there, are you talking about the lyrics writing themselves? Are you saying that sometimes you're not aware of what you're writing until it's written?

Tim Booth, present day: "My unconscious writes the best lyrics I write, and I have a weird relation with it where I feel I have a duty to be as truthful and as accurate as possible. And feeling that if I betrayed that, I would lose that communication."

Absolutely, nearly always. The turning point was probably round Laid. Until then I'd had great trouble, with some songs taking a couple of years. I was a real perfectionist about lyrics. But when we did Laid and Wah Wah together in that same six-week session with Brian Eno, I would improvise on tape and Brian would say 'That's great, you're not touching that.' On some songs I fought back and said, 'No way, you've got to tell me that beforehand, so at least I can try and improvise decent lyrics.' And on other songs I went with it. I knew I had to come up with this new method of writing lyrics in order to do it in that kind of time span. And I remember we were doing 'Lullaby' and I stood in front of the mike. They had a piece of music, I had no melody, no words, I improvised I think six takes. I asked them to burn it onto cassette, went into another room, and wrote down from the cassette what I thought I might be singing. We made sure that the vocals were quite quiet, so some times I could hear what I was singing and got some great lines and other times I got some great sounds that suggested lines. I wrote out the words, I had maybe five pages of words. I went through each one, just underlining the ones that stood out, I stuck them together - and they were a complete, homogeneous, whole lyric about somebody I knew, and I had had no intention of writing about them. It completely made sense about their lives, and they'd been abused, it was like, Fucking hell, It was one of the best lyrics I think I'd written. I always knew stuff came from the unconscious, and I can be very quick. But this was like a new way of writing, that whenever I got blocked, I improvised it, did 4 or 5 takes, wrote out what I thought I was singing, and almost always in those 4 or 5 takes I can get a whole lyric.

-Is an experience like that part of what fuels the belief that something is watching over you, to coin a phrase of yours?

Yeah. I remember I wrote one lyric about a guy going to commit suicide by going on his favorite walk and lying down in the snow and allowing himself to die. I forget what album this is on. This was in two takes, which was really unusual. That was really odd, that was quick. All of a sudden I looked at it that – gone out on his favorite walk, laid down in the snow. She took the CD to his widow who played it at the wake. She wanted to talk to me because there were lines in there that were so about him. That to me is like, I'm really moved, I obviously had a purpose…

-What was the song?

I'm terrible with names, the last track on Whiplash maybe? [Yes: it's 'Blue Pastures.']

-That's quite an extreme situation.

I had other weird ones when I was younger, but they're too whacky. You read any lyricist, like the Beatles or whatever, they say they didn't write their lyrics. The whole muse thing in Greek mythology, that's a myth with a power behind it, and the power behind it is because there's a truth in it.

Continue to Part 2

iJamming! Site Copyright Tony Fletcher 2005

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